Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sigh. It’s David Brooks on Iraq. Then Nicholas Kristof reminds us that Darfur should be getting some attention, and Frank Rich points out the obvious about Hillary Clinton. Let’s have our dose of Bobo first, shall we?

During the summer of 1995, Edward Joseph was serving as a U.N. peacekeeper in Bosnia. He was asked to help Muslim women and children flee from an area near Srebrenica, where 7,000 Muslims had already been slaughtered by Serb forces.

It was a controversial mission. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees refused to participate, believing the evacuation would just complete the ethnic cleansing. But the high commissioner didn’t see the crowds of Muslim women shrieking in terror as Serb jeeps rolled by. Joseph did. It might seem high-minded to preach ethnic reconciliation from afar, Joseph now says, but in a civil war, when you can’t protect people, it’s immoral to leave them to be killed.

Gradually, leaders on all sides of the Bosnian fight came to see it was in their interest to separate their peoples. And once the ethnic groups were given sanctuary, it became possible to negotiate a peace that was imperfect, but which was better than the reverberating splashes of blood.

Today, many of the people active in Bosnia believe they have a model that could help stabilize Iraq. They acknowledge the many differences between the two places, but Iraq, they note, is a disintegrating nation. Ethnic cleansing is dividing Baghdad, millions are moving, thousands are dying and the future looks horrific.

The best answer, then, is soft partition: create a central government with a few key powers; reinforce strong regional governments; separate the sectarian groups as much as possible.

In practice, that means, first, modifying the Iraqi Constitution.

As Joe Biden points out, the Constitution already goes a long way toward decentralizing power. It gives the provinces the power to have their own security services, to send ambassadors to foreign countries, to join together to form regions. Decentralization is not an American imposition, it’s an Iraqi idea.

But, he adds, so far the Constitution doesn’t yet have legislation that would do things like equitably share oil and gas revenue. The Sunnis will never be content with a strip of sand unless they’re constitutionally guaranteed 20 percent of the nation’s wealth.

The second step is getting implicit consent from all sects that separation and federalism are in their interest. The Shiites would have to accept that there never will be a stable Iraq if the Sunnis are reduced to helot status. The Kurds would have to accept that peace and stability are worth territorial compromise in Kirkuk. The Sunnis would have to accept that they’re never going to run Iraq again, and having a strong Sunni region is better than living under a Shiite jackboot.

As Les Gelb says, unless the thirst for vengeance has driven the leaders in Iraq beyond the realm of reason, it should be possible to persuade them to see where their best interests lie.

The third step in a soft partition would be the relocation of peoples. This would mean using U.S. or Iraqi troops to shepherd people who want to flee toward areas where they feel safe. It would mean providing humanitarian assistance so they can get back on their feet.

As Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon note, in this kind of operation, timing is everything. Move people in a certain neighborhood too early, and militias could perceive a vacuum and accelerate the violence. Move too late and you could be moving corpses.

The fourth step is getting Iraq’s neighbors to buy into the arrangement. Presumably neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia really relishes complete chaos in Iraq and a proxy war with each other after the U.S. withdraws. The Turks would have to be reassured that this plan means no independent Kurdistan will ever come into being.

The most serious objection to soft partition is that the Sunni and Shiite populations are too intermingled in Baghdad and elsewhere to really separate. This objection, sadly, becomes less of a problem every day. But it would still be necessary to maintain peacekeepers in the mixed neighborhoods, be open to creative sovereignty structures, and hope that the detoxification of the situation nationally might reduce violence where diverse groups touch.

In short, logic, circumstances and politics are leading inexorably toward soft partition. The Bush administration has been slow to recognize its virtues because it is too dependent on the Green Zone Iraqis. The Iraqis talk about national unity but their behavior suggests they want decentralization. Sooner or later, everybody will settle on this sensible policy, having exhausted all the alternatives.

Well, that was a surprise. He must have skipped his morning dose of Kool-Aid. (But he did have to work “helot” in, didn’t he, instead of using a word that most of his readers would understand, didn't he … Dweeb.) Now here’s Nicholas Kristof on Darfur.

Over the next two days, African leaders will convene in Ethiopia and choose a new head of the African Union. Incredibly, that job may go to Sudan’s blood-drenched president, Omar al-Bashir, architect of the genocide in Darfur.

The outcome is still uncertain, with Sudan campaigning furiously for the job, but it’s mind-boggling that African countries would even consider selecting as their leader a man who has systematically dispatched militias that pick out babies on the basis of tribe and skin color and throw them into bonfires.

At a time when Africa is enjoying solid economic growth and improved leadership, this self-inflicted wound would sully Africa’s image and make it far more difficult for African Union peacekeepers to save lives in Darfur.

Mr. Bashir hasn’t confined himself to killing his own people, but has also sent his janjaweed militias to invade Chad and the Central African Republic. The janjaweed have beaten mothers with their own babies, until the infants are dead, and lately they have diversified into gouging out people’s eyes with bayonets. For anyone who wants the best for Africa, it is repulsive to think of President Bashir as the duly elected spokesman for the continent.

One reason Mr. Bashir has continued to engage in such behavior is that the world doesn’t seriously object. Almost all North African countries are backing his bid to chair the African Union. China, which supplies nearly all the AK-47s that are used to kill children in Darfur, has underwritten the genocide. Lately, it has encouraged Sudan to be more responsible, but President Hu Jintao is visiting Sudan shortly — let’s see whether he publicly expresses concern about Chinese-supported atrocities in Africa that far exceed the Rape of Nanjing.

Sudan promised a cease-fire, but instead it has been attacking aid workers. As Newsweek reported, at least four female aid workers have been beaten and sexually abused recently — raped in the case of two French women.

In addition, an aid worker in Sudan tells me that on Jan. 22 the police raided a party in the city of Nyala and arrested 22 employees of aid groups. Several were beaten and one woman was sexually abused but managed to fend off an attempted rape.

Broader security is also collapsing. On a road near Bulbul that used to be safe, gunmen stopped a public bus in the middle of the day and brutally beat the men and gang-raped the women for hours. In the face of all this, aid workers are jittery and some are pulling out.

Yet Europe is oblivious (the Davos conference here has great sessions on Africa but nothing on Darfur). President Bush has been better than most world leaders, but still pathetic: he mustered half a sentence in his State of the Union address. Perhaps this is because Mr. Bush regards the situation as tragic but hopeless, but in fact there is plenty he could do.

He could speak out forcefully about Darfur. He could bring victims to the White House for a photo op. He could help the U.N. send a force to protect Chad and the Central African Republic — while continuing to push for U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur itself. He could visit Darfur or Chad and invite European or Chinese officials to join him. He could invite African leaders to Washington for a summit meeting that would include discussion of Darfur. He could impose a no-fly zone. He could develop targeted sanctions against Sudanese leaders. He could begin forensic accounting to find assets of those leaders in Western countries. He could call on NATO and the Pentagon to prepare contingency plans in case the janjaweed start massacring the hundreds of thousands of Darfuris in camps.

And this weekend he could telephone a few African presidents to tell them what a catastrophe it would be if Africa chose Mr. Bashir as its leader.

Serious negotiations between the government and Darfur’s rebels are crucial for a lasting peace deal in Darfur, and new discussions are expected soon (that may be why President Hu dares visit Khartoum). But Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, a Sudanese human rights leader, says the new talks will fail unless the Darfur rebels have a chance to consult first. And when they try to meet, the Sudanese government bombs them.

There are countless other practical ideas for Darfur, and I’d like to hear yours. Send your suggestions to me at I’ll post some on my blog at and discuss them in a future column.

And now here’s Frank Rich, skewering Hillary.

Hillary Clinton has an answer to those who suspect that her “I’m in to win” Webcast last weekend was forced by Barack Obama’s Webcast of just four days earlier. “I wanted to do it before the president’s State of the Union,” she explained to Brian Williams on NBC, “because I wanted to draw the contrast between what we’ve seen over the last six years, and the kind of leadership and experience that I would bring to the office.”

She couldn’t have set the bar any lower. President Bush’s speech was less compelling than the Monty Python sketch playing out behind it: the unacknowledged race between Nancy Pelosi and Dick Cheney to be the first to stand up for each bipartisan ovation. (Winner: Pelosi.)

As we’ve been much reminded, the most recent presidents to face Congress in such low estate were Harry Truman in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1974, both in the last ebbs of their administrations, both mired in unpopular wars that their successors would soon end, and both eager to change the subject just as Mr. Bush did. In his ’52 State of the Union address, Truman vowed “to bring the cost of modern medical care within the reach of all the people” while Nixon, 22 years later, promised “a new system that makes high-quality health care available to every American.” Not to be outdone, Mr. Bush offered a dead-on-arrival proposal that “all our citizens have affordable and available health care.” The empty promise of a free intravenous lunch, it seems, is the last refuge of desperate war presidents.

Few Americans know more than Senator Clinton about health care, as it happens, and if 27 Americans hadn’t been killed in Iraq last weekend, voters might be in the mood to listen to her about it. But polls continue to show Iraq dwarfing every other issue as the nation’s No. 1 concern. The Democrats’ pre-eminent presidential candidate can’t escape the war any more than the president can. And so she was blindsided Tuesday night, just as Mr. Bush was, by an unexpected gate crasher, the rookie senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. Though he’s not a candidate for national office, Mr. Webb’s nine-minute Democratic response not only upstaged the president but also, in an unintended political drive-by shooting, gave Mrs. Clinton a more pointed State of the Union “contrast” than she had bargained for.

To the political consultants favored by both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bush, Mr. Webb is an amateur. More than a few Washington insiders initially wrote him off in last year’s race to unseat a star presidential prospect, the incumbent Senator George Allen. Mr. Webb is standoffish. He doesn’t care whom he offends, including in his own base. He gives the impression — as he did Tuesday night — that he just might punch out his opponent. When he had his famously testy exchange with Mr. Bush over the war at a White House reception after his victory, Beltway pooh-bahs labeled him a boor, much as they had that other interloper who refused to censor himself before the president last year, Stephen Colbert.

But this country is at a grave crossroads. It craves leadership. When Mr. Webb spoke on Tuesday, he stepped into that vacuum and, for a few minutes anyway, filled it. It’s not merely his military credentials as a Vietnam veteran and a former Navy secretary for Ronald Reagan that gave him authority, or the fact that his son, also a marine, is serving in Iraq. It was the simplicity and honesty of Mr. Webb’s message. Like Senator Obama, he was a talented professional writer before entering politics, so he could discard whatever risk-averse speech his party handed him and write his own. His exquisitely calibrated threat of Democratic pushback should Mr. Bush fail to change course on the war — “If he does not, we will be showing him the way” — continued to charge the air even as Mrs. Clinton made the post-speech rounds on the networks.

Mrs. Clinton cannot rewrite her own history on Iraq to match Mr. Obama’s early opposition to the war, or Mr. Webb’s. She was not prescient enough to see, as Mr. Webb wrote in The Washington Post back in September 2002, that “unilateral wars designed to bring about regime change and a long-term occupation should be undertaken only when a nation’s existence is clearly at stake.” But she’s hardly alone in this failing, and the point now is not that she mimic John Edwards with a prostrate apology for her vote to authorize the war. (“You don’t get do-overs in life or in politics,” she has said.) What matters to the country is what happens next. What matters is the leadership that will take us out of the fiasco.

Mr. Webb made his own proposals for ending the war, some of them anticipating those of the Iraq Study Group, while running against a popular incumbent in a reddish state. Mrs. Clinton, running for re-election in a safe seat in blue New York, settled for ratcheting up her old complaints about the war’s execution and for endorsing other senators’ calls for vaguely defined “phased redeployments.” Even now, after the Nov. 7 results confirmed that two-thirds of voters nationwide want out, she struggles to parse formulations about Iraq. This is how she explains her vote to authorize the war: “I would never have expected any president, if we knew then what we know now, to come to ask for a vote. There would not have been a vote, and I certainly would not have voted for it.” John Kerry could not have said it worse himself. No wonder last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” gave us a “Hillary” who said, “Knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it.”

Compounding this problem for Mrs. Clinton is that the theatrics of her fledgling campaign are already echoing the content: they are so overscripted and focus-group bland that they underline rather than combat the perennial criticism that she is a cautious triangulator too willing to trim convictions for political gain. Last week she conducted three online Web chats that she billed as opportunities for voters to see her “in an unfiltered way.” Surely she was kidding. Everything was filtered, from the phony living-room set to the appearance of a “campaign blogger” who wasn’t blogging to the softball questions and canned responses. Even the rare query touching on a nominally controversial topic, gay civil rights, avoided any mention of the word marriage, let alone Bill Clinton’s enactment of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

When a 14-year-old boy from Armonk, N.Y., asked Mrs. Clinton what made her “so inspirational,” it was a telltale flashback to those well-rehearsed “town-hall meetings” Mr. Bush billed as unfiltered exchanges with voters during the 2004 campaign. One of those “Ask President Bush” sessions yielded the memorable question, “Mr. President, as a child, how can I help you get votes?”

After six years of “Ask President Bush,” “Mission Accomplished” and stage sets plastered with “Plan for Victory,” Americans hunger for a presidency with some authenticity. Patently synthetic play-acting and carefully manicured sound bites like Mrs. Clinton’s look out of touch. (Mr. Obama’s bare-bones Webcast and Web site shrewdly play Google to Mrs. Clinton’s AOL.) Besides, the belief that an image can be tightly controlled in the viral media era is pure fantasy. Just ask the former Virginia senator, Mr. Allen, whose past prowess as a disciplined, image-conscious politician proved worthless once the Webb campaign posted on YouTube a grainy but authentic video capturing him in an embarrassing off-script public moment.

The image that Mrs. Clinton wants to sell is summed up by her frequent invocationof the word middle, as in “I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America.” She’s not left or right, you see, but exactly in the center where everyone feels safe. But as the fierce war critic Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, argues in a must-read interview at, the war is “starting to redefine the political landscape” and scramble the old party labels. Like Mrs. Clinton, the middle-American Mr. Hagel voted to authorize the Iraq war, but that has not impeded his leadership in questioning it ever since.

The issue raised by the tragedy of Iraq is not who’s on the left or the right, but who is in front and who is behind. Mrs. Clinton has always been a follower of public opinion on the war, not a leader. Now events are outrunning her. Support for the war both in the polls and among Republicans in Congress is plummeting faster than she can recalibrate her rhetoric; unreliable Iraqi troops are already proving no-shows in the new Iraqi-American “joint patrols” of Baghdad; the Congressional showdown over fresh appropriations for Iraq is just weeks away.

This, in other words, is a moment of crisis in our history and there will be no do-overs. Should Mrs. Clinton actually seek unfiltered exposure to voters, she will learn that they are anxiously waiting to see just who in Washington is brave enough to act.


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