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Archive for September, 2006

Divisions within Islam

One of the greatest intellectual failings of the Administration is its inability to understand how internally diverse Islam is, and how when we demonize all Muslims as “terrorist fundamentalists” we lose any hope of having a nuanced understanding of those within Islam who would actually harm us. While the Administration’s public statements might be dismissed as mere propaganda for the masses (which I find insulting), I’m increasingly afraid that it actually represents their thinking.

To be plain about it, there are very significant theological and cultural differences not only between the major divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shia) but within each of these traditions. These differences then manifest themselves in the various groups’ responses to our — and others’ — mid-east policies. The differences rival those between, say, Roman Catholicism and the Mormons, or between Methodists and 7th-Day Adventists. Yet, our leaders seem to not understand this, and therefore do not have policies that leverage these differences to help us advance our various interests in the Middle East.

Its this intellectual vacuum that ensures that we will continue to lose the battle against those terrorists who hold the banner of Islam as their standard.

There’s a great article in Le Monde Diplomatique that discusses the internal differences just within the Shia of Iraq, and analyzes issues such as whether Islamism or nationalism is a driving force within and among those groups. Read and understand this, and you’re apparently way ahead of the State Department.

Read it as if you life depended on it, which oddly enough, it may well.

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Boy, this could be a short post. But since its the aniversary of the attack, and the political bovines are all out there giving high-handed speeches larded with drivel, I am compelled to point out a few actual facts.

Not that they will listen.

Having reviewed the several public appearances by the Gang of Four (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice), I can safely state that they have learned nothing whatsoever about our various enemies. Nothing that will keep us or make us safe; nothing that will protect the key infrastructure that supports our civilization, and nothing about how to wage the kind of war that the terrorists are winning against us, not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Of the thousands of chances we’ve had since 9/11, I would note that:

  • Our ports remain unguarded and our borders undefended;
  • Iraq is not only degenerating into civil war but is tying down our soldiers while the rest of the Middle East simmers in a broth of anger and resentment (at us);
  • Key infrastructure including our power grid and the Internet are almost completely unguarded (there is as yet no Cyber-Security Czar in DHS);
  • The other guys in DHS publish, with a straight face, a report that notes more critical terrorist targets in Ohio and Iowa than in New York City;
  • We don’t understand how to find terrorists on airplanes, so with every hairbrained stunt some Islamic radical tries, we endure comical and completely ineffectual security screenings: we take off our shoes, we have to pack our toothpaste, etc.

And worst of all,

  • Our official government position is that we are winning in Iraq, that our policy and strategy are sound, and that to wake up and smell the coffee is to “cut and run.”

These guys would have ridden the Titanic down rather than admit there was a problem.  Unfortunately we are also on their Titanic.  We’re losing in Iraq, not because our soldiers and sailors are deficient, but because we can’t win against these kind of maniacs without either 1) a stunning increase in the number of (our) troops on the ground, or 2) some really innovative plans that would attack radical Islam at the propaganda, economic, and political front.  And, belive me, I haven’t seen any sign of either one of these happening; these “fearless leaders” of ours can’t admit fault or try a change in plans, even if the current ones are in utter disarray.

So, I guess, we really haven’t learned anything.

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Getting past all the pious breast-beating and political gas of the last week or so, I think we might be well served by extracting some lessons from a true regional catastrophe like hurricane Katerina. Most of the lessons are, however, rather grim so if you’re not in a cheery mood maybe you should come back later to read on.

1. The engineers were right. Engineers and scientists for 30 years pointed out that New Orleans and its surrounding coastal areas were desperately vulnerable to hurricane flooding, and these warnings were utterly ignored in every detail. Most of the money that was appropriated was diverted to other uses. What little money was spent went into substandard and under-engineered levees and other structures that failed almost immediately when their design load was placed on them. So, laugh at the pocket protectors if you want to, but pay attention to them. So far, anyway, engineers answer only to physical reality, not to political pounding.

2. Local and state level government agencies are probably not up to coping with such a catastrophe. This is a general political failing. These were the people who just passed by over the years and I guess hoped that the boom would fall on somebody else’s watch. They treated it like a game of musical chairs rather than a serious public safety challenge. The single most incapable actor in ths drama was Mayor Ray Nagin, who managed to get himself trapped incommunicado at the height of the catastrophe and since then has done nothing but try to pass the blame on to others. Oh, and he was recently re-elected.

3. The Federal government will not come to help you. This isn’t just that FEMA completely failed as an organization, it means that, at least for the Bush administration, that if there’s a problem like this, its up to you (individually, locally, and state-ly) to prepare to save yourself as best you can, and ultimately to recover by yourself or through your own resources. Philosophically the current administration believes that to shelter people from bad decisions (such as electing incompetent politicans, or being too crippled to be able to move, or not leaving when they could) is not to help them, that people need to learn to be self-suficient.

4. Unless, of course, you are a politically-connected business. Although vast sums of money have been appropriated for relief and rebuilding, only a small fraction of it has been released and spent. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, considering the monstrous fraud that accompanied the initial FEMA relief expenditures. But actually, there are thousands of tons of debris that remain basically where it fell, so whole neighborhoods are by default uninhabitable. A significant fraction of the relief moneys have gone into relatively worthless “enterprise zones” where Friends of the Administration have set up businesses exempt from taxation and some wage and environmental rules, under the banner of employing the locals — but in jobs that pay significantly less than anything they were making before.

So, then, in the current socio-political environment, what we can say is that when a widely-predicted catastrophe actually occurs, if the local governmental agencies fail, the Feds will turn their backs, in spite of all the puffing and blowing by the pols. Is this really what we want?

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