“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Bollettino

(seventh in series)

The form of our government, which gives every man, that has leisure, or curiosity, or vanity, the right of inquiring into the propriety of publick measures, and, by consequence, obliges those who are intrusted with the administration of national affairs, to give an account of their conduct to almost every man who demands it, may be reasonably imagined to have occasioned innumerable pamphlets, which would never have appeared under arbitrary governments, where every man lulls himself in
indolence under calamities, of which he cannot promote the redress, or thinks it prudent to conceal the uneasiness, of which he cannot complain without danger. – Samuel Johnson

2. The Kurds

Pity the peoples that encountered a superpower during the Cold War. From the Hmong to the Misquito, such encounters resulted in the socially dissolving shock of gung ho activists organizing military activity at the expense of undermining tradition; a phase of activity usually ending in some rout that, for realpolitik reasons, had to be either countenanced or suppressed by the host power. It was one thing for nineteenth century Victorians to wipe out the Tasmanians; twentieth century Americans, armed with liberal ideals, did quite as much trying to wipe out Communism, an ideology premised on abolishing a capitalism that was little more than a dream to the tribe; while twentieth century communists, with the gospel of Marx, and its scorn for rural idiocy, to support them, could operate on a scale of inhumanity that would have made Pizzaro blush.

Among these unfortunates, the Kurds have figured largely in the American liberal conscience. Among Kissinger’s most brutal ideas was to use the Kurds as a shock force against what he considered the Soviet proxy in the Middle East – Iraq. In agreement with the Shah of Iran, between 72 and 75 a rebellion by Mustafa Barzani was covertly backed against Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. One of the ironies of the situation was, of course, that our two co-conspirators of the time, Israel and Iran, had no use or sympathy themselves for the Kurds. Barzani had actually wrung concessions from Saddam’s government for the Kurds that far outdid what was allowed to Iranian or Turkish Kurds. In 1975, the Shah made peace with Saddam, the price of which was paid by waves of massacre in Northern Iraq. The oppression increased during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, but the news of Kurds being gassed did not penetrate the policy being designed by the Reagan administration, which allowed Saddam’s regime billions in credits and shared intelligence with Saddam’s military. There’s an interesting and in some way counter-argument to the orthodox version of this made here, by the way. And Kissinger’s defense is excerpted here.

Peter Galbraith (who LI has interviewed, and who came across as an immensely likeable man), was an investigator for the Senate who went to Northern Iraq in the late eighties, saw the devastation being visited upon the Kurds, and became, in that moment, the Kurd’s great advocate in Washington. He wrote the first bill that sanctioned Iraq – only to see it shot down by the Reagan administration. The liberal hawks last year were surely moved, in great part, by the memory of Saddam’s genocide of the Kurds, and that narrative was moved and originally shaped in D.C. by Galbraith.

However, the oppression of the Kurds shouldn’t obscure the salient fact, in the history of Northern Iraq, that the struggle for Kurdish independence has never been a struggle for democracy. Since liberals like their romantic national struggles to be all of a piece, this fact has tended to get lost in the shuffle, and it remains irretrievable to a media that suffers, when it comes to foreign parts, from a sad case of chronic short term memory loss. Galbraith’s NYRB article about getting out of Iraq, which has caused a large stir, weaves about certain lacuna with a master laceworker’s skill. To make this point, Galbraith wittingly skips over the history of Northern Iraq in the 90s. Let’s quote, for the sake of abridgement, two grafs:

‘The Kurds, however, are well organized. They have an elected parliament and two regional governments, their own court system, and a 100,000 strong military force, known as the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga, whose members were principal American allies in the 2003 war, are better armed, better trained, and more disciplined than the minuscule Iraqi army the United States is now trying to reconstitute.”

“Since 1991, Kurdistan has been de facto independent and most Iraqi Kurds see this period as a golden era of democratic self-government and economic progress. In 1992 Kurdistan had the only democratic elections in the history of Iraq, when voters chose members of a newly created Kurdistan National Assembly. During the last twelve years the Kurdistan Regional Government built three thousand schools (as compared to one thousand in the region in 1991), opened two universities, and permitted a free press; there are now scores of Kurdish-language publications, radio stations, and television stations. For the older generation, Iraq is a bad memory, while a younger generation, which largely does not speak Arabic, has no sense of being Iraqi.”

Galbraith’s method here is to select certain facts, and cast others into the shadows. For instance, how is it that the same golden era of democratic self-government is also the era in which, according to every newspaper account from 1995 and 1996, the Kurds experienced a civil war? Perhaps that war, in fact, has something to do with the mysterious mention of two “regional governments.” The uninstructed reader conjures up visions of Texas and Louisiana – just two friendly states – instead of a touchy concord between two armed parties, loyal to two warlords.

Galbraith’s idea is that Iraq should survive as a very loose confederation, giving a lot of autonomy to the three major regions. This might be a good idea. However, its extension, that “we” should ‘divide” Iraq into three separate nations to prevent civil war, is wholly pernicious. First, on the grounds of logic. If civil war were preventable by the division of one country into an undetermined number of countries, why, civil war would never happen. This is much like saying we should prevent ‘4” by adding 2 + 2.

Second, on the grounds of the we – what we are we talking about, and what authority does this ‘we’ have? It is definitely the conqueror’s we that is being bandied about here.

Because the Kurds have born an insupportable amount of oppression from governments based in Baghdad, I could understand the Kurdish desire for independence. But it is impossible to envision that desire becoming real without a war. The worst result of CPA rule may be this: building the conditions for a long and bloody civil war, from insisting on provisions in the constitution that seem designed to block Iraq from operating as a sovereign nation -- a constitution that reminds one of one of those legendarily insidious microsoft codes, where the company can use its knowledge to peek into what its users are doing, with the company here being the U.S.A.-- to allowing the disproportion in armed forces to which Galbraith alludes.

Next post: the Shiites.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Bollettino

(fifth in the series)

I don’t know a lot about Iraq. I can’t name one single Iraqi singer or song. I don’t know the name of one Iraqi tv show, actor, or novelist.

I share space in this cloud of unknowing with 99.9% of the American public.

However, I have read a few library books. I have read a few magazine and newspaper articles. I have a fair memory. I have Google. And, mostly, I have a pretty good nose for sophistries, the lacuna in stories, and special pleading.

Now, in the current occupation of Iraq, there is one general and significant difference between the Iraqis and the Americans: the Americans can withdraw. When the Americans go, the Iraqis will have to live with whatever situation (in the creation of which they have mostly acted as junior partners) is left behind. Since the point of this series is to envision withdrawal, I thought it best to knock hard against three myths, as I see them, about Iraq.

1. The ungrateful/abused Iraqi

When Fred Barnes, the editor of the Weekly Standard, made his sahib’s tour of Iraq this spring, he came back with stories to delight the senses. Much as Lincoln Steffens, setting foot on Ukranian soil in 1930, was ravished with the scents and sounds of the future, so, too, Barnes, coming upon newly painted school houses, electric wiring, and entrepreneurial Iraqi exiles, saw that “Iraq worked.” There was, however, a big green fly in the ointment – the Iraqis. Frankly, Barnes revealed, after all we’d done for them, they weren’t grateful.

Sahibs hate a vulgar streak of ingratitude among the bearers.

The liberal hawks have been, well, more liberal. Liberals are a nurture, not nature kind of people. The liberal idea is that the Iraqis are abused. David Aaronovich might not have started this theme, but he went through it pretty early in the game, right after it appeared that there was an insufficiency of flowers greeting the liberators. Why the hesitancy? Surely it is because Saddam, the bad father, beat the Iraqis, the good children, until they hid from the social workers under the looted furniture.

These are the most overt acts of rhetorically infantilizing the Iraqis. More subtle versions were on display throughout the Mission Accomplished months last year. NPR was especially prone to radio shows about U.S. soldiers teaching the poor, clueless Iraqi security people, with their adorable stumbling English (imagine, they didn’t know English!) all about democracy. Never mind that the security people in the Bronx and L.A. might have benefited from similar lessons – the real irony here, of course, is that the classroom should have been reversed. The Iraqis should have been teaching the American GIs how to enter an Iraqi house, how to distinguish one Iraqi holiday from another, etc., etc. As we now all too painfully know. At the time, though, the Iraqis were seen as something like the Noble Indian, to whom we were imparting the benefits of the alphabet. The Noble Indian, however, had the decency to vanish, inexplicably, into the reservation; we can now call them Native Americans and feel proud of our sensitivity in a Kevin Kostner-ish kind of masculine way. The Iraqis, on the other hand, have vulgarly survived.

This is all an echo of what Said wrote about in Orientalism: ‘Formally the Orientalist sees himself as accomplishing the union of Orient with Occident, maily by asserting the technological political supremacy of the West. History in such a union is attenuated if not banished.”

So perhaps it is necessary to say some things about Iraq such as even I, an ignorant American, such have been able to gather over the last couple years.

For instance, Iraq has been a nation longer than either Israel or Saudi Arabia. Its unity has suffered the shock, in the last three decades, of three devastating wars. At the same time, Iraq has gone through periods of quite exceptional prosperity – especially in the seventies, when the price of oil surged. That price of oil benefited the country partly because the Iraqis were the leading contributors towards the constitution of the Middle East’s only successful international organization, OPEC. Even under a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis were able to put their infrastructure back together after the first Gulf war faster than the Americans have been able to do it in the past year.

They are not, in short, savages, either noble or ignoble. Nor are they abused children or ungrateful teens. According to people in the oil business, in fact, the Iraqi Ministry of Oil was one of the most competent in the world before the sanctions.

The image of Iraqis as a people who cannot do things for themselves count, since they serve as a sub rosa justification for the complex economic arrangement that the CPA has arrived at with its country. On the one hand, there is the enormous American generosity – a flow of funds unmatched since the Marshall plan. On the other hand is who controls the funds – the CPA. It is the defense department that still, a year on, has final say on all the major contracts. It is as if a man came to your house, tied you up, gave you birthday presents, and played with them before your eyes.

There is one gift, however, above all the others, that the Bush administration got right. That gift is debt relief. In fact, if Iraq could get out from under the crushing burden of the debts contracted under Hussein, as well as the war reparations, the country wouldn’t need American beneficence. Like any country endowed with a vast natural resource that the state contracts out, Iraq could once again borrow the money it needed to rebuild the infrastructure in the way its government wanted. It shouldn’t be necessary to lecture conservatives on the vices of welfare, but apparently, in the case of Iraq, they have made a large exception to all conservative principles.

If we are envisioning an exit, then, the first thing to envision is the transfer of economic power to an Iraqi government.

Next post: The Kurds.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Bollettino

A wise and a good man may indeed be sometimes induced to comply with a number whose opinion he generally approves, though it be perhaps against his own. But this
liberty should be made use of upon very few occasions, and those of small importance, and then only with a view of bringing over his own side another time to something of greater and more public moment. But to sacrifice the innocency of a friend, the good of our country, or our own conscience to the humour, or passion, or interest of a party, plainly shews that either our heads or our hearts are not as they should be. – Jonathan Swift.

(Read previous three posts. Fourth in a series)

In order to envision the exit from Iraq, as we said, it is important to have a clear view of why we invaded in the first place.

It is also important to have a clear view of why the occupation went so badly awry.

When America invaded Iraq, we think there were two basic principles, enshrined in the Rumsfeld strategy, that guaranteed the disasters of occupation that followed.

1. The unwillingness to commit a sufficient number of troops; and
2. The plan to implement economic “shock therapy” in Iraq at the point of a gun.

1. If one X rays the unwillingness to commit troops, two things strike the impartial observer. The first is that to raise the number of soldiers from the United States alone, given the American troop commitment world wide, would have meant implementing some kind of draft, or major call up of the Reserve, in 2003. This, in turn, would have meant that Bush would have to make the case for sacrifice to the American public. That case was iffy at best. It was in Bush’s interest to wage this war in such a way that the American public’s involvement would be kept at a spectatorial distance.

However, if American troops weren’t available, how about foreign troops? Here, Rumsfeldian politics kicked in. The Defense Department analysis of the first Gulf War was that foreigners – other Coalition members, like the Saudis and the French – had too much influence on the decision making that went on during that war. Rumsfeld was determined to control Iraq from the Pentagon, and he sacrificed a real commitment of international troops for that end. Why was he determined to control Iraq? It was not only because the war was waged as part of the grand strategy we outlined in the previous post. It was also because:

2. The ideology of the decision makers was such that Iraq was considered a test case for the Forbes end of the Republican party.

As the first American proconsul in Iraq, Jay Garner, has testified, the main concern of the Americans around the newly minted CPA was not to hold elections, or to secure the country, but to radically change the economy. Privatization was the name of the game. The grand strategy was all very well, but Iraq, as a specific prize, became irresistible for the same conservative ideologues who have desired, for the past thirty years, to inflict such wonders as the flat tax and privatized Social Security on the American public. After thirty years of frustration, here was an opportunity not to be missed.

What was missed was the lessons of the very recent past. In Poland and Russia, where shock therapy has been tried, one thing became evident – the sudden transformation of a socialist system into a radically privatized system causes an immediate spike in unemployment, and a lessening of the living standard for the majority of the population. I will leave undiscussed, here, whether in the long term the majority gains from these policies. I don’t care, in this instance. What concerns the argument is that Rumsfeld wanted to preside over an occupation with a force half to a third of the size that military men advise, while zapping the economy in such a way that, among a heavily armed population, the unemployment of young men would rise, and the living standards of average families would fall.

To put it briefly: this was insane.(1)

It is interesting to speculate what Nixon would have done, in 2002, given Rumsfeld’s analysis of the Middle East. Nixon was an order of magnitude smarter than Rumsfeld. Nixon would have seen at once the flaw in the Neo-con plan. The kind of regime change they wanted to effect in Iraq was, in Nixon’s time, effected by proxies. Whether it was a Marxist Chilean president or a lefty Guatamalan, one thing about America was that we preserved our distance while exercizing our power. Nixon would immediately have looked for a way not to involve American troops in the overthrow of Saddam.

Thank God Nixon is dead. Rumsfeld’s stupidity – and the man is stupid in that peculiarly bureaucratic way that Gogol’s portraits of bureaucratic chiefs captured – Rumsfeld, one feels sure, would have risen high in the Czar’s service – has accidentally produced a situation that is much happier for the Iraqis, although not, in the short term, for the Americans. We think, given certain modifications of Rumsfeld’s grand strategy, even the American interest can be served if we conduct our exit correctly.

In our next post, we will go through some myths about Iraq.

1. I want to be straightforward in these posts. However, I must put in an aside here. There is a defense of Rumsfeld that has gone the rounds of the conservative commentators that goes like this: compare our situation in Iraq to the situation in Germany in 1945, or the situation that Lincoln faced in 1860, etc. etc. In these situations, there were enormous initial problems. But we admire Lincoln and Truman today because those situations were corrected.

There is a problem with this way of looking at history as composed of self contained individual events, like pearls on a string: it isn’t human. It is recommended by the Tramalfadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. However, I don’t have a tramalfadorian brain, yet.

So, from a simple human point of view: there is a fundamental difference between unprecedented and precedented situations. Lincoln as an improvisor in 1862, going through Generals, is a man we can admire. But if Lincoln was fighting his Civil war ten or twenty years after another Civil War had been fought, we would be much less forgiving of his faults. In fact, we’d think he was an incompetent redneck from Illinois. And we’d be right – in that situation.

Rumsfeld presides over a Department with almost 75 years of institutional memory about various wars and occupations. He ignored it all. We are now paying a price for that piece of arrogance. Conservatives call it tradition – liberals call it progress – Hegelians call it the Spirit – but all agree that events in history are connected. Military men weren’t bs-ing when they said that standard military operating procedure calls for a ratio of a certain number of soldiers to a certain occupied population. Rumsfeld’s over-ruling this is less like Lincoln improvising in 1862, and more like an Intelligent Design scientist challenging the “Darwinian bias” in school biology textbooks in 2003. It is a sign of fundamentalist ignorance. And it shouldn’t be forgiven.


Bollettino

Why are we in Iraq?

(See previous two posts before reading this one, dear reader)

To understand the war in Iraq, we need to understand the reason that we invaded Iraq. The average American can be forgiven for being confused on this point, since, on numerous occasions, Bush himself seems sincerely and visibly confused about why he is occupying this Middle Eastern country.

There are three general reasons mentioned, usually, for justifying the invasion of Iraq:
1. Saddam Hussein’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction;
2. The tie between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein;
3. and finally, the human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein.

I think it is easy to show that, even if one concedes that there were WMD, that there were ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and that Hussein’s regime was massively inhumane, these could not be the reason we invaded Iraq. Or rather, these reasons alone would not pick out Iraq as the one unique nation we would invade in 2003.

1. The WMDs. By the year 2000, there was one nation our intelligence agencies knew a., possessed nuclear weapons, in violation of international treaty; b., sold or exchanged nuclear materials to our avowed enemies; and c., had close and supportive ties to Islamic terrorists. That country was Pakistan.
In contrast, by 2000, Iraq had been effectually divided between a northern section and a main section for seven years. During this time, if Saddam Hussein had possessed WMD and the willingness to use them, as he had during the Iraq war, he would have. He didn’t. Why? Well, it turns out that he didn’t even have WMD, but even at the time, those who thought he did thought, also, that he didn’t want to face the consequences of using WMD.

Our point is that the bias towards punishing countries for illegally possessing WMD

2. The Al Qaeda tie argument is much simpler.
Grant, for a moment, that Cheney is right, and that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda.
Now, we can reason by subtraction here. Given the above supposition, we know that three countries, at least, had ties to Al Qaeda: Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
The idea of going to war with one of those countries would then seem to depend on the strength of the tie. So do a simple thought experiment: subtract a country, and ask if Usama bin Laden would have been prevented from launching the attack on 9/11 without the aid of that country.
Pakistan is easy. Pakistan’s secret service essentially set up the Taliban. The ISI also supported a network of Islamic warriors throughout Central Asia. Without Pakistan, there would have been no 9/11.
Saudi Arabia is trickier, since less is known. But it is known that the Saudis negotiated to find Osama a place, after the U.S. demanded his expulsion from Sudan. And we also know that large amounts of Saudi money flowed to Al Qaeda. The material symbol of Saudi help is the fact that the majority of the hijackers were Saudi. So there is a case that without S.A., there would have been no 9/11.
Iraq is much simpler. There simply is no record of largescale financial support. There were no training camps in Iraq for Al Qaeda. The ties that Cheney’s crew has publicized, even if true, played a minimal support role in 9/11.
Again, even given the truth, then, of this justification for the war, the bias against Iraq is presupposed by the justification.

3. Human rights. In the build-up to the war, LI said that there were two wars being debated in the press. One was Bush’s war, and the other was Hitchen’s – named for the most ardent advocate of the third justification.

Hitchens war always discretely skipped over a large problem. The war he – and liberal advocates – advocated was to be led by the same people who, in the eighties, allied the U.S. with Saddam Hussein.

Rumsfeld was the most prominent member of this group, but Wolfowitz, too, was a member of the Reagan foreign policy team that came into office with the explicit promise to overturn Jimmy Carter’s human rights foreign policy agenda.

The puzzle, here, is that if the case for the war was really a human rights one, then these people had wonderful conversion stories to tell. Nothing persuades like conversion. Yet, unless I missed it, I have not heard Rumsfeld tell of how he realized that helping a man who was ordering gas attacks on the same day Rumsfeld shook hands with him was a bad and immoral thing. I have never heard Wolfowitz describe his ambassadorship to Indonesia, where he rubbed shoulders with one of the world’s great mass murderers, Suharto, lead to a Damascus experience.
Again, what we have to ask is: why Iraq, then?

I think the clue lies in the people who lead us into this war – Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc. LI thinks that the reason we are in Iraq is that far from changing their mind about the tilt towards Iraq in the 80s (which has gone down memory hole – still, it is startling to read that, in the days after the Washington Post reported the gassing of the Kurds, the Reagan White House response was to ask for a tighter arms embargo on Iran – in other words, to award Saddam Hussein even more), Rumsfeld, et al. wanted to pursue it through other means. In other words, they wanted Iraq to play the role Saddam Hussein gave the country in the 80s – a hostile state poised against Iran and Syria – but with someone American friendly in place of Saddam.

That’s it. It is that simple.
Or, rather, it is that simple in this instance. But the reason for wanting a state that would function like Saddam’s did in the 80s takes us to the larger, Rumsfeldian perspective on the Middle East. Their theory goes something like this.

From 53 to 79, American policy in the Middle East could balance our alliance with Israel with our dependence on Saudi Arabia because there was a stable third term between the two: Iran.

After the Shah fell, our Middle Eastern policy was increasingly skewed by, on the one hand, the pull of Israel’s interests (which the Rumsfeldians interpret as, eventually, the full occupation of Palestine – Eretz Israel as the manifest destiny of that nation) and, on the other hand, our need to pacify the Saudis. The end of communism merely hastened the decay, here, by removing our strongest ideological bond to Saudi Arabia. In order to make the Middle East work, what was needed was a spectrum of states, going from Israel, our closest ally, to Saudi Arabia, which was always going to be a troublesome ally. Iraq, in this scheme, works perfectly. It could serve as a pressure point against Iran, and against Syria. It could, in other words, play the role of reversing the destruction of the old American policy from 53 to 79. Eventually, it could help lead to the re-Pahlavization of Iran. All of which would put such pressure on Saudi Arabia as to neutralize its hostility towards Israel. At last, we would reach equilibrium in the Middle East.

This, we think, states the subtending reason that we went to war with Iraq. If we are right, we have a reason for considering Iran, and our relationship with that country, among those conditions that have to be considered in getting out of Iraq. We will not, in other words, get out of Iraq successfully unless we end the remnant of our dual containment policy with Iran.


Bollettino

The Glass Student – or The Man of Glass, in Samuel Putnam’s translation – has a plot that goes like this:

One day two students, traveling to the University at Salamanca, come upon a peasant boy sleeping under a bush by the side of the road. The boy refuses to give his real name, but does express a desire to learn. So the students employ him as a servant. He reads much in Salamanca, then parts from his masters and falls in with a recruiting agent, goes with him as an independent soldier to Italy, tours a sort of grand tour of Europe (which was the equivalent, at the time, of making a grand tour of Hapsburg battlefields0, then returns to Salamanca. There, a woman of easy virtue falls in love with him. Tomas does not return her affection, so she makes him a drink into which she has mixed a love potion. Far from arousing his desire, the potion poisons him to the point where he almost loses his life. After a prolonged illness, he recovers, physically. However, he is now under the firm delusion that he is made of glass. He becomes famous because of this delusion, which is accompanied not only by odd, protective behaviors, but by a sudden access of sharp speaking in public. In short, he becomes a sort of Diogenes, making pithy pronouncements about people and events. Eventually he is cured of the illness, becomes a soldier again, and dies in Flanders.

The interest of this story lies in Rodaja’s madness. Here is Cervantes’ describing the onset of the illness:

“For six months Tomas was in bed, and in the course of that time he withered aways and became, as the saying goes, nothing by skin and bones, while all his senses gave evidence of being deranged. His friends applied every remedy in their power and succeeded in curing the illness of his body but not that of his mind, with the result that he was left a healthy man but afflicted with the strangest kind of madness that had ever been heard of up to that time. The poor fellow imagined that he was wholly made of glass, and consequently, when anyone came near him, he would give a terrible scream, begging and imploring them with the most rartional-sounding arguments to keep their distance lest they shatter him, since really and truly he was not like other men but fashioned of glass from head to foot.”



As a man of glass, Tomas makes his way through Salamanca, loudly telling coaches and little boys with pebbles to stay out of his way. These remarks, which are at first self-protective, gradually turn critical. The comedy of the story is in the fact that it is only after turning into glass that Tomas also becomes ‘sharp’ – that is, he begins to make remarks in the fashion of one of the Cynical philosophers. Remarks that “hold up a glass” or mirror to society. Cervantes’ technique, in the first part of the story is similar to that he employs in Don Quixote – a juxtaposition of madness and high rationality. So Tomas has this reaction, for instance, to storms: “When it thundered he trembled like quicksilver and would run out into the fields and not come back to town until the storm had passed.” Yet he is more than willing to tell off a student who wants to be a point, expose the legal profession to a lawyer, and talk down painters. Remember, given the touchy Spanish sense of honor of the time, the painters, poets and lawyers would certainly find these kinds of things worthy of challenge.



The truth is, the idea of the story is better than the story. Why are we talking about the Glass Student? Because we have been looking for an emblem with which to illustrate what we are doing, here. And what, by extension, the public intellectual does in the age of the declining liberal democracy. On this weblog. LI is at once so imminently fragile – fragile so that any stray event can shatter us – and at the same time impelled by some demon, in this condition, to make sharper and sharper comments. It is as if there is a double and opposite process going on, in which the level of our frangibility serves as the very condition of our speaking at all. This, at least, is the first allegorical level of the glass student that we’ve been pondering.



The second level is that the fragility is false, a delusion, and the words are pointless. This is where allegory becomes comedy. This is the comic dilemma of a public intellectual when the grand scheme of liberatory oppositions collapses. When, that is, the univocal has become the universal. LI has been posting in this spot for three years, and watched a whole culture of commentary grow up on the web, blog by blog. And our impression is that blog culture is evidence of the serious and incurable narcissism and egotism that are seemingly the defining characteristics of the comfortable of our time. It is as if, in Hegelian terms, the culture has stepped back – increasingly, self reflection is blocked as the ability to imagine the other has become either so distorted by patronizing academic jargon, with the terrible euphemisms that wipe out the Other as a historical entity, or has vanished as a determinant, at all, from our current consciousness. The disproportion between the anger at the pictures taken at Abu Ghraib and the acts the pictures show is evidence of this on a concrete level. But take, on a much humbler level, what we are doing here. We predict, we analyze, we go on and on, ransacking our reading, our mental activity, etc. etc. – to our own immense satisfaction. Yet we have glimpsed, out of the corner of our eye, so to speak, the ridiculousness of our bellowing, the complete vacuum that swallows our protests, the sheer pointlessness of thinking that, by piling words up, we are ‘doing something’.



We aren’t. This isn’t just a waste of time – the sheer emptiness of our opinions is a sort of dissipation of our life itself, a sort of slow motion, slapstick death.



Well, there you are, then.



So it is under the sign of the Glass student that we want to dedicate the next three or four posts to imaging getting out of Iraq. It is, according to established American opinion, unthinkable to get out of Iraq right now. That’s a performative unthinkability – the more it is unthought, the more power is given to those who are ‘authorized’ to do the thinking. So the first step in getting out of Iraq is to imagine getting out of Iraq.



First, then, we want to understand why we are in Iraq in the first place. Then we want to talk about the opposition to the war, in this country, and in particular explore how the the Democratic party has played the role of co-conspirator in the war, and evidently will continue to play that role. Third, we will explore what we think (again, bellowing like the Glass Student) could make withdrawing from Iraq a (as the marriage counselors say) “positive experience” – starting from the angle that any withdrawal from Iraq should be coupled with détente with Iran,



This is what we will do, if we have time.
"Larvatus prodeo." – Descartes' motto.
“I advance, masked.”





In 1641, Descartes published his Meditations. The book contains a reference to a man who “imagines” he is made of glass. The reference is embedded in the first of the meditations, the one dedicated to doubt: And how could I deny that these hands and this body belong to me? If only, perhaps, by comparing myself to those insane people whose brains are so troubled and obscured by the black vapors of bile that they are constantly assuring people that they are kings, when they are actually poor; or that they are arrayed in gold and purple, when they are nude; or who imagine themselves to be pitchers, or to have bodies of glass?”
(“Et comment est-ce que je pourrais nier que ces mains et ce corps-ci soient à moi? si ce n'est peut-être que je me compare à ces insensés de qui le cerveau est tellement troublé et offusqué par les noires vapeurs de la bile qu'ils assurent constamment qu'ils sont des rois lorsqu'ils sont très pauvres; qu'ils sont vêtus d'or et de pourpre lorsqu'ils sont tout nus; ou s'imaginent être des cruches ou avoir un corps de verre?”)

Some have imagined that the man made of glass might be a reference, or a memory, of Cervantes’ novella, the Glass Student. It is, at least, nice to think so. In fact, given that Cervantes story had been out for three years in 1619, Descartes great year and the one that shaped his Discours, one hopes that he read it in one of the tents he lived in when he served in the troops of Maximilien of Bavaria. It was in that year that, as we know from the Discourse, Descartes was “lying on a stove” … but here is how a very comprehensive biography describes him:

“So in 1619, Descartes engaged himself with the troops of Maximilian of Bavaria. But he didn’t participate in the terrible Thirty Years War. The Catholic Army to which he belonged took its winter quarters on the banks of the Danube. We can easily imagine Descartes quartered on some civilian “in an oven,” meaning in a room well heated by one of those porcelain ovens which were beginning to become common, served by a domestic in livery, and entirely delivered over to pure reflexion. On the 10 of November, 1619, marvelous dreams alerted him to the fact that he was destined to unify all the disciplines by an admirable science, of which he would be the inventor. Descartes therefore abandoned the military life and returned to France, going through Germany and Holland. In the course of his journey he had occasion to defend himself victoriously with a sword on board a crossing boat, against some sailors who aimed at stripping him and murdering him.”

The French have always remembered that Descartes was a soldier first. It is, in fact, possible to see the method of doubt as a sort of metaphysical tactical assault, with the tactics threatening to entirely overthrow the grand strategy of the mind in search of certitude. What we like to think, however, is that Descartes – who was using his soldiering as a way of escaping the books of his early schooling – might still have picked up a book that tells the story of another soldier – one Tomas Rodaja, the “glass student.”

Cervantes ““El licenciado Vidriera” has, according to an essay by George Shipley, been both one of the most commented on and one of the most disparaged of Cervantes novellas. Shipley tends towards disparagement himself. After re-reading the story, we understand why. But we also understand why we have been thinking about the “glass student” all week.

To be continued...