Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Godwin's Law and the GOP

 My friend John Levine recently pointed me to "a neat picture of gravitational lensing" - massive galaxies bending starlight coming from behind them. And without even trying, or wanting to - just doing what comes naturally.

 What a refreshing break from the news, from which we learn the same lesson daily: You don't have to be Einstein to bend the truth. You just have to be massive and determined.

 In the International Herald Tribune the other day, there was a story about how the Bush campaign had put out an advertisement, "Kerry's Coalition of the Wild-Eyed", in which images of Dean, Kerry and Gore are interspersed with pictures of Hitler. Yes, Hitler.

 I guess it's time for a review of Godwin's Law, which reads:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Jeez, we've still got over four months until the general election, and it's already happening. What's next? Maybe we'll need the Law of Transcendental Bloviation:

As any political discussion continues, the chance of a comparison of an opponent to Osama Bin Laden approaches 100%.

 I've seen the Law of Trans-Blo in action just today, in Sam Dinkin's silly response to Jeff Bell's excellent debunking of any reasonable comparison between Christopher Columbus and the spirit and agenda of our existing space programs. Sorry, Sam - you lose.

 There's an excellent FAQ about Godwin's Law, "How to Post About Nazis and Get Away With It", but it doesn't offer much hope. Nope, not with Q&A like this:

7. Does Godwin's Law apply in the real world?

Actually, yeah, but usually discussions in Real Life end by
somebody wandering off in disgust before it can be invoked.

Problem is, with a presidential election, you can't just wander off in disgust. Enduring the grueling rhetorical run-up is almost like, well, like being President, at least as LBJ experienced it:

Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There's nothing to do but to stand there and take it.

 You'd think the GOP would want to put this sorry media episode behind them, but no. They are practically crowing about it. In a story on a pro-Bush site, entitled New Ad Featuring Hitler Comparisons to Bush Denounced By Kerry Campaign as 'New Low', by one Jimmy Moore of the appropriately named Talon News, we can read:

As Talon News reported in January, prominently featured two controversial ads comparing Bush to Hitler as part of its "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest.

 Gee, that's not how I remember it. was deluged with about a thousand entries. A couple contributors used Hitler themes, and those clips got pulled from the site when they were brought to MoveOn's attention after a week or so. That's "prominently featured"?

 And what to make of this?

"John Kerry has denounced our use of these ads attacking the president," the ad continued. "He has not denounced liberal supporters like Al Gore, George Soros, and many others who have made speeches comparing the President to Adolf Hitler."

Gore compared Bush to Hitler in a speech? I think I would have heard about that.

 Here's all that Newsweek could come up with:

On Thursday, Gore delivered a speech in which he said that the “administration works closely with a network of rapid responders, a group of digital brownshirts who work to pressure reporters and their editors and publishers and advertisers, and are quick to accuse them of undermining support for our troops.” George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier who has given millions to, says his "experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized" him and that he believes a "supremacist ideology" guides the Bush White House. Michael Moore—not a Democrat, although on Wednesday he was the toast of liberal D.C. at the premiere of "Fahrenheit 9/11"—said last October that America under Bush was moving in a Third Reich-like direction.

So I guess this is the escalation. The Law of Trans-Blo - wait for it.

Monday, June 28, 2004

For a kinder, more literary, Homeland Security

The heavy-handed treatment of Elena Lappin at the hands of the INS and Homeland Security is yesterday's news, but the story is still making the rounds - John Carter McKnight sent me a link to her Guardian article just today. I thought I'd exhausted myself on the topic in Marc Cooper's comment section, but today ... well, when you're an intellectual snob like me, mordant thought springs eternal.

Read the story, if you haven't. Pretty disturbing, isn't it? If (as even some CIA agents now speculate) bin Laden helps Bush to a second term with yet another major attack, we can expect more of the same.

I suspect there is ideological profiling going on in the Terrorist Threat Integration Center databases, since Lappin has contributed to Granta and perhaps other leftish rags. But maybe the problem is that there's just not enough ideological profiling. You see, Elena's case is tricky. Justice requires detailed scrutiny of the facts of a case.

What's a beleagured, overworked Homeland Security official to do? Think of all the background reading required. Still, let's be optimistic. Let's imagine a kinder, more literary, Homeland Security.

"Well, Ms. Lappin, we're a bit dismayed that you'd write for such virulently anti-American publication as The Guardian, not to mention Granta, but your years at the helm of Jewish Quarterly and your years in Israel introduce some nettlesome ambiguities, and your sympathetic interview with an Iraqi poet favored by those wonks over at State would seem to argue for clemency. Well, but you know those poets: mercurial, unreliable, romantic, irretrievably radical. Not to mention ungrateful: just read this interview of Sinoon Anton with Amy Goodman. Really, you can't trust them further than you could throw Arthur Andersen's audit report from their investigation of Ahmed Chalabi's gutting of a Jordanian bank.

"Hmm. All right: we'll incarcerate you, but ... we'll clean the toilet in your cell before you take up residence, we'll only strip you down to your undies when we do the body search, and you'll be allowed use the same junk-food vending machines as the prison guards. However, you will have to sign this form saying that you won't write any pieces critical of your incarceration or treatment. Fair enough? The choice is yours.

"Oh, by the way: loved Foreign Brides. Would you autograph this copy before I send it to my daughter? She's in her second year at Barnard, in the middle of a sophomore slump, and she'd be so thrilled."

Masters of Dreck

Ever worry you that can't write well enough to publish even bad science fiction? The gnawing doubts hit the best of us, at times. I've lain awake at 3 AM, depressed, blocked. Now and then, however, encouragement will pad through the door on little cat feet. (See? "Little cat feet." That was bad, wasn't it?)

A departing guest at our ryokan left behind (in a trash bag, signally) a volume of short stories by Frank Herbert called The Priests of Psi. It didn't ring any bells with me, and I'm a former Herbert fan.

Posthumously published gems? The title was inauspicious. I feared the worst. I dipped into it anyway, giving it my page-one litmus test.

There are SF epics. There are SF novels. There are SF novelas. There are SF novelettes.

Then ya got yer SF novelinis ...

By Frank ["Beethoven's 5th on the Kazoo"] Herbert

"Every mind on Earth capable of understanding the problem was focused on the spaceship with the ultimatum delivered by its occupants ...

[Wait - why are they focused on the spaceship and not the problem they are capable of understanding? OK, maybe this is explained later.]

"Talk or Die! blared the newspaper headlines ...

[I'll talk, I'll talk!]

"The suicide rate was up and still climbing. Religious cults were having a field day. A book by a science fiction author, 'What the Deadly Inter-Galactic Spaceship Means to You!', had smashed all previous best-seller records ...

[Even surpassing "When Bad Starships Happen to Good People"? "Humans are from Earth, Aliens are from Uranus"? "How You Can Profit From the Coming Alien Death-Ray Holocaust"?]

"And this had been going on for a frantic seven months....

[Nobody's even tired of it yet!]

"The ship had flapped out of a gun-metal sky over Oregon, ...

[Flapped, I tell you! No Deathstar-ish subsonic rumbles (like that old '69 Dodge Dart I once drove, with its bad muffler). No slow inexorable approach to Earth to lend a sense of suspense to the proceedings. No, let's get on the with the story! Flap! Ooh, more incoming: Flap!]

" ... its shape that of a hideously magnified paramecium with edges that rippled like a mythological flying carpet ...

[Why wouldn't its edges ripple like those of a real flying carpet? You say there aren't any? Then why does he qualify it with ... oh, never mind.]

"Its five green-skinned, frog-like occupants ...

[Wait a sec, gotta stop to LOL ... OK, I'm getting oxygen again]

"... had delivered the ultimatum, one copy printed on velvety paper to each major government, ...

[Albania must be feeling SO left out.]

"... each copy couched faultlessly in the appropriate native tongue:"

[Surely you meant the ultimatum was so couched? I'm getting images of velvety paper lovingly wrapped in severed tongues.]

"'You are requested to assemble your most gifted experts in human communication....

[No "take us to your leader"? OK, the mountain doesn't come to Mohammed.]

"' ... We are about to submit a problem ...'"

[You can suspend a gargantuan paramecium in Earth's skies, but there are problems YOU need US to solve?]

"'... We will open five identical rooms of our vessel to you. One of us will be available in each room....'"

[OK, but we COUNTER-demand a tureen of coffee and a platter of donuts in each room, and five-minute cigarette/toilet breaks every hour!]

"'...Your problem: To communicate with us...'"

[Well, we seem to be doing OK so far. We haven't even found a typo yet, though the velvety texture of the paper might camouflage a punctuation screwup somewhere.]

"'... If you succeed, the rewards will be great....'"

[Like, meeting rooms catered by Wolfgang Puck? Cologne and ice cubes in the urinals, replenished by towel-bearing attendants? Balkan Sobranie cigarettes and Cuban cigars in humidors?]

"'... If you fail, that will result in destruction for all sentient life on your planet...'"

[Somehow we knew that was coming.]

"'... We announce this threat with the deepest regret ...'"

[Do tell. You really seem like a bunch of softies at heart.]

"'... You are urged to examine Eniwetok atoll for a small display of our power...'"

[But wait a minute - Eniwetok is already gone, years ago, and by virtue of a small display of OUR power]

"'... Your artificial satellites have been removed from the skies ...'"

[Presumably replaced by natural, organic, paramecium-like satellites, all vat-grown by green-frog-like aliens.]

"'... You must break away from this limited communication ...'"

[To what? Seances?]

Eniwetok had been cleared off flat as a table at one thousand foot depth ... with no trace of explosion!

[That sentence really needed an exclamation point, doncha think?]

All --

[Oops, now I have to turn the page. Is it worth it? Uh ... uhmnnn ... nnnn-n-n-nno.]

Friday, June 25, 2004

Fine Cheney $250,000!

OK, not quite. However, the Senate voted not long ago for legislation that allows the FCC to fine somebody a cool quarter mil for saying the F-word over the air. Whew! Suddenly I'm feeling much more secure about Social Security's solvency.

Against this surrealistic First Amendment pickle-barrel background, on Tuesday, VP Cheney let fly with a resounding "Go fuck yourself!" at Dem Senator Patrick Leahy on the very same Senate floor on which this bill was passed. Resounding, I tell you.

OK, I'm lying. I wasn't there. I don't know whether it was resounding or not. Probably Cheney muttered it out of the corner of his mouth. It would be much more in character. It's much easier to picture, anyway.

How did it come to this? Leahy spotted Cheney and went over to talk. Cheney reportedly recoiled. "So you won't talk with Democrats?" asked Leahy. This was, after all, not long after Tom Daschle had implored the august chamber to "end the cycle of partisan retaliation," even going so far as to suggest bipartisan family outings - at which, presumably, certain expletives would be banned, and with even higher fines for transgression. Think about it though. A kind of cross-aisle Renaissance Weekend, with the kids in tow. Isn't this the very same VP whose President spoke of the importance of civility? You gotta start young with kids. It's a damned fine idea, I think.

I digress.

Somehow, it escalated. Cheney went at Leahy about Leahy's allegations of Halliburton war profiteering. Leahy came back with something about being accused of being "a bad Catholic" by Cheney simply because he hadn't supported a conservative Catholic judicial nominee.

Defenses? It's hard to do better than this one:

Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said, "I think the vice president said what he meant to say and felt better after he said it.''

Well, there you have it. He was just being sincere. That's cool. (Hm, I wonder: did Lamar Alexander vote for the legislation to fine expletives on the air?)

But wait a minute: did Cheney really mean that he wanted Leahy to go fuck himself? Oh boy, yoga teachers everywhere, take note.

Anyway, there's your cue, people: go out to the balcony, take a deep breath, and yell: "Go Fuck Yourself!" Over and over. You'll feel better. Much better. It's OK now. Even Republicans think so.

Just don't get caught on the air.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Defeatist Paranoid Wingnuts in the CIA, too?

Oh, boy, here it comes.

You know all these traitorous notions I've so shamelessly purveyed over the last year? By personal e-mail, in the comment sections of other people's blogs, and now, on this blog?

You know my pernicious habit of spreading cynicism about the Bush administration? My ill-disguised glee in radiating defeatism about the War on Terror as currently pursued?

And did I mention my burning, evil desire to infect others, by my very mode of reasoning, with the same general insanity? Why, I'm virtually a walking barrel of neurotoxins! When bits stream out of my modem and onto the internet, it's tantamount to a terror attack.

Boy, do you ever not want your sister to marry me.

Specifically, what about my wingnut theory about how Bin Laden might help re-elect Dubya - not by surrendering unconditionally, but ... by staging another major terror attack? That's gotta be the most slanderous thing anybody could say about either of them, isn't it? Bush helped by Bin Laden? Bin Laden helping Bush? The strange-bedfellows politics has got to stop somewhere, doesn't it?

Well, about that rank agit-prop poison, that blot on the body of civil discourse, brace yourself: it's about to go mainstream, according to a Guardian article, "Bush told he is playing into Bin Laden's hands".

[The anonymous author of a forthcoming book, a CIA analyst] who published an analysis of al-Qaida last year called Through Our Enemies' Eyes, thinks it quite possible that another devastating strike against the US could come during the election campaign, not with the intention of changing the administration, as was the case in the Madrid bombing, but of keeping the same one in place.

"I'm very sure they can't have a better administration for them than the one they have now," he said.

"One way to keep the Republicans in power is to mount an attack that would rally the country around the president."

[...] the stridency of his warnings about al-Qaida led him to be moved from a highly sensitive job in the late 90s.

But Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of operations at the CIA counter-terrorism centre, said he had been vindicated by events. "He is very well respected, and looked on as a serious student of the subject."

Anonymous believes Mr Bush is taking the US in exactly the direction Bin Laden wants, towards all-out confrontation with Islam under the banner of spreading democracy.

My only quibble is with The Guardian's headline. Bush is being told that he's playing into Bin Laden's hands? That may be too generous by half - Bush must know very well that Al Qaeda has been useful to him politically. If he doesn't know, I wonder why his braintrust wouldn't bother to exlain it to him? Why indeed? Well, perhaps because ... Oh no, I feel another paranoid conspiracy fugue state coming on. I think I'll go lie down now.

Friday, June 11, 2004

"Sorry! Mistakes in our mistakes! (Oops, I meant in their mistakes.)"

The State Department now says that it underestimated terror in 2003. It's not down over 2002. It's up. Oh dear. Oh my. They are falling all over themselves, apologizing, claiming the problem was just because of some mistakes in their new data collection system.

When the U.S. Department of State issued its 2003 Patterns of Global Terrorism report, there was initially much rejoicing. "Sell your Al Qaeda stock!" crowed one notorious premature ejaculator in blogland, Michael Totten. The message was: we're winning. Don't even question it. It's official now.

Actually, that report had some major problems of definition. And those problems were evident on the day the report emerged.

How did I discover these problems of definition? Well, when that report came out, I was incredulous. Terrorism was down over the last year? Doubter that I am, I actually went and took a look at the report itself. I'm still an amateur at this journalism business. I still take seriously this notion of checking facts, reading the referenced sources. I'm really supposed to be hanging out in bars with other journalists I suppose, but ... well, readers, you tell me: have I reached those lofty heights yet? No.

Anyway, I read the report and I discovered right then: it was wrong on the face of it. Why? It exempted essentially all of Iraq in the final accounting. FARC bombs an oil pipeline in Colombia, as part of an attempt to overthrow the government, it's a terror attack in 2003. Saddam loyalists do the same to a pipeline in Iraq, as part of an attempt to overthrow the government, and it's not a terror attack. What is it? It's an attack on our troops - after all, it's wartime in Iraq. And in what war? Well, the war to topple Saddam is over, Dubya declared victory. So I guess it's got to be the War on Terror. But ... it's not a terror attack if it's in Iraq. Even though it looks like what previous reports have counted as a terror attack. Even though it's a terror-like attack during the War on Terror.

I'm so confused. So is the U.S. Department of State. Or so it seems.

The news of the day: the real numbers are even worse than when you add Iraq back in, because they actually forgot some of 2003, or lost some of 2003, and some of the numbers they did include are wrong, and ... oh, maybe they can blame it on some intern. But which intern, from which agency?

As the State Department note says, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) is the source of the data used in the 2003 report. And what is the TTIC? State says it "includes elements from the CIA, FBI and Departments of Homeland Security and Defense."

"Elements." I like that.

So what was State's direct contribution to this fiasco? Well, nothing obvious, except in their taking the Terrorist Threat Integration Center numbers at face value. They did
exclaim warmly about contributing the TIPOFF database of suspected terrorists for the Terrorist Screening Center. Keeping tabs on possible terrorists is within their diplomatic bailiwick. But that's different from actually keeping track of terrorist attacks.

So who's really in charge of the TTIC? John Brennan, who, when he was appointed, was serving as CIA deputy executive director. Where is TTIC? Operating out of Langley - on CIA turf. What's TTIC's accountability to State? Well, as commissioned, the TTIC was supposed to bring under one roof the terrorism-tracking resources of the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security and ... no, they don't mention the State Department. The list usually trails off with "... and other agencies."

So why is State taking the fall? OK, here's where I get into speculation, here's where I get too clever by half: with Colin Powell having recently admitted on a radio program that Iraq's oil was a motivating factor in the war of choice (causing hardly a ripple in the news), maybe this is just another case of Powell singing in the shower. He may yet emerge the cleanest of the gang. All he has to do is keep being honest. It's not like he has to wait in line to do that, in Washington these days.

Shades of that scene from Hitchcock's Psycho: if you see some blood spattering on the shower curtain, don't be too surprised. Powell may not only be coming clean, he might also be earning points in the intelligence community by doing some dirty work as well. TTIC was never going to win any popularity contests, if Bruce Berkowitz's opinion was any indication. Long in the works, it's officially been in operation since only May 1st, and perhaps now the long knives we've heard about have finally been unsheathed.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Balkan Roulette: Iraq and/or Kurdistan

Less than a month to go. June 30th looms. The definition of Iraqi sovereignty seems to shift daily. Much is at stake. And yet ... the politics of the Iraqi interim government remind me more of high school student government intrigue than the outcome of global diplomacy. It's probably safe to assume that what we see on the surface is relatively meaningless.

The Iraq sovereignty handover process might be considered a charade, as Marc Cooper suggests. It's hard to take it at face value. More likely, it reflects a placing of bets. One of the bets is obviously that Iraq will be a sovereign, unified nation.

I think that bet is a long shot. I think that bet will be hedged to the hilt by the various players. The axis of this roulette wheel is not Baghdad or Tikrit or uprisings in Shi'ite holy cities. It's Kirkuk.

I take encouragement in this view from the interim Iraqi constitution, recently approved by the IGC. Despite a commitment from the U.S. that Iraq will become a unified democratic republic, the document (at least as translated into English, if it was originally Arabic) makes surprisingly frequent use of a wonderful neologism: "Kurdistan", typically appearing in the collocation "Kurdistan region" where you'd think "Kurdish region" would make more sense. It appears 16 times, far more frequently than any other regional designation except for "Iraq" itself.

East of the moon, west of Westphalia

What is Kurdistan? The most important thing to know: it now includes Kirkuk (see Article 53, section A), long claimed and coveted by the Kurds.

And what's the most important thing to know about Kirkuk? That, as a region, it is estimated to contain nearly 9 billion barrels of Iraq's oil - worth about $350 billion in today's prices, or almost $100,000 per Kurd. Better still, it's relatively cheap oil, not just by world standards, but by Iraq standards. Read the U.S. Department of Energy's analysis:

According to Tariq Shafiq, a founding Vice President of INOC and currently director of Petrolog and Associates, Iraq's oil development and production costs are amongst the lowest in the world, ranging from as low as $750 million for each additional million bbl/d day in Kirkuk, to $1.6 billion per million bbl/d near Rumaila, and as high as $3 billion per million bbl/d for smaller fields in the northwestern part of the country. In contrast, Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) estimates an average cost for Iraqi oil development of $3.5 billion per million bbl/d for the country as a whole, which is higher than Tariq Shafiq's estimates, but still relatively low by world standards.

Northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, also has abundant reserves of natural gas. Natural gas will become increasingly important as oil prices rise over the coming decades.

Daddy says we're suppose to share, so gimme

Of course, the interim constitution also speaks of how to distribute proceeds of the sale of Iraq's "natural resources" (Article 25-E) in an even-handed and equitable manner, but follows with long, vague, weasel-wording about historically unjust deprivations of revenue(read "no Saddam presidential palace construction jobs for the Kurds under the U.N. sanctions regime"), special regional needs and so on.

Specifically, the Iraqi Transitional Government is "granted exclusive competence" (not authority, but competence!) in:

[m]anaging the natural resources of Iraq, which belongs to all the people of all the regions and governorates of Iraq, in consultation with the governments of the regions and the administrations of the governorates, and distributing the revenues resulting from their sale through the national budget in an equitable manner proportional to the distribution of population throughout the country, and with due regard for areas that were unjustly deprived of these revenues by the previous regime, for dealing with their situations in a positive way, for their needs, and for the degree of development of the different areas of the country...

As a practical matter, there seems to be nothing really preventing this Kurdistan from pumping oil, shipping it out through Turkey through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, selling it to Coalition of the Willing members at prices well below OPEC market rate, turning those lowball proceeds over to the transitional Iraqi government (or putting proceeds into escrow if the rest of Iraq is contested), and getting the difference back from its clients in foreign aid. This Kurdistan could become a sort of Taiwan of the Middle East, but a Taiwan with oil - with oil production largely centered around Kirkuk.

Follow the oily brick road

Kirkuk has additional enhancements to its status beyond simply being included as part of some de facto Kurdistan. There are constitutional provisions for any three governorates to merge into one, with two exceptions: Baghdad and Kirkuk. From Article 53, section C:

Any group of no more than three governorates outside the Kurdistan region, with the exception of Baghdad and Kirkuk, shall have the right to form regions from amongst themselves.

In one interpretation, this provision leaves those areas up for grabs in an overall Iraqi federation. In another, however, it reflects a recognition that Iraq now has two capital cities.

I just want someone to love

The U.S. occupation force has been relatively popular with the Kurds, despite some earlier ambivalence on the invasion itself. It enjoys a high degree of support, and there are very few U.S. troops in the Kurdish areas of Iraq because there has been no particular need. The Kurdish regions is getting hit by terror attacks, but not many, and not seeing uprisings at all.

The American occupation must have become much more popular with the Kurds in view of this tacit constitutional support lent to the notion of a Kurdistan that legally includes Kirkuk, courtesy of an IGC selected by Americans. It's safe to say that if the rest of Iraq descended into civil war, the Kurds would be only too happy to have a greater U.S. troop presence on their soil, so long as that presence included border defense of Kirkuk. I think that would have been a safe proposition even if the invasion had amounted to simply setting up just such a partition, with border control, instead of the countrywide invasion and occupation that we did see.

Finally, let's not neglect a claim of moral legitimacy for Kurdish statehood: Kurds were gassed by Saddam. There's a rough analogy to the situation of Israel, mostly populated by an ethnic group that was effectively exterminated in much of Europe in the 1940s. Given a choice between sharing oil revenues with a fractious Iraq, and claiming those revenues for themselves, the Kurds may invoke a genocide reparations argument. After all, the Kurds can't put a price on so many human lives, but they can always maintain that whatever they have in the way of material compensation still isn't enough. And anyway, America owes them, for leaving them to hang so many times.

A de facto partition of Iraq into a stable Kurdistan in the north and a Sovereign State of Chaos elsewhere may yet be the endgame. We could see the U.S. government protecting - and of course, in the long run, economically benefiting by - a peaceful, prosperous, nominally democratic Kurdish Entity (to borrow from the lexicon of Arab opposition to Israel), while the rest of Iraq seethes impotently about the imbalance, but is distracted by internal power struggles in which armed force may play no small part. Kurdistan will have a friend in can depend on: America. All those other Iraqi ingrates can go to hell.

Nonsense and sensibility

Kurdistan is, after all, strategic for the United States. The U.S. needs foreign oil. Colin Powell implied on a radio show recently that the oil was a motivating factor in the invasion, when he said that the U.S. wanted a democratic nation in the Middle East as an oil supplier. Specifically, he said the following, from a transcript of the Westwood One radio show on May 27th:

Well, what we need is a more sensible energy policy .... But the fact of the matter is, because of our economy, because of our desire to use automobiles in the way that we do, and our desire for different kinds of automobiles, we are importing over 50 percent, closer to 58 percent, of our petroleum needs. And that comes from countries in the Middle East, the Gulf area .... We need stable regimes in this part of the world who will be partners and friends of ours, because the fact of the matter is we do rely on imported oil to fuel our economy and to fuel our nation .... And now what we ought to do is put in place a stable, democratic nation that will provide oil to the world market.

Powell concludes his line of reasoning with this comment:

That's not sending our troops overseas for oil. That's sending our troops overseas to put in place a democratic nation rested on a foundation of openness and human rights that will be a friend and partner of the United States.

And yet, if oil were not a motivating factor, why Iraq? Any such liberation mission would certainly be better directed at a target regime closer to home. If you're going to overthrow global norms about sovereignty and legitimate warfare, why start with a target that presents such moral hazard?

How close are we to Powell's goal, by way of Kurdistan? Despite a slightly rigged election in the Kurdish region over a decade ago, and no repeats of that process, the Kurdish region is commonly supposed to be a democracy already. So a Kurdistan with Kirkuk essentially completes Powell's formula. Kurdistan is an acceptably free and democratic oil state.

Beating the house, fleecing the suckers

One might say getting only a Kurdistan is a disappointment. Still, preparing for disappointment just goes with big-picture strategy in any game. In the ancient territorial game of Go, a proverb from Korea tells us "Don't throw an egg against a wall." When you see a wide open territory that you'd like to have all of, the wisest thing is to find the move that you believe guarantees you just a little more than half. America's military technology is second to none, but a mere 138,000 troops on the ground in a country the size of Iraq is an egg thrown against a wall. Ultimately, America needs solid allies there. Luckily, America has solid allies there: the Kurds.

America's bets are pretty decently hedged. They have been since the beginning. Bush Sr. was heard to mumble "What's the exit strategy?" early in the game There probably was an exit strategy: declare Kurdistan a partial victory, and retreat. It's not a strategy they could openly talk about, but it is a way out of Iraq that leave America with plenty of access to cheap oil, with some face-saving for all the talk about democracy in the Middle East (albeit not an Arab democracy), and with a much more relaxed long-term troop commitment in Iraq.

America still has a lot of leverage over the Iraq situation. The bets on the IGC are mostly from those with not much influence. What influence they had was considerably diluted by their cozy association with the CPA. They are suppossed to sculpt out Iraqi sovereignty? Sovereignty over what, exactly? Well, whatever it is, it needn't really include the Kurds, and the Kurds know it. What sort of Iraq does that leave? It's not clear. With so much uncertainty, all you'll see from the IGC is the sorts of high level government appointments you see in papal succession crises when the Catholic Church is divided against itself: Cardinals selecting a Pope with a vanishingly short shelf-life. Anything to keep that roulette wheel turning.