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Tony Perry of the LA Times reports:

As Marines train to deploy to war zones, there is daily discussion about how to detect and disarm the buried roadside bombs that are the No. 1 killer of Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military researchers have found that two groups of personnel are particularly good at spotting anomalies: those with hunting backgrounds, who traipsed through the woods as youths looking to bag a deer or turkey; and those who grew up in tough urban neighborhoods, where it is often important to know what gang controls which block.

Personnel who fit neither category, often young men who grew up in the suburbs and developed a liking for video games, do not seem to have the depth perception and peripheral vision of the others, even if their eyesight is 20/20.

The findings do not surprise Army Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett, the top enlisted man with the Pentagon-based Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, which conducted the study. He’s made multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and ridden in more than 1,000 convoys and, on 19 occasions, been in a vehicle hit by a roadside bomb.

The best troops he’s ever seen when it comes to spotting bombs were soldiers from the South Carolina National Guard, nearly all with rural backgrounds that included hunting.

“They just seemed to pick up things much better,” Burnett said. “They know how to look at the entire environment.”

Troops from urban backgrounds also seemed to have developed an innate “threat-assessment” ability. Both groups, said Army research psychologist Steve Burnett, “seem very adaptable to the kinds of environments” seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Video game enthusiasts are narrower in their focus, as if the windshield of their Humvee is a computer screen. “The gamers are very focused on the screen rather than the whole surrounding,” said Sgt. Maj. Burnett (no relation to the research psychologist).

About 800 military personnel at Twentynine Palms and several other bases took part in a complex set of vision and perception tests, follow-up interviews and personality tests. Test subjects were asked to find hidden bombs in pictures, videos, virtual reality exercises and open-air obstacle courses, including on pitch-dark nights.

Although many of the findings remain classified — lest the enemy discover what the U.S. has learned about its methods of burying and detonating the devices — military officials agreed to discuss the eyesight portion of the study.

The study was completed in June, and its results are being circulated for peer review to researchers with security clearances. It took 18 months to carry out and cost $5.4 million.

After eight years of war and billions of dollars spent on electronic detection, the best technology for spotting improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, remains the sharp-eyed Marine, soldier or sailor.

Back in the 1960s, the Air Force officer qualifying exam had a 100 item Officer Biographical Inventory. The latter was a personality test that asked about “past experiences, preferences, and certain personality characteristics related to measures of officer effectiveness.” It inquired into enthusiasm for sports and hunting, and was only vaguely correlated with IQ.

(A retired Air Force test psychologist told me that this section was later dropped because women did very poorly on it, and urban and suburban youths didn’t do as well as country boys. “It was politically incorrect, but”—he recalled wistfully—”It was a predictor of success as an officer.”)

As for the guys who defuse the roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the EODs, plain old IQ is one necessary factor. Kathryn Bigelow, director of last summer’s fine Iraq movie The Hurt Locker, pointed that out in all the interviews she did.

Beaks: One thing I don’t think people take into account with these guys is how highly intelligent they have to be to get assigned to a bomb squad unit.

Bigelow: That’s an aspect that’s very, very critical. You’re invited into EOD [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] because you’ve scored on an aptitude test at a very high level. You’re definitely a rare kind of individual. And to amplify what you’re saying, you have to take into consideration that this is a volunteer military. So these are individuals who have an extremely high IQ and have chosen – after being invited into EOD – to take on the most dangerous job in the world.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq 
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My general opinion of Colin Powell is that he is a sensible man. Moreover, I believe that the employment of sensible men in affairs of state should be encouraged.

Powell tried to slow the rush to war in 2002. In the final analysis, he lacked the moral fiber to take the last steps available to him: resign and speak out against the war.

On the other hand, his situation was directly analogous to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan’s in 1915. Fearing that President Wilson was propelling America into the Great War, Bryan resigned.

That’s why Bryan’s name is treated with such reverence in the media today.

Oh, sorry, wrong universe … Nobody remembers Bryan’s sacrifice of the highest position he ever attained. They just snicker at him for the Monkey Trial. And we ended up in the war anyway…

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq 
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You may wonder about why John McCain has been so wild about getting us into a new Cold War with Russia in general, and into what could turn into a shooting war with them over Georgia in particular. I mean, other than the fact that he’s John McCain … The Washington Post reports:

Sen. John McCain‘s top foreign policy adviser prepped his boss for an April 17 phone call with the president of Georgia and then helped the presumptive Republican presidential nominee prepare a strong statement of support for the fledgling republic.

The day of the call, a lobbying firm partly owned by the adviser, Randy Scheunemann, signed a $200,000 contract to continue providing strategic advice to the Georgian government in Washington.

The McCain campaign said Georgia’s lobbying contract with Orion Strategies had no bearing on the candidate’s decision to speak with President Mikheil Saakashvili and did not influence his statement. “The Embassy of Georgia requested the call,” said campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.

But ethics experts have raised concerns about former lobbyists for foreign governments providing advice to presidential candidates about those same countries. “The question is, who is the client? Is the adviser loyal to income from a foreign client, or is he loyal to the candidate he is working for now?” said James Thurber, a lobbying expert at American University. “It’s dangerous if you’re getting advice from people who are very close to countries on one side or another of a conflict.”

At the time of McCain’s call, Scheunemann had formally ceased his own lobbying work for Georgia, according to federal disclosure reports. But he was still part of Orion Strategies, which had only two lobbyists, himself and Mike Mitchell.

Scheunemann remained with the firm for another month, until May 15, when the McCain campaign imposed a tough new anti-lobbyist policy and he was required to separate himself from the company.

Rogers said Scheunemann “receives no compensation of any type from Orion Strategies and has not since May 15, 2008.” Scheunemann declined to be interviewed for this story.

As a private lobbyist trying to influence lawmakers and Bush administration staffers, Scheunemann at times relied on his access to McCain in his work for foreign clients on Capitol Hill. He and his partner reported 71 phone conversations and meetings with McCain and his top advisers since 2004 on behalf of foreign clients, including Georgia, according to forms they filed with the Justice Department.

The contacts often focused on Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and on legislative proposals, including a measure co-sponsored by McCain that supported Georgia’s position on South Ossetia, one of the Georgian regions taken over by Russia this weekend.

Another measure lobbied by Orion and co-sponsored by McCain, the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2006, would have authorized a $10 million grant for Georgia.

For months while McCain’s presidential campaign was gearing up, Scheunemann held dual roles, advising the candidate on foreign policy while working as Georgia’s lobbyist. Between Jan. 1, 2007, and May 15, 2008, the campaign paid Scheunemann nearly $70,000 to provide foreign policy advice. During the same period, the government of Georgia paid his firm $290,000 in lobbying fees.

Since 2004, Orion has collected $800,000 from the government of Georgia.

Since Orion consists of two guys, that’s basically $400k that the Republic of Georgia put into the pocket of McCain’s top foreign policy adviser.

You know, these ex-Soviet Union folks must snicker at how cheap it is to buy American politicians. The Exile had a column once about how politicians in the ex-Soviet region expect to wind up with hundreds of millions of dollars in London real estate, while American politicians get bought for peanuts (e.g., $90,000 in cold cash in the icebox).

My view is that we should treat Americans who have been registered agents for foreign governments the way we treat mob lawyers — as a necessary part of the system, but, in return for the money, they permanently disqualify themselves for important roles in government, other than maybe Mayor of Las Vegas. But nobody else seems to think that way.

By the way, this guy Scheunemann was in deep with Ahmad Chalabi, and now he’s got a shot at being, what, National Security Adviser? How many times do you have to screw up in Washington before your act wears thin?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, McCain 
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Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan’s new book seems to support the theory that I offered in 2005 when former Bush ghostwriter Mickey Herskowitz revealed that Bush had been talking about the political advantages of invading Iraq in 1999. I went on to speculate:

The idea of beating up on a sure loser like Saddam may have especially appealed to GWB because of the President’s personal qualities. Bush sees himself not as a manager (which is certainly correct), but as a leader, one who makes tough decisions based on intuition where other men who worry about getting the facts first would suffer paralysis through analysis.

In other words, Bush doesn’t particularly like to work hard, and he’s not that interested in learning what it takes to administer the government. Spending eight grueling years on the blocking and tackling of effectively running the government like Dwight Eisenhower did is not for Bush. Instead, he’s going to throw the Bomb, so he can then coast. And the Iraq Attaq sounded to him like a pushbutton war — all Bush had to do was tell the Pentagon to go conquer Iraq and they’d go do it without bothering him with a lot of tiresome questions about minor details.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Bush, Iraq 
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From the LA Times:

Sons of Iraq? Or Baghdad’s Sopranos?

Working with a U.S.-funded Sunni guard force can be a lot like dealing with the mob. Some of the armed men act like the dons of their neighborhood.

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 20, 2008

BAGHDAD — As Arabic pop songs blared from a cafe and children squealed on rickety rides, men armed with pistols and Kalashnikovs wandered through a crowded Baghdad park one recent evening, checking visitors for weapons and keeping an eye out for suicide bombers.

Eight months ago, some of them may have been planting bombs themselves, or firing rounds at passing American convoys. But on this night, they grabbed hands and stomped their feet in a traditional line dance as a U.S. foot patrol stopped to watch.

Residents credit cooperation between the American soldiers and the dancing gunmen, members of a U.S.-funded Sunni neighborhood guard force, for a turnaround in security in Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab enclave in Shiite-dominated east Baghdad that until recently was on the front line of the Iraqi capital’s sectarian war.

But doing business with the gunmen, whom the U.S. military has dubbed Sons of Iraq, is like striking a deal with Tony Soprano, according to the soldiers who walk the battle-blighted streets, where sewage collects in malodorous pools.

“Most of them kind of operate like dons in their areas,” said 2nd Lt. Forrest Pierce, a platoon leader with the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment. They shake down local businessmen for protection money, seize rivals for links to the insurgency and are always angling for more men, more territory and more power.

For U.S. soldiers on the beat, it means navigating a complex world of shifting allegiances, half-truths and betrayals. …

Such attacks were once a near-daily occurrence in Adhamiya. When the 3rd Squadron arrived last summer, its soldiers couldn’t drive past Abu Hanifa Mosque without getting shot at. On the day they assumed responsibility for the area, the unit they replaced was struck by a roadside bomb that flipped a Bradley fighting vehicle, killing five soldiers and an interpreter.

But the number of attacks plunged to less than one a week after the military began paying local men $300 a month to protect their areas.

The U.S. military now has 843 gunmen on its payroll in Adhamiya, a once-prosperous neighborhood of retired military officers, teachers and professionals enclosed by a 12-foot-high concrete wall. …

Last month, the number of attacks started to inch back up, leading soldiers to believe that religious extremists and the criminal gangs that thrive on chaos may be trying to stage a comeback. [More]

The problem in Iraq has always been that we’ve never had a side in the civil war we started there. I’ve always advised, from during the 2003 invasion onward, bribing Iraqis to calm down, but it doesn’t solve the long term problem which is that everybody knows we’re eventually going to leave and then there will be a scramble to grab the oil and whatever else is up for grabs. So, if the U.S. now wants to pay various ambitious men so they can build their power bases for the day of destiny, well, sure, they’ll take the money.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq 
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As a pundit, I’m supposed to act like I know this kind of stuff, but I have to admit I’m pretty baffled why it’s terribly important to the United States of America that the Badr Shiites who control the Baghdad government crush the Sadr Shiites who control much of Southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad as well.

After all, from a strategic Game of Nations point of view, the Badr Boys (they keep changing their names, but I’ll stick with that) are very closely linked to Iran, where they spent the Saddam years. And Iran, we are told, is the Great Satan. In contrast, Mookie al-Sadr is less tied to Iran, having holed up in the slums of Iraq after Saddam murdered his dad.

So, why are we against Mookie and for Maliki? Possible answers include:

- Mookie wants us to leave Iraq, which makes him anti-American. But the majority of Americans wants America to leave Iraq, so I guess that just means the American people are anti-American, too. It’s simple logic.

- The Badr Boys are more middle class, while Sadr’s guys are more slummy.

- More Badr Boys than Sadr Slumsters speak English, so that’s why we’re on their side: we can understand what they’re telling us, while Sadr keeps rambling on in that moon man gibberish that people in Iraq seem to speak.

- Badr is weaker than Sadr, so we support them because they need us more, and thus tolerate us more. And, the whole point of our being in Iraq has become our being in Iraq — we can never leave until we prove that we don’t have to leave, because that would show weakness; but we can only prove that we don’t have to leave by not leaving. So we are going to be there, roughly, forever. It’s simple logic, but Mookie doesn’t seem to get it.

- Mookie’s Men fought pitched battles with U.S. troops in 2004, so they are our enemy forever and ever. (Meanwhile, the Sunnis spent 2003-2007 trying to kill us, and now we’re supplying them with high-powered weapons, and that’s considered a brilliant triumph.)

- We need an enemy, or otherwise we’d have have to go home, and now that we’ve declared both the pro-Iranian Shiites and the Sunnis to be on our side, that basically leaves the Mookster to fill the role of enemy.

- Sadr has terrible halitosis.

- Or what?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq 
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The human race really just isn’t into this whole war thing anymore. Here we were, all gearing up for a re-enactment of the Battle of Stalingrad in Basra, center of trillions of dollars of oil reserves, and they go and decide to call the whole thing off after a few days.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq, War 
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With fighting in Basra between the Iranian-aligned Shi’ite government (who we’re backing) and Mookie Sadr’s less-Iranian-aligned Shi’ite militia (who we’re fighting), I’ve got a dumb question that I should know the answer to but I don’t:

Who’s pocketing Iraq’s oil money these days?

About 2 million barrels a day are pumped in the Basra province, so that’s roughly $200 million dollars per day or $73 billion per year. That’s a lot. Who gets it?

The cover story “Oil for War” by Robert Bryce in the American Conservative says:

“As A.F. Alhajji, energy economist and professor at Ohio Northern University, has said, “whoever controls Iraq’s oil, controls Iraq.” For the last five years, it’s never been exactly clear who controls Iraq’s oil.”

I presume that’s what the Shiite vs. Shiite fighting in Basra is over, right? I mean, $73 billion per year — that’s a lot of money. Can you imagine what Cortez would have done for $73 billion per year? (Indeed, the U.S. is lucky that some military genius hasn’t emerged out of the chaos in Iraq over the last five years, the way the wars of the French Revolution shook things up enough for Bonaparte to appear.)

The Bush Administration has done a tremendous job of boosting Iraq’s oil revenues. Unfortunately, that has come about not by boosting production, which is up only modestly, but by seeing the world price of oil more than triple since the invasion.

By the way, the U.S. military is spending almost $1,000,000,000 per week on fuel for Iraq, with most of that going to pay for the 5,500 tanker trucks that deliver fuel to our 3-mpg armor-plated Hummers. We’re spending $42 to deliver each gallon of gas to the boys in the field. That’s almost the kind of fuel economics you saw with a Saturn V moon rocket.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq 
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Randall Parker points to a so-depressing-it’s-funny article written by Nir Rosen in Iraq called “The Myth of the Surge.”

John McCain is running on a strategy of Winning in Iraq, but nobody seems to know whose side we are on these days. We started out being on the side of the guys who are most closely associated with Iran. Lately, we’ve been on both sides at once. But nobody seems to be on our side. The whole situation makes Catch 22 sound like Euclid’s Elements.

Now, in the midst of the surge, the Bush administration has done an about-face. Having lost the civil war, many Sunnis were suddenly desperate to switch sides — and Gen. David Petraeus was eager to oblige. The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq — it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq’s central government. The Americans call the units by a variety of euphemisms: Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISVs), neighborhood watch groups, Concerned Local Citizens, Critical Infrastructure Security. The militias prefer a simpler and more dramatic name: They call themselves Sahwa, or “the Awakening.” …

The American forces responsible for overseeing “volunteer” militias like Osama’s have no illusions about their loyalty. “The only reason anything works or anybody deals with us is because we give them money,” says a young Army intelligence officer. The 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which patrols Osama’s territory, is handing out $32 million to Iraqis in the district, including $6 million to build the towering walls that, in the words of one U.S. officer, serve only to “make Iraqis more divided than they already are.” In districts like Dora, the strategy of the surge seems simple: to buy off every Iraqi in sight. All told, the U.S. is now backing more than 600,000 Iraqi men in the security sector — more than half the number Saddam had at the height of his power. With the ISVs in place, the Americans are now arming both sides in the civil war. “Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems,” as U.S. strategists like to say. David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Petraeus, calls it “balancing competing armed interest groups.” …

But loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle. Only months ago, members of the Awakening were planting IEDs and ambushing U.S. soldiers. They were snipers and assassins, singing songs in honor of Fallujah and fighting what they viewed as a war of national liberation against the foreign occupiers. These are men the Americans described as terrorists, Saddam loyalists, dead-enders, evildoers, Baathists, insurgents. There is little doubt what will happen when the massive influx of American money stops: Unless the new Iraqi state continues to operate as a vast bribing machine, the insurgent Sunnis who have joined the new militias will likely revert to fighting the ruling Shiites, who still refuse to share power.

“We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority,” says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. “Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future.”

Okay, but isn’t “vast bribing machine” a reasonable definition for most governments? And maybe quasi-feudal isn’t so bad? Europe puttered along for a long time being feudal. Indeed, perhaps what Iraq and Afghanistan need is formal feudalism: tell a warlord or gang leader that you’re now the Earl of Fallujah, so start behaving like an Earl who expects to leave a prosperous Earldom to his son, the Second Earl of Fallujah.

Parker suggests that maybe we should just bribe more guys, which would have to be cheaper than occupying the place.

The hopeful thing is that people do eventually get tired of violence, although it can take awhile, such as three decades in Northern Ireland. My vague impression is that one of the sticking points in the 1998 agreements in Belfast was that the IRA men wanted jobs as policemen. They wanted to spend their declining years trundling about the old neighborhood, smiling at little children, cashing government paychecks, pocketing the odd bribe, whacking upside the head with a shillelagh anybody who gives them any lip. Is that too much to ask for?

Whatever happened there, anyway? My impression is that Southern Ireland finally woke up and started making lots of money, so the fighting in Northern Ireland started looking less like a zero sum game and more like a waste of time.

Are there any lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland that could be applied in Iraq?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq 
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I blogged at length in October 2006 about the controversial Lancet study that claimed 600,000 deaths by violence in Iraq. I eventually realized it was probably exaggerated because, paradoxically enough, Iraq was too violent for the study to have been carried out the way the authors claim:

Maybe what happened is that the interviewers didn’t actually go much door-to-door at random, but instead arrived in a neighborhood, put the word out, and then either had people who wanted to talk to them come see them or were invited to the homes of people who wanted to see them. That might account for the very high % of people with death certificates available.

Or it could be that the interviewers got in contact ahead of time with neighborhood leaders to see if their presence would be welcome to reduce their chances of being killed. (That’s not good random surveying hygiene, but are you going to blame them?) Then, in a neighborhood where the local big shot wanted their presence, he might have passed the word around to aggrieved families to get ready to tell their stories to the interviewers when they showed up. This could cause a bias upward in the number of deaths reported.

The more I think about the mechanics of carrying out the survey on the street without getting killed, the more I suspect that the Iraqi interviewers didn’t actually implement the purely random survey design that the American professors from MIT and Johns Hopkins dreamed up for them. It would be nuts to to let luck determine which streets you’d choose, as the report claims they did. You’d want to only go where you knew you’d be safe. Then you’d tell the Americans you did exactly what they told you to do.

I eventually reached this bottom line:

That number seems high to me. I really can’t say, but it just feels excessive. But if you cut it in half to “only” 300,000, would I feel all that dubious? Probably not.

Here’s the bottom line: I doubt that the Iraqi death toll has reached 600,000 … yet. But the odds are awfully high that, sooner or later, it will.

Now a new World Health Organization study says that in the first 3.0 years of this war that is now 4.8 years old, 150,000 people were killed:

Both teams used the same method — a random sample of houses throughout the country. For the new study, however, surveyors visited 23 times as many places and interviewed five times as many households. Surveyors also got more outside supervision in the recent study; that wasn’t possible in the spring of 2006 when the Johns Hopkins survey was conducted.

Despite reaching a lower estimate of total deaths, the epidemiologists found what they termed “a massive death toll in the wake of the 2003 invasion.”

Iraq’s population-wide mortality rate nearly doubled, and the death rate from violence increased tenfold after the coalition attack. Men between 15 and 60 were at the greatest risk. Their death rate from all causes tripled, and their risk of dying a violent death went up elevenfold.

So, extrapolating on this estimate for the subsequent 1.8 years of war (the first half of which was quite bloody, while the first year after the invasion was fairly peaceful), the total death toll so far would be in the 225-250,000 range.

By the way, I’ve also estimated that U.S. armed forces fire about 275,000 bullets in anger each day.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq, War 
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Because no good movies get released in late August, I took the opportunity to review a classic DVD:

When your television dies, a trip to the home entertainment showroom, with its massed ranks of the latest monitors all displaying the same glorious nature documentary for convenient comparison shopping, will quickly convince you that your initial plan of buying a modestly larger replacement tube for $299 was a naïve delusion. How could you ever be satisfied with a pathetic 32″ CRT, when the gazelles gamboling on the Serengeti are so luminous on a plasma set, so detailed on an HDTV, and so humongous on a 56″ screen?

But when you bring your technological breakthrough home, you notice that you seldom actually watch To postpone disillusionment, TV buyers should also pick up a grand movie on DVD. And what better than the two-disk version of “Lawrence of Arabia?” Unlike just about every other film you might buy rather than rent, you could watch “Lawrence” a second time.

Approaching its 45th anniversary, “Lawrence’s” place in the pantheon is secure. Director David Lean, cinematographer Freddie Young, and composer Maurice Jarre complement a tremendous cast, especially Alec Guinness as astute Prince Feisal, the future king of Iraq, and Anthony Quinn as choleric Auda, the prototypical Big Man.

Often extolled as the film that

Moreover, but don’t mention this to your cinephile friends, you can fast-forward through the second dozen times Peter O’Toole, as WWI archaeologist-warrior T.E. Lawrence, gallops his camel through the stark desert scenery he found so much more “clean” than damp and overgrown England. (Perhaps the British were better at empire than Americans have proven so far because it gave some of their best men the chance for fun in the sun that our West furnishes domestically?)

Movie critics today are obsessed with sniffing out the political implications of the latest releases, such as the suspicion that the sex comedy “Knocked Up” was insufficiently pro-abortion or that the Xbox mannerist Spartans of “300″ were ancient Republicans.

Few attempt, however, to draw lessons from the handful of classic films that would reward serious analysis. Among its numerous virtues, “Lawrence” provides insight into America’s quandary in Iraq by offering a vivid primer on what William S. Lind calls “asymmetrical” war.

In “Lawrence,” regular warfare, with its drilling and decisive battles, is exemplified by the stolid Turkish infantry, while irregular warfare, with its interminable raids and retreats, is embodied in the mercurial Arab camel cavalry.

In the famous screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, the British high command wants Lawrence to trick the Bedouin Arabs into enlisting as cannon fodder in the grinding British attack on the Ottomans at Gaza. Lawrence insubordinately devises a more culturally appropriate strategy for the nomads: “‘The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped’ and on this ocean the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please.” They will harass the Turkish railway to Medina with hit-and-run attacks, avoiding the pitched battles, for which the tribesmen, no fools, wouldn’t even show up.

But history never ends; losers adapt. As Lawrence tells Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali, “Nothing is written.” Now, after two easy victories in open country over Iraq’s derisible regular army, America has bogged down in Iraq’s urban jungles fighting countless irregular units that disappear into the alleys as Lawrence’s mounted warriors vanished into the dunes.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Iraq, Movies 
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Remember back in the 2004 Presidential election, when everybody was talking about how all we needed to do was to train the Iraqi forces and then everything would be swell?

Well, a reader sent in links to Youtube videos showing what training our “allies” actually looks like:

And just in case you suspected the first one was rigged, here’s the Afghans:

That’s right. Our newly trained local peace-keeping force is the stuff Special Ed PE is made of.

The Afghans’ trouble with the symmetrical nature of jumping jacks may be related to the asymmetrical nature of South Asian choreography, as seen in all those Bollywood movies, where the main dance step is, as the American fellow in “Bride and Prejudice” complains: “You screw in the light bulb with one hand and pat the dog on the head with the other.”

It reminds me of the first scene in “The Man Who Would Be King,” where Sean Connery and Michael Caine try to teach military drill to the inept Kafiristani villagers:

Daniel Dravot: You are going to become soldiers. A soldier does not think. He only obeys. Do you really think that if a soldier thought twice he’d give his life for queen and country? Not bloody likely.

We’re always hearing about how “They hate us for our freedom,” but, perhaps, one reason why we enjoy more freedom than Middle Easterners do is because we’re more cooperative, less individualistic, less prone to do our own thing than Iraqis and Afghans?

UPDATE: Here are Afghan trainees doing pushups:

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq 
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“It was a guy ["Curveball"] trying to get his green card essentially, in Germany, and playing the system for what it was worth” — Tyler Drumheller, former CIA official quoted by CBS

The BBC Reports:

Iraq war source’s name revealed

A US TV network has revealed the name of “Curveball” – an Iraqi man whose information was central to the US government’s argument to invade Iraq.

The CBS show 60 Minutes identifies him as Iraqi defector Rafid Ahmed Alwan. The programme says he arrived in a German refugee centre in 1999 where he lied to win asylum and was not the chemical expert he said he was.

His claims of mobile bio-weapons labs in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were backed until well after the 2003 invasion.

The CBS 60 Minutes programme airs on Sunday but material released on its web site says Curveball was “not only a liar, but also a thief and a poor student instead of the chemical engineering whiz he claimed to be”.

It also says it assumes Mr Alwan is now living in Germany under a different name.

The programme says he claimed to be a star chemical engineer at a plant that made mobile biological weapons in Djerf al-Nadaf. However, its investigation showed he received only low marks in chemical engineering at university and was the subject of an arrest warrant for alleged theft from a TV production company he worked for in Baghdad.

The programme also includes footage of his wedding in 1993 in the Iraqi capital.

It quotes former CIA senior official Tyler Drumheller as saying: “It was a guy trying to get his green card essentially, in Germany, and playing the system for what it was worth.”

German intelligence agents warned the US in a letter that there was no way to verify Mr Alwan’s claims. However, his information was used in a speech by then Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN to back military action in Iraq.

The 60 Minutes report says the information was passed on by then CIA director George Tenet, who denies ever seeing the German intelligence letter. The programme says Mr Alwan’s story unravelled once CIA agents finally confronted him with evidence contradicting his claims.

Back in November 2005, Col Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to Mr Powell, told the BBC’s Carolyn Quinn he was aware the Germans had said that they had told the CIA of the unreliability. “And then you begin to speculate, you begin to wonder was this intelligence spun; was it politicised; was it cherry-picked; did in fact the American people get fooled?,” Col Wilkerson said.

A presidential intelligence commission into the matter found that Curveball was a liar and an alcoholic.

I can’t wait to hear libertarian Open Borders advocates explain that this just shows that we wouldn’t have to fight pointless wars based on misinformation if we just gave Green Cards to all the alcoholic liars in the world.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Immigration, Iraq 
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On the Tigris River lies the world’s most dangerous dam, built on top of water-soluble gypsum (hey, at least the Iraqis didn’t build it out of sugar), which threatens to unleash a 66-foot tall wall of water on Mosul, with an expected death toll of up to half a million.

From the Washington Post, this is almost too perfect of a metaphor for our whole experience in Iraq.

Seepage from the dam funnels into a gushing stream of water that engineers monitor to determine the severity of the leakage. Twenty-four clanging machines churn 24 hours a day to pump grout deep into the dam’s base. And sinkholes form periodically as the gypsum dissolves beneath the structure.

Read the whole thing. It’s hilariously horrifying.

Greg Cochran emails:

There is only one right answer – drain the reservoir as rapidly as is safe. But we don’t get around to it. We have more important things to think about.

Once upon a time this country was a fountain of competency: we got things done and we were _famous_ for getting things done. Not any more.

Bush is the Apostle of incompetence. Everything he does is stupid, and he does it in a stupid way. If he’d run the space program back in the 60s, the iconic movie would be Journey To The Center Of The Earth rather than Apollo 13.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Incompetence, Iraq 
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Leaving aside all the usual moral issues for the moment, as a taxpayer, I want to complain about this 21st Century innovation of using ex-U.S. military servicemen as highly paid mercenaries alongside much lower paid servicemen.

The government has forfeited its monopsonistic (i.e. sole employer) buying power over government-funded jobs killing people and breaking things, so the taxpayers are having to shell out much higher pay, either to Blackwater mercenaries or in six figure re-enlistment bonuses to U.S. military servicemen to keep them from going over to Blackwater. From the taxpayers’ point of view, it’s a ridiculous situation.

This is not a unique case restricted to the military. Much of the demand for privatization of traditionally governmental jobs comes from government employees themselves who want a competitive job market for their skills. For example, the folks who run state lotteries have been working for years to get the state lottery business privatized so they can transfer from a civil service job to a “private”-sector job … running a state-licensed monopoly. It’s the best of both worlds!

As a taxpayer, I’m tired of paying to train somebody in a government job, then, when they are finally productive, having them jump to an privatized for-profit job that costs me two or three times as much.

I want our monopsony back!

(I’ve also been wondering, how did the Blackwater company decide to name themselves after a particularly lethal complication of malaria? Were “Black Plague” and “Black Death” already trademarked by somebody else?)

By the way, mercenaries are not some brilliant 21st Century innovation that nobody ever thought of before. Renaissance Italy, for example, used lots of mercenaries and how’d that work out for them? There are good reasons why advanced societies got rid of their reliance upon mercenaries. Same with Max Boot’s brainstorm of using lots of illegal aliens in our armies. These are old, old ideas. Machiavelli discussed the downsides of mercenaries and foreign fighters in Chapters 12 and 13 of The Prince.

The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.

And if it be urged that whoever is armed will act in the same way, whether mercenary or not, I reply that when arms have to be resorted to, either by a prince or a republic, then the prince ought to go in person and perform the duty of captain; the republic has to send its citizens, and when one is sent who does not turn out satisfactorily, it ought to recall him, and when one is worthy, to hold him by the laws so that he does not leave the command. And experience has shown princes and republics, single-handed, making the greatest progress, and mercenaries doing nothing except damage; and it is more difficult to bring a republic, armed with its own arms, under the sway of one of its citizens than it is to bring one armed with foreign arms. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Switzers are completely armed and quite free.

I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valour which in adversity would defend it. And it has always been the opinion and judgment of wise men that nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Economics • Tags: Iraq 
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American politicians and federal officials are still trying to get straight in their heads that confusing Shia vs. Sunni thingie, but it turns out that the Middle East has a whole bunch of living religions that aren’t exactly part of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.

Sure, we’ve all heard of the Samaritans in Israel, the mysterious and pugnacious Druze of Lebanon, the heretical Alawites who rule Syria, the Lucifer-worshipping Yezidis of Kurdistan, the millions of angel-worshipping Alevi of Turkey, and the Donme, the crypto-Jewish followers of the False Messiah who wield much influence in modern Istanbul.

But according to this NYT oped “Save the Gnostics,” in 2003 there were also 50,000 Gnostics, known as Mandaeans, who lived in Southern Iraq. They revere Adam, Noah and John the Baptist, and reject Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Wikipedia informs us, “While they agree with other gnostic sects that the world is a prison governed by the planetary archons, they do not view it as a cruel and inhospitable one.” So, they’ve got that going for them, which is nice…

Wait a minute, did that just say “planetary archons?”

A planetary archon, it appears, is a demiurge, in-between humans and God, who created and rules the world, and does a pretty bad job of it. (It’s basically the same idea as John Tierney’s recent NYT article hypothesizing that our universe is just a simulation game, like World of Warcraft, being played by some superintelligent computer geek somewhere.) The point of the Gnosis or secret knowledge is to get around the layers of bureaucracy in the middle and talk directly to God.

But now thanks to America spreading democracy to Iraq, the Gnostics are being persecuted by the Shia Muslims and are fleeing to Syria. Whether they blame their fate on America or on a planetary archon is not specified. (Better not mention this term to Bill Kristol or he’ll make it the basis of his whole political platform and worldview. The Weekly Standard will run cover stories on “America’s Destiny: Apocalypse or Planetary Archonship? We Must Choose Now!”)

Meanwhile, at GNXP, Razib chips in with “Obscure Middle Eastern religious cults – part n,” in which he unveils the million or so people in Iran who are called various names: Yarsan/Yaresan, Kakeyi, Ahl-e Haqq or Ahl-i Haqq. They believe in reincarnation.

In the comments on GNXP, tommy asks about the Shabak near Mosul, who appear to be sort of like the Yazidis, but also like kind of Muslims, except they drink alcohol and have their own sacred book, written in Turkoman. The Sunnis are beheading them in large numbers.

Are we totally sure we knew what we were getting into over there?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Byzantine, Donme, Iran, Iraq, Israel 
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Alan Greenspan’s contention that “the Iraq War is largely about oil” is reassuring in the sense that at least somebody thinks the war is about something, rather than, as it looks more and more, about nothing. But, now that details of Greenspan’s thinking have emerged in the Washington Post, the security of believing in a vast Machiavellian conspiracy of incisive strategic minds has been shattered once again:

Greenspan: Ouster Of Hussein Crucial For Oil Security

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said in an interview that the removal of Saddam Hussein had been “essential” to secure world oil supplies, a point he emphasized to the White House in private conversations before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Greenspan, who was the country’s top voice on monetary policy at the time Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, has refrained from extensive public comment on it until now, but he made the striking comment in a new memoir out today that “the Iraq War is largely about oil.” In the interview, he clarified that sentence in his 531-page book, saying that while securing global oil supplies was “not the administration’s motive,” he had presented the White House with the case for why removing Hussein was important for the global economy.

“I was not saying that that’s the administration’s motive,” Greenspan said in an interview Saturday, “I’m just saying that if somebody asked me, ‘Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?’ I would say it was essential.”

He said that in his discussions with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, “I have never heard them basically say, ‘We’ve got to protect the oil supplies of the world,’ but that would have been my motive.” Greenspan said that he made his economic argument to White House officials and that one lower-level official, whom he declined to identify, told him, “Well, unfortunately, we can’t talk about oil.” Asked if he had made his point to Cheney specifically, Greenspan said yes, then added, “I talked to everybody about that.”

Greenspan said he had backed Hussein’s ouster, either through war or covert action. “I wasn’t arguing for war per se,” he said. But “to take [Hussein] out, in my judgment, it was something important for the West to do and essential, but I never saw Plan B” — an alternative to war. …

As for Iraq, Greenspan said that at the time of the invasion, he believed, like Bush, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction “because Saddam was acting so guiltily trying to protect something.” While he was “reasonably sure he did not have an atomic weapon,” he added, “my view was that if we do nothing, eventually he would gain control of a weapon.”

His main support for Hussein’s ouster, though, was economically motivated. “If Saddam Hussein had been head of Iraq and there was no oil under those sands,” Greenspan said, “our response to him would not have been as strong as it was in the first gulf war. And the second gulf war is an extension of the first. My view is that Saddam, looking over his 30-year history, very clearly was giving evidence of moving towards controlling the Straits of Hormuz, where there are 17, 18, 19 million barrels a day” passing through.

Greenspan said disruption of even 3 to 4 million barrels a day could translate into oil prices as high as $120 a barrel — far above even the recent highs of $80 set last week — and the loss of anything more would mean “chaos” to the global economy.

Given that, “I’m saying taking Saddam out was essential,” he said. But he added that he was not implying that the war was an oil grab.

“No, no, no,” he said. Getting rid of Hussein achieved the purpose of “making certain that the existing system [of oil markets] continues to work, frankly, until we find other [energy supplies], which ultimately we will.”

Uh, I realize I wasn’t the most powerful unelected official in America for two decades like Mr. Greenspan was, and I lack his sources of inside information, but how exactly was this decade’s Saddam Hussein, with no air force and rusty tanks, going to get to the Straits of Hormuz, which would require him to fight past American military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman? A fleet of lateen-rigged dhows? A camel caravan marching for 20 waterless days across the Anvil of the Sun to attack from behind? A really long tunnel?

By the way, it always seemed strange to me that Greenspan, widely worshipped when he was an old man as the essence of wisdom, when in his prime, from his late 20s up at least through the age of 42, had been a leading acolyte in the Ayn Rand cult. Bill Bradford reported in The American Enterprise:

As I learned in hours of interviews with their associates, Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle during this entire period [the 1950s] and beyond. He lectured on economics for the Nathaniel Branden Institute. He wrote for the first issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, and when Rand broke with Branden [her 25-year younger lover], he signed a public statement condemning the traitor “irrevocably.” [Greenspan was then in his 40s.]

Randall Parker tees off on Greenspan in “Greenspan Deluded On Saddam Threat To Strait Of Hormuz,” and points out:

Greenspan is another example of a general problem we face: We are poorly led. We give our elites – especially our political elites – far too much respect and deference. These people are nowhere near as competent as they make themselves out to be. The really talented people in America are in investment banks and Silicon Valley start-ups. They aren’t in Washington DC in high government positions. Though I bet there are some smart people on K Street manipulating the yahoos in government.

We mostly are better off if the sharpest people are in venture capital-funded start-ups and investment banks. The private sector generates the wealth. But we need some small handful of sharpies in key positions of power who can recognize when nonsense is being spoken and say no to stupid policies.

For whatever it’s worth, I figured I’d repost this blog item I wrote around June 11, 2003, which ws based on some emails I exchanged with Stanley Kurtz shortly before the invasion of Iraq.:

And, oh, yeah, that stuff about Saddam being a threat to invade Kuwait again? The normally sensible Stanley Kurtz imprudently rehashes his prewar scaremongering about how Saddam couldn’t be deterred the moment — Any Day Now — when he got a nuclear bomb, or maybe a dirty bomb (which ain’t exactly the same thing). Deterrence might have worked on Joe Stalin, but Saddam was just utterly crazed, etc etc.

Obviously, Saddam hasn’t had any sort of nuclear bomb program to speak of since 1995, or some Iraqi would have told us about it by now. What, you think Iraqis have some kind of Sicilian code of omerta and every single one of the hundreds or thousands of workers is steadfastly refusing to tell the conquerors exactly what they want to hear? Yeah, that’s exactly how Arabs behave…

But even if Saddam had a nuclear bomb, the evident weakness in Kurtz’s case that Saddam was going to invade Kuwait again was overwhelmingly confirmed by the fighting south of Baghdad. In short, nuclear weapons, even if they existed, were irrelevant because his tanks would never have gotten to Kuwait. America’s absolute air superiority meant they would never have made it through the No-Fly zone before being turned to scrap. Without air superiority, tanks are worthless in open country (not that Saddam’s rust bucket tanks were worth much under any conditions). And the Iraqi regime didn’t even send up one airplane to defend itself. Nobody, rational or irrational, smart or stupid, can conquer Kuwait if they can’t physically get to Kuwait. And Saddam’s tanks couldn’t get there without first being turned into hamburger helper by our Warthogs.

Tell me, did you see anything during the three weeks war that indicated that Saddam could mount a credible invasion of anybody?

Now, you might argue that Saddam could have sat in Baghdad and threatened nuclear terrorism against NYC if we didn’t let his boys drive to Kuwait, but nuclear terrorism is a really, really stupid idea if you have a return address (e.g., Downtown Baghdad).

Of course, even in extremis, he didn’t do anything remotely like that, as the whole world has seen.

Basically, Stanley’s not describing the historical Saddam, may he be burning in hell, but Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies: “I will blow up the world unless you pay me … ONE MILLION DOLLARS!” This threat is perhaps practicable if your secret lair is a laboratory hidden in a hollowed-out volcano, but not if you own 47 palaces.

Clearly, we do need to do some game theorizing about what to do with Dr. Evil-type figures — in fact, Osama bin Laden (remember him?) is as close to a Goldfinger-type bad guy as I ever want to see — but it doesn’t do American credibility any good to say easily falsifiable things like Saddam was a major danger to invade Kuwait despite absolute air inferiority. And American credibility is a dangerous thing to waste.

Nuclear weapons are extremely useful deterrents against invasion, as we showed in the Fulda Gap for 40 years. As offensive weapons … Let’s just say that any 3rd World regime’s strategy for conquest that relies upon initiating a nuclear exchange with the Strategic Air Command is a non-starter.

It’s all very well to plan for crazed leaders acting in random fashions, but the vast proportion of bad things that have happened down through history have happened for superficially plausible reasons. So, our first priority must be to make sure we are providing the correct incentive structures for non-random actors. The problem is that we’ve just once again upped the need for regimes to acquire nuclear deterrrents to prevent American attack (as did our aggression in Yugoslavia in 1999). Our destroying the utility of weapons inspections as a viable instrument — in their very moment of triumph — is likely to encourage proliferation of nuclear or infectious biological weapons. Since not having weapons of mass destruction is no defense against the whim of the President of the United States, you’d better have them. In turn, that increases the chances of crazed leaders or Dr. Evil-types getting them.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Incompetence, Iraq 
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Here’s an excerpt from my review in the 9/24/07 issue of The American Conservative:

“In the Valley of Elah” is a modest-budget drama laden with Hollywood luminaries. Oscar-magnet screenwriter Paul Haggis (“Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby”) directs fellow Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones (“The Fugitive”), Charlize Theron (“Monster”), and Susan Sarandon (“Dead Man Walking”) in a spare, somber, and moving police procedural.

“Elah” is based on the notorious 2003 murder of Spc. Richard Davis by his fellow soldiers shortly after their unit arrived stateside from combat in Iraq. At some point after a drunken brawl outside a strip club, Davis was stabbed 32 times. His comrades-at-arms then dismembered his body, burnt it, and hid the remains in the woods.

Working from Mark Boal’s Vietnam, for his mentor Clint Eastwood, but the 77-year-old told him he has retired from acting. So Haggis turned to 61-year-old Tommy Lee Jones, who, as his formidable performance in “Elah” demonstrates, is still very much in his prime.

As a director, Haggis’s strength is that he’s not intimidated by his screenwriter’s fame. Haggis edited out an hour of his own dialogue, making “Elah” far quieter than the sometimes brilliant but showy “Crash.” Here, Haggis lets his superb cast carry the film through long silent takes.

For example, the morning after the corpse is sent to the coroner for identification, Jones is awoken by a knock on his motel room door. Outside is a soldier in full dress uniform. Having worn the same uniform to deliver the same message to other parents, the despairing father knows what’s coming. For 15 seconds he struggles to prepare himself to receive the blow in the only way he knows, willing his tired body to stand at rigid military attention.

In a brief role, Sarandon is even better than Jones. Having lost her older son to a helicopter crash in training, she asks her husband, “Couldn’t you have left me just one?” When he protests that he didn’t tell their boy to enlist, she responds that their son couldn’t have grown up in their home without feeling that he’d never be a man until he served. Jones has no answer.

I would guess that Haggis’ strength is writing from personal feelings. “Crash” was inspired by his being car-jacked in 1991 by two black criminals. And “Elah” probably had a lot to do with his having four kids. I suspect “Elah” will have a big impact on people with teenage sons, and tend to bore most everybody else.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Iraq, Movies 
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Here’s an excerpt from the second part of Michael Blowhard’s interview with Gregory Cochran:

2B: As far as Mideast policy goes, how could we do better than we do?

Cochran: I think we have little chance of running a practical Middle East policy. The political class is ignorant and / or crazy (and also lazy) and seems to enjoy being manipulated by groups whose interests are not closely aligned with those of the United States. For example, Bush Senior had Prince Bandar try to prepare Junior for the world stage. Why the hell would anyone pick a fat Saudi thief as a political science instructor? Why not someone on our side? And when Rudy has Norman Podhoretz as a foreign policy adviser — Norman who wants to invade Arab countries that haven’t even been discovered yet — well, I tremble for my country.

2B: So what’s the right general course of action for the US as the world’s premier power?

Cochran: Do little. Stay strong — although this can’t possibly require the current high level of military expenditures. If I were picking an actor to represent the right policy, it’d be Jimmy Stewart — a nice guy that you never, ever want to threaten. A mix of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Winchester ’73.”

2B: What are some basic things that you wish more Americans understood about the mid-east, and about their own government?

Cochran: 1. Iraq is a Seinfeld war — a war about nothing. 2. The Mideast isn’t that important. 3. The people running the country have no idea what they’re doing.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Gregory Cochran, Iraq 
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Here’s the ultimate graph from General Petraeus’s long-awaited testimony about Iraq, and, just looking at it, aren’t you ashamed to be an American?

I have no idea what it means (if anything), but all those little mincing stars with question marks … Christ, almighty. This guy’s a general? It’s bad enough that Powerpoint seems to be more important than winning wars in determining who gets promoted in the Pentagon these days, but if we’re going to have Powerpoint Warriors, can’t they at least put together macho Powerpoints?

Somebody should do a Powerpoint version of Patton’s speech in front of the huge American flag, like the Powerpoint version of the Gettysburg Address.

Graph via Kevin Drum.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Graphs, Iraq 
Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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