Friday, December 22, 2006

Home for Christmas

Three years ago today I left Qatar on a flight home from Iraq for 2 weeks leave. I had not seen my wife and three children since Feb 3 of that year, the longest that I had been separated from any of them. The time spent at home was great but I found that a part of my mind was still back in Iraq.

Three years later I find that a piece of me still remains behind in that tortured country. Maybe, as the years continue to go by, that piece left behind will become smaller. There is a special feeling, unspoken, that comes form living in and sharing danger. A part of what I left behind comes from that special feeling that I had when I was there.

Overseas, right now, there are service men and women living their lives in harm's way. Safe at home and surrounded by the warmth of my family, I cannot help but think of them. During this holiday season keep these men and women in your thoughts and prayers. I can't help but believe that this special feeling that I felt and that they are feeling now comes from the thoughts and prayers of all of us back here in the United States of America.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Whither now in Iraq?

"[Taliban tribal leaders in Pakistatan] issued a video claiming that the Iraqi and Afghan insurgents were responsible for the Republican defeat in US mid-term elections and that US withdrawl from Afghanistan and Iraq would begin soon."

Regardless of the intent of the American people, and regardless of whether the Republicans deserved to be removed from power in the House and the Senate (they did), the transfer of control of the U.S Congress to the Democrats is viewed by our terrorists enemies worldwide as a sign of weakness on our part and a victory for their strategy of incrementally chipping away at the will of the American people. As much as I dislike Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the weight of the blame for our current state of affairs in Iraq lies elsewhere, primarily with the soon-to-be-departed Secretary of Defense, tossed overboard to lighten the President's load.

Now that they are in power, and not sniping from the sidelines, I sincerely hope that Nancy and Harry (please, God!) are rational and patriotic Americans who realize that a sudden and precipitious withdrawal of our troops from Iraq would be catastrophic to our national interests. I understand that many of their followers feel towards President Bush as I did toward President Clinton in 2000. I understand that they and their followers believe that the Iraq war should never have been inititated, that the war has been poorly managed.

None of those beliefs has anything to do with what we should do in Iraq right now. Bush is still the President and we are heavily engaged in a war that, for better or worse, the success or failure of which will have regional or even global repercussions. This is not an argument about Social Security or health insurance, but national security. A note of caution to the critics of the war: "Be careful what you wish for."

I believe that Nancy and Harry will adopt the motto of the Nixon administration: "Watch we do, not what we say." They will continue to say the right things to placate their extremist supporters, but they won't force the President to withdraw. And President Bush will make a speech to the American people after the New Year announcing a new Iraq policy that is remarkably similar to the current one. He really doesn't have a lot of choice or many options. The choices are Leave or some version of Stay. And this President isn't leaving.

On this point I agree with him. I still believe that the failure of Al Qaeda to attack the United States since 2001 is NOT because of the Department of Homeland Security. I believe it is because of the activities of the Department of Defense in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa and a lot of other places that I don't know about and aren't supposed to know.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Withdraw or stay?

The sudden or phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at this time would be extremely detrimental to the national security of our country and our allies. There. I can't make it any clearer than that.

Forget about what Bush said or didn't say. What Rumsfeld did or didn't do. What the Iraqi people believe or don't believe. What the American people think that they want or don't want. Whether the Democrats or Republicans won the election. Forget about the past (there is too much talk about what happened before). What are we going to do right now?

The facts are clear: most Americans haven't a clue about what is going on in the Iraq, much less the Middle East. All they know is that the situation is very unpleasant and that they would rather that it end sooner rather than later. Look at all the casualties, I hear them say, and the money this is costing and shouldn't we be using our resources to hunt down Osama?

Right now, Iraq is the central battle in the global war on terrorism. Osama said it so it must be true. Osama noticed that when some marines were killed in Beirut that President Reagan soon after pulled them all out. Osama noticed that when some rangers were killed in Mogadishu that President Clinton pulled them all out. Soon afterwards when a shipload of marines approached Port au Prince a crowd of Haitians formed to protest and the ship turned around. Osama noticed that, too.

Regardless of why we got into Iraq, or the mistakes that we made after we got there, the Osama's of this world are watching to see what we are going to do now. Based on past experience, they think that we aren't tough enough. They think that we are soft, and that we don't have the political will to defeat their fanaticism. They think that, ultimately, we will wilt before the intensity of their belief.

There is ample precedent in history for our current situation. On December 16, 1944 Adolph Hitler launched a surprise attack against a weak portion of the Allied line in the Ardenne forest of Belgium. Hitler thought that the advancing democracies to his West were fundamentally weak and that his surprise attack would convince them to sue for peace. The resulting Battle of the Bulge caused over 60,000 U.S. casualties alone, but the soft and coddled American Army defeated the fascist attackers.

When I hear people wonder how we can fight such an unpopular war with the country divided I remember reading the Memoirs of U.S. Grant. As Grant struggled to find a way to envelop Vicksburg he was very aware of the newspaper editors in the north who were continually denouncing his incompetency and calling for his head. When Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac and locked horns with Bobby Lee he had to suffer an order from the War Department asking for troops to suppress New Yorkers rioting against the draft.

Somehow we managed to win both those wars. And we will manage to win this one. We can't afford not to.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Arabs and language

"A simple assertion from an Arab can be, for him, nothing more than a polite form of evasion, while the same word for his English interlocutor a definite, positive commitment. Americans should keep in mind that statements which seem to Arabs to be mere statements of fact will seem to Americans to be extreme or even violent assertions."

- Raphael Patai

I recently spoke to an Army Reservist friend of mine who returned this summer from his second tour in Iraq. He spent his tour working with one of the Iraqi Ministries in the Green Zone and told me that he almost never traveled anywhere. He worked with Iraqis but was not able to visit their homes or really see what Iraq was like outside the confines of the barbed wire and concrete barriers that defined his existence.

I was fortunate in that during the last five months of my tour that I was able to travel and see a lot of Iraq and the Iraqis. I believe that the circumstances on the ground now in Iraq are substantively different than it was when I was there but the Iraqis are still the same. We spent a lot of time when we were there trying to figure out what the Iraqis were thinking and doing. I am sure the Iraqis spent a lot of time wondering what we were up to.

In the buildup to the war we pretty much knew that we were on the list to go and we knew where we were going and why. Very few of us knew anything about the Middle East and even less had even traveled there. I was an expert in Latin America and I spoke Spanish and at least this gave me some insight into some of the cultural and language problems that we could expect to encounter. I was smart enough to know how much I really didn't know.

Undaunted, I decided to learn as much as I could in the time that I had available. I purchased and read "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence. I found a book on the history of Iraq. I purchased Arabic language tapes and began learning Arabic.

One book that was highly recommended to us and which I consulted on many occasions is "The Arab Mind" by Raphael Patai. The book was originally published in 1976 and revised in 1983. The book speaks in generalities about a large and diverse population, but there are some great truths in what he had to say. One point that I remember well is the Arab penchant for substituting words for action.

"In fact," Mr Patai wrote, "the Arab custom of trying to intimidate an adversary by verbal threats is such a prevalent feature of the Arab personality that it could not escape the notice of either native or foreign observers. The adult Arab makes statements which express threats, demands, or intentions, which he does not intend to carry out but which once uttered, relax emotional tension, give psychological relief and at the same time reduce the pressure to engage in any act aimed at realizing the verbalized goal."

When seen from this point of view, a lot of the words and crowd images that are beamed to us from the Middle East don't seem quite so crazy.