Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

The Thinker

The roots of terrorism

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

The Thinker

Why do Republicans want to kill Planned Parenthood again?

It’s no longer news that Republicans aren’t tethered to reality. You might say they are the anti-reality party. Pretty much anything that is undeniable, they will deny it. They don’t believe climate change is happening. Evidence like increased carbon dioxide levels and steadily rising average temperatures won’t persuade them. Even rising sea levels that are already threatening Norfolk, Virginia won’t convince them.

They are a pretty reflexive party in that, like Pavlov’s dog, you know how they will react before they open their mouth. If President Obama says it’s good, for example, they will say it’s bad and therefore it must be opposed with all necessary force and vitriol. His multi-nation agreement with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for closer monitoring of their nuclear activities must be voted down because Obama’s name is on it. The alternative to not having an agreement is likely the collapse of sanctions against Iran by major countries and the rapid enrichment of Iran’s current nuclear stockpile. Republicans would rather have war against Iran instead, and it’s all in the interest of our (and Israel’s) national security somehow. Note that most of the yahoos pushing this approach also voted or advocated for the Iraq War in 2002. They have a great track record!

Now, a highly doctored video showing representatives of Planned Parenthood suggesting they might be able to provide parts of aborted fetuses for research (which they already do in some cases) has Republicans in Congress racing to pass legislation taking away all federal funding for the organization. This is much more important than, say, passing a multi-year funding bill for the Highway Trust Fund or passing appropriations so the government won’t shut down again on October 1. The bill is necessary they say to show their disgust for Planned Parenthood in general and their abortions in particular. Never mind that federal law does not allow a dime of federal money to provide any abortion services by Planned Parenthood or any other organization. It’s been this way for more than a decade. In their pique they now want to make sure Planned Parenthood doesn’t use federal money for any activities, like providing birth control to poor people.

Obviously I’m not the brightest person on the planet but I’m pretty sure that if poor people can’t get contraceptives for free or at a reduced cost, they’re probably not going to embrace celibacy. Instead lots of poor women are going to get pregnant that would not have otherwise. And some of them will choose to get an abortion rather than carry the pregnancy to term. Since zero federal money is going to Planned Parenthood for abortions (and only 3% of their funds are used for abortion services) it’s likely many of these women will go to Planned Parenthood or other abortion clinics for abortions instead. This will mean that their actions will only increase abortions.

Moreover, to the extent that limited parts of fetuses (most are not much larger than a kidney bean) are provided for medical research now, because of these actions there will be more available in the future. Those women that don’t get abortions are more likely to raise poor children, who will probably need social services. Republicans clearly hate women, abortions and poor people, so it’s hard to imagine a more counterproductive act than this. However, given the way they reacted to the agreement with Iran, it’s just more par for their course.

In response to all of this, I am giving more money to Planned Parenthood. Maybe in doing so I can help keep some of these women from getting pregnant. Long ago while pondering the best use of the money I give to charity, Planned Parenthood went to the top. It’s hard to imagine a better use of my money. Consider:

  • It empowers women. By being able to get free or reduced birth control, they have greater freedom and control over their lives.
  • It strengthens families and relationships
  • It allows these people to have a higher standard of living
  • It reduces social services and costs borne by the taxpayers
  • It reduces infrastructure costs, reducing the need for new houses, roads, bridges, shopping malls, etc.
  • It’s environmentally friendly
  • Contraception prevents abortions in the first place. This should make both pro-life and pro-choice people happy because it supports their goals.

So Congress’s likely actions will wreak more havoc that will inescapably increase the number of abortions. It will unnecessarily add to our misery as a country. And it won’t retard the use of fetal tissues in medical research.

So nice going Congressional Republicans! You remain as consistent as always promoting your agenda. Your reflexive actions here offer us more of the same counterproductive results Americans have come to expect from you. It’s not surprising then that a recent Pew poll found the fewest number of Americans approving of the Republican Party in decades (just 32%).

It also sounds like you are going to get one hell of a karmic wallop come elections next year. Don’t tell me then that you didn’t see this coming.

The Thinker

Future errata on the news

No special topic for today’s post, just some quick thoughts about the news of the day and what I believe the story behind the story will be. With luck my precognition will be proven by subsequent events, and these will be errata indeed:

  • On the invitation by Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress: This isn’t about the supposed threat that Iraq’s nuclear weapon program poses to Israel’s existence. Congress doesn’t need additional convincing on that. This is about Republicans, and House Republicans in particular, having a snit with President Obama because basically they loathe him and can’t figure out any other way to kick him in the balls. They don’t respect him or his administration, even before he came to office. In short, this is institutional passive aggressive behavior. It is also very unwise as it sets a new and dangerous precedence that our country will speak on foreign policy with multiple voices. (Executing foreign policy is constitutionally the responsibility of the Executive branch.) This is also about Speaker Boehner trying to gain some leverage with his mostly out of control Tea Party wing. It helps shows that he is manly and serious in ways that they can appreciate. If I were a Democrat in Congress, I’d boycott attending. However, I don’t expect a critical mass of Democrats will do this, as they proved in the 2014 election that they are quite spineless.
  • On the allegation in David Alexrod’s new book that President Obama hid his support for gay marriage in the 2008 campaign: no duh! It was clear to us Democrats that he was for gay marriage, but he felt it was too dangerous to say so publicly at the time as it would have adversely affected his campaign. What was evolving was not his opinions, but the American people’s opinions. He was waiting for us to catch up. So, yes, he was being disingenuous, but no more than most politicians. In fact, most of the Republicans who claim to be upset about gay marriage really don’t care too much about it either; they just don’t want to upset their base, or really what the think is their base, i.e. the noisy (i.e. politically active) ones.
  • On funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out at the end of February: in the end Republicans will cave, probably sooner rather than later. Even if the House bill gets out of the Senate, which won’t happen, the President will veto it. The egg won’t be on Obama’s face as it plays out, because Americans overwhelmingly support his interim steps for immigration reform. So this is a losing issue for Republicans. Republicans will probably go for a series of 30 day funding mechanisms, until enough of them realize it just makes them look stupid, and then they’ll capitulate.
  • On the Obama Administration’s hope that a reinvigorated Iraqi army — with plenty of American advisors safely out of firing range to act as coaches –will retake Mosul from ISIS: it ain’t going to happen. The Iraqi army is a joke because there is no country called Iraq and because more desertions happen monthly than recruits coming in. What there is is a marginally governable country that should be called Shi’ite Iraq. To the extent that they will retake land it will be in traditionally Shi’ite dominated areas of that former country. What’s really happening is what I predicted in 2006: Iraq is being fractured into a number of religiously orthodox and ethnically pure countries: Shi’ite Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State. It won’t be external forces that kill the Islamic State. It will be resistance from within when residents get sick of the overwhelming terror and (worse) the paucity of first world services like satellite TV. Neighboring countries will try to nudge this to happen sooner rather than later by making living in the IS more undesirable. The IS will either have to adopt into something marginally politically acceptable in the Middle East or it will eventually die a natural death. A state that does not operate like a state, i.e. with some uniformity and ability to provide basic services, is not a real state. I doubt it will be around five years from now regardless of what is done or not done.
  • On the reemergence of diseases like measles because certain parents can’t or won’t get their children immunized: never underestimate the power of shame and conformity. Americans are all for freedom until someone else’s freedom hurts their kids. If just one kid dies in America because someone kid’s parent refused to get their kid immunized, the remaining states will quickly fall in line and require all children to be inoculated against preventable diseases. The only question is where the set point is these days, as most Americans have no living memory of mass diseases like the measles. Smart Republican politicians are already walking back their talking points because disease knows no political boundaries. The parents of a Republican kid who comes down with the measles will be just as pissed-off Democratic parents in this situation, once they get over their own shame. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, particularly when we are certain that immunizations are safe and effective.
  • On the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as our next president: I am not convinced. The more I study her, the more things I find to dislike about her. The more Americans focus on her and the more they study her, the more that have second thoughts as well. If Republicans were smart, they would nominate a mainstream woman to run against her, perhaps Carly Fiorina to help negate the frustration by women that we never had a female president. Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans usually go stupid when picking a nominee. Still, a convincing mainstream Republican like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Indiana Governor Mike Pence could win in 2016. That’s what the sensible establishment Republicans are figuring, which is why they are throwing money into PACs for Jeb and trying to make him the likely nominee. If Clinton stumbles, right now the Democrats best bet is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, because he is known for crossing the aisles and for taking unpopular positions, assuming Webb does not try a third party route. That’s credibility, and it’s what Americans are desperately looking for. I don’t expect though that Democrats will be in the mood to go with a mainstream candidate.
The Thinker

Obama’s strategy is a pretty poor strategy

Dear President Obama,

Can we go back to a lack of strategy regarding the Islamic State? Of course you were ridiculed by much of the media (and naturally Republicans) when the Islamic State started beheading American (and now a British) journalists and you confessed the United States did not have a strategy. Now apparently we have one. I realize I am in a significant minority of Americans, most of whom overwhelmingly support us going to war with the Islamic State. But I’d really prefer a lack of a strategy compared with your current strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State.

It’s not that I object to the idea of getting rid of the Islamic State. It’s the methods that you are using that are unworkable. For the moment it involves a lot of American air power. Presumably dropping all these munitions is part of a “degrade” strategy. All I see is the tail wagging the dog. We are doing just what the Islamic State wants us to do.

It’s the same thing that Osama bin Laden wanted us to do after 9/11. He succeeded. It got our dander all up and before long we were invading Afghanistan and we compounded our mistake by also invading Iraq. Have we destroyed al Qaeda? Obviously not. Have we degraded it? Perhaps. Most obviously though we have not so much degraded it as fractured it. To cope, al Qaeda became a series of snakes rather than one snake. With no central leadership, it is now harder to kill. We’ve lobbed hundreds of cruise missiles at al Qaeda encampments in Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan and elsewhere. We even took out Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment for which you deserve praise. And yet despite hundreds of billions spent, and trillions in eventual costs, al Qaeda is very much alive. The Islamic State is basically an offshoot of al Qaeda. As far as al Qaeda is concerned, the Islamic State is too radical.

So apparently firepower alone, and even the presence of more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops in Iraq was not nearly enough to stop terrorism and sectarian violence. What our muscle does though is make us look like an Axis of Evil, fueling the recruitment of terrorists ready to fight and die for a holy mission, which is exactly what the Islamic State wants. Munitions can be replaced. They have the means to replace anything we blow up, and much of their money is actually coming from so-called friendly states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. To grow and keep growing they need more recruits for the cause, and all the fighting is certainly doing that. Muslims across Europe and even here in the United States are going to join the mayhem, and plenty more in the immediate area are also anxious to wreak holy war. Had we not invaded Iraq it’s unlikely the Islamic State would even exist.

We invaded Iraq in order to stop non-existent collaboration between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. By turning it into a lawless country, we allowed al Qaeda to establish a real foothold in the place. Ten years later it resulted in the Islamic State, which we now want to beat into submission using the same tactics that failed to work in the past. This is an effective strategy? No, it’s the failure to learn from past mistakes. It is folly.

Mr. President, I understand the pressure you are getting. Americans are seeing these grisly videos on YouTube, so cleverly produced by the Islamic state. They are carefully designed to outrage us and push our buttons. It worked. Americans want action. I was certainly revolted by the beheading of two American journalists. My instinctive reaction was the same as most Americans: let’s show them who’s boss by dropping some bombs. An eye for an eye. When I thought about it logically though, I looked at how great it is working out for Israel. That nation does not have peace. It has indefinite and increasingly painful warfare punctured by months or perhaps years of a pseudo-peace. Degrading and destroying the Islamic State the way we plan to do it is simply setting us up for future complex and increasingly worsening games of whack-a-mole. In the long term this does not make us safer, or make the world a more peaceful place. It worsens, not helps, our national security.

Any civilized person is going to think that beheading anyone is beyond outrageous and should not be tolerated. It is, of course, evil. And two Americans so far have suffered this grisly fate. What really bugs us though is that it happened to Americans. We were far less concerned about when Saddam Hussein’s police were doing it. If I had my option, I’d much rather be beheaded than suffer the fate Iraqis routinely experienced under Saddam Hussein. His torturers routinely cut off limbs, made people endure acid baths and even boiled people alive in acid baths. Sometimes this was done in front of their families. We’re not talking about a couple of people; we are talking tens of thousands, and likely a lot more. Only they were Iraqis, not Americans. At least with a beheading, death comes quickly.

While we find such punishments abhorrent (well, except for the Dick Cheney’s of the world, who are quite comfortable with waterboarding), this is par for the course in the Middle East. Beheadings happen regularly in Saudi Arabia. Syria tortures. Iran tortures. The new government of Iraq tortures, mostly Sunnis because the Shi’ites are now in charge. What’s unusual is finding a government in that region that does not torture. Like Americans venturing into North Korea, Americans who travel to these countries in the Middle East have to have some reasonable expectation that they will suffer fates like these too.

We cannot install civilization in this area. We cannot put sufficient forces on the ground to control this region, as we proved in Iraq. For all the current calls for retribution from Americans today, they won’t support a long-term occupation of this area and we can’t afford it.

I realize you are under pressure to show some results. Americans want instant results. We cannot win this fight, at least not like this. This is not a problem that can be controlled. America must give up the fantasy that we can order the world to suit our prejudices and predispositions. Trying to wage this war on the ground through proxies, which is how you want to proceed, is a strategy with virtually no chance of success. It’s a hopelessly tangled mess that we cannot and should not sort out.

Mr. President, part of the art of leadership is to candidly acknowledge what is possible and what is not possible. This is not possible. You should tell us American this bluntly. Let’s do what we can do to make things less miserable for those affected. Let’s make life better for the refugees. But please don’t think that we can solve this problem. We can’t and attempting to do so will only make things worse for us in the long term.

You of all people should understand this.

Stop it. Change course now. Tell America you have rethought your strategy. Let it be.

The Thinker

Obama’s lack of a strategy so far is a pretty good strategy

Yikes! It’s almost the end of August and I haven’t written anything about politics this month! I thought retirement would give me all this extra time to blog, but so far it has not been the case. About half of the month has been spent on vacation, which I blogged about, and the other half of this first month of “retirement” has been acting as Mr. Handyman and general property manager as we stumble through the process of getting our house ready for sale.

Not that there isn’t a lot to talk about. President Obama tried to take a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard while events were (literally) exploding in Syria and Iraq, the Ukraine, Libya, the Gaza Strip and Ferguson, Missouri. Obama got bad press for going golfing right after making statements and for not being in Washington during all of this, as if a President is not trailing three hundred plus people with him on vacation to allow him to work remotely, or he couldn’t be back in the White House in an hour if needed. (Curious that these same people don’t criticize him for taking foreign trips, unless there is some domestic crisis underway.) Most lately, he is criticized for wearing a tan suit at a press conference.

All this is piffle of course. It’s probably not a good photo op to show the president swinging golf clubs after making serious statements about the Islamic State. Perhaps the most serious charge laid recently against the president is his self confessed lack of a strategy dealing with the Islamic State, which lately has been imitating our waterboarding during the occupation of Iraq, not to mention grisly beheading an American journalist.

While Obama supposedly dithers, most of the Republicans already have a strategy. Typical of the proposed strategies is one opined by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who wants us to bomb the Islamic State “back into the Stone Age”. This strategy is not surprising from a party that exercises power principally through bullying. If your weapon of choice is the club, it becomes your solution to everything.

Let’s rewind here. When we invaded Iraq, we exercised a “shock and awe” strategy that proved our mighty ability to scare people, destroyed their government, and resulted in a real al Qaeda in Iraq, which had no presence in the country prior to our invasion. Why did they rush in? Because we were there and because there was a power vacuum. Their presence helped energize groups like ISIS/ISIL. We could try to bomb the Islamic State into the Stone Age, but it’s kind of hard when they are using a lot of our leftover munitions and armored personnel carriers. Unless the quality of our munitions and equipment is more inferior than believed, this is probably not a great strategy. So naturally, according to Republicans anyhow, the way to get rid of the Islamic State is to do more of what failed us before!

The United States is not the only country in the region suffering from this cognitive dissonance. There is also Israel, which of course we provide with plenty of lethal munitions, mostly at our expense, which has been used to kill over two thousand Gazans in their latest war with Hamas, many of them innocent children. There now appears to be a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which left the political situation pretty much the same as after their previous war in 2009. One thing though has not changed: all that murder from the skies and from Israeli soldiers has simply fueled more hatred that will ensure more wars like this in the years ahead. Hamas is hardly wiped out and predictably both Hamas and Israel are claiming victories that did not in fact occur. Hamas was not wiped out because it is driven by an ideology that is compelling to many in that region. Being around to fight another day against a vastly superior military force is victory enough for Hamas.

There is no lasting peace possible through strength in our modern world, not that Republicans will ever understand this. Sane people of course are intimidated by the application of overwhelming force, but if there are enough people that put ideology over sanity, the conflict will continue. Probably ninety percent of Gazans would be happy if Hamas were overthrown, but it doesn’t matter if ten percent don’t and are willing to put their lives at risk to continue the conflict.

Bombing the Islamic State into the Stone Age may degrade its ability to wage war, but it will only fuel the mindset that will ensure future wars like this. Obama’s lack of a strategy is simply a timeout to figure out a strategy that might actually help solve the larger problem. The problem in a nutshell: how to cool the ideological fever that is causing the conflict in this region.

I suspect that Obama’s emerging strategy is a lot like mine. The main thing to understand is that most of the chaos in the Middle East is a result of our tinkering with the power structures that were already in place. Doing more of the same is unlikely to make things better but based on experience is almost guaranteed to make things worse, which it has. It fueled the breakup of Iraq and brought the Islamic State into existence.

It’s a bad chessboard for trying to make a move. In my humble opinion, the best strategy may be not quite benign neglect, but minimal involvement and using proxies where they exist, such as moderate forces battling in Syria. Which is kind of what we are already doing, albeit not to great effect so far. We can certainly work hard to cut off the source of funding for the Islamic State. We can try to keep their oil off the market, and we can try to influence states like Qatar that are helping to keep the state in business not to do so. It makes all the sense in the world to keep Americans far away from the Islamic State and to warn Americans who do go there that their lives are in jeopardy and their lives will not be ransomed.

Another exercise in feel good muscular diplomacy will have the same predictable consequences it had in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. It was a strategy that worked in World War One and World War Two, because we were working with well-defined nation-states. Because this was effective, wars are now mainly waged through paramilitary proxies that are ideologically driven. They are much harder to win because the enemy is so diffuse. You can’t kill an idea, but you can sap its energy.

Winning is a generational game, and it begins by not emulating tactics that have proven disastrous in the past. We will win these wars probably 80% through diplomacy, 20% through force of arms, and through proxies of our own that we nurture and support. That sounds like a strategy that might actually work, but it will be hard to sell. There are no instant results but if anything is likely to actually eventually work, it will.

I hope our very intelligent president and I are on the same page, which I think we are. In a way, Obama is blessed with a term limit because he can do what is right without worrying about the political consequence. I hope he does.

The Thinker

Iraq: what now?

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.

The Thinker

A bad dream realized: Iraq 10 years later

Sometimes you hate being right. Today on the 10th anniversary of our counterproductive invasion of Iraq, I looked back on my post dated March 17, 2003 are realized, tragically, I called this war right from the start.

Ideology is dangerous. If you have ideology, you don’t have to worry about whether an action is advised or ill advised. You know you are right because your ideology tells you that you are right. That’s the sort of immovable force that is George W. Bush. Morality has become a substitute for critical thinking. Circled by his coterie of advisers who only reinforce his inclinations, he does not feel dissent. When antiwar protesters come to town he is conveniently at Camp David.

If you have ideology you can pretend that our forces spread out across Iraq won’t be a target for every fanatical Muslim in the region, and there are plenty. You can pretend that because we can “liberate” Iraq, that the Iraqi people will love us, even though they hold us responsible for years of sanctions. You can ignore the minor problem that Muslims will consider our occupation something like a holy war, and that they will see us as Christians on a Crusade.

This is what “your either with us or against us” gets us as a nation: virtually the whole world is against our preemptive war. Close to half of the American people are against it too. This sort of attitude causes only further polarization, making compromise impossible.

I am deeply ashamed of our president, and aghast at what our country is about to do in the name of peace. We will not have peace, we will only be throwing more gasoline on the fire. Why do they hate us? We will be giving them plenty more reasons, rest assured.

Please tell me this isn’t happening. Please tell me this is all a bad dream.

To the people of Iraq: I am so ashamed by what we did to you and your country. Some of us tried really hard to stop this counterproductive war. Sadly, we were drowned out by an overwhelming chorus of “if you are not with us, you are against us” so-called patriots. Still we marched, we hollered, we wrote our representatives, we petitioned. It was just not enough.

The Thinker

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

The Thinker

Our Afghanistan folly

So General Stanley McChrystal has been fired by President Obama for remarks to a Rolling Store reporter that disparaged he and top officials. General David Petraeus will assume his duties as the top commander in Afghanistan. Obama is expecting that Petraeus will succeed in Afghanistan like he “succeeded” in Iraq.

There is no question that Petraeus made a bad situation much better in Iraq. However, it is premature to call Iraq a success. Bombings, ethnic and religious-driven murders continue daily in Iraq, albeit at a reduced level compared to the height of violence in 2006 and 2007. Its government remains shaky at best, corrupt and unable to provide many basic services, including dependable electricity. With luck, something resembling a real and stable government may eventually emerge.

We won’t care. Once the last American troops leave Iraq, it will become just a bad memory. Of course, we don’t really plan to wholly exit Iraq. The 50,000 troops that remain are there primarily as catastrophe insurance. Fifty thousand troops won’t help much should Iraq devolve into a large scale civil war, but if used strategically they might prevent a fragile country from devolving back into a civil war. At least the level of violence is down in Iraq. However, this is largely due to our withdrawal. It’s harder to work up a dander when the people you hate the most are no longer patrolling your neighborhoods and killing your friends and neighbors.

Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different cultures and climates, but they do share some similarities. Both have a history of corruption, shaky governments, foreign occupations and playing pawn in larger superpower conflicts. The success of the otherwise reviled Taliban was in part due to their ability to inject something like rule of law in a country that rarely had it before. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan quite qualifies as countries because there is not enough commonality to bind together the ethnic factions into something resembling a nation. Nationhood seems only possible during dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s or when inflicted by repressive local powers like the Taliban. Resistance to foreign occupation is the major uniting factor among these disparate tribes. Loose federations are a more natural fit than strong centralized government, when they work at all.

So given this history, what can we expect in the way of accomplishments in Afghanistan from the wonderful General Petraeus? It’s not hard to figure out and we are seeing it unfold already. First, the government (to the extent it exists) will continue to be corrupt. Petraeus really cannot do anything about that. Second, the level of violence and our casualties will be directly proportional to the number of our troops in the country. Third, and this is really what matters the most, anything we do to bring about a stable government will at best have a very temporary effect.

Since the country has no history of strong and effective central government, in all likelihood the Afghanistan we imagine will never evolve into it. Yet, without an effective central government, any hope we have that its government will, by proxy, control the Taliban for us is just not possible.

Petraeus will try strategies similar to those he used in Iraq. Those strategies have had mixed success. Some of the local Sunni militias that he sponsored felt betrayed when the U.S. withdrew, leaving them outnumbered by larger groups of Shi’ites out to wreak revenge. Expect Petraeus to say that we cannot start to bring troops home in 2011. President Obama seems to already be tacitly agreeing, saying that people are getting too wrapped up around dates. In short, the groundwork is being prepared for an even more extended American occupation. On the surface, this is kind of nuts because our war in Afghanistan is now our longest war. In a few months, we will be beginning our tenth year of war in the country.

This strategy is something akin to making a basket from center court on a first try. It is theoretically possible, but the odds are maybe one in five hundred. Why is our strategy doomed? There are too many risky variables.

  • First, the vast majority of Afghans see us as hostile occupiers, not friends. Why would you take advice from your enemy?
  • Second, corruption is everywhere and deep seated. Our military is contributing to it by giving payola to warlords there to move supplies in.
  • Third, the strong central government we crave has never really existed in Afghanistan before. If it can be created at all, it will take decades to achieve, not eighteen months. Still, this throw from center court might be worth taking if it could be attempted at a reasonable cost, but it is already proving ruinous. Since 2001, we have spent around $280 billion just on our war in Afghanistan.
  • Fourth, the Afghan army is even less coherent than Iraq’s army, rife with the usual corruption and frequently absent if not wholly indifferent soldiers.
  • Fifth, the American people already realize the war is lost, and don’t support it.
  • Sixth, if it can work at all, it will likely take decades and trillions more dollars. We have neither the money nor the time.

At best, Petraeus will stabilize the situation for a short while. However, in the end he cannot possibly achieve the goals Obama laid out. He will be exceptionally lucky if he can succeed just to the extent he did in Iraq. No general, no matter how committed and brilliant, can lead a people or a country to a place they do not want to go.

President Obama is a smart man so he should be smart enough to realize his strategy is doomed. Afghanistan has trapped many a political leader in a box. He will be just another and it may in retrospect be seen as his most unwise action as president.

We need to cut our losses and just get out.

The Thinker

Iraq’s holding pattern

On the fifth anniversary of our invasion,it is hard to escape the fact that most Americans are busy tuning out the Iraq War. The Iraq War is old news. Yesterday, it was hard to muster even a few dozen war protestors for a demonstration in front of the Internal Revenue Service. While more sectarian death in Iraq is hardly news, reckless philandering by a call-girl happy governor is news and so much more interesting.

I do not mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten about the Iraq War. By large margins, Americans agree that going into Iraq was a mistake and want us to withdraw. Only the fools who instigated this war like President Bush and Vice President Cheney remain in denial. President Bush said yesterday that the surge “opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror”. I want whatever he is snorting; it must be pricier than Elliot Spitzer’s call girls. Also yesterday, Vice President Cheney took time from his busy schedule to sneer at the American people. Asked by ABC News for a reaction to polls that consistently show two thirds of the public oppose the Iraq War he rejoined, “So?” A small majority of Americans now think that we could ultimately succeed if we stayed in Iraq long enough. Yet the public does not want to hang around long enough to see if it can happen. Maybe the ten billion dollars a month that our occupation is costing has something to do with our calculus.

The Iraq War has become the crazy old grandmother in our nation’s attic. We find it convenient not to talk too much about it. Our reaction is understandable if not childish. Just as Germans found it was hard to talk about the Holocaust after World War II, so we find it hard to stay engaged on our folly. In some ways, it was easier to stay engaged when things were getting worse. For the price of his surge, Bush at least bought himself at some relief from the incessant questions of his decision to invade Iraq. Instead, we find ourselves focused on some of other catastrophically bad decisions his administration made which are much closer to home, like skyrocketing gas prices, a falling dollar and our plunging stock market.

President Bush of course wants you to believe his surge is not just working, but will actually bring peace to Iraq. Here is what is working for sure in Iraq: ethnic cleansing. Before our invasion, ethnically mixed areas in Iraq were commonplace. Few cared whether a Sunni married a Shi’ite. Now, only a handful of mixed neighborhoods remain. The result is that Baghdad has been transformed into hundreds of smaller cities all but a handful of which are either Shi’ite or Sunni. Mini cinder block Berlin walls separate these enclaves. Within its citizens are generally safer than they were when they were ethnically mixed. The dubious success of ethnic cleansing (which we did not succeed in preventing earlier in the war) is responsible for much of this reduction in violence. Our forces have also been blessed by decisions of some militias, like Moqtada al-Sadr’s, to refrain from violence.

Unquestionably, considerable violence was quelled because of the surge. Bush and General Petraeus can take credit for this. In itself, it is not too surprising. It is hardly a novel strategy. When crime rates spike in the District of Columbia, police go on overtime and saturate crime prone areas with cops until crime levels drop. With enough force, you can win a rough peace anywhere. The problem is it is a faux peace. The thorny political problems remain. Only three of the eighteen political benchmarks we laid out for the Iraqi government has been achieved. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament is planning another two-month vacation. They might as well go on vacation since they seem unable to agree on much of anything. In truth their parliament is quite representative. Their inability to agree on much of anything shows that the country of Iraq is simply a fiction.

What about those “concerned local citizens”? These small police and military forces are in primarily Sunni areas of the country. It is true that they have largely gained the upper hand against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda though remains a tiny fraction of the unstable forces in the region. What is less reported is how such cooperation was achieved. Sunnis are cooperating with American forces for two important reasons. First, Shi’ite militias were succeeding. Sunnis were losing their civil war and needed help anywhere they could get to survive. They found it convenient to make the Americans their friends. Cooperating with us became better than extinction. Second, they were bribed. Those concerned local citizens did not spontaneously come together, but found common cause only when we started handing them money and arms.

The Iraqi Army remains largely ineffectual. For all practical purposes, it can be considered a Shi’ite militia, and not a very good one at that. They show all the sterling qualities of the South Vietnamese Army, only they are not nearly as good. Few of their battles are waged independently. Most are done in cooperation with American forces. The surge has helped “concerned local citizens” deal with their own security problems by providing the necessary guns, ammunition and training needed to control behavior. All factions seem to tacitly agree on one thing: they do not want to agree to solve their thorny problems. Their real loyalty is to their ethnicity, not their country.

The reality is that Iraq has already self-segregated into three ethnic states, only its boundaries are still fluid, particularly within Baghdad. As I predicted, in areas where our military forces were densest, terrorists and insurgents relocated to areas that are more favorable. Currently these are cities like Karbala, Kirkuk and Mosul. 160,000 troops is a lot, but it cannot pacify all of Iraq. The civil war, well underway before the surge began, has at best been postponed. However, no occupation force can stay forever. The Iraqi government shows no willingness to actually govern their nation. They cannot even come to consensus on some of their most basic problems, like the division of oil revenues. This means of course that the country of Iraq is dead and cannot be resuscitated. It existed as long as Saddam Hussein ruled. It was doomed to fall apart when he was overthrown.

Force of arms and infinite patience will not force the shards of Iraq back into a coherent shape. The surge has helped to reduce the level of violence. What is needed now is an imperfect end to our occupation. It will not come from this president, but I expect the next one will implement a withdrawal strategy similar to what I penned last September. For a limited time, we should facilitate the desire of Iraqis who want to move safely from one ethnic area to another. We should do our best to police the boundaries of these new states. Then we should withdraw a few divisions every month until we are gone. With luck we may find some other international forces to take our place.

On one thing, I am certain: a year from now under a new president we will at least have begun a real withdrawal from Iraq.


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