Back to Business as Usual

Thank [your deity here], we’re done with the Iraq vote. Now we can back to the really important stuff: The 9 a.m. (Pacific) CBS radio news led with Michael Jackson arriving at the courthouse as jury selection began for his trial on child-molestation charges. In the correspondent’s breathless report, you could hear the throngs screaming in the background.

In San Francisco, meantime, people actually protested the Iraq vote and, I guess, the way it’s being portrayed. It’s all well and good to point out all the conditions that made the event less than the dawn of full-fledged democracy in Iraq: martial law, the heavy military presence, the polling places that didn’t open, et cetera. But it’s a losing proposition, in PR and human terms, to demonstrate against the vote. Regardless of all the flaws, regardless of the long-term meaning, regardless of our government’s untruths in leading us into the war and its calamitously misguided actions in conducting it, when given the opportunity, a group of people who have suffered a degree of oppression we glimpse only in nightmares got a chance to change their future and jumped at it (one view of the event from The New York Times’s John Burns; and another from Salon, hardly a friend of the Iraq project). In my mind, that’s something to be celebrated, no matter how angry I happen to be about what has led us to this point and how much doubt I entertain about the future course of events there.

And in Iraq today, things are going back to business as usual, too. The insurgency is still on. Several U.S. troops have been killed in combat. I’m sure that soon it will be apparent that, in terms of creating a new government and new political reality in Iraq, yesterday was the easy part.

New Words

Fisk (or fisking). I had never seen this word before, then last week, bam, two or three times in a couple of days. In this post, for instance. It turns out to have its own entry in the Wikipedia. The word sprang from right-wing bloggers who rushed to whack British reporter Robert Fisk for displaying left-wing tendencies in his work. It’s expanded now to encompass any long and detailed (or tiresome and tendentious) rebuttal to another journalist’s or blogger’s long and detailed (or tiresome and tendentious) argument.

Emo. According to some online resources, I’m about 20 years late picking up on this one. Nevertheless, I only heard this word for the first time about three months ago, when The Resident Teen was filling us in on a musical genre he had recently become enamored of. As you might guess, emo has something to do with the word “emotion”; the word encompasses lyrics full of personal reflection (one exhibit: Elliott Smith; I’m especially enamored of his song “Independence Day,” which I think you need to hear to appreciate), an attitude, and a lifestyle. Here’s a semi-scholarly take on it, as well as a more-than-semi-snotty one. Next: Brace yourself for screamo.

Thug. You’re probably thinking this is a violent, threatening person in the mold of bad Iraqis, street toughs, or Rep. Tom DeLay. You’d be right, but you’d be wrong. Thug in the new sense is a term of approbation for anyone who shows an extreme degree of nerve, skill, strength, or courage (or, for extra points, all of the above). A recent example of this kind of thuggery on Fox’s “24”: Agent Jack Bauer goes into a terrorist stronghold, alone against 16 “hostiles,” to rescue his woman (and her dad, who happens to be the secretary of defense). Jack and Mr. Secretary wipe out most of the evildoers, leaving just a few to be mopped up by late-arriving Marines. That makes them co-thugs. But Jack was really the main thug. Another example: Lance Armstrong was a thug on every mountain stage of last year’s Tour de France. He was mad thuggin’ — whoops, I’m losing control — on the 17th stage, when he rode down one of his opponents in the final kilometer and charged past him at the line.

Election Takes

The most interesting read I see out there right now is a collection of voting day accounts posted on the BBC’s site. They’re just short takes on the scene from both Iraqis who voted and at least one who stayed away from the polls. Elsewhere:

The New York Times — criticized always from the right as the bible of leftist traitors and from the left as a cryptofascist propaganda mill — paints a striking portrait of the election scene in Baghdad:

“If the insurgents wanted to stop people in Baghdad from voting, they failed. If they wanted to cause chaos, they failed. The voters were completely defiant, and there was a feeling that the people of Baghdad, showing a new, positive attitude, had turned a corner.

“No one was claiming that the insurgency was over or that the deadly attacks would end. But the atmosphere in this usually grim capital, a city at war and an ethnic microcosm of the country, had changed, with people dressed in their finest clothes to go to the polls in what was generally a convivial mood.”

The Washington Post’s exhaustively reported mainbar is much more restrained, noting the nearly festive atmosphere around some Baghdad polling places and a muted response to the vote elsewhere in the country:

“In Najaf, the Shiite holy city that embodies Shiite Muslim hopes for the elections, a light early turnout meant several dozen people at one station in the first hour. Among the first out was Najaha Hassan Rahadi, 58, who broke into tears when asked why she was voting.

” ‘Six of my brothers were executed, and I spent two years in jail’ under Saddam Hussein, she said from her wheelchair. ‘I want to elect a government that represents me.’ ”

“In Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Iraqi National Guard assumed the role of election workers inside one school, as more than 100 U.S. forces took up positions outside. Loudspeakers mounted on Humvees urged people to come and vote, but the streets were empty of all but soldiers.”

Now They Vote

You’d have to have a very hard heart not to be moved at least a little by the pictures of Iraqis going to the polls; going to the polls, moreover, with little idea what their votes will bring; just clear that whatever happens, it’s different from the past.

As to what the vote means, let’s wait a while and see. I’m amused/bemused to read Andrew Sullivan, who on Friday asked how we might judge the vote’s "success."

The amusement/bemusement is twofold. First, Sullivan throws out a set of blind metrics in his post: He suggests "over 50 percent turnout among the Shia and Kurds, and over 30 percent turnout for the Sunnis. No massive disruption of voting places; no theft of ballots. Fewer than 500 murdered." (I find that death figure appalling and outrageous on so many levels it’s hard to sit still and sort them out. Yes, that will be a great success if you’re not one of the 499 or one of their daughters, sons, wives, husbands, mothers or fathers. And: What’s 500 more lives on top of the tens of thousands spent already? And: The nerve of us Yanks, whether we support this war or not, to talk about these lives so casually).

But the thing that really kills me about Sullivan’s success metrics is the way they bounce around. Last week, Chris Matthew asked him to define success, and he said, "Success is 80 percent turnout in–in most of the regions, extremely enthusiastic voting among the Kurds and the Shias, and better than expected among the Sunnis." And today, after letting reality, or whatever it is, sink in a little, he offered this: "My revised criteria: 45 percent turnout for Kurds and Shia, 25 percent turnout for the Sunnis, under 200 murdered. No immediate call for U.S. withdrawal. Reasonable?"

No, not reasonable. But not because the numbers are off. Because they’re a sort of game we’ve all gotten used to watching the media and our leaders play. That game is both a cause and a symptom of the trouble we’re having understanding what’s happening in Iraq (and much of the rest of the world, including the United States, but that’s another post for another time). We’re so impatient for results that we have to know even before we’ve covered over the seed whether it’s growing yet.

When the media plays this way, it’s a game that’s nearly childish in its antsiness to be first to say what it all means. That’s a trait that leads to quick acceptance of announcements like "Iraq’s about to unleash weapons of mass destruction on the United States" or "the Iraqis will love us when we get there" to "major combat is over." Let’s just have a decent respect, for once, what we don’t know about all the dimensions of Iraqi reality and admit that some percentage figure won’t tell you a thing, by itself, about where this is all headed.

Of course, I do have my own opinion. I can’t imagine this working. I just don’t see how an alien power, especially one with as little credibility as we appear to have among Muslims in the Mideast, can both violently overthrow a government and impose a democratic replacement (much less one capable of creating the oasis of stability that Bush talks about).

Day in Review


Morning. Cloudy. Then Rain. Then clear and sunny. Into the afternoon. More clouds. Sun. Then rain. And hail. And hail again as the sun sank in the west. In the east, an arch between us and the hills.

‘Exciting Times’ in Baghdad

As noted yesterday, Bush (countdown: 1,453 days) summed up the situation in Iraq going into the weekend of the vote this way: “It’s exciting times for the Iraqi people.”

The New York Times today carries a story from John Burns in Baghdad that captures the sense of excitement:

“… Daily life here has become a deadly lottery, a place so fraught with danger that one senior American military officer acknowledged at a briefing last month that nowhere in the area assigned to his troops could be considered safe.

‘I would definitely say it’s enemy territory,’ said Col. Stephen R. Lanza, the commander of the Fifth Brigade Combat Team, a unit of the First Cavalry Division that is responsible for patrolling a wide area of southern Baghdad with a population of 1.3 million people.

“In the week that ended Sunday, according to figures kept by Western security companies with access to data compiled by the American command, Baghdad was hit by 7 suicide car bombings, 37 roadside bombs and 52 insurgent attacks involving automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades. The suicide bombs alone killed at least 60 people and injured 150 others.”

’24’ vs. Reality

The plot line on “24” has made it through its big early twist and is now dealing with the real business at hand. First, an Islamic terrorist group kidnapped the secretary of defense to subject him to a show trial for war crimes; the plan was to execute him live on the Internet. But once and future Counterterrorism Unit station chief Jack Bauer (CTU is like a combo of the FBI and CIA and NSA, except more fashion-conscious, futuristic, and failure-prone than all of the real-life agencies put together) figured out what was going on and terminated the bad Muslims’ plans with extreme prejudice. As the gunplay unfolded and Marine recon forces arrived to mop up, it was clear that everything had all gone a little too easily. Plus, the season still has about 18 episodes to run. So the whole secretary of defense thing was a diversion from the real terrorist scheme. Within minutes, the scriptwriters revealed the real plot: The bad Muslims had figured out a way to take over every nuclear power plant in the United States, more than 100 of them, and cause core meltdowns across the country. Scary!

OK: That’s “24.” Here’s “reality”: Security Focus, a good source on network security issues, ran a story the other day talking about a new initiative from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement new safeguards against computer intruders. Just an interesting coincidence. People are talking about it on Slashdot.

Killed In Iraq Today

Thirty-seven U.S. troops. The report at is stark and telling.

Among Iraqis, dozens more killed and wounded. A daily occurrence.

Four days until the vote. Bush: “It’s exciting times for the Iraqi people.”

I Agree with Bush!

I agree with Bush! And on any subject other than the danger of swallowing pretzels whole, I think that statement demands an exclamation point. During his press conference today, he said Iraq’s insurgents (he called them terrorists “do not have the best interests of the Iraqi people in mind. They have no positive agenda. They have no clear view of a better future. They’re afraid of a free society.”

I agree with part of this, anyway. Beyond wanting to thwart the will of Bush and the United States no matter what, beyond wanting to force the occupiers out, I don’t really get what the insurgents’ political program is. But that’s enough to keep them going. On the other hand — “having the best interests of the Iraqi people in mind” — that’s another breathtaking Bush conceit. As if he launched the war with the best interest of Iraqis (beyond Ahmad Chalabi) in mind. As if they were given a choice. And now that their country has been torn to pieces for their own good, what a choice we’ve given them. On one side, the insurgents. And on the other, a government that’s a sort of alien life form planted in the desert, one that owes its existence entirely to external life support (our cost, for 2005 alone, $105 billion).