Peace offers are for losers

The pro-war blogosphere is full of the news of Sadr’s defeat in the battle for Basra, manifested in his call for a truce, an end to government raids and the release of all prisoners. Here’s a roundup of the links from Glenn Reynolds. Reynolds, who has chronicled Sadr’s decline into irrelevance from 2004 to the present, is a bit more circumspect than he has been in the past, saying “it’s likely a blink, not a major defeat.”, but most of the bloggers he links to are unrestrained in their triumph.

Among the points I’ve picked up, illustrating the magnitude of the victory

* The number of Iraqi police and military who have defected to Sadr has been much exaggerated, and most of them were bad lots anyway

* The body count ratio looks really good

* Attacks on the Green Zone are a desperate fling, easily countered by staying indoors and wearing full body armor at all times

* The proportion of Basra controlled by the Mehdi Army has not increased much since the conflict began

* The proportion of Basra controlled by militias and criminal gangs (approximately 100 per cent) has not increased at all since the conflict began

* Much of the ground lost by the government elsewhere in Iraq has been recaptured

* The fact that the purported basis of the government’s action (an attack on criminal elements peripherally associated with various militias), endorsed by the US, is a transparent fiction, covering an attempt by one set of militias to weaken another, hasn’t worried anyone too much

* Allowing for the necessity of air attacks on densely populated areas, civilian casualties have been modest, ensuring the the popularity of the US and British forces will increase still further

* Maliki is still in Basra, proving the failure of Sadr’s attempts to oust him

But the crucial point underlying all of the argument is, that, simply by offering a truce, Sadr has proved he isn’t winning. After all, peace offers are for losers.

Verbing the adjectivised abstraction

I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: Fall of a Dynasty about the Indian Rebellion of 1857 with great interest. The complacent reports of the British commanders as they went about destroying the last remnants of independent Indian power are startlingly reminiscent of the “Good News from Iraq” we got so much of in 2003, and which was briefly revived during the now collapsing surge/awakening/truce. More generally, Dalrymple gives an evocative account of the Mughal court on the eve of destruction.

But I was, perhaps unfairly, amused by Dalrymple’s introduction where he extols the merits of archival research, as against the kind of “subaltern history” that pads out existing secondary sources with large dollops of theory to produce more or less interchangeable articles with titles of the general form “Othering the Imagined Construct” (feel free to permute the parts of speech to derive your own). I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this is better or worse than the old standby “Nonsensical Phrase Drawn From Primary Source: Random Word, Random Word, and the Actual Topic of this Book, or the generic economic article of the form “Hot Current Idea, Established Field and Putative Application”.

Forced to fight renegades

The Maliki government’s offensive in Basra, directed against (some) Shiite militias seems to have taken most observers by surprise. Possibly as a result, reporting of the event has been unusually revealing about the implicit presumptions that guide the news we get to read. The New York Times, for example, leads with a photo of “Fighters loyal to renegade Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr”, taking up positions in Basra. Later on, the article notes

If the cease-fire were to unravel, there is little doubt about the mayhem that could be stirred up by Mr. Sadr, who forced the United States military to mount two bloody offensives against his fighters in 2004

Like most of the other militia leaders in Iraq (including the leaders of mercenary militias like Blackwater), Sadr is not a particularly attractive character. But in what possible sense can he be described as a “renegade”? He was a consistent opponent of Saddam and became a consistent opponent of the US occupation. This might justify descriptions like “rebel” or “recalcitrant”, but Sadr is one of the few Iraqi figures who hasn’t switched sides, in many cases more than once.

More important though, is the second paragraph. The US was not, in any sense, forced to launch the 2004 offensives. These were miniature wars of choice within the broader war of choice in Iraq. The assumption was that Sadr’s supporters could be crushed by military force, leaving the way open for the US occupation government to reshape Iraq along the lines it wanted. In the end, after much bloodshed, nothing was achieved. Arrest warrants for Sadr, the pretext for the first offensive, quietly disappeared when they became inconvenient, and much the same happened the second time around.

We are now seeing a repeat of the same strategy, adopted by the Maliki government. On past performance, the likely pattern will be one of initial success, followed by a lot of tough talk, and then a bloody stalemate, ending in a patched-up compromise.

Easter reflections

An early edition of reflections for the Easter long weekend. Write on any topic, or just “what I did for Easter”. Feel free to write at greater length than for a standard comment thread. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

The secret case for privatisation

Ross Gittins had a piece in the SMH yesterday offering an intriguing line of defence for the privatisation proposals of the Iemma government, in the face of attacks from me and Nicholas Gruen. As Gittins concedes Iemma’s arguments, based on the idea that the sale will protect the states AAA rating and allow for new investment in infrastructure, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

He starts off promisingly enough

You don’t have to be very bright to pick holes in the arguments Morris Iemma and Michael Costa have been using to sell their plan to privatise electricity.

But it seems you have to be wiser than some of our brightest economists to comprehend the deeper issues involved … Various economists, including Professor John Quiggin of Queensland University and Dr Nicholas Gruen of Lateral Economics, lost no time in blowing these arguments out of the water. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to my learned friends that they’ve been busy demolishing a straw man. They may be economic geniuses, but they have more to learn about the politics of economics.

The line implied here and spelt out later on is that, while the ostensible case for privatisation is nonsense, there are deeper reasons which Iemma can’t acknowledge, but which provide a compelling case. It sounds promising. Unfortunately, Gittins makes rather a rhetorical mess of things.

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White knights

It’s just been announced that JP Morgan will buy Bear Stearns for $2 a share, implying a value of about $250 million. Given that the company headquarters is said to be worth about $1.2 billion, that gives the BS banking business a value of negative $1 billion. And that’s only after the Fed agreed to take on $30 billion worth of toxic waste from the BS portfolio, politely described as “less-liquid assets.â€?

Clearly, under any normal circumstances, a company like this would have been left to go bankrupt. The problem is that this would jam up the entire credit market because BS is a counterparty in a vast range of transactions with other banks. (We debated this issue a month ago here and at CT with a number of commentators arguing that the problem of counterparty risk was not such a big deal).

Some light relief is provided by the announcement by Standard & Poors, the day before Bear imploded, that the worst was over. This will go down with Irving Fisher’s comment in late 1929, that the stock market had reached “what looks like a permanently high plateau”. But at least Fisher wasn’t being paid to judge the stock market. Surely it’s now time to kill off the quasi-official role of the ratings agencies, as Justin Fox has just argued in Time

Looking ahead, the limits of the white knight strategy employed in this case must be approaching. JPM will take a while digesting this mess, and Bank of America has already done its bit when it agreed to rescue Countrywide. The other big banks have their own problems. Any future maidens in distress will have to look directly to Uncle Sam for a rescue.

Update Readers used to the natural order of things might be concerned by the implication that with such a giveaway price, the top brass at BS might be forced to bear the financial consequences of events that were obviously beyond their control. Never fear. According to this Reuters report in the Guardian, while most employees up to junior executive levels will lose both their jobs and the shares they were encouraged to buy, with no “golden parachutes”:

JPMorgan Chief Financial Officer Mike Cavanagh late Sunday said taking over Bear would generate about $6 billion in merger-related costs.
JPMorgan has not broken down those figures, but much of that will be earmarked for severance pay and potential exit packages for top executives like Schwartz.
A person familiar with the transaction told Reuters that roughly $1 billion of those costs would be earmarked for severance and retention.