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March 01, 2007

Salsa Dancing, Cut and Run, and the "Optimism Bias"
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Americans have a built-in optimism bias, and this may help explain both our successes and failures. We have trouble taking no for an answer, no matter how many times we hear it. This, I suspect, is why it’s very difficult for us to admit defeat and leave it at that, particularly when we’re so invested in victory. With that in mind, let’s look at the two ways of approaching the Iraq debacle:

Outlook #1. We can accept that we have lost, cut our losses, and admit, however reluctantly, that some battles simply cannot be won. In doing so, we stem the bleeding and prevent making a bad situation worse.

Outlook #2. If we continue pouring blood and treasure in Iraq, there is a 5% chance things will better. There is a 95% chance that things get worse. Let's see if we can actually make the 5% probability a reality.

The two outlooks do not differ in their assessment of the facts. I have no way of proving this, but I think whether or not someone ascribes to outlook #2 is a direct function of a variety of psychological, often personal, dispositions. Leaving that aside, there are a lot of people who would argue, with some justification, that outlook #2 is the better one because it’s the only one that provides even the slightest hope for a positive outcome. I think this is why it took so long for liberal interventionists/hawks/idealists to come to grips with the deteriorating situation in Iraq. It's why many, including myself, still have trouble accepting outlook #1. You are aware that the "facts" are not on your side. But you still want to believe, and the disorienting power of faith, whether it be religious or political, is something which should not be underestimated.

This optimism bias can be a good thing, because it drives us to go beyond our means, to take risks, and come up with creative solutions to longstanding problems. However, it’s called a “bias” for a reason – because it creates a larger gap between what one may call “want formation” and “want satisfaction.” Appetite exceeds ability. This gap is, fundamentally, a disorienting one. It produces high levels of cognitive dissonance which may provoke a series of psychological coping behaviors which separate us from reality and disengage us from "facts." And so it becomes much more difficult to draw red lines our own conduct and to know our own limits and, more importantly, the limits of American power and idealism.

Again, the personal is political. Off an on, I’ve spent the last two years trying to become a respectable salsa dancer. I like salsa and can do a passable job if my partner is relatively inexperienced. I did, however, realize at some point that my salsa skills were stagnating. I kept on taking lessons, thinking that out of sheer determination I could become really, really good. The possibility of failure didn’t even enter my mind. Moreover, I reasoned that I had already spent hundreds of dollars trying to learn salsa. If I stopped now, then all that money, time, and effort would go to waste and I’d have little to show for it. So I plodded on indifferent to the unavoidable fact that not everyone is cut out for salsa. I remained under my illusions until only recently. Then I made a decision: I am good at some things. I am not, however, particularly good at Salsa. It is time to accept defeat. So I cut and ran. It wasn’t easy.   

Progressive Strategy

The Blame Frame Begins....
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

Sorry absent so long. I got caught on the West Coast until late Monday. Jetblue cancelled all flights back. Not that being stuck in San Diego is bad....

I didn't realize that right wingers were so into recycling, but 1972 is written all over the agenda of the Conservative Political action Committee CPACconference that starts today. On Friday, they'll be having a panel discussion with Swift Boat vet operatives hyperventilating about "the left's repeated campaign against the American soldier." Not slated for discussion: Iraq, Walter Reed, armor for the troops, outsourcing our national security to their campaign donors, public sacrifice during wartime... and basically anything else that really does affect the American soldier.

Speaking of.. one of the Swift Boat 50K donors, Sam Fox, was up for an Ambassadorship this week. After decrying the bitterness of partisan politics, mind you. Um. why do we believe anything any of these people say anymore?

I'm in NYC right around 51st and 6th Avenue...where that big news ticker blares headlines on the Fox television building. Trying to counter the Oscar night glory of " An Inconvenient Truth" the scoop that Al Gore's yearly electricity bill was 30K was up there...but strangely, nothing about VP Cheney's 185K yearly bill a few years back.

Speaking of global warming, too bad they can't figure out a way to recycle all the hotair coming out of the CPAC conference.

February 28, 2007

Getting Muslims Totally Wrong
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Anne Applebaum is a sensible writer who seems to know more about Muslims than most of her opinion-wielding counterparts (which is sort of like saying that Jessica Simpson is a more substantial "artist" than Britney Spears). That's why her latest column is so worrying. If even Applebaum get things this wrong, then there's pretty much no hope that we'll ever begin to understand the Muslim world. The topic of her column is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch parliamentarian who some have hailed as a "brave" and "courageous" voice for standing up to Muslim extremism. More than a few people seem intent on treating her as some kind of anointed spokeswoman for oppressed Muslim women, a reformer from within the faith or, worse, a kind of pseudo-Muslim Martin Luther. There is, of course, the complication that she isn't even Muslim (she renounced her faith long ago). There is also the small matter that Muslims themselves don't like her much. In fact, I have yet to meet even one Muslim on the planet, secular or conservative, liberal or illiberal, who actually thinks that Hirsi Ali is helping the cause of internal Muslim reform. Largely, because she isn't. Applebaum, however, sees things differently:

Along the way, [Hirsi Ali] also made an intellectual journey -- beautifully described in her new book, "Infidel"-- from tribal Somalia, through fundamentalism, and into Western liberalism. After Sept. 11, 2001, horrified by some of the things Osama bin Laden was saying, she reached for the Koran to confirm a hunch: "I hated to do it," she wrote, "because I knew that I would find bin Laden's quotations in there."

So the message is: if you want to make the "intellectual journey" from Islamic fundamentalism to Western liberalism, you might want to consider giving up your faith and renouncing your belief in the Koran. Hirsi Ali's "complaint" that she found Bin Laden's quotations in the Koran is just about the stupidest thing I've heard in at least two weeks. Of course you can find Bin Laden's quotations in the Quran. Because, well, Bin Laden quotes from the Quran. Big surprise there. Applebaum continues:

Partly as a result she lost her faith, concluding that the Koran spreads a culture that is "brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war," and that should not be tolerated by European liberals.

Hmm....I bet that calling the Koran - which 1.4 billion Muslims consider to the be the unaltered word of God - the source of a culture which is "brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women," is precisely the way to win Muslim hearts and minds in the war on terror.

Curiously, what seems to rankle Europeans most is the enthusiasm with which Hirsi Ali has adopted their own secularism and the fervor with which she has embraced their own Western values.

Here, Applebaum, for some bizarre reason, chooses to conflate rejection of religion with "Western values." "Secularism" (unlike its French cousin "laicite") does not, in fact, have anything to do with being anti-religion. In its standard definition, it refers to the "separation of church/mosque and state." This tendency to create a false dichotomy between Islamic tradition and Western post-enlightenment values is precisely why so many European Muslims feel both disoriented and alienated. They are being made to choose between false opposites. It is one thing to be intolerant of intolerance. It is quite another to be intolerant of anyone who believes in Islam and tries to live according to its precepts. In this sense, Hirsi Ali cannot even rightly be called a liberal. Her message to Muslims, which can be paraphrased as "if you don't like Western values, get the hell out," is, in fact, one that is animated by a disquieting authoritarian impulse profoundly at odds with the classical liberal tradition.

To top it all off, Applebaum then offers a conclusion so simplistic and cringe-inducing that it made me want to shut off my computer, hide in a library, and go read the print version of the New York Review of Books.

Maybe once Europeans get used to the idea -- a Muslim immigrant who embraces Western culture with the excitement of the convert! -- they'll like Hirsi Ali better. And if they're lucky, others will follow in her footsteps.

February 27, 2007

Barack Obama knows the Difference between Sunnis and Shias
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Everyone has a list of things they'd like to see in a president. There's the usual: honesty, charisma, "gravitas," good looks, moral grounding, faith. If you're a Democrat, you tend to tack on other considerations: intelligence, knows how to write prose, has read at least 5 books within the last 5 years without any prodding from Karl Rove, has an American passport and has used said passport to travel to a foreign country (Canada doesn't count), and doesn't hate gay people and/or want to throw them off cliffs.

Well, I'm going to add another qualification for 2008 and I think it may actually be among the most important: understands Islam and Muslims. And you get extra points for actually having lived in a Muslim country. If you've studied at a madrasa, even better. Take a look at this clip from 2002 where Obama explains his opposition to the Iraq war. I don't want to set the bar too low, but he clearly grasps the difference between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds and understands that a war could splinter the country into different ethno-religious factions.

This, for me, is why Barack Obama is such an attractive candidate. He's the only candidate who has any "natural" understanding of the region. He should hype this part of his resume and say it straight-up: "we're fighting a war on terror, one that is taking place mostly in the Muslim world. We're fighting a long and difficult struggle against the forces of Islamic extremism. At the same time, we're trying to convince 1.4 billion Muslims that we're not out to get them. We need a president who understands this region of the world and who is familiar with the aspirations, fears, and sensibilities of our Muslim friends abroad. I am that person. If you grant me your support, I will restore our moral leadership in the eyes of the very people who have come to distrust us most. I will reach out to the Muslim world like no president before me, and I will begin to rebuild the bridges that my predecessor burned."

Friends and Enemies
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Tony Blair is a tragic figure. I used to like him. Maybe I still do, sort of. I think there's little doubt that he genuinely believes he (along with his transatlantic friends) is fighting the "global struggle against Islamic extremism" or whatever they're calling it now. Too bad he seems to always get left in the dust by Bush and Cheney. In a recent BBC interview (via Andrew), Blair draws the struggle in Iraq in the usual overwrought way, although he manages to come off sounding sincere (no small feat). We must "support the democrats against the terrorists." Then he says something about the "forces of progress" versus the "forces of reaction" in the Middle East. It is unclear who he is referring to. Well, on the other side of the pond, Cheney and friends seem to have a better idea of who's on our side (Prince Bandar and a sprinkling of Sunni jihadists) and who isn't (Iran and the "Shia crescent"), and the answers, as you might expect, aren't particularly encouraging. Apparently, our past policy of "moral clarity" has been updated to reflect new "realities." Some choice excerpts from Seymour Hersh's latest:

The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can,” the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money “always gets in more pockets than you think it will,” he said. “In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like. It’s a very high-risk venture.”

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.

...In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. “We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here,” he said. He related this to concerns that Iran or Syria might decide to turn Lebanon into a “theatre of conflict.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because, um, we kind of tried this before:

Nasr compared the current situation to the period in which Al Qaeda first emerged. In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.

February 25, 2007


Iraq Intel - Take it to the Committee
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Last Thursday night I took part in a discussion with Senator Jay Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  Rockefeller offers a predictably blistering critique of the Administration's handling of intelligence to date, and makes clear that Congressional access to those on the frontlines of intelligence gathering is sorely limited.

But Rockefeller is surprisingly upbeat about prospects that incoming DNI Mike McConnell will start to change all that.  He respects McConnell's experience, and judges him a straightshooter who will not be beholden to a hobbled Administration.

Apropos of last week's post on how we will judge the success or (seemingly inevitable) failure of the surge/escalation, Rockefeller and his Committee may play a key role in this determination.   As illustrated by Dick Cheney's down-the-rabbithole argument that Britain's withdrawal from Iraq bodes well for the war effort, the Administration will try to spin anything into success.  Solid intelligence, assuming we have any, could be essential to baring the truth. 

If McConnell is committed to a serious effort to restore the legitimacy of the US intelligence establishment, there is no better place to start than Iraq.

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