Surging Generals

With the long-overdue departure of Donald Rumsfeld (not to mention the arrival, come January 4, of some much-needed adult supervision from Congress), perhaps the defense establishment can engage an honest and open debate about Iraq. For the last week the punditocracy and the retired generals on the talking-head circuit have chattered on about the “surge,” the idea being that an additional insertion of 20,000 or so ground forces would turn the tide in Iraq.

That tide went out many, many months ago, and it’s not coming back in. We have two choices: issue an apology and leave; or continue to watch our blood and treasure disappear into the desert sands, never to return.

What is now being called “the surge” is nothing more nor less than Frank Rich, Thomas Friedman, and others have been writing about for some weeks now: it is code for an invasion de novo in Iraq. It is the only way, at this point, to secure the country so that the really critical job of building (and repairing) basic infrastructure can get properly under way.

Why the Orwellian euphemism? Because distortion of language is a lesson this Republican party has learned well; it is Karl Rove’s stock-in-trade. Because in the absence of any real plan or progress, the only alternative — Rumsfeld himself as much as admitted it in his “deathbed” memorandum — is to attempt to redefine (for example) “victory” downward. As so many other things in this sorry war foisted on the world by this sorry administration, this “only alternative” is so only when regarded through the Bush funhouse prism, the one that presents all of the decider’s decisions in stark Manichean terms, as the obvious selection from a set of false choices.

All of which brings us back to those talking generals: some indeed say that a “surge” would secure Baghdad (for example) to better enable the training of Iraqi troops and police and permit the rebuilding to continue apace, without the distraction of open warfare in the streets (and around the power plants). Others, more realistic, perhaps, point out that a surge is another band-aid, a tactical response to a strategic blunder.

The problem with the surge is not that it’s a flawed idea (it isn’t); it is that we haven’t sufficient ground forces nor matériel to accomplish the job. The surge is, rather, a “do-over,” a weak attempt to correct our initial strategic blunder (the invasion) and tactical error (assignment of insufficient resources) by trying, too long after the fact, to “get it right.” We had the men and equipment in 2003, but Rumsfeld insisted we didn’t need them; the results were disastrous. Now that we have created chaos where there was none; terrorists where there were none; and contempt in the wake of admiration; we have squandered our resources and our prestige, and there is no getting them back. Recovery of our national pride will not be had by doubling-down a bad bet, but by a frank and full confession of our error.

The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, up to the present day and into the foreseeable future under any circumstances, has been one enormous national humiliation. The executive lied, the legislature waffled, and the judiciary is doing its best to turn a blind eye to extra-legal excesses that are more effective at highlighting American hypocrisy than extracting intelligence or “keeping us safe” in any meaningful way. In short, democracy has failed and its true meaning bled away, drop by precious drop.

It would be refreshing if the debate, in Congress and on the opinion pages, included an acknowledgment of the real reason anyone is considering a surge: to forestall admission of “defeat” and thus preserve — for some segment of the voting public — the sense of “honor and dignity” that Bush promised to “restore” (as if it were ever missing). We have already been defeated, as much by our own hubris and want of planning as by any enemy; the only thing that remains, if our national honor is truly to be restored, is to issue an apology and walk away, chastened. It’s time for us to grow up and see ourselves as the world sees us.

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Vote counting

The debate over electronic votes — as noisy and as intellectually impoverished as it has been — has missed the central point, and the central problem. Many of the technologies being pushed — Diebold’s touch-screens come to mind — make the fatal error of conflating two distinct acts: the casting of votes, and the counting of the votes cast. The focus has been on counting, not casting: with accurate counting as the priority, the “new and improved” process is optimized for the convenience of the county clerk, whose (tedious) job it is to tally ballots.

This focus on counting misses the point of voting in the first place: if the first priority isn’t accurately recording the voter’s intent, accurate counting doesn’t count for much. If we were serious about solving (or at least mitigating) the problems that have made electronic balloting famous (or infamous) of late, we might try examining it as a system — with discrete component parts — rather than as a function. The essential components are, of course:

  1. Record the votes: The voter’s choice is accurately recorded, in fixed and tangible form. This means that a paper trail is required: simply displaying the choice on-screen won’t do.
  2. Count the votes: The recorded ballots are tallied, and (if necessary) tallied again. For the sake of simplicity, the paper ballots might be scanned, separated, and tallied; for the sake of accuracy, it might be worthwhile to employ multiple methods.

Much has been made of the need for paper trails, but even so the processes of casting and counting, of recording and tallying, coalesce into the single process of “voting.” A paper trail actually serves two distinct purposes: it verifies, to the voter, that the vote recorded is the vote he cast (see 1, above); and it provides a means of counting tangible, physical ballots (refer to 2, supra).

[Update: an editorial in The New York Times stresses the need for a paper trail and calls for Congress to act, after yet another election debacle in Florida.]
The fundamental difficulty, as noted above, is that the purchasing decisions are effectively made by the people who specify the equipment: the county clerks; and those decisions are heavily influenced by the equipment vendors, who often hire retiring clerks as “consultants” who can credibly lobby their former peers. Every interest, in short, is served save one: that of the voter.

What’s wrong with this picture?