Chemical weapons: bad. Barrel bombs: okay

The Thinker by Rodin

Of course it was only a matter of time before Trump decided to flex our nation’s military might. Predictably his actions turned out to be both scary and counterproductive and predictably it happened as his poll numbers were dropping like a stone. Thursday’s launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in Syria got most of the press. The attack was a response to a chemical weapons attack Tuesday on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, which killed dozens of people, including children. It was these images of dead children that reportedly drove Trump to order an attack on the Syrian air base. The base is believed to have been used as a launching point by the Syrian air force for that chemical weapons attack.

What got less press but was an earlier and far more deadly U.S.-led airstrike in Mosul, Iraq that reportedly killed 272 people, an attack in magnitude far greater than Syrian president Assad inflicted on his own people in this latest chemical attack. The Mosul attack killed mostly innocent civilians. At least some of the deaths were blamed on booby-trapped houses created by the Islamic State. This attack turned out to be the deadliest one inflicted by U.S.-led forces since the Iraq War.

The attack on the air base appears to be largely for show. We sensibly informed the Russians of the impending attack so we didn’t hit any of their aircraft or kill or wound any of their personnel. The Russians unsurprisingly informed Assad and apparently it was enough time for the Syrians to get most of its aircraft out of the base. 58 of the missiles hit their targets. Despite the expenditure of a reported $100M on this attack, it must not have done much damage. The Syrian government used the base for more attacks the next day.

The Syrian government denies it of course, but it instigated this chemical weapons attack. We can infer this since only Syria has chemical weapons and the aircraft to deliver them in the area. These rare chemical weapons attack caused an almost visceral reaction. Perhaps they trigger memories of World War One, which the U.S. entered a hundred years ago last week. Chemical weapons though have limited use. They rarely kill that many people, at least outside of Nazi concentration camps. Winds can quickly mitigate their damage. In short, you can’t win a war with chemical weapons alone, as the Germans discovered in World War One. Oddly, if you have to be a casualty of war, it’s one of the quicker and more humane ways to go.

The United States doesn’t seem to have a problem with more lethal conventional and unconventional weapons. At least the use of these weapons (which kill the vast majority of civilians and combatants) hasn’t been enough to wholly engage us in these conflicts. The Trump Administration though seems willing to engage our armed forces much more than the Obama Administration. It has sent thousands of U.S. forces into Syria ostensibly to keep sets of fighters apart. Those of us with longer memories recall how actions like these led us into wider unwinnable wars, with the Vietnam War being the most prominent example. More recent news reports suggest that the Trump Administration wants to move nuclear weapons into South Korea again, to counter North Korea’s recent firings of test missiles. We have an aircraft carrier off North Korea and we are talking ominously about rekindling that conflict again, in frustration perhaps to sixty years of truce but no peace between these nations.

In the short term the press seems to be cheering this missile attack. It appears to be done mostly for show, since it did little to hobble the Syrian air force. It demonstrates that compared to the so-called “feckless” Obama Administration that we are willing to engage when bad things happen. Of course like in the aftermath of the Iraq War the question then becomes: “and then what?” Are we saying we are going to solve the Syrian conflict and end the Islamic State by putting our forces onto the ground there in serious numbers? Are we going to neuter the other forces in this endeavor? How? More importantly, how through the use of force can we change hearts and minds in that region, when it proved so ineffectual in the past? That’s the only way to create a real and lasting peace.

It’s exactly these sorts of questions that kept President Obama from getting our country more engaged in these conflicts. It’s a messy business. Perhaps if we had gotten more engaged in the collapse of Libya, Islamic radicals would not be making a mess of that country. But we’ve never been very good at nation building, especially in Muslim countries. Fifteen years later we still struggle with it in Afghanistan. Doing nothing introduces problems. Doing something does the same. Most of these conflicts if they can be solved at all can only be solved through multilateral efforts, and those rarely work out well as these interests have different objectives and criteria for success.

Trump’s actions though don’t look like they are thought out at all. Apparently the attack did almost nothing to degrade Assad’s air force and his army is intact. A few days before the attack he was praising Assad and Russia for their engagement against the Islamic State. Now some pictures of children dead from Sarin gas seem to have changed his mind, at least for the moment. Curious that the pictures of starving and dead Syrian children in places like Aleppo never had this effect. Much crueler and horrific ways to die, like the barrel bomb frequently dropped by the Syrian air force that shred through people with high speed shrapnel, don’t seem to have bothered him either. In fact, social media is full of tweets from The Donald from 2013 warning Obama not to take the very actions against Syria he is now taking.

All this shows a new administration trying to live up to an image of toughness without the requisite plan to make the changes they want. In fact they are embroiled in this mess just as much as the Obama Administration was. There is no quick way to victory in this mess. In fact, no victory in the conventional sense is even possible. It’s not that these conflicts will continue forever but they are likely to rise and ebb depending on narrow advantages on the battlefield.

It’s mostly hypocrisy. A true response to these crises might be to admit more of these war-torn refugees rather than implementing the “total and complete” ban on anyone moving from these countries that he campaigned for in his campaign. Trying to save children from Sarin gas attacks so they can spend the bulk of their lives in refugee camps living in misery and squalor is to extend suffering, not end it. Look at Palestine where sixty years of occupation has turned refugee camps into de facto cities.

Progress, such as it is, will be marginal: slowly recapturing territories with Allied forces which experience suggests will be fragile unless we can inculcate civilization and rule of law in these areas again. No fly zones in Syria would do a lot to improve things there, if we can get Russia to go along. These offer little short-term payoff and don’t get us waving our flags cheering on Team USA. It’s the latter that the Trump Administration is looking for, even though it is meaningless and ineffective at solving the actual problems. The illusion of victory through ineffectual action is apparently all that can be expected these days.

Free speech has limits

The Thinker by Rodin

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.

Obama’s strategy is a pretty poor strategy

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

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

The Thinker by Rodin

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.