Friday, April 20, 2007

We Interrupt These Posts for Some Perspective Pondering

The following quote was posted to the MormonsforObama email list recently:

"I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush's eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That's what empathy does -- it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.

No one is exempt from the call to find common ground."

The Audacity of Hope, p. 68

I agree with those words. We should be careful of being so doctrinaire and dogmatic that we are incapable of reasoning with others. When we stop trying to empathize and understand, we dehumanize our opponents in much the same ways that allow the warhawks to wage war and discount the loss of innocent life. It is difficult to bring about much except destructive contention if you aren't willing to try to truly understand the thinking on the other side.

Which is my segueway to why I haven't posted the rest of my FAQ yet. I will, but I like to rethink and fact-check stuff. I was doing research a couple of days ago checking out my counter-arguments to the mantra about how 'if we leave Iraq then [your choice of frightening, sensational, cataclysmic prediction]' The thing is, I really do try to listen to counterpoints like that and I really don't want to advocate doing the wrong thing.

So I'm trying to read articles about why we were in Vietnam and why we left. And what happened when we did. Why we were in Korea and why we left. And then what happened. What we did in Cambodia or not - and why. What happened after WWI and WWII. Etc. And, quite honestly, I don't think I'm savvy enough at the moment to get the straight story - especially on the more recent and probably better documented conflicts (ironically). It might take me years to get a handle on what I think happened in those areas. I do think that 'those that fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it'. But holy cow, maybe we've gotten so partisan and contentious that we are completely unable to learn from those conflicts. It is just stunning the different perspectives people have on them.

Fast-forward to today. Here are two columns posted this week that give startlingly different viewpoints on what our troops are doing on the ground in Iraq today and what would happen if we left:

Here's one that documents some of what I see as a problem for our continuing occupation of Iraq:

"Sorry We Shot Your Kid, But Here's $500"

Here's one that represents what 85% of the people that I interact with seem to believe about the war:

Hypocrisy has a Human Price on the Streets of Baghdad

Excerpt from the
first article:

Last June, The Boston Globe and The New York Times revealed that a local custom in Iraq known as "solatia" had now been adapted by the U.S. military -- it means families receive financial compensation for physical damage or a loss of life. The Globe revealed that payoffs had "skyrocketed from just under $5 million in 2004 to almost $20 million last year, according to Pentagon financial data."

In a column at that time, I asked: How common is the practice? And how many unnecessary deaths do the numbers seem to suggest?

It's necessary to ask because the press generally has been denied information on civilian killings and, in recent years, it has become too dangerous in much of Iraq for reporters to go out and investigate shootings or alleged atrocities.

Now we have more evidence, thanks to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) request for files on payments by the military. The FOIA request produced 500 case studies, which deserve broad attention.

. . .

Occasionally the officer orders a payment, although it can still make you scream, as for example: "Claimant alleges that her two brothers were returning home with groceries from their business, when U.S. troops shot and killed them, thinking they were insurgents with bombs in the bags. I recommend approving this claim in the amount of $5,000.

More often the officer denies the claim due to alleged lack of evidence, or threatening behavior by the deceased (usually just failing to stop quickly enough while driving) or the death occurring in some sort of vague combat situation. Many of the denials seem arbitrary or unfair, particularly when the only reason cited is a "combat exemption"

. . .

"The claimant and his son were huge supporters of democracy and up to this day held meetings and taught their friends about democracy. The claimant provided two witness statements, medical records, a death certificate, photographs and a scene sketch, all of which supported his claim.

"Opinion: There is sufficient evidence to indicate that U.S. Forces intentionally killed the claimant's son. Unfortunately, those forces were involved in security operations at the time. Therefore, this case falls within the combat exception."

. . .

Dec. 5 2005:

"Claimant alleges that on the above date at the above mentioned location, the child was outside playing by their gate and a stray bullet from a U.S. soldier hit their son in the head and killed him. The U.S. soldiers went to the boy's funeral and apologized to the family and took their information to get to them, but never did. The child was nine years old and their only son.I recommend approving this claim in the amount of $4,000.00.

. . .

Dec. 5, 2004:

"The issue presented is whether claimant may receive compensation for the death of his father, his mother, his brother and 32 sheeps.

"In this case, the claimant has lost his entire family and his herd of sheep that provide a means of income. In addition, the claimant suffered gun shot wounds himself.

"The claimant states that his family was sleeping when the shots were fired that killed his family. He claims that the family had only one AK-47 that the father carried outside after his wife was shot in the head The coalition force may have been justified in shooting at another target where the claimant and his family would be collateral damage to that combat operation. However, the ROE require units to have positive identification of target before engaging. In this case, reports indicate that over one hundred rounds were fired that impacted around a flock of sheep and his sleeping family. Accordingly, it appears that the shooting, although not "wrongful", was conducted "negligently".

"It is therefore my opinion that there is sufficient evidence to justify compensation under the FCA. "

The article quotes more of the claims and discusses the different compensation options or non-compensation options. I thought it was interesting because it refers to actual, verifiable facts – obtained directly from military records through a FOIA request.

Here is an excerpt from the
second article (which, again, represents a point of view that I currently don't espouse but I'm trying to figure out how credible it is):

I have observed first-hand the effects of the Bush Administration's new Iraq security plan since it began two months ago. Street violence in Baghdad and surrounding areas has declined. Shops and markets once boarded up are reopening. Iraqi civilians are venturing out onto the streets again and living their lives with less fear of being persecuted, tortured, maimed or killed. To be sure, there is still plenty of terror and violence in Iraq, but since the "troop surge" began, it has lessened considerably.

. . .

If the Democratic Party is successful in effecting a premature troop withdrawal from Iraq, Nabil and most of his family will likely be killed because of their religious affiliations and because Nabil has been employed by Americans. (You might want to know that Nabil is one of the most decent men I have ever known.)

. . .

Ahmed is smart, funny and resourceful. He is young, and his vibrant girlfriend - soon to be his wife - will likely be killed, along with him, if the Democratic Party succeeds in affecting a premature troop withdrawal from Iraq.

. . .

A year before his home was destroyed, Sadeq was wounded by a sectarian killer who brutally shot him in the back. Still, Sadeq continues working tirelessly to build a future for his family. But there likely will be no future for either him or his family if the American Left and Democratic Party succeed in affecting a premature troop withdrawal from Iraq. Because of his history of working for American companies, Sadeq will likely be hunted down and murdered by terrorists if Iraq is abandoned before law and order is established.

The author explains that he is an expatriate Iraqi who has been in country for a couple of months now, that he was in the US for 9/11 and the war thus far, and that he is blogging his experiences. He says he is working for a contractor in country. In one of his earlier posts he briefly mentions the innocent Iraqis killed by stray American bombing raids that still continue today, but what I can gather seems to lean much more heavily towards keeping the Americans in country. Is the guy for real? Is his blog just a psych-op? Or perhaps he has a skewed view because he is employed by the war profiteers?

Despite the fact that his column is based on partisan conjectures, I am swayed by the emotions. The fact of the matter is that he could be revealed to be a non-Arab, Halliburton covert operative who's never been near the Mid-East and makes these things up sitting in an office in Des Moines, Iowa (and NO I don't really think that but I know there are people who will, so I'm just getting it out of the way) and I would still have to concede that he makes some excellent points.

And what about those points? What do we do for the people who are trying to make things work with the system as it stands? Is it probable that they will all be hunted down, tortured, and shot if we leave? (Again, the first article makes the point that they might be gunned down if we don't . . . and we might be the ones with the guns.) What is right and wrong here?

Interested in your perspective. Please comment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What, Really, Are We Trying To Do In The Middle East?

And What Would Happen If We Stopped Doing It?
[Part I of a Three-Part Series)

Here's a FAQ (a list of Frequently Asked Questions) about our current military interventions in the Middle East:

Q: Mitt Romney went on TV the other night and explained that if he were President that he'd have a classified timetable for withdrawal from Iraq but that he certainly wouldn't forewarn the enemy like the Democrats are proposing . . . I mean really, how stupid is that? . . . telling the enemy when you're scheduling your defeat? I mean wouldn't the terrorists just hunker down and wait it out if they thought we were leaving?

A: That's a whole bunch of questions, but let me try to begin.

First of all, I don't think it's stupid at all to propose a date for us to leave Iraq. We're not at war. Congress authorized a limited military action aimed at removing the seemingly imminent threat of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. Regardless of your political ideology or preference in spin, I think we can all safely agree that when President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished", his mandate was, in fact, complete. Whatever you believe about the politics that got us into Iraq, the "WMD" themselves, or any of the violent aftermath . . . at that point the mission had been carried out. (By the way if you click on the link to the official White House press release, the official administration graphic says "Iraq: Denial and Deception" which I am certain is supposed to refer to Saddam's denials and deceptions but may strike some with a bit of irony . . . )

If you believe that we are at war and that it started with 9/11 then the government should declare it according to the provisions specified within our current Constitution. And when we declare war we will have the opportunity to declare our enemy. If the Bush administration truly wants a war on "terrorism" and anything that can be portrayed as "terroristical" inside or outside our country, then let the President obtain a true declaration of war that clarifies that everyone and everything, everywhere is suspect and justifiably within our gunsites. Let's finish suspending the Bill of Rights and every treaty we have ever signed with any of those evil nation-states that surround our borders. Let us carefully amend our Constitution in ways that empower our righteous leaders to protect us from the new and dangerous realities of our modern world.

Oh wait, I just described the germination of every evil dictatorship in human history . . . no matter, those despots were obviously visionaries. We just got bogged down along the way to greatness and security by those pesky, over-rated relics in our past (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, . . .) I digress. Sorry. Okay, back to the question:

Furthermore, if the terrorists just 'hunker down and wait it out' then that would be good for everyone. Less of our young men and women killed (and killing). Thousands less civilians blown up in bombs. More time for peace, introspection, and evaluation.

Finally, your question seems to posit two debatable assumptions that need elucidation:

1)We are in Iraq cleaning up the unfortunate effects of our liberation: 'wiping up' some undesirable terrorist elements that want to fill the power vacuum.

2)If we fight the terrorists 'over there' it helps stop them from coming 'over here.'

While it does appear true that some of the terrorist elements are trying to force their way into power and that the rise of Iraqi terrorism is directly due to our actions, one thing seems certain after four years: 'if we keep doing what we are doing, we will keep getting what we are getting'.

Assumption one is basically a pandora's box:

"Did we liberate Iraq?"

"Can we wipe up the terrorist elements like so much liquid into a sponge?"

"If we leave will the 'bad guys' take over?"

"Do the majority of Iraqis want us there?"

"Is our presence in Iraq designed to stop the terrorists, or is it actually the rallying cause behind the rise of terrorism in that country?"

"Is the native resistance growing stronger or losing steam?"

"Are more of the terrorists from in-country or out?"

"Regardless of how few foreign terrorists are involved, do we want to purposefully pursue a proxy war with surrounding nations for any strategic purpose?"

"If all terrorism, US-opposition, and in-country political disputes auto-magically disappeared, do we really have any intention of leaving the country? Even our gigantic, new, expensive, state-of-the-art military bases?"

Assumption two is likewise fairly disingenuous and begs further scrutiny:

"Are all terrorists of every stripe 'in cahoots' with each other?"

"Is 'al Qaeda', even, truly such a monolithic block that if we hit somebody claiming allegiance to their movement in Iraq that it affects the planning and funding of terrorists plots on our own soil?"

"If you were a major, sophisticated terrorist organization based on the destruction of the United States (and not just its colonizing army in your own country), would you be stupid enough to base your operations in a theatre of war like Iraq or even Afghanistan these days?"

Q: OK, OK, whatever. But I'm tired of all these cynical liberals who find it SO easy to criticize and question. The truth is that we need to DO something not just protest and whine. What SHOULD we do?

A: It seems to me that most every proposal on the way forward (and there ARE some interesting proposals out there on the table, despite what Rush/Sean might have you believing . . .) fits in one of the following camps:

1) Dramatically step up the military campaign (not Pres. Bush's "surge" . . . something much more decisive . . . Hiroshima comes to mind . . . take the gloves off)

2) Withdraw and end the military campaign.

3) Keep doing basically the same things we are doing. . . maybe with more troops . . . cement the infrastructure for uncertain ongoing intervention and support . . . and patiently "stay the course" until peace and security slowly, but surely (and inevitably) return.

Right now, #2 seems the only wise and morally justifiable course of action. We'll consider those three options in more detail in Part II of this FAQ. (Preview Question for tomorrow: "But if we declare failure and retreat, won't that embolden our enemies, diminish our standing in the world, and endanger our citizenry both at home and abroad?")

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

I support BYU, its Administration, and America itself. . . but I can't in good conscience support Cheney's policies

I support BYU. I've already mentioned that I'm on campus. By choice. I choose to be here and love it. For a great many (and perhaps off-topic) reasons. Even now that Vice President Cheney has been invited to address the commencement guests, I still heartily support the aims and mission of Brigham Young University.

I support the BYU Board of Directors. They've already indicated exactly why they reciprocated when the US Vice President asked to come to commencement and I believe that supporting them includes taking them at their word. If they state that the visit "is seen by the university's board of trustees as one extended to someone holding the high office of vice president of the United States rather than to a partisan political figure" then I think that it is distrustful, disrespectful, disingenuous, and flat-out dishonest to portray anybody who protests Cheney's policies as anti-BYU, anti-administration, or anti-American.

I hope that not too many squander good-will by attacking BYU or its administrators because of Cheney's impending visit. I do, however, applaud any who take this opportunity to open dialogues on the vice-president's policies (whether by letters to the editor, or blogs, or civil "protests", or other effective means).

I can't support Dick Cheney's policies. I find them ill-advised at best and murderous at worst. And yet, in fairly recent history, I've been part of the problem. I voted for George Bush and Dick Cheney in both of the recent Presidential elections. Part of the reason that I supported the sitting Vice President in these last two elections is my heartfelt opposition to abortion. By 2004 I was starting to realize that perhaps our war with Iraq was not what had been sold to the American people but John Kerry went on record as saying he would do nothing different in that conflict (a terribly shrewd political miscalculation in my book . . . I wonder how many Republicans like me there were who would have voted for a change in foreign policy already by 2004). So all things being equal in the two major parties on the war, my thoughts went back to issues like abortion and I voted Republican. Why do I bring this up? Because I'll bet I'm not the only one who picks one or two major issues and lets it determine my loyalties. A lot of active LDS Saints have supported the Republican party faithfully for these last couple of decades because the national Republican party was growing more united in opposition to abortion while the national Democratic party was growing more vocal in supporting abortion in even the most extreme cases (for instance, late-term abortions after the infant would be viable if delivered . . . really, who could possibly defend that?)

I recognize that if we want to get into messy party politics then there are number of other issues that attract people into one party or the other. There are a number of potent economic issues, just for starters. But I've talked to a lot of ardent supporters of this administration for whom abortion is the only moral issue they can really defend with any clarity and for whom all the other messy issues including war and foreign policy simply follow on the coat-tails of their faith in that particular issue.

And so now I have a dilemma. I've watched as the Republican party has been commandeered by 'neo-conservative' warhawks. I have been slowly growing apart from the national Republican party platform as I try to maintain my moral values. I haven't suddenly registered Libertarian or Democrat or Green or Constitution but I see in this incident a renewed motivation to return to the "Independence" we should all probably proclaim with regard to political issues. I find it deeply troubling that support for the Cheney platform is centered in the BYU Republicans and opposition to it has been organized by BYU Democrats. This shouldn't be such a partisan issue. Cheney's policies speak for themselves.

If an individual finds moral resonance in any party platform then it's their prerogative to support that party in the issues they can in good conscience support but it seems clear that too many of us have lackidaisically and dangerously checked our reasoning and morals at the door the moment we chose to walk into a party. There is not room here for a reasoned discussion of parties and their history within American politics. But suffice it to say that both the Founding Fathers and our current religious leaders have warned vigorously against placing too much allegiance in man-made political parties. Unfortunately, pragmatics quickly overwhelm ethics in this arena and almost everybody I know who has made an earnest attempt to be involved politically finds themselves deeply enmeshed with some party or another in ways that can be seriously unhealthy (myself included . . . you're reading my confessional now) .

As I've studied what has happened to the Republican party (and so-called 'conservative' talk-radio, etc.), one of the most stridently vocal proponents of nearly all the ideas that I find so morally offensive has been Richard Cheney. He manipulated intel at high levels to get decision-makers on board to attack Iraq (who can guess as to whether or not he did so out of 'honorable intentions'? . . . the fact remains that Colin Powell, "Scooter" Libby, and numerous others of his colleagues have clearly identified him as doing so). He maintains that suspending our civil liberties is vital because 'we are at war' (despite the fact that his definition of war is one that will never allow a lifting of the suspensions he is pushing.) Cheney has agitated for a violation of dozens of treaties, agreements, and sometimes simply 'moral high ground' that the US has always previously honored. And regardless of my belief that perhaps all of his ties and influence within the revolving doors of the military-industrial complex are perfectly legal, I think that his behavior and history are a perfect highlight of the conflicts of interest and problematic relationships that exist in that arena.

Finally, I find it most reprehensible that Vice President Cheney is so dogmatic in his insistence on 'military solutions' at every corner. He is almost preternaturally anxious to send young men and women on these missions to kill and die. He blasts international terrorists out of one side of his mouth for "their indiscriminate killing" (a topic on which he and I would heartily agree) and then he turns right around and orders bombings of neighborhoods that level city blocks full of innocent men, women, and children that are blown into bits on the off-chance that a "highly sought-after target" might have also been among the rubble.

If I question whether we might not, in fact, be causing more problems than we are helping with in Iraq at the moment, does this make me an anti-Patriot or a heathen? I hope not. I think we need to periodically assess why we are pursuing a military solution in Iraq, how successful our current procedures are, and what, honestly, we are attempting to do as an occupying empire.

If we are noble in our aims (and I believe most of our servicemen and women are) then of course we are going to re-assess this kind of thing at every step of the way. On the other hand, if our aims are a bit more complicated (if we are attempting the kind of world-reshaping, belligerent, foreign-entagling, empire-building, pompous, meddling that Richard Cheney proposed when he he helped forge the 'Project for a New American Century' just a couple short years before he began advising the President on foreign policy) then we might just be tempted to label any question-asking as weak, unpatriotic, and even 'evil' if we can.

I think before we throw in our hats with the hate-radio jocks that don't seem very careful of whether or not they are calling 'evil good and good evil' we would all do well to remember a not-so-distant First Presidency warning penned by the Prophet we are studying in Sunday School this very year:

We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel – ships, planes, missiles, fortifications – and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan's counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior's teaching:

"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

"That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45).

President Spencer W. Kimball
"The False Gods We Worship”
First Presidency Message, June, 1976