Sep 07 3 2007

Babylon By Bus

by Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann

The authors are two young men who make their living selling YANKEES SUCK t-shirts on the street outside Fenway Park. They like to travel. In 2003, they decide to travel to Baghdad, and somehow find themselves running a small office providing liason between the CPA and non-governmental organizations. They have few or no qualifications for their job, and so they fit right in to the rest of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

It lasts for several months of hard drinking, hard partying, and somewhat effective distribution of cartons of used clothing. Indeed, their efforts to actually truck the cartons to Sadr City and get it into the hands of kids, and not politicians or scam artists or mosques, is one of the success stories of the occupation. They cope with all the usual enemies, and fly under the radar of “the Bremer youth” — the endless stream of inexperienced Young Republicans dispatched through the Heritage Foundation to administer Iraq. But it was a minor and ineffective gesture, and Lemoine and Neumann will be the first to admit.

There is no point in romanticizing what we did. We thought we were helping Iraqis. We were wrong. Because of our failure, we'd leave the Middle East in a state of regret. But our story does offer a window into the misguided ideals and rank ignorance that drove us.

A fine and (now) seemingly-inevitable epitaph for the entire American effort in Iraq.

Aug 07 28 2007

Four Freedoms

Driving back from Rochester, we stopped in Stockbridge at the Norman Rockwell Museum. They have a small room there, devoted to his paintings of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.

Freedom of speech.

Freedom of worship.

Freedom from want.

Freedom from fear.

I remember when Rockwell was trite, when these paintings were safe, homespun homilies. But that time now seems as distant as do Rockwell's country grandmothers bringing out the huge roasted turkey to the Thanksgiving family table.

Rockwell didn't like his Freedom from Fear much. He thought it was too obvious and, at the same time, too forced — sleeping kids, protected parents, the assurance that the grim headlines of bombing and terror reported terrible events overseas. Nowadays, of course, our government clearly wants us to be afraid: quiet, complacent, and frightened.

Homeland security.

Four Freedoms

Update: Peter Merholz sends this WPA-sponsored mural from San Francisco's Rincon Center.

Four Freedoms

Painted by Anton Refrigier, the mural provoked the Trial of the Rincon Annex Murals when Republicans denounced the work as an attempt to convert post office patrons to communism.

by Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, an ex-foreign service officer turned travel writer, was called back into Her Majesty’s service in 2003 to serve as Deputy Governor of Iraq’s Maysan province. He candidly confesses to all his lack of qualifications for the job, and then pitches in with enthusiasm, good will, and guarded optimism, seeking to do what he can to improve Iraq and to hand a better province back to Iraqi government. This is the tale of the Green Zone years from outside; Stewart works with Iraqis while his masters deal in theories and PowerPoint presentations, and Stewart faces bullets and grenades while headquarters accepts daft Italian reports that everything is quiet.

by George Packer

A brilliant historical study of America's adventure in Iraq.

If Chandrasekaran is the definitive picture of the Occupation’s antic spirit and Ricks' Fiasco the comprehensive tale of its unravelling, Packer is its chronicle of ideas, its intellectual history. Even those who follow the news — perhaps especially those who follow the news — may be astonished by the notion that the Bush administration could possibly possess an intellectual history. Yet ideas there were, bright and beautiful ideas, and for a time they seemed sensible and just and — possibly — achievable. Packer himself found aspects of the neoconservative argument attractive. Could Iraq have been rescued from tyranny and turned into a liberal, secular democracy? Could peace and justice have prevailed?

Packer examines the best pre-war writing and thinking about Iraq, draws out the key ideas, and shows how they influenced they key actors among the administration, the CPA, and the Exiles. He reaches easily for pioneering voices, T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, as well as Kanan Makiya and Paul Wolfowitz, and shows that the central urge behind the invasion was the desire to get it right this time — not merely responding to the first, incomplete Gulf War but also in to the Vietnam War’s apparent failure to "finish the job" and also to World War II’s haunting reminder that a delayed liberation will come too late for the victims.

In the end, Packer blames both the incompetence of the administration, the Occupation’s absurd mixture of wastefulness and cheeseparing, and the intractability (and feebleness) of the idea of Iraq itself for the grotesque and tragic failure of the American adventure.

The intellectual history of the Bush war will soon seem an oxymoron. Read this book now, and absorb its lessons while the players remain on the stage; soon, the buffoonery of the Bush crew will be so dominant in imagination that the lessons of Iraq will be hard to recover.

The Baghdad Book Industry, with its market in Mutanabbi Street, was once the center of Western civilization and an essential link to the memory of the Greek and Roman technical achievement.

The street runs between the Tigris river and al-Rashid Street, now shabby and decayed but once the commercial heart of Baghdad. The bookshops are small and open all the time, on Fridays there is a market, when vendors lay out their books in Arabic and English on mats on the dusty and broken surface of the road, which is closed to traffic. Most books are second-hand. — Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation

Today, in a story that didn't make the Boston Globe, Mutanabi street is in flames.

As firemen doused the flames which reached up to the third storey of some buildings, papers and book pages fluttered on the ground, some blackened, others bloody.

Colin Powell’s famous PowerPoint presentation to the UN Security Council included this slide (from Gregory Pece's MA thesis, The PowerPoint Society)

Who is this scientist?

Who is the scientist in the picture?

We now know that this slide’s argument was based almost completely on source Curveball, a purported defector who was actually a disinformation agent of Ahmed Chalabi’s exile group. Powell thought this was a sound source at the time, backed by other sources, but all the information turned out to be planted and almost all traced back to Curveball.

But surely this isn’t a picture of Curveball himself: you aren't going to take a highly secret source on whom so much depends and literally broadcast his photo on television. But I assume it’s not just a picture of a nice man with books, lifted from Corbis or Getty or .

But what could it be? Either it’s a confidential source — an ex-Iraqi nuclear scientist — or it’s not. If it’s a source, why are we telling everybody? If it’s a stock photo, what is it doing on the slide?

I bet this can be found out — and the method for finding out will itself be an interesting new media question. Got an idea? Email me.

"Update: The scientist in the picture is physicist Faleh Hassan, whose house was searched by UN weapons inspectors in 2003. BBC. 'Mr Hassan insists [the papers] are part of his private research and from doctoral theses of his students at Baghdad University.' I wonder how things go with him now. Winning strategy: Ken Tompkins found a similar PowerPoint deck online at the US Embassy to Thailand, which credits the photo to Reuters. That suggests the subject must have been covered in the news, and a Google Image Seach for iraq scientist nuclear papers home yields the name and Image search for Faleh Hassan gets plenty of pictures."

Feb 07 22 2007


by Thomas E. Ricks

The definitive early history of the Americans in Iraq. Fiasco lacks the richly circumstantial, lyrical detail of Imperial Life in the Emerald City and the intellectual depth of Packer's The Assassins’ Gate, but for comprehensive historical narrative — who was there, what they wanted to do, and what went wrong — Ricks is superb.

Feb 07 18 2007

Thin Reed

Conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center show the government's deep concern for the American soldier. Dana Priest and Anne Hull report in the Washington Post:

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Halliburton announced its dividend.

Feb 07 15 2007

Electric News

How much electricity is available these days in Baghdad? How about Najaf, or Samarra, or Basra?

It's clear that security matters a lot, but it's also clear that the disappearance of electricity played a very significant rôle in turning many Iraqis against the Occupation. Unlike security questions, moreover, electricity is easy to measure. Is the power on? Does it stay on? Do the elevators and the street lights and the refrigerators function properly? Or not?

I read a lot of news about Iraq every day, including at least one dedicated weblog, and I really have no idea what the power situation is right now, or what (if anything) is being done or planned.

Update: Brookings publishes a Iraq Indicators Index, updated every Monday and Thursday, which includes electricity statistics. Thanks, Mark Paul.

Feb 07 9 2007


I'm interested, as you know, in tools that help people gather and organize and understand lots of information. Tools like Tinderbox, of course, but other tools too. Even PowerPoint and BBEdit and Word.

In the last few years, a lot of people from the US have been doing a lot gathering and organizing and understanding in Iraq. Not always successfully, obviously. But there's been a lot of work. I'd like to know more about it. Not the top-level politics, but the details of policy and administration and planning and intelligence. What tools were used? How well did they work? Could better tools have helped?

If you know about this — whether from working in the Green Zone or from studying it or reporting on it — I'd like to hear from you. Email me. or call me, OK?

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

In her final column, Molly Ivins urged readers to resist the proposed escalation in Iraq and singled out this fine volume as a key lesson.

Anyone who wants to talk knowledgably about our Iraq misadventure should pick up Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." It's like reading a horror novel. You just want to put your face down and moan: How could we have let this happen? How could we have been so stupid?

Chandrasekaran builds this fine study from casually interlinked snippets and scenes of life in the Green Zone of occupied Iraq. He talks with Garner and Bremer , with earnest young Republicans who volunteered to show Iraq the way, with neocon administrators and Halliburton contractors and injured soldiers. He talks with translators and power engineers. He lets the fools condemn themselves.

Ideologues and hacks rushed into Iraq without a clue and without a plan, save for grand visions and insatiable greed. Billions of dollars vanished into the desert night — two billion dollars in US currency, flown in from New York just six days before then end of occupation, seem to have vanished without a trace. While contractors trucked in gasoline from Kuwait and Fruit Loops from Battle Creek, nobody paid nearly enough attention to the fact that the power was still out, the lines at the gas stations were miles long, and the police were unable or unwilling to protect anyone or to enforce any law. Through it all, the press conferences continued to recite tales of progress in Iraq and to deplore media negativity, while the occupation authorities lined up their next job with the Bush reelection campaign or with Republican lobbyists and think tanks.

Chandrasekaran is convinced they meant well and did what they could. But they knew very little, and they thought they knew everything, and no one gave nearly enough thought to what might go wrong, not even after things had gone to hell.

In the New York Review Of Books, Mark Danner offers a wonderfully-written, lyrical examination of Iraq: The War Of The Imagination. His starting point is an interview with an energetic, young, American expert on the eve of the constitutional ratification vote — a vote, the expert assured Danner, that would attract considerable support even in Sunni Anbar province.

And I thought of his words again several days later when it was confirmed that in Anbar province—where the most knowledgeable, experienced, indefatigable American had confided to me what he had plainly ardently believed, that on the critical vote on the constitution 'a great many people would vote yes'—that in Anbar ninety-seven out of every hundred Iraqis who voted had voted no. With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.

The Bush Administration imagined a successful war in Iraq that would transform the Middle East, and apparently assumed that simply imagining a good outcome would suffice.

USMC Ssgt Daniel Brown, returning from eight months in Iraq, was found to have gunpowder residue on his boots by airport sniffers. Now, he's on the terrorist watch list. via Talk Left 

At least they don't have guys in jungle camouflage standing around with automatic weapons anymore. Just what were they planning to do with those machine guns, anyway? Think about it.

Feb 06 26 2006


Juan Cole reports that the shrine of Salman the Persian was destroyed yesterday, after guerillas killed the guards, placed explosives, and detonated them.

Google News has reports that guerillas fired two rockets at the tomb, which was not much harmed. Most of these reports seem to be derived from a press conference.

The shrine is 20 miles southeast of Baghdad. You'd think that someone could check to see if the shrine is still there, or not. Can the US forces not manage to project power 20 miles outside the Green Zone?

Sep 05 3 2005

What Ended

What ended this week in New Orleans was not a city. The city will be rebuilt.

What ended this week was not dream. Martin's dream still lives -- not least in the outrage expressed throughout the country, from the redneck forests to the Berkeley waters, over the shabby negligence with which the victims of storm and flood were treated. And the big dream's still there, too. Somewhere in the Astrodome tonight, there's a little boy or girl who is tired and hungry and frightened, and who will grow up to be president. You can bet on it.

What ended this week was not a war, though its destined end in ignominy and failure is now assured. What ended this week a was not a presidency, though Katrina made George W. Bush, overnight, a lame duck.

What ended this week is the illusion that words can substitute for real work and real knowledge. This was the last, spectacular failure of the internet bubble, the final burnout of paper businesses that had no business and paper politicians who had no cause and paper experts whose expertise lay in their bogus credentials or in the wealth of their pals.

We'll know the details in time. We'll have years of investigations. We already know the answer. We filled key roles at the top with lawyers and promoters and press agents and cronies, and when we needed them to do their job, they held press conferences instead.

And we filled key roles on the line -- police and fire and public safety -- with too many people who weren't up to the job, or whose leaders weren't up to the job. Frightened by snipers and rumors, they sacrificed the lives of men and women and children in danger, lives entrusted to them, to save their own. They turned in their badges or grounded their choppers. Their duty was hard; they did not do it.

What ended, too, was the illusion that history is over, and the academic illusion that whatever clever argument we can make is equally good. In the last decade, arguing specious positions has been a route to funding and fame. You could argue that we didn't need better flood control in New Orleans. People did argue it -- just like they argue still for teaching intelligent design to our kids, just like they argue that global warming needs more study, that maybe the environment will take care of itself.

That's what ended. We know, now, that sometimes we need experts in jobs that require expertise. We need scholars in jobs that require scholarship. In jobs that require doing your job -- even in the face of discomfort and danger -- we need people on whom we can depend.

Most of all, we need to take responsibility to weigh the evidence, decide, and bear the weight of decision. No excuses. No press conference. No spin, because there is no need for spin.

What ended is the illusion that we can believe anything, however absurd, and make it true by insisting on it, by believing that such a nice man or such a committed woman will do a great job at FEMA or wherever. Or, if not a great job, one we can call "great".

"Troops from the US-led force in Iraq have caused widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, according to a damning report released today by the British Museum." -- The Guardian

Archaeological relics were used to fill sandbags, according to a British Museum report (Word doc).

Nov 04 1 2004

One day more

One day more

One more dawn
One more day
One day more!

This weblog is in a blue state. Not the state of Massachusetts, though that's a blue state. I guess I'm blue, too, though -- since I think we're going to win -- I can't say that I have the blues.

I'm certainly in a state, as my mother used to say. I'm checking Josh and Atrios and DailyKos every hour.

We're going to win, but it's going to be hard.

Or, as I said yesterday:

But these are the times that try men's souls, and right now we're either witnessing the liberation of a great nation or the foundation of a great resistance movement that will -- no doubt after struggle and sacrifice -- defeat ignorance, superstition, and greed to free that nation and rescue the world.

Remember: vote. If you're not American, write your American friends and tell them what you think.

The Republicans, it seems, are going to try to make it hard for lots of people to vote. One strategy will be to tie up the polls in battleground cities, slowing things down so it may take hours to vote. Be prepared: if this is happening to your precinct, take some time out yourself to help. Bring donuts. Play with the kids. Run errands. Whatever it takes to let people vote.

Reaction and Relevant: Diane Greco (I should have writer's block like this) . JumpingFish thinks this is a "remarkably hopeful" note. Barlow observes that we're not that far from the Second American Civil War. When I first said this to my niece, two years back, everyone thought I was nuts. That's what they said in 1858, too. Alwin reminds us that Oregon is sensible.

Update: Kerry crowd picks up "One More Day" at final rally in Detroit.

Christopher Allbritton writes this morning from his hotel in Baghdad.

After yesterday’s dual attacks in the Green Zone, the center of power in Iraq is locked down, meaning no one gets in or out without a special pass. But to get that pass, one has to go into the Zone to get it, so it’s a bit of a catch-22. Bother.

And since it’s Friday and the start of Ramadan and the Green Zone is locked down and it’s too dangerous to go out and just roam around looking for stories, there’s not a lot I can do today other than make a few phone calls.

This is the reality of journalism in Iraq — at least if you’re Western. And since we’ve been under a semi-lockdown of our own since I got back because of Paul Taggart’s abduction, I haven’t even had a chance to get my legs back under me and find new stories to work on. The ones I have started reporting require access to the government or the embassy, which are closed and … oh, you know the rest.

Aren't you glad the President reassured us this week that so many good things are happening in Iraq? The complete disconnect between what is, apparently, really happening, and what almost half the country apparently thinks is happening, is truly frightening. Not just Iraq -- taxes, economics, science policy, environmental policy. Orwell in spades.

A chilling account of a recent talk by the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, describes a phone call he received from a first lieutenant in Iraq. The lieutenant's platoon had been stationed outside a quite agricultural town for some time, near a granary. The granary owner had hired a bunch of guys to protect the grain; the soldiers and the guards got to know each other.

They were a couple weeks together, they knew each other. So orders came down from the generals in Baghdad, we want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And as he told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, stop. And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts. And he's hysterical. He's totally hysterical. And he went to the captain. He was a lieutenant, he went to the company captain. And the company captain said, 'No, you don't understand. That's a kill. We got thirty-six insurgents.'
You know what I told him? I said, fella, I said: you've complained to the captain. He knows you think they committed murder. Your troops know their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Just shut up. Get through your tour and just shut up. You're going to get a bullet in the back. You don't need that. And that's where we are with this war.

More details from UC Berkeley, where the talk was delivered.

Apr 04 18 2004

Gates of Hell

Empire Notes reports daily from Baghdad. Impressive writing:

I don't know much about this site — it might be disinformation, it might be polemic. The author is certainly bitter. But it appears to be a detailed account to daily life in Baghdad and Fallujah. Empire Notes.

Dec 03 4 2003

Why Porn Matters

My niece told me, over breakfast, that "they" shouldn't permit TV stations to broadcast today's shows. The Justice Department won't bring people in Guantanamo to trial, because telling them what we think they did might inform hypothetical terrorists about what we know. Downstairs, one of the lawyers urged me to stop complaining about detentions, and the FBI's new power to secretly review your library records and online purchases; if I keep complaining, she warned, I'll wind up on a list.

Is someone in Washington channeling Orwell?

When I wrote, "it's your choice: support the Democrats in '04 or the Resistance in '06", I didn't think I was being quite this literal.

The Web world is thinking a lot about porn lately, what with Peter Merholz's endorsement of Greencine and Nick Denton's monetization move, Fleshbot.

Right now, “Porn” is what the industry calls films that don't get an R rating. Blockbuster won't let you rent them, newspapers won't advertise them, theaters won't show them. So, if a movie won't get an R rating, it usually won't get made.

It might be nice to restore 'pornographic' to its art-historical meaning -- imagery that's merely about the beauty of the flesh. I suppose that's a lost cause.

The current movie rating system is pernicious, because sometimes you'd like to make a movie that really is for grownups, that talks about things you don't want to discuss around the children. And, today, you can't.

Ratings are dangerous, too, because the people who hand out R ratings do it without rules or reason or accountability. Lately, for example, I've heard that they won't pass anything that suggests females under 21 can have orgasms. What's going to happen to us when a film can't get an R rating (and so you can't see it in theaters or on TV or rent it from Blockbuster, even if it somehow gets made) because it talks about secret American prison camps? Or portrays the American military in an unflattering light? Or advocates a criminal act, like taking a drug the FDA hasn't approved -- perhaps a contraceptive or a cancer treatment that some influential lobby dislikes?

What's to stop them?

Sep 03 16 2003

Tekka: Iraq

One article you do not want to miss in Tekka is the second part of Mark Meadows' report from post-war Baghdad, Loot.

I would have liked to have been in Baghdad when the museum was looted.

Tekka also has a very interesting note on Iranian weblogs: Blogs Make Them Feel Free, by Hossein Derakhshan .

It's started: the Republican leadership has just about accused Tom Daschle of treason, claiming that criticizing the Bush's diplomatic failures comes close to lending aid and comfort to the enemy. (from Talking Points Memo)

A New Jersey resident visiting Seattle bought some witty anti-war protest signs and packed them in his suitcase. Seth Goldberg was astonished when, breaking the airport security seals to unpack his checked luggage, he found a note that Federal baggage inspectors had placed inside his luggage, saying that they did not appreciate his anti-American attitude.

Remember: support the Democrats in 2004, or the Resistance in 2006. Your choice.

Brady Kiesling, a career US diplomat and an old college friend, just resigned from the US Foreign Service. (Google News) Brady's letter of resignation to Colin Powell said that "Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offence and defence since the days of Woodrow Wilson,"