Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Settling Accounts on Iraq, in which we remember Christopher Hitchens

Long before the current situation, it became fashionable to criticize the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. I, for one, supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and continue considering it the correct decision. It is frequently and flippantly said, that if you were for the Iraq war then your opinion does not count now.  Well, I often wonder what the late, great Christopher Hitchens would be saying today.  Hitchens, of course, was that magnificent human moral compass - always pointing true north while we traversed the rough seas of radical events.  The purpose of a compass is not only to point towards a direction, but to drive the sailors of humanity towards a corrective course of action.  That is what Hitchens did for the collective conscience of the world in the matter of Iraq and the dictator Saddam Hussein.

It is important to begin any discussion of the Iraq matter (or affair, or adventure or any other frivolous title), with Hitchens.  By which I mean, of course, the matter of deposing Saddam Hussein.  In hindsight, it is clear to see that it should have been done in 1991.  It wasn't.

But those, like Hitchens, who recognized the missed opportunity, were keen to grab the next available one (be it 1998, or 2003).  The 9/11 attacks re-focused American and World attention to emerging, gathering as well as pre-existing threats to the established global order.

Yet, in the case of Saddam Hussein the vaunted International Community – in other words, the so-called grand deliberations at the UN - failed to provide the resolve (or rather, Resolution) to finally remove one of the worst actors on the international arena.  This without mentioning the despicable regime's internal actions, a reign for which the word terror is a vast understatement.

That the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq needed to be overthrown is without a doubt.  Neither is the fact that by 2003 it was well overdue.  Nor that the surest route to this eventuality rested in the hands of the overwhelming military power brought to bear by the unjustly smeared coalition of the willing, led by American might.  The case for the action was obvious to all, and endorsed by (almost) all.

But, here is where the issue of WMD, an issue that became a demagogic rhetorical punch-line to undermine the value of the mission, comes in.  So, before going on to discuss the value of the mission, I must address the issue of WMD and its role in the debate and discussion of the Iraq war, let alone its repercussions on ground realities.  I think Hitchens would approve, as it was his style to always directly face arguments contradictory to his own.

And Hitchens himself asked the question, repeatedly: were we really in a position to believe Saddam Hussein at his word that he did not possess WMD? Only a fanciful person would trust such a word.  The facts are simple - Saddam Hussein had, in the past, possessed and used WMD; he had consistently violated the inspection regime he was mandated by the UN to follow; he had sponsored global terrorism in the past; and global terror coupled with WMD remains the single largest military threat to the world.

Furthermore, today we have the knowledge that WMDs are still an important part of the battleground realities in the region (in welcome news for language buffs, and nobody else, the phrase "red-line" has made a dramatic splash in the lexicon).  There is a reason why coalition troops were equipped with gear to protect them from chemical warfare during the invasion - nobody at the time believed Iraq was free of WMD - indeed, the so-called "anti-war" faction cited it as a reason to disengage militarily.  In the face of all of this, the WMD argument given by the crudely labeled "pro-war" camp holds up over time.

What is not in dispute either is that WMD were not found in liberated Iraq.  This should have been cheerful news, as the disarming of Iraq was a central goal of the mission.  And it was cheerful, to a certain type of demagogue. When, as inevitably happens, there were setbacks in the war effort, political opportunists took no time denouncing the "war of false pretenses."

As if the monstrosity of the Saddam Hussein regime, or the policy to help a historically ravaged nation build a multi-ethnic, multi-religious constitutional democracy, were of no consequence!

Which brings us to today - a mess abounds, due in large part to an abandonment of a noble and valued mission.  Over-discussed war weariness, a deliberate and feckless political undermining of the mission and a desire for change have birthed a self-acknowledged muddled policy which has in turn squandered hard won victories and has helped produce the present chaos.

If I may make a suggestion (one which Hitchens agreed with and which I’ve made before):  "There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom." These words were enunciated by the much-maligned George W. Bush in his second inaugural address (one that is available online and whichI urge everyone to read).  The point is simple: legitimate, democratic government (with a transparent judicial system) will lead to (or rather, amounts to) civilized behavior.

This is called a world-view.  It helps shape policy and guide action.  And it is a doctrine that provides you with a compass that points true north.  So, as we began, let us end with Hitchens, from a piece published in The Weekly Standard of Sept. 5, 2005:

"If the great effort to remake Iraq as a demilitarized federal and secular democracy should fail or be defeated, I shall lose sleep for the rest of my life in reproaching myself for doing too little. But at least I shall have the comfort of not having offered, so far as I can recall, any word or deed that contributed to a defeat."

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Mental Fatigue of these Elections

The last time around I was not in India and had to only suffer internet chatter.  Reading up online I made some random predictions and accidentally got the broad thrust of the story correct.  Like many, I wanted Manmohan Singh to remain PM and was hopeful that good would come of it.  Alas, we all were wrong, and more on that below.  Suffice it to say that Manmohan Singh’s second term as PM has cast an immense shadow upon this entire election - the umbra and penumbra of years of silence.

The response, of course, has been tremendous noise - there is a “we are like that only” joke here that I do not wish to crack right now.

“The media, as expected, has been weak, shameful, shrill, excessive and unwilling and unable to mediate a grand national debate. More money has been spent on this election then ever before, and I'm not sure if the issues could have been more ill-served than they were. One thing is for sure: nobody, not the politicians, not the parties, not the media, nor (heck, I'll say it) the electorate have lived up to the grandness of the occasion.”

Well…  Just writing this is getting me depressed.

The empty, vacuous and mind-numbingly silent nature of governance during the last five years – from recession and terrorism to corruption and nepotism – has given space to the shrillest, loudest and most cynical voices in the land to vent and spout fury.

There was a flutter of hope that civil society and activism could show the way.  But imperfect men are involved – evolved into heroes in the eyes of other women and men, those heroes then made gods – we are like that only.  The men fail and the gods are slain.

And so we turn to a (old) new god – the redeemer.  Flow like the Ganga and rid this sinful world of its depredation!!

A man – artful, effective, evocative, dangerous and sly – is being presented as a hero.  His supposed attributes make him sound god-like.  His is the blowhard air that is forcefully occupying the vacuum of Indian civic conversation.

And that is where the blame lies.  No matter how this election turns out (and I write this during the later phases of voting and before the results), one thing is inescapably true.  The heirs to the Congress Party claim to stay reluctantly relevant in order to remain a bulwark against the baser tendencies of Indian politics.  Yet, the unintended consequence of their blinkered ineptitude has been the ceding of the middle ground to the very same forces they say they abhor.

About any of the things that actually matter – poverty, health, education, sanitation, infrastructure, jobs, access and opportunity – it would be criminal to support this corrupt cabal.

So, what then?

Will we see the coronation of a new demon?  How will the old ones remain relevant?  And is chaos really a ladder?

Frankly, I don’t find it fun to make predictions anymore.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wendy Doniger and "The Hindus"

In response to this article, I wrote the following on Facebook (ie. where I shouldn't be blogging, so here goes).

"I don't buy it. This is clearly a case of bullying and intimidation, fuelled primarily by insecurity and sexual prudishness, topped off by juvenile false equivalences like, "oh, you'd never write like this about Jesus or the Koran." Give me a break – the critical analyses applied to other religions by Western scholarship are there for all to see. Besides, this article is so full of factual errors, from a mis-characterization of William Jones to a childishly sanitized understanding of the Shiva Lingam and it's associated ritual practices, that I believe this writer couldn't stand toe to toe with Prof. Doniger for more than five minutes (also, I'm quite put off by the lack of respect with which these guys – and they're invariably guys – constantly refer to her as "Wendy," as if they've known her since pre-school). There's a reason this kind of ideology abhors scrutiny and free inquiry."

The only other thing I'll note is a quote from Arundhati Roy (incidentally, someone I rarely agree with) in her pained letter to Penguin publishers:

"The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning. Yes, it’s looking bad, but they are not in power. Not yet. And you’ve already succumbed?"