The Work in the Background

One of the advantages of being old – and not dead quite yet – is that you can talk about the good old days, when they were really good, if anyone will listen. Talk of the sixties can be tiresome, but those of us who left for college at the end of summer in 1965, as the Vietnam War exploded and then America imploded, and stumbled out of college into the real world four years later, after the riots in Chicago and after Woodstock, with the Beatles split up and somehow, improbably, Richard Nixon as president, because someone shot Bobby Kennedy dead, lived through the years that changed America forever. That’s what people say, and being a witness to history is pretty cool, although sometimes those who talk about those amazing years begin to sound like Archie Bunker singing about how the old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days? Memory is selective, and it is self-serving. Those good old days were filled with a lot self-righteous nonsense.

Maybe you had to be there. Most of us wore our hair long, and wore those stupid bellbottoms, and loved the nasal whining of Bob Dylan, and loved the mysteriously overproduced Beatles stuff, which often made no sense at all but we all knew was clever and probably subversive. We were cool, or knew what was cool, or hoped we knew what was cool, but something always seems a bit off. What was flower Power? And our relentlessly activist friends carried those odd signs: What if they gave a war and no one came? War is harmful to children and other living things.

What did they expect those in power to do? Would they say gee, I never thought of that, and stop the war over in Vietnam that afternoon? They weren’t going to be shamed into anything, and it wasn’t that they knew no shame. That’s what the antiwar crowd told each other about those moral monsters, because feeling morally superior feels so damned good, but that missed the point. Those in power thought they were doing the right thing, for the right reasons, geopolitical reasons they would be glad to explain to you. Terrible things had to be done, but they did have to be done – communism, falling dominos – all that sort of thing. Pull up a chair and take notes.

No one on the other side was offering a geopolitical counterargument. By the end of the decade everyone under thirty, except for the newly formed Young Republicans, was linking arms and singing “all we are saying is give peace a chance” – over and over and over again – but that really was all the were saying. Okay, fine, stop the war. Give peace a chance. Then what? What sort of new geopolitical world order follows that, and how will it be managed? John Lennon wasn’t a political scientist.

Of course those who hated those damned hippies, who hated them with every fiber of their being, weren’t political scientists either. They were angry, but no more than that. America, love it or leave it? That was what they yelled at those damned hippies, but that was as lacking in substance as anything shouted on the left. It was an odd time. Think of it in terms of animal behavior, of avian behavior. There were a lot of dominance-displays of elaborate colorful plumage. On the right people waved flags, but on the left people wore flowers in their hair. Everyone would be impressed. Nations would beat their swords into plowshares. That was Flower Power.

That was nonsense. Don’t tell anyone, but the sixties were really irritating. The real work of keeping the country up and running, and managing its relationships with other nations, being careful about our national interests and not getting into stupid wars, only useful ones, went on in the background, and it was dull and tedious work. The flag-waving angry right and the Age of Aquarius left were irrelevant. In 1962, the Soviet Union set up all those nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed right at us, and we came close to a full nuclear war that would end life on this planet. The resolution of that was worked out in the background – we removed our nuclear missiles from Turkey – and two years later we had good reason to believe a communist takeover of all of Vietnam would lead to all sorts of bad things, so we responded appropriately.

We didn’t know then what we know now, that a communist Vietnam wouldn’t make much of a difference to anyone, but what we did seemed like a good idea at the time. We went to war over there. The resolution of that mess, by the way, was also worked out in the background, in secret negotiations in Paris. That was going to happen anyway, no matter who took to the streets in America for how many years. We had to get out of Vietnam. We came to realize that we couldn’t ever make Vietnam into what we wanted it to be, no matter what we did. When Daniel Ellsberg stole those Pentagon Papers and showed them to the world, we found out that those in power had known this for years – but these things take time. Flower Power didn’t end that war. A cold hard cost-benefit analysis did.

That’s not very satisfying. Our voices should be heard, right? Our leaders should listen and do the right thing, right now. Obama should wipe out ISIS, or ISIL of he likes, right now, but not get us involved in another land war in the Middle East. And he should make sure Iraq stays together as a country, even if it isn’t one any longer, but he shouldn’t send our troops back in to do that. And he should get rid of Assad in Syria, even if Assad is fighting ISIS even harder than we are, or might, if we decide on war against them. And Putin just invaded Ukraine, sort of, and we have to respond to that, and toss them out, but without going to war with Russia of course. Isn’t Obama listening? What’s wrong with the guy?

That’s sixties thinking. Obama decided to tell the American people that things don’t work that way:

President Obama confronted a pair of volatile international crises with restraint on Thursday as he said he was not close to authorizing airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Syria and played down the latest escalation of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

With tensions rising in Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Obama emphasized that a military response would not resolve either situation and pledged to build international coalitions to grapple with them. Despite pressure from within his own government for more assertive action, he tried to avoid inflaming passions as he sought new approaches.

Let’s slow down here, because this is how things work:

Mr. Obama confirmed that he had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for options for military strikes in Syria to target the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established a virtual state straddling the border of those countries. But speaking with reporters before a meeting of his national security team, the president said no action in Syria was imminent because he had not even seen military plans.

“We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.”

We don’t have a strategy yet? He shouldn’t have said that, as Kevin Drum explains:

That’s not going to go over well, is it? Three years after the Syrian civil war started and (at least) half a year after ISIS became a serious threat in Iraq, you’d think the president might be willing to essay a few broad thoughts about how we should respond.

Don’t get me wrong. I think I understand what Obama is doing here. He’s basically trying to avoid saying that we do have a strategy, and the strategy is to do the absolute minimum possible in service of a few very limited objectives. And generally speaking, I happen to agree that this is probably the least-worst option available to us. Still, there’s no question that it’s not very inspiring. You’d think the brain trust in the White House would have given a little more thought to how this could be presented in a tolerably coherent and decisive way.

That might be hard to do. Doing the absolute minimum possible in service of a few very limited objectives is eminently sensible but it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it really is best not to know what really goes on in the background, even if it’s the right thing, which Drum frames this way:

In the meantime, “We don’t have a strategy yet” is about to become the latest 24/7 cable news loop. Sigh.

It doesn’t matter. Let the people know this is about the best thing to do, not about their fantasies:

Mr. Obama seemed equally intent on managing expectations about what the United States may do in response to reports that Russia has sent forces into Ukraine. Although he said he expected to impose additional sanctions, he declined to call Russia’s latest moves an invasion, as Ukraine and others have, saying they were “not really a shift” but just “a little more overt” form of longstanding Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.

“I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” Mr. Obama said. “The separatists are backed, trained, armed, and financed by Russia. Throughout this process, we’ve seen deep Russian involvement in everything that they’ve done.”

In other words, don’t get excited. There’s nothing new here, and Obama will leave the dominance-displays of elaborate colorful plumage to others:

In both cases, Mr. Obama took a strikingly different tone than his own advisers. The nation’s top military officer and the president’s deputy national security adviser both talked in sharper terms over the last week about the possibility of striking in Syria, while Mr. Obama’s United Nations ambassador expressed outrage on Thursday at Russia’s latest actions in Ukraine.

In a blistering statement to the United Nations Security Council just hours before the president spoke, the ambassador, Samantha Power, bluntly accused Russia of lying about its intervention. “The mask is coming off” Russia’s denials, Ms. Power said, calling its actions a “threat to all of our peace and security.”

“Russia has come before this Council to say everything except the truth,” she said. “It has manipulated. It has obfuscated. It has outright lied. So we have learned to measure Russia by its actions and not by its words. In the last 48 hours, Russia’s actions have spoken volumes.”

On both Syria and Ukraine, officials are having separate if parallel debates on how aggressive to be, with Mr. Obama seemingly acting as a brake on more robust actions some advisers seek.

In each case this calls for a cold hard cost-benefit analysis. Obama simply took what has always been going on in the background and put it in the foreground. There will be more sanctions or Russia, not war, but we’ll see – these things take time. We may bomb ISIS in Syria, but that also calls for a careful cost-benefit analysis. In the meantime, folks will strut about:

Some officials have urged going beyond such economic measures and intervening more directly to tilt the odds on the battlefield in favor of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government. Not only do some administration officials want to speed up promises of limited aid to Ukraine’s military, but some are also pressing to provide arms and intelligence that would help Ukraine counter the sophisticated equipment that the United States and Europe say Russia is providing to separatists, as well as to its own forces now crossing the border.

Officials are also struggling with how far to go in taking on ISIS in Syria, where Mr. Obama has been deeply reluctant to intervene in a bloody civil war. He has ordered at least one Special Operations raid there, a failed effort to rescue Americans held by ISIS, but it is unclear how willing he would be to authorize more. Officials are debating whether an air campaign would involve manned jets or just drones, and whether it would target massed forces or specific leaders.

Obama would rather wait for some allies on that one:

He used the occasion to chastise allies in the Middle East for playing both sides when it came to ISIS and said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to assemble a coalition against the group. He also rejected the notion that attacking ISIS might help President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in the civil war there. “I don’t think this is a situation where we have to choose between Assad and the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we’ve been seeing there,” he said.

There is a solution but these things do take time, and Obama doesn’t seem to care what the excitable public thinks:

“We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem,” he said. “What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia. But I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.”

The excitable public will just have to get used to that. These sorts of things are resolved in the background anyway, and as for ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) to some, bombing them may not be the answer. In the Economist you’ll find this:

IS’ mission is to create its own caliphate, but until now many of its sources of revenue have depended on its host states. … IS has not proven adept at running anything other than the most basic functions of a state in the past – dispensing justice and, in most cases, providing bread, the staple food. In 2013 in Raqqa it attempted to take over the opposition’s civilian-run local council, which had continued to pay road sweepers and keep ambulances on the road. Locals say it soon handed back control after it failed to deliver, angering residents. The IS model of stealing from and feeding off the Syrian and Iraqi states has worked well so far. But it will become much more difficult for IS to rule its territory if the Damascus and Baghdad governments stop being so helpful.

ISIS could easily collapse, because they are brutal incompetents. The locals figure that out quickly enough, and in National Interest, Zalmay Khalilzad has another plan:

The humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria requires a massive response. This is essential strategically. Friendly countries who host large number of refugees, such as Jordan and the Kurdish region of Iraq are at risk of destabilization. For displaced Sunni Arabs, poor refugee conditions can lead to radicalization and opportunities for ISIS to recruit them. If we allow ISIS to exploit this opportunity, the threat could expand exponentially. Moreover, ISIS is seeking to establish itself as a quasi-state, providing humanitarian aid and services in areas it controls. The international community and its local partners must compete for the hearts and minds among refugees and communities seeking protection from or willing to align against IS. This competition will be waged in part in the provision of humanitarian relief and basic services. It is a competition that we must win.

We don’t get to drop righteous bombs? What fun is that? Even worse, in the Atlantic, Kathy Gilsinan suggests that these bad guys might not even control the territory we think they do:

Crucially, while those control zones don’t amount to 35,000 square miles worth of territory, they do encompass major population centers, which tend to be concentrated along major roads. “The aims of the ‘Caliphate’ explicitly include population control, and ISIS has continued to prioritize the acquisition of populated geography,” [Institute for the Study of War Syria analyst Jennifer] Cafarella writes. So the key elements of the Islamic ‘State’ are its network of population centers, oil resources, and military infrastructure, connected by roads. With its territorial expansion, then, ISIS is something more than an al-Qaeda-like terrorist organization enjoying safe haven in a defined geographic area. Syria and Iraq are not sheltering the group as the Taliban did for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In some respects, ISIS bears more of a resemblance to the Taliban, which similarly terrorized civilians but, unlike al-Qaeda, held clear, albeit incomplete, sway over a defined territory.

Forget the maps on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News. Think of strings and nodes. Dealing with this will be tricky. Obama disappointed everyone by offering no forceful and decisive grand plan for any of this. He let the cat out of the bag. It’s always been this way. Take to the streets if you will, but the hard and tedious work goes on the background, figuring al this out.

As for Putin, Jeffrey Tayler suggests the problem is about the invasion itself, but the thinking behind it:

Based on what Russia under Putin has done both before and during the Ukraine crisis, we can expect Russia to continue turning away from the West, away from agreements with Western countries signed when the Soviet Union, or post-Soviet Russia, was at its weakest. We should expect Putin to keep destabilizing Ukraine as long as that country may lurch westward, toward NATO, even if prospects for alliance membership are distant. We should count on Putin never ceding Crimea to Kiev (in Yalta he explicitly called the peninsula’s return to the Russian fold “absolutely legal”). We should not be surprised if Russia, citing as precedents the many questionable, even criminal, American interventions abroad in recent decades, acts unilaterally to defend its interests, which may mean disrupting the post-Cold War status quo. We should, in other words, prepare ourselves for further, and far greater, turmoil on the international arena. …

We face a newly dangerous future, with the threat of a shooting war erupting between Russia and the West – unless we act, and act fast, to reestablish a working relationship with the Kremlin that recognizes legitimate Russian interests. To do so, for starters, we should stop listening to our own declarations about NATO posing no threat to Russia. NATO’s troops, missiles, bases and where they are will be what counts for Russia, not mere verbiage. To Americans, Putin’s position vis-à-vis NATO should be comprehensible; the United States would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, and no doubt, following the Monroe Doctrine, it would permit no similar meddling around its borders today. …

No informed, far-sighted statesman could have expected Putin to acquiesce to Ukraine joining an alliance created to counter his country militarily. The architect of the United States’ successful, Soviet-era containment policy (and thus no dove) George Kennan famously opposed the alliance’s move east, calling it a “tragic mistake” that would likely end in a “hot” war. And so it has turned out to be. The United States and NATO need to publicly disavow any intention to induct Ukraine (and Georgia), which would remain non-bloc and neutral, just as Finland has. Russia in return would have to withdraw its troops from the country and forswear all attempts at destabilizing it. If they do intend to invite Ukraine, they need to explain what good the new members will bring the alliance, and ready themselves and their peoples for a potential nuclear confrontation with Russia.

Sure, we could support Ukraine militarily, or even fight with alongside them against Russia, and get NATO to join us, and then make Ukraine part of NATO, just to stick it to Putin, because that would feel so damned good. Back in the late sixties we could have just pulled out of Vietnam one Tuesday afternoon and finally give peace a chance. That too would have felt so very good. In both cases, however, there’s that question. Then what? Few asked that question back then. Few ask it now. Perhaps the sixties did change America forever, but if that’s one of the changes, it was a change for the worse. And no one wears bellbottoms anymore.

Posted in ISIS, Obama the Pragmatist, The Sixties, Ukrainian Crisis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wolf at the Door

Straight out of graduate school and into seventh grade – that first teaching job was a shock. The private school was impressive – these were sharp kids – but no seventh grader likes English class. Seventh graders don’t really want to read anything, or at least what was  assigned to them, much less discuss it, and then write something about it – but the whole point was to get them reading and then thinking clearly about what they had read. That meant choosing the book they would read that autumn, or pretend to read, would be difficult. It had to be something both compelling and thoughtful, an unlikely combination, without being too far beyond their limited language skills, which narrowed things ever further. It had to be fairly simple too. The kids would have to know what was actually going on in the book. They’d have to be able to get the general idea right away. Otherwise they’d be gone.

That was back in the seventies, before Harry Potter had been invented and kids came to love reading, at least about Harry and Hermione and Ron, and the book that fit the bill was Never Cry Wolf – Farley Mowat’s 1963 tale of being sent to an isolated tract of subarctic Canada, alone, to do field research to prove that wolves were a real menace and should be hunted to extinction. In Mowat’s somewhat fictionalized account of his field work, he found they weren’t a menace after all. They were actually pretty cool, and they lived on field mice and voles and other little critters, and the occasional extremely weak caribou culled from an otherwise healthy herd. They attacked nothing anyone cared about, and they were social too. They had their own family structures. Whoever had done the original threat assessment, based on conventional wisdom, and wanted it confirmed, had it all wrong.

The kids loved it. The loner who thinks for himself, and looks into the facts of that matter, gets it right. Conventional wisdom is usually nonsense, or may always be nonsense. Cool. Kids on the edge of becoming truculent teenagers love that sort of thing – and it’s not a bad book either. The less said about the 1983 Disney film adaption of the Mowat book the better. Disney managed to make it all seem dull and boring. Getting it right, when everyone else gets it wrong, is supposed to be heroic. Charles Martin Smith, as Mowat, was a smug dork. No one remembers the film now, but one should never cry wolf. The general idea was simple enough.

The kids got it, and then they grew up, and then they forgot about people crying wolf. They may be wrong. There may be no wolf at the door, that wolf that will huff and puff and blow the house down. An independent look at the situation, and then a bit of looking into the actual facts of the matter, changes things – the wolf turns out to be just another irritating jerk, who can be marginalized easily enough. For us, a dozen years ago, the wolf at the door was Saddam Hussein. Everyone knew he had those weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons and biological weapons like anthrax, with mysterious drones to deliver airborne nasty stuff over every coastal city in America, and he was developing nuclear weapons – and he was in cahoots with al-Qaeda. There were those who didn’t see how this could be since Al-Qaeda had been denouncing the guy for years, and no UN or other inspection had turned up any weapons of mass destruction at all. There was no proof of any of this – no smoking gun as they say – but George Bush said we had to get rid of this guy. The smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. Then we’d be sorry.

George Bush cried wolf. Colin Powell went to the United Nations and cried wolf, holding up that little vial of powder to show the small amount of anthrax it would take to kill thousands, and showing diagrams of those mobile chemical weapons labs, each one a Winnebago of Death or something. This could happen. That could happen. We had to do something, now. And up there in the Canadian tundra, wolves will kill all your livestock, and then they’ll slip in the window and drink your baby’s blood. It was all nonsense. There’s careful threat assessment, based on looking into the facts, and then there’s crying wolf. The trick is to decide which is which.

Now the wolf at the door is ISIS, or is ISIS a real threat? Our experience, after listening to Bush and Cheney and Rice and everyone on Fox News way back when, may have clouded our judgment. We’ve fallen in line behind those who cried wolf before, with disastrous results, but this might not be the same thing. The ISIS guys are beyond barbaric, but are they a real threat to us?

That’s where this gets interesting. It’s early 2003 again. The question is the same, although the names have changed. Are we listening to a careful threat assessment, or is someone crying wolf. We need to get it right this time, and our secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel thinks he knows a real threat when he sees it:

The group “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” Hagel said in response to a question about whether the Islamic State posed a similar threat to the United States as al Qaeda did before Sept. 11, 2001. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”

Hagel’s comments added to the mismatch between the Obama administration’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric and its current game plan for how to take on the group in Iraq and Syria, which so far involves limited airstrikes and some military assistance to the Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting the militants. It has also requested from Congress $500 million to arm moderate rebel factions in Syria. But for now, the United States is not interested in an Iraqi offer to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases.

Obama and Hegel don’t agree, and Hegel has walked back his comments a bit, but the threat assessment seems rather incomplete here. Retired General John Allen doesn’t think that matters:

IS must be destroyed and we must move quickly to pressure its entire “nervous system,” break it up, and destroy its pieces. As I said, the president was absolutely right to strike IS, to send advisors to Iraq, to arm the Kurds, to relieve the suffering of the poor benighted people of the region, to seek to rebuild functional and non-sectarian Iraqi Security Forces and to call for profound change in the political equation and relationships in Baghdad.

The whole questionable debate on American war weariness aside, the U.S. military is not war weary and is fully capable of attacking and reducing IS throughout the depth of its holdings, and we should do it now, but supported substantially by our traditional allies and partners, especially by those in the region who have the most to give – and the most to lose – if the Islamic State’s march continues. It’s their fight as much as ours, for the effects of IS terror will certainly spread in the region with IS seeking soft spots for exploitation.

Fine, we should do something, and Eli Lake suggests we listen to Obama’s actual words:

In the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Obama vowed to bring the attackers to justice. This week Obama struck a different tone, saying: “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” The difference between bringing suspects to justice and seeing that justice is done is roughly the same as the difference between treating terrorism as a crime and as an act of war.

Even though special operations teams were dispatched to Libya after Benghazi to target the jihadists suspected of carrying it out, Obama chose to treat the attack, which cost the lives of four Americans, as a crime. It took until June of this year for the FBI in conjunction with U.S. special operations teams to capture one of the ringleaders of the attack and bring him to the United States to face trial. A different fate likely awaits the leaders of ISIS.

We’ll go for it, and at the American Conservative, Daniel Larison is none too happy about that:

The good news so far is that the administration doesn’t appear to be taking its own rhetoric all that seriously, but the obvious danger is that it will trap itself into taking far more aggressive measures by grossly exaggerating the nature of the threat from ISIS in this way. The truth is that ISIS doesn’t pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and its allies, unless one empties the word imminent of all meaning. Hagel made the preposterous statement today that the group poses an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” That is simply a lie, and a remarkably stupid one at that – and it is the worst kind of fear-mongering. Administration officials are engaged in the most blatant threat inflation with these recent remarks, which is all the more strange since they claim not to favor the aggressive kind of policy that their irresponsible rhetoric supports.

If the group can be contained, as Gen. Dempsey states, then it can be contained indefinitely. If that is the case, then the threat that it poses is a much more manageable one than the other ridiculous claims from administration officials would suggest.

Larison must have read the Mowat book. Look into things. Never cry wolf, even if everyone else is doing just that, and remember these bad guys aren’t new bad guys. We created them in a way, and by fighting now, we keep them going. Slate’s Josh Keating argues that point:

ISIS and its predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, have long held hostile views toward the United States and its presence in the Middle East. It has issued threats against the U.S. before, including a promise to “raise the flag of Allah in the White House.” U.S. and European governments have also warned for some time that the large numbers of international fighters who have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS could return with the means and know-how to carry out attacks in their home countries. So far there hasn’t been much evidence of this actually taking place.

Maybe they’re too busy with their local mass murders, but that could change:

It’s hard to believe the U.S. would have taken quite this long to send in the drones had there been evidence that ISIS was actively plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland or even U.S. facilities in the Middle East. Now, that’s obviously changed. With the U.S. bombing its forces in Iraq, there’s no benefit for ISIS in refraining from attacks against Americans.

That is, unless they’re too busy. Daniel Berman, however, is just happy that Obama isn’t crying wolf:

Obama’s remarks express a sense of proportion missing from alarmist claims that ISIS is on the verge of taking over Iraq or establishing an Islamic Caliphate. Contrary to these absurd warnings, ISIS is, as the President noted, engaged in a “regional power struggle” one in which its support is capped by its Sunni sectarian nature, which limits its maximum appeal to the 20% of Iraqis who are Sunni. Furthermore, Obama is correct to note that ISIS is far less of a direct threat to the United States than it is to Iran, Damascus, and Riyadh, and by extension Moscow. All have a much greater strategic interest in preventing a collapse of the Iraqi state, and all will therefore intervene directly to prevent such an eventuality, provided the United States does not do it for them. That said, if the United States is willing to pay the financial and military burden of stopping ISIS, Tehran and Moscow will be overjoyed, though that pleasure will not stop them from attempting to extract a political payment for allowing the US to do their own work for them. Obama appears determined to ensure that the US will not be left alone for the bill for what is in reality a geopolitical public service for the region.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum sees that:

I’m not a diehard supporter of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Some of his actions I just plain disagree with: the surge in Afghanistan, the enormous increase in drone use, his almost inhuman patience in putting up with Bibi Netanyahu’s nearly open contempt for him. Then there are other actions of his that were arguably justifiable but have worked out less well than he hoped. However, they mostly represent very, very tough problems. And foreign policy is hard – especially now. Almost nobody gets even a small fraction of what they want out of it.

That said, the relentless criticism of Obama’s approach toward ISIS strikes me as unusually shortsighted. As near as I can tell, he’s handled it almost perfectly so far. If we had offered air support to destroy ISIS six months or a year ago, it probably would have made things worse. Iraq flatly wasn’t able to provide the ground troops to complement an air campaign, and America would have shared in the inevitable fiasco. We also would have been explicitly bound to Nouri al-Maliki and his policies, which were the very ones responsible for the rise of ISIS in the first place. The outcome of all this would have been the worst of all possible worlds for American interests.

Instead, Obama allowed Maliki to fail on his own, and then used the leverage of promised American air assistance to engineer his ouster. Needless to say, this hardly guarantees eventual success against ISIS, but is there really any question that it was a necessary precondition for success? I don’t think so. Maliki never would have left unless he was forced out, and it was plain that his brutally sectarian governing style was fueling the insurgency, not halting it. He had to leave.

That was the best option:

The alternative to Obama’s strategy wasn’t more aggressive action. That would have been disastrous. Nor would it have made a difference if Obama had left a few troops in Iraq back in 2009. Nor would stronger intervention in Syria have made a difference. It might even have made things worse. The truth is simpler. There’s no single reason for the rise of ISIS, but there is a single primary reason: Nouri al-Maliki. Obama saw that clearly and kept his eye on what was important, working patiently and cold-bloodedly toward engineering Maliki’s departure. It was hardly a perfect plan, and messiness was always inevitable. Nonetheless, it was the best plan available. Because of it, there’s now at least a chance of defeating ISIS. …

The ISIS threat couldn’t even be addressed until Iraq’s political dysfunction was addressed first. Unlike a lot of people, Obama recognized that and stuck to a tough-minded approach that focused on getting rid of Maliki instead of getting distracted by endless calls for a stronger intervention before Maliki was gone. It wasn’t easy, but it was the smart thing to do.

Jack Shafer makes a parallel point:

Brookings Institution scholar F. Gregory Gause III assesses the Islamic State without panic in an Aug. 25 piece, nullifying Hagel’s scary “beyond and everything” pronouncement. He describes the Islamic State as the beneficiary of the “new Middle East cold war.” As existing state authorities in the region have lost control of their borders, proved unable to provide services (and protection) to their populations, and failed forge a common political identity, the Islamic State has risen.

But this rise does not necessarily make Islamic State strong and fearful as much as it showcases the relative weaknesses of the Syrian and Iraq governments. For all its ferocity, the Islamic State has acquired no regional or great power ally, Gause continues, no open patrons. It depends almost exclusively on banditry and protection rackets for its survival. The group’s great skill so far has been in uniting almost the entire world against it, making potential allies of nations that can’t stand each other, such as the United States and Iran. This knack for uniting countries that have “parallel, if not identical interests,” Gause predicts, will probably do the Islamic State in. Enemies exist, of course. But boogeymen don’t. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to sell you something.

Yeah, but that worked for Bush folks, didn’t it? Boogeymen can be useful, and in the Guardian, John Gray tries to split the difference:

So what is Isis essentially – violent millenarian cult, totalitarian state, terrorist network or criminal cartel? The answer is that it is none of these and all of them. Far from being a reversion to anything in the past, Isis is something new – a modern version of barbarism that has emerged in states that have been shattered by western intervention. But its influence is unlikely to be confined to Syria and Iraq. Isis is already attracting support from the Taliban in Pakistan, and there are reports that a caliphate has been declared by Boko Haram in a town in northeast Nigeria. In time – if only to confirm its superiority over al-Qaida – Isis will surely turn its attentions more directly to the west.

It would be easy to take the view that having blundered so disastrously, and so often, the west should withdraw from any further involvement and let events take their course. But having helped bring this monster into the world, the west cannot now turn its back. In ethical terms such a stance would be little short of obscene.

In short, ISIS might not be the big bad wolf at our very door, right now, but we helped create this mess and ought to clean this up, right now, before things get any worse. Should we? Over at the libertarian Cato Institute, Doug Bandow says let someone else do it:

Rather than turn ISIL into a military priority and take America into war against the group, Washington should organize an Islamic coalition against the Islamic State. Even Gen. Dempsey called for a regional effort to “squeeze ISIS from multiple directions,” but that actually requires Washington to do less militarily. ISIL’s rise has set in motion the very forces necessary for its defeat. Rather than hinder creation of a coalition by taking charge militarily, Washington should encourage it by stepping back. The U.S. already has gone to war twice in Iraq. There’s no reason to believe that the third time will be the charm.

The New York Times reports that Obama is actually doing that:

As Mr. Obama considered new strikes, the White House began its diplomatic campaign to enlist allies and neighbors in the region to increase their support for Syria’s moderate opposition and, in some cases, to provide support for possible American military operations. The countries likely to be enlisted include Australia, Britain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, officials said.

The officials, who asked not to be named discussing sensitive internal deliberations, said they expected that Britain and Australia would be willing to join the United States in an air campaign. The officials said they also wanted help from Turkey, which has military bases that could be used to support an effort in Syria.

Fine, but the UK seems to be playing hard to get:

Britain, like Australia, has taken part in humanitarian operations on Mount Sinjar as well as deploying Tornado fast jets and a spy plane to gather operational and tactical-level intelligence. But David Cameron, who has said that Britain, and its European allies, will provide equipment to Kurdish forces fighting Isis, has played down the possibility of air strikes and has categorically ruled out any use of ground troops. “Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq,” he told BBC1′s Breakfast programme last week. “We are not going to be putting boots on the ground. We are not going to be sending in the British army.”

So much for that, but Jonah Shepp has the answer to everything:

Here’s a little thought experiment: what about Israel? If Netanyahu claims that Hamas and ISIS are indistinguishable, why is he only at war with the lesser of the two? Everyone talks about how Maliki and Assad don’t have the military strength to effectively combat the Islamic State, but Bibi does. And Israel is already technically at war with both Syria and Iraq, so there’s nothing stopping the Israelis from dropping bombs on either country (they have attacked both in the past when they believed their existential security demanded it). Israeli strikes on the “caliphate” would also confound the emerging conspiracy theory that ISIS is an American-funded project to advance the global Zionist agenda, and wreak havoc on the talking points of Israel’s greatest enemies. Just imagine how Iran would react to the news that an Israeli operation had saved thousands of Shiites from persecution.

I know it’s not going to happen, for a number of reasons, but would it really be a bad idea? If someone has to do it, and if we’re clearly committed to paying for it, and if we’ve already paid for Israel’s military supremacy, wouldn’t it make sense to ask them to take on some regional leadership here and participate in getting rid of this threat?

It’s a thought. The threat assessment there was completed and filed long ago. Let them do it. The wolf is at their door. We’ll pay for it.

That won’t do. Everyone knows we have a big bad wolf at our door, even if it’s not exactly at our door yet, and even if although it’s very, very bad, it’s not very big, and even if this particular wolf wants to wipe out ever Shiite and establish a Sunni caliphate on the other side of the world, not a Southern Baptist theocracy in Tennessee, and only uses us as a foil, because we’re suckers for wars where we have no idea what they’re really about. We jump right in and they get to call us “that devil” and get everyone over there on their side, in anger at our meddling something that’s not our business – and we fall for it every time. Someone cries wolf, we shoot. Even those seventh graders knew better, so long ago now. Never cry wolf. It’s stupid.

Posted in ISIS, Threat Assessment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Have It Your Way

Americans love freedom, or at least the idea of freedom, or the illusion of freedom, so it made sense, back in 1974, for Burger King to launch a major advertising campaign with a tag line that would stick in the mind of every American with the munchies – “Have it your way!” That says freedom. Of course it does.

Pillsbury had to do something. They had acquired the Burger King business in 1967 – a company that began in 1953 as Insta-Burger King, down in Jacksonville. It almost went under in 1954 but was purchased by two franchisees and renamed Burger King – short and sweet – but it was still not doing well. But it could be acquired on the cheap and maybe something could be made of it. McDonalds was conquering the world. Why should they have all the fun, and make all the money? Unfortunately it turned out that it wasn’t easy to crack the market that McDonalds had cornered, so in 1968, Pillsbury hired BBDO to fix things in their failing hamburger experiment – a famous advertising agency can always fix things, and this one did. America was then subjected to endless thirty-second spots with wholesome young out-of-work actors pretending to be cheerful and chirpy Burger King line-workers, singing that jingle – “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way!”

That was amazingly irritating, and rightly ridiculed, but it did the trick. Burger King was flexible and friendly and would let you be yourself, and the McDonalds were rigid and authoritarian – they were probably fascists. They wouldn’t hold the pickles. Sales took off. There were new Burger Kings all over the place. Freedom won. Pillsbury cut BBDO loose in 1976 – they couldn’t come up with a follow-up campaign that made any sense – but they had saved the grand experiment. Americans love the illusion of freedom.

There was only one problem with this. Burger King is also known as the Home of the Whopper – their signature big hamburger meant to counter the Big Mac – and all this stuff about true American freedom, at least in terms of hamburgers, was itself a bit of a whopper. These were all corporate hamburgers. This was about return-on-investment to the shareholders, not about supporting some vaguely hungry sixteen-year-old’s struggle for autonomy and sense of self. Sales slipped. Pillsbury management did a lot of restructuring but that did not go well, and Pillsbury itself was acquired by the British entertainment conglomerate Grand Metropolitan in 1989 – and they weren’t all that impressed with the hamburger business. They ignored it, and then there was Grand Metropolitan’s merger with Guinness in 1997, forming a new holding company, Diageo. They ignored this Burger King outlier too, and that neglect of the brand, through this odd string of owners, nearly killed the brand. It really was dying.

Diageo eventually decided to divest itself of this money-losing Burger King mess. In 2000 they put Burger King up for sale, which led to a new set of owners, a partnership of TPG Capital, Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners. They bought Burger King on the cheap and took it public in 2002, making a mint, and in late 2010, 3G Capital of Brazil acquired a majority stake in Burger King. Everyone got to extract a lot of money along the way – Mitt Romney walked away richer than ever – as the company limped along, diminished and now irrelevant. The Brazilians were left holding the bag, and they are pouring in billions to turn things around, but they’re only majority shareholders. This is an American company, incorporated here, still headquartered in Florida, paying American corporate taxes, employing Americans, and still shoving unremarkable fast food at Americans. The Brazilians invested in a quintessentially American company, in America, run by Americans, because they saw the same potential for profits that Pillsbury saw back in the late sixties. This might work. Toss in two or three billion. See what happens.

Have it your way? That was a corporate-designed tag line to trick you into increasing one particular corporation’s profits, and not another’s. That was the big whopper, and it worked for a year or two, and then it didn’t. This isn’t about you, or about freedom. It’s about the bottom line, the solid growth shareholders expect. It’s a matter of fiduciary responsibility, responsibility to those shareholders, whose capital has financed the whole operation, not to the customer who wants fries with that, and wants to feel good about our American freedoms and all that stuff. In fact, this has nothing to do with America at all:

Fast food giant Burger King has signed a deal to acquire coffee chain Tim Hortons for more than $11 billion, creating the world’s third largest fast-food conglomerate and decisively transferring the global headquarters of the iconic American brand into Canadian territory.

The companies announced the deal on Tuesday, framing it as an opportunity to expand the global footprint of the two companies, which have 18,000 restaurants across 100 countries. “The new global company will be based in Canada, the largest market of the combined company,” the companies said in a joint press release, confirming speculation that the merger would enable Burger King to arrange a “tax inversion,” or a merger with a foreign company that enables a U.S. company to reincorporate abroad under a more favorable tax environment. A recent spate of inversions has drawn fire from President Obama and administration officials, who have vowed to crack down on the practice. …

Alex Behring – executive chairman of Burger King and managing partner at the private venture firm 3G Capital – will take over as executive chairman of the company, while Marc Caira, president and CEO of Tim Hortons, will be appointed vice-chairman. Burger King CEO Daniel Schwartz will become the new company’s group CEO.

Those are the bare bones of the deal, and this puts flesh on the bones:

To many, Burger King is an American icon that has served up flame-broiled Whoppers and fries for six decades. But with a deal to buy the doughnuts-and-coffee chain Tim Hortons on Tuesday, it will soon become a Canadian company majority owned by a Brazilian investment firm – with the assistance of the American billionaire Warren E. Buffett. In announcing their $11.4 billion merger, Burger King and Tim Hortons declared their intentions to become a truly global fast-food empire whose offerings span from breakfast to dinner.

But executives devoted more time during their tightly planned introduction on Tuesday tamping down outrage over whether Burger King was moving to Canada to lower its tax bill than talking up the merits of the deal.

The acquisition highlights the ever-higher ambitions of Burger King’s majority owner, the relatively low-key 3G Capital. In just six years, the firm, backed by one of Brazil’s wealthiest men, has taken over Burger King and the ketchup colossus H.J. Heinz and helped orchestrate the megamerger of the beer giants InBev and Anheuser-Busch.

The 3G combination of operating prowess and hyper-efficient cost-cutting – it has clamped down on expenses as small as color copies at Burger King and mini-fridges at Heinz – has won the investment firm plaudits from the business world. And it has no bigger admirer than Mr. Buffett, who is a longtime friend of the 3G co-founder Jorge Paulo Lemann and was a partner in buying Heinz last year for $23 billion.

There’s a lot going on in the background, and who owns what now? As for Heinz, what are those damned Brazilians doing in Pittsburgh anyway? They’re making decisions at the ketchup-and-pickles factory on the North Side? And is Burger King now Canadian? The first Tim Hortons opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, a business founded by Miles G. “Tim” Horton – a National Hockey League star long ago – and now they’re all over Canada – but then from 1995 to 2006 Tim Hortons was part of Wendy’s – the hamburger chain based in Columbus, Ohio. This is getting confusing, and folks are confused:

Since news of the talks emerged this week, customers and lawmakers have worried that the deal would be a corporate inversion aimed at trimming Burger King’s tax rate.

Mr. Schwartz argued on Tuesday that his company’s tax rate, now about 27 percent, would remain about the same even after the deal closes. Even before 3G bought Burger King, the company had already taken some moves to reduce its taxes.

Still, customers flooded the company’s Facebook page with angry comments. “If you attempt to buy Tim Hortons for the purposes of evading US Taxes, I will NEVER step foot in another Burger King again,” one user wrote. Some Tim Hortons consumers appeared dismayed about their daily coffee stop losing some of its hometown character.

“In my naïveté, I’m disappointed because I think Tim’s is Canadian and now it’s going to be owned by Americans – well, Brazilians,” said Linda Ladouceur as she made her way into a store in an Ottawa residential neighborhood for a coffee.

There’s that, and there’s that other matter, as Danny Vinik explains:

You may be wondering, how does Burger King reduce its tax liability by purchasing a Canadian fast food company? The answer is that the deal is structured as a “tax inversion” which allows Burger King to switch its official tax jurisdiction from the United States, where the federal corporate tax rate is 35 percent, to Canada, where it is 15 percent. Presto! Burger King’s tax bill is suddenly much lower.

If it sounds ridiculous that an American company can purchase a foreign firm and suddenly avoid the U.S. corporate tax system, that’s because it is. Under current U.S. tax law, if the American company transfers 20 percent or more of its shares to the foreign firm, it can switch its official tax jurisdiction. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of the shareholders are still American. Or that the management and control of the company remains in the U.S. Or that in making the deal, nothing about the company actually changes. You would still be able to grab a Whopper for lunch. Its thousands of American workers will all still have their jobs. But Burger King will have opted out of the U.S. corporate tax system.

One really should not do that:

These deals have infuriated many members of the Democratic Party, including President Barack Obama who condemned them in an interview with CNBC’s Steve Liesman in July. “For you to continue to benefit from that entire architecture that helps you thrive,” he said, “but move your technical address simply to avoid paying taxes is neither fair, nor is it something that’s going to be good for the country over the long term.” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has also called on Congress to close the loophole.

Vinik doesn’t see that happening:

Republicans want to address tax inversions through comprehensive tax reform, not through an individual bill. Both parties agree that the corporate tax system needs to be reformed. In fact, they both want to lower the 35 percent rate. But that’s all they agree upon. Democrats want to increase revenues through reform while Republicans want any changes to be revenue neutral. In years past, the fact that both sides want to lower the official rate could allow them to compromise. Now, increased polarization and Congressional gridlock almost ensure that won’t happen.

Does that mean more and more firms will be able to use inversions to avoid U.S. taxes? Not necessarily. Obama has asked his staff to look into ways that he can take unilateral action to discourage firms from using the loophole. It’s unclear what exactly he could do. One possibility would be to ban any firm that uses an inversion from receiving a federal contract.

None of that may do any good. If corporations are people, as seems to be the case now, these “people” have figured out they can now simply turn in their citizenship, but stay here, using the roads and bridges, protected by the police and firemen, selling what they will, to make a ton of money, but not pay our taxes here, because they’re not really citizens any longer. They’ll pay the Canadian taxes in this case. That’s pretty cool, and quite good for Canada.

Some do, however, sense that this sort of opting out just isn’t right:

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) called for Americans to boycott Miami-based Burger King for the so-called inversion move to reduce its corporate taxes. And consumers posted negative comments on the company’s Facebook page.

“I’ve eaten my last whopper,” Oscar G. Echeverría wrote on Burger King’s Facebook page.

Laurel Hutch wrote: “Another American Company that doesn’t want to pay its fair share of taxes. Bye-Bye Burger King. BOYCOTT!!!”

There’s also the politics of this:

Buffett, who has backed an Obama administration plan named after him to force millionaires to pay the same share of their income in taxes as middle-class families, also came under fire.

In announcing the $11.4-billion deal Tuesday to buy Tim Hortons, the companies said Berkshire Hathaway would receive preferred shares in the new firm for its $3-billion investment.

“‘Tax Me More’ Warren Buffett to Finance Burger King’s Tax Inversion Deal,” was a headline on the economics and political website Zero Hedge.

“It has to be twisting the White House in messaging and political knots,” said Chris Krueger, a Washington policy analyst with Guggenheim Securities.

Of course it is, but there’s one’s patriotic duty, and one’s fiduciary responsibly:

Buffett said Tuesday that it made sense for the combined company’s headquarters to be in Canada.

“Tim Hortons earns more money than Burger King does,” he said told the Financial Times. “I just don’t know how the Canadians would feel about Tim Hortons moving to Florida. The main thing here is to make the Canadians happy.”

Matt Levine, however, says this isn’t about taxes:

Tim Hortons and Burger King’s effective tax rates are basically the same.

Tim Hortons, I am given to understand, sells a lot of coffee and donuts, most of them in Canada. (Out of 4,485 stores at the end of 2013, 3,588 were in Canada.) I don’t know, you could probably sell the coffee in the burger stores, or the burgers in the coffee stores, or good lord you could put a burger on a donut, that will probably win you cool points with millennials; millennials love things that are part donut and part thing that is not a donut. So there are business reasons for the deal. But if Burger King acquired Tim Hortons, the tax rate on all those Tim Hortons stores would go up: Instead of the regular 15 percent Canadian rate that they’re currently paying, they’d have to pay 35 percent combined to U.S. and Canadian authorities. From a Canadian company’s perspective, that hardly seems fair…

One more thing: This inversion is not all that inverted. Tim Hortons is actually bigger than Burger King, on revenue and net income though not on stock market capitalization. This is not just an aesthetic point.

So no one “saves” money here. This is all marketing strategy. Fine, but Daniel Gross isn’t so sure about that:

Sure, there may be valid business reasons for a combination. Tim Horton’s has a huge breakfast business, which Burger King lacks. But it’s easy to suspect that tax avoidance is a driving factor. (Burger King isn’t pursuing a U.S. doughnut chain like Dunkin’ Donuts.) That hedge fund sharpie William Ackman, who is backing Canada-based Valeant’s effort to acquire Allergan – another potential giant inversion – is one of Burger King’s biggest shareholders doesn’t help matters.

Gross puts it this way:

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson put it, but a lack of it may be the last refuge of corporate executives who have run out of ideas on how to improve their business.

Many other companies have done this, but this is different:

It’s one thing for a fairly anonymous company that sells pumps or valves or industrial products to other businesses to renounce its citizenship for the sake of saving a few bucks on taxes. It’s quite another when you’re an iconic American consumer-facing company that relies on fickle American consumers for a large share of its business.

No, throngs of American consumers won’t stop going to Burger King just because its formal corporate address moves from Miami to Oakville, Ontario. But a few might, and in a business of razor-thin margins, that makes a difference.

More significantly, companies like Burger King spend hundreds of millions of dollars – and lots of time – trying to encourage consumers to think about them in favorable ways, from quirky ad campaigns to trying to make fries more healthful. By the same token, any measure that can detract from or damage your public image can be very harmful – especially when you’re already losing market, stomach, and wallet share to competitors. It’s hard to think of any entity that has burnished its brand by moving to Canada.

Ah hell, maybe we should just get rid of the corporate income tax. In Forbes, Yevgeniy Feyman thinks we could:

Long-term tax reform should focus as much as possible on not just lowering, but replacing the corporate income tax (and perhaps the individual income tax as well) – with a progressive consumption tax. Short-run “fixes” that predicated on economic nationalism are likely to do more harm than good, and ultimately fail to actually address the problems with our tax system.

In the New York Times, Greg Mankiw had suggested that:

Let’s repeal the corporate income tax entirely, and scale back the personal income tax as well. We can replace them with a broad-based tax on consumption. The consumption tax could take the form of a value-added tax, which in other countries has proved to be a remarkably efficient way to raise government revenue.

Only the unlucky, the losers, living on little, paycheck to paycheck, would find that burdensome, but Jared Bernstein is not impressed with that idea:

Those who would get rid of the corporate tax basically argue that the smart move is to go with this flow: As long as so many more businesses are setting themselves up to avoid the corporate tax, don’t fight ′em – join ′em. The problem is that to do so risks turning the corporate structure itself into a big tax shelter: If income generated and retained by incorporated businesses should become tax-free, then guess what type of income everybody will suddenly start making? Taxes delayed are taxes saved, and with no corporate tax, anyone who could do so would structure their earnings and investments to be “corporate earnings,” untaxed until they’re distributed.

Yeah, there’s always a way to get around paying into the common pool of funds that keeps the country up and running – and we should have known that Burger King would be the first iconic American consumer-facing company to walk away from its citizenship, and then stay here, doing business as usual, making lots of money, supported and protected by the infrastructure everyone else is paying for, everyone but them. What did they say back in the seventies? Have it your way? They’re having it their way. Perhaps we should cheer. Americans love freedom. Hold the pickles.

Posted in Burger King, Inversion, Tax Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

No Experience Necessary

We learn from experience – touch a hot stove and you won’t touch a hot stove again, or cold one. One cannot be too careful. Or we learn from the experience of others – watch your friend seeing what will happen if he teases that giant pit bull next door and you won’t do that yourself – or watch a Sunday morning political talk show and you’ll never go into politics. Experience, then, is a good thing. Making mistakes, or seeing others make mistakes, is a good thing – but we keep making them. There are things that have never worked in the past, and that aren’t working now, that are unlikely to work in future, but which ought to work – you know, like austerity economics, where you shut down as much economic activity as possible, by cutting all possible government spending, throwing millions out of work, and then you cut taxes on the rich, and deregulate everything in sight, because without the government doing stuff, the rich will be free to do lots of good stuff, any damned thing they want to do, as will everyone else, and the economy, unfettered, will take off like a rocket. That ought to work. It never has, but it ought to work. Experience is one thing, but there’s always a nifty theory that suggests experience doesn’t always matter. It might be different this time. It is different this time.

The evidence for that is a problem. There is none, but Donald Rumsfeld had the ultimate answer to that objection – “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Of course Rumsfeld was speaking to a roomful of reporters pointing out that the UN inspectors, and even our intelligence community, were finding no evidence that Saddam Hussein had any weapons of mass destruction, and no evidence that he was even trying to develop such things. What about that? His answer stunned them. That shut them up. The logic was unassailable, in a Socratic sort of way. The one thing does not necessarily imply the other, until you thought about it a bit. They were the same thing. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The absence of evidence was, in itself, evidence of that. Everything else was wordplay. This is sometimes called the argument from ignorance – but reporters, and most Americans, hadn’t reviewed any list of common logical fallacies recently. Yeah, maybe we should still look for those weapons of mass destruction. The experience of all those UN guys on the ground showed nothing, and all our surveillance showed nothing – which enraged Dick Cheney no end – but what good is experience anyway? We’d keep looking. Those weapons could be there. You never know. It was possible.

It was also possible that whoever warned Kennedy about the madness of ever getting involved in a land war in Asia, just before Kennedy got shot dead and Lyndon Johnson plunged us into a long land war in Vietnam that practically ruined us, was thinking about the experience of the French there. That was a disaster – ending with the disaster that was Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – but we’d get it right. It would be different this time, ten years later, and we weren’t French after all. We did, however, relive their experience, and ever since the British were nearly ruined in Afghanistan that place has been called “the graveyard of empires” – but the Soviet’s gave that a go. They thought the same way. It would be different this time. The British experience didn’t matter to them, and now the British Empire and the Soviet Union are no more. Now it’s our turn. We don’t have much use for “experience” either. Who needs it? The whole idea that we’d roll into Iraq and get rid of Saddam Hussein, whether he had weapons of mass destruction or not, and set up a secular Jeffersonian democracy there, one that would recognize Israel and transform the entire region, was ridiculed by those with any experience in the Middle East. Iraq was a made-up country, created in 1918 by the British and French when the Ottoman Empire was eliminated, full of folks who hated each other. Saddam Hussein was the only thing holding that place together, even if was a ruthless jerk – but we didn’t listen to those with experience on the ground there, or those who had spelled it all out in books. Even T. E. Lawrence said the place was hopeless:

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.

Ah, but what does Pete O’Toole know anyway? Lawrence of Arabia was just another movie, and we’re Americans. No experience necessary. That’s our motto. Experience keeps you from doing amazing things, good things, things that must be done and things that really ought to work, in spite of everyone else’s experience – and now the challenge is ISIS, which is a real threat. Experience tells us we really shouldn’t get involved in a third war in Iraq, much less one that extends into Syria, but experience doesn’t seem to matter to us much, once again.

Heather Parton has covered the details – John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Bill Kirstol and all the rest calling for all-out war in ISIS, damn the consequences and screw the details, and the few Democrats saying that we might want to slow down and think this through, and find out what folks with experience in these matters think – and sees the Republicans winning this one:

They have about four people in the whole party who don’t believe we should be bombing the hell out of the entire Middle East right now. At least on the Democratic side leaders are taking a short breath before they run around in circles, rending their garments and wailing about the threat to “the Homeland.” I’m sure it won’t be long before they join in the hysteria, but it does show at least a couple of degrees of difference between the two parties.

It does, for now, but soon Obama may be very lonely. There will be more ISIS horror stories, magnified in the media, because people love to be scared and can’t tear their eyes away, and advertisers know that, and that will seal the deal. Experience doesn’t matter, and Kevin Drum finds that infuriating:

It’s really beyond belief. Israel invades Lebanon and gets Hezbollah out of the deal. We arm the mujahedeen and get the Taliban and Al Qaeda out of the deal. We depose Saddam Hussein and play kingmaker with Nouri al-Maliki, and we get ISIS out of the deal. But hey – this time is different. Really. This time we’ll be done once and for all if we just go in and spend a decade wiping the theocratic butchers of ISIS off the map. This time there won’t be any blowback. This time we’ll fix the Middle East once and for all. This time things can’t possibly get any worse. Right?

Of course, the hawks always have Munich, don’t they? Always Munich. And so we need to fight. We need troops. We need leadership. And no one with political aspirations really wants to argue the point. There’s no future in siding with the thugs, is there?

Besides, maybe this time really is different.

Perhaps so, but perhaps not so:

Despite threats to the contrary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted the Islamic State terror group is a regional threat and said he would not recommend U.S. airstrikes in Syria until he determines that they have become a direct threat to the U.S.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaking to reporters on board a military plane traveling to Afghanistan, said Sunday that he believes the Sunni insurgent group formerly known as ISIS is not currently plotting or planning attacks against the U.S. or Europe…

On Sunday, Dempsey contrasted ISIS with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted and attempted attacks against the U.S. and Europe. As a result, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism strikes against the group within Yemen.

Dempsey said that so far, there is no sign that the Islamic State militants are engaged in “active plotting against the homeland, so it’s different than that which we see in Yemen.”

“I can tell you with great clarity and certainty that if that threat existed inside of Syria that it would certainly be my strong recommendation that we would deal with it,” said Dempsey. “I have every confidence that the president of the United States would deal with it.”

In short, let’s slow down here. Don’t misunderstand what I said last week. There’s no need to bomb the crap out of Syria right now, but there was this the next morning on Fox and Friends:

“For Martin Dempsey – and he’s a smart guy, he knows what’s going on – for him to say no Syria action at this point, and the fact that he was much more direct last week, you got to wonder whether or not politics from the administration is coming into play,” cohost Steve Doocy said Monday morning. “Where after he said the stuff on Thursday, somebody from the White House called him and said, ‘Come on. We can’t do anything right now.'”

The hosts returned to the subject again in the eight o’clock hour when they asked Fox News anchor Bret Baier if the administration had pressured Dempsey. Baier, a more careful reporter, replied, “Maybe,” and then added some context. “It’s important to point out, to go back to what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said, to hear the context. It is a regional threat now, but could it grow and be a threat and jump to a European or U.S. problem? That’s really the question.”

The Fox and Friends panel was having none of it. What do we care about Syria’s sovereignty, and the fact that Russia is their major ally? The bad guys are in Syria. We should go get ‘em, now. Let the Russians nuke us if they want. Well, they didn’t add that last part, but they were clear about that uppity guy in the White House. What’s Obama’s problem, and why is intimidating our generals by setting policy? That’s their job. Who does he think he is? And why is he forcing General Dempsey, a good man, to lie to the American public?

The less said about this the better. Dempsey is a man of extensive experience. He said bombing the bad guys in Syria isn’t necessary now, and he might even agree with Obama – that would stir up a hornet’s nest with Syria and Russia, if experience is any guide. The best thing to do might be this:

President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a precursor to potential airstrikes there, but a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad.

Defense officials said Monday evening that the Pentagon was sending in manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria, using a combination of aircraft, including drones and possibly U2 spy planes. Mr. Obama approved the flights over the weekend, a senior administration official said.

The flights are a significant step toward direct American military action in Syria, an intervention that could alter the battlefield in the nation’s three-year civil war.

Administration officials said the United States did not intend to notify the Assad government of the planned flights. Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly called for the ouster of Mr. Assad, is loath to be seen as aiding the Syrian government, even inadvertently.

As a result the Pentagon is drafting military options that would strike the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, near the largely erased border between those two nations, as opposed to more deeply inside Syria.

This will no doubt infuriate the hawks – that’s the response of a wimp – but they’re the kids who like to tease the giant pit bull down the street, to see what happens. Everyone knows what happens. Our interventions in the Middle East have been a disaster, and, for an odd example of that, consider Libya. The New York Times reports here that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes on Islamist militias battling for control of Tripoli:

Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt one year ago, the new Egyptian government, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have formed a bloc exerting influence in countries around the region to rollback what they see as a competing threat from Islamists. Arrayed against them are the Islamist movements – including the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by friendly governments in Turkey and Qatar – that sprang forward amid the Arab spring revolts. Libya is the latest, and hottest, battleground.

Several officials said that United States diplomats were fuming about the airstrikes, believing they could further inflame the Libyan conflict at a time when the United Nations and Western powers are seeking a peaceful resolution. “We don’t see this as constructive at all,” said one senior American official. … The strikes have also proved counterproductive so far: the Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli successfully seized its airport the night after they were hit with the second round of strikes.

The capital’s airport has been almost completely destroyed in fighting between the Misratan and Zintani militias – more names for Americans to learn – and there’s this – the recently released footage of a “public execution” by an Islamist militia, showing things falling apart:

In the footage, which is available on YouTube, masked gunmen waving black flags bring a blindfolded Egyptian man identified as Mohammad Ahmad Mohammad onto the field in a pick-up truck. He is eventually shot in the head by a person dressed in civilian clothes, believed to be the brother of a man Mohammad is said to have killed. The murder is one of the starkest instances yet of Islamist groups enacting sharia law in the country. (Since Gaddafi’s fall, Salafists have also set about attacking the shrines of Sufi saints.) “This unlawful killing realizes the greatest fears of ordinary Libyans, who in parts of the country find themselves caught between ruthless armed groups and a failed state,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the organization’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, in Amnesty’s press release.

In Foreign Policy, Siddhartha Mahanta had earlier offered this:

Fighting has only grown more intense over the summer, raising questions about whether Libya is on the fast track to civil war – or already in one. On Monday, planes of initially unknown origin conducted airstrikes on Islamist targets in Tripoli. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday, unidentified militants shelled an affluent section of Tripoli with Grad rockets, killing three. And, yes, that’s the same kind of artillery Russia has been accused of firing across the Ukrainian border. Who fired the Grad rockets remains a mystery, but eventually Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a onetime Qaddafi loyalist turned revolutionary, and now a hardened anti-Islamist fighter, took credit for the airstrikes. Haftar said this is part of his broader campaign for control of the city and airport, though there’s still some question as to whether Libyan planes could have been in any shape to conduct the strikes.

But we fixed Libya back in 2011, didn’t we? Daniel Larison argues that we did the opposite:

While it is possible that Libya would still be suffering from internal conflicts in the absence of outside intervention in 2011, it is far more likely that aiding in the destruction of the old regime condemned Libya and its neighbors to the destabilizing and destructive effects of armed conflict for an even longer period of time. It was not an accident that Libya’s immediate neighbors were among the least supportive of the U.S.-led war, since they were always going to be the ones to experience the war’s harmful effects. Unfortunately for the civilian population in Libya, they will be living with the dangerous consequences of that “humanitarian” intervention for years and perhaps even decades to come. Considering that the war was justified entirely in the name of protecting civilians from violence, it has to be judged one of the most conspicuous failures and blunders of U.S. policy in the last decade. The desire to “help” Libyans with military action has directly contributed to the wrecking of their country. The lesson from all this that the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t be forcibly overthrowing foreign governments is an obvious one, and one that I am confident that all relevant policymakers in Washington will be sure to ignore.

Of course they will. Experience is for wimps, but those anonymous airstrikes are troubling:

Egyptian officials explicitly denied the operation to American diplomats, the officials said.

The strikes are another high-risk and destabilizing salvo unleashed in a struggle for power that has broken out across the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts, pitting old-line Arab autocrats against Islamists.

And which side do we choose? Is there a third option? Given that, Heather Parton adds this:

All the smarter foreign policy pundits keep saying that this problem will only be solved by people in the region banding together to fight the Islamists. But according to the article these strikes are doing no good and the US thinks they are counterproductive to some plan they apparently have to cool the situation. I wonder. Maybe it’s actually better if they don’t “consult” with the US – or at least nobody admits to it. Our constant interference is part of what’s fueling this upheaval and the less involved we are seen to be, it’s probably the better. On the other hand, the “collateral damage” from air strikes is always awful, so…

Yes, everything feels like more destabilization in the region. On the other hand, it’s already destabilized, partially thanks to our ridiculous invasion of Iraq, so that ship may have sailed.

Knowing when the ship has sailed is a matter of experience, isn’t it? You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with toppling governments in the Middle East to see what cool things might happen, and you don’t rush in, guns blazing, to quickly fix a complex problem, centuries in the making, in a smug jiffy. The idea is to learn from experience, but maybe that doesn’t apply to the bold and manly, to real leaders – and so we’re going to war again. This will not end well. It never does. Experience shows that, as if that matters now.

Posted in Confronting ISIS, Dealing with Syria, Libya | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Echoes of Oslo

The fjords are rather fine, but Oslo isn’t Paris. Norway isn’t what they call a destination, probably because the weather is dismal, when the place isn’t locked in with ice and snow the other nine months of the year, and everyone is so Scandinavian – private people who keep to themselves, avoiding public displays of emotions of all sorts, careful and precise and often subtlety ironic, and often massively depressed. They’re not much fun. Maybe that’s the weather, but out here in sunny Los Angeles, down in San Pedro at the Port of Los Angeles, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church is just down the street from Croatian Hall, and the Croatian social gatherings are a lot more fun, and the food is better too. Boiled salt-cod just doesn’t cut it. Those years spent in San Pedro, before the move to Hollywood, were instructive – but once a year the world does turn its eyes to Oslo. Each year the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Nobel Peace Prize – which is ironic in itself. Alfred Nobel – the Swedish heavy-arms manufacturer who made a fortune by inventing dynamite – tasked the Parliament of Norway with selecting each year’s winner. Maybe he felt guilty for a career dealing in death and destruction, or maybe these dour Scandinavian people have a sense of humor after all – but this is a big deal. This is the big prize. You can’t top that.

That’s why the Norwegian Nobel Committee is careful and precise. Lots of people suggest nominees to them – some folks here have suggested Rush Limbaugh to them over and over again, perhaps as a joke, or perhaps not – but the committee makes up its own mind, and on October 9, 2009, after looking around and thinking about things, they announced they were awarding that year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama, who had been in office all of nine months. We were still in Iraq, and still in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo was still chock full of folks we now knew were innocent dupes or just unlucky – and Obama had done next to nothing about any of that yet.

This was odd, but the committee did cite Obama’s work on nuclear nonproliferation in his short Senate career, where he teamed up on that with Richard Lugar, the long-serving Republican senator that the Tea Party sent packing the following year. That wasn’t much, but the committee only mentioned that in passing. What had impressed them was a “new climate” in international relations created by Obama, by his brand new way of thinking. That also might have been a way of saying that they were glad Obama wasn’t George Bush, but they were particularly impressed by Obama reaching out to the Muslim world. Obama’s famous Cairo speech that June must have impressed them.

No one else was impressed. Obama said he was humbled by winning the big one, but he seemed more embarrassed than humbled, and the public agreed that this made no sense – over sixty percent of American adults polled thought Obama did not deserve anything of the sort, and less than half of them were glad he won. Everyone on the right, and many on the left and in the middle, saw this as merely a slap at George Bush – this had more to do with the befuddled sneering cowboy than with Barack Obama. The best Noam Chomsky could come up with was this – “In defense of the committee, we might say that the achievement of doing nothing to advance peace places Obama on a considerably higher moral plane than some of the earlier recipients.”

Chomsky might have been onto something there. In 1973, Henry Kissinger had won the thing, for that year’s Paris peace agreement that he had hammered out with the diplomats from Hanoi, after our massive Christmas carpet-bombing of most of North Vietnam, and the agreement didn’t exactly end the Vietnam War anyway. Maybe it really is better to not “do” anything. Blessed are the peacemakers, because they don’t go around doing stuff? That’s a thought. Or maybe Norwegians are simply strange folks. One never knows when they’re being ironic – but in December, Obama flew off to Oslo to accept the prize, and to give the requisite thoughtful acceptance speech.

That had to be subtle. We were still waging war everywhere, so he cited Reinhold Niebuhr a lot and talked about “just war” theory, but basically said we are forced to face the world as it is – not as we would like it to be. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, reluctantly, which is tragic, but necessary – and that took the stink off the whole thing. Obama spoke of limited necessary war – not much of it, not often – but war nonetheless. Maybe that’s the human tragedy, as he said, but Obama knocked this one out of the park – even Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin loved the speech, as did Andrew Sullivan. John Bolton called it “pedestrian, turgid, and uninspired” and Dennis Kucinich said “Once we are committed to wars instrumentality in pursuit of peace, we begin the Orwellian journey to the semantic netherworld where war is peace” – but they were in the minority. Hawks thought they would get their wars. Doves thought they would get their peace.

Both sides were wrong. We’d get neither, because Obama wasn’t just blowing smoke to save face, as it were. He actually seems to believe in severely limited absolutely necessary war, which is not something with which Americans are comfortable. We go in with overwhelming force, fix the problem, and then quickly leave, just like in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq. No, wait – that can’t be right. Yeah, Obama knew that wasn’t right, and all he had to do was convince the nation of that. We should “do” less. After eight years of the sneering cowboy, it should have been easy to get Americans to realize that.

That should have been easy, but it wasn’t. Americans “do” things. That’s who we are, and that’s why Obama is in political trouble now. Oslo, 2009, was one of those rare instances when a politician explains how he’s really thinking and lets everyone know what he’s actually going to do, or not do. This was not just another speech. This was policy, and now, five years later, America is beginning to realize what he was saying, and are seeing it in operation, and they don’t like it much. In the Washington Post, Zachary Goldfarb explains the discomfort:

The week began with the breaking of the siege of Mount Sinjar in Iraq, thanks to U.S. bombing runs, and ended with the public beheading of American journalist James Foley in Syria and renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The juxtaposition of military success and public human failure has caused a sense of whiplash around President Obama’s foreign policy and further stoked the debate about his worldview.

Obama’s detractors revived criticism that his foreign policy is based on retreat from the world, typified by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq three years ago, a lack of direct action in Syria and an economics-first approach to driving Russia’s military back from Ukraine.

His supporters argue that his approach has been consistent with his strategy of returning the United States – after post-Sept. 11 wars – to a foreign policy built around economic engagement rather than military intervention.

His supporters are saying he’s just doing his Oslo thing. Weren’t you listening? His detractors are saying he’s not doing that Oslo thing at all. Weren’t you listening? No one is happy:

“He thought he could change the tenor more easily than he could, and I think he thought the world would be more responsive to his desires than the world has proven to be,” said Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now he faces the criticism that, whereas the Bush administration embarked on a war of choice in Iraq, he embarks on a series of skirmishes that are reactive and not of his choosing.”

In Oslo, however, Obama may have implicitly promised a series of skirmishes that are reactive and not of his choosing – the human tragedy – but that satisfies no one and leads to its own problems:

In place of the large military deployments, Obama has relied on smaller operations to manage, rather than resolve, many of the conflicts that have arisen during his time in office. The attempted rescue of Foley earlier this year from a camp deep inside Syria stands as the most recent example of that approach.

But smaller has not translated into peace or greater American influence.

After pulling troops from Iraq on the eve of his reelection year, Obama is now overseeing a military operation to protect Iraqi civilians threatened by the Islamic State, secure U.S. personnel in Kurdish Iraq, and advise the country’s U.S.-trained army.

Leaving behind an Iraq dominated by an organization al-Qaeda once disavowed as too extreme would cloud his legacy as the president who ended that war – and would bequeath his successor a difficult national security.

Overwhelming force, applied ruthlessly, fixed nothing, or made things worse, but severely limited absolutely necessary military actions don’t fix things either – that just creates other problems, like ISIS in Syria and now in Iraq:

Obama called for the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government years ago, yet his primary goal has been to eliminate a chemical weapons cache that could be used against U.S. targets or allies if extremist groups take control of them.

The question of how best to roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains – short of a boots-on-the-ground deployment Obama has ruled out – is one that he and the Pentagon must deal with. …

Senior administration officials say that as they confront the challenges in Syria and Iraq, however, they are unwilling to sacrifice either of Obama’s guiding principles.

“Iraq and Syria are very much within the goal preventing the threat of terrorism from emanating from outside the United States,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said last week. “That’s a core interest.”

At the same time, he said, Obama is not reconsidering his view that Iraq – and Afghanistan – must be primarily responsible for their own security.

“The basic premise still holds that we’re transitioning from wars in which the United States was on the ground in big numbers fighting to secure Afghanistan and Iraq to Afghans and Iraqis fighting on the ground to secure their own countries,” Rhodes said.

That sounds good, but to some it still seems both reactive and disorganized:

“This president has ignored the threat for a long period of time, and now we’re paying the price,” Sen. John McCain (R) told his home-town newspaper, the Arizona Republic. “The more [Obama] delays and the more he acts incrementally, the more [the Islamic State] adjusts and the more difficult they will become.”

Obama has contributed to the confusion, occasionally turning to vague phrasing and metaphors to explain his foreign policy.

Even former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that “Don’t do stupid stuff” – the president’s latest foreign policy credo – is not an “organizing principle.”

Intervene in Libya but not Syria. Why the one and not the other? And there’s this:

Adding to Obama’s challenges has been the crisis in Ukraine, which has deeply wounded U.S. relations with Russia, and the conflict in Gaza, which has dashed the administration’s hopes of securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Administration officials say Obama has put a lot on the line in both places, sanctioning Russian leaders and sending his secretary of state, John F. Kerry, to invest tremendous amounts of time trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

But current and former administration officials see a big difference between what’s happening in Iraq and Syria and what’s happening in Ukraine and Gaza. Iraq and Syria fit into a framework of potentially threatening Americans. Solving the crises in Ukraine and Gaza appeals to U.S. principles of democracy and diplomacy, but they do not pose direct threats.

What is the organizing principle here? In the Oslo speech it was to do only what’s necessary, and to keep it as limited as possible – and that was explained philosophically and quite elegantly. That was a deep and thoughtful and moving speech. The short form is less moving and quite blunt. Don’t do stupid stuff. Folks liked the Oslo version, but it’s the same thing. They just weren’t paying attention. It’s the beat of ambiguous war drums.

At least someone is with Obama here:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a “war hawk” and added that if she decides to run for president in 2016 voters will question whether she wants to bring the U.S. into another war in the Middle East.

Paul, himself a potential 2016 candidate, made the comments during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s going to be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, ‘You know what? We are tired of war,” Paul said, according to The Associated Press. “We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

This may be political positioning, a bit of pure opportunism on Paul’s part, but Heather Parton adds this:

A legitimate concern, I’d say. I know I’m concerned about it. But why exactly is Rand Paul running in the Party who’s membership is currently peeing its pants and running around hysterically exhorting the current president to start bombing/invading/killing something immediately because the boogeyman is coming to kill-all-our-babies-oh-my-God!

She’s not kidding:

House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Sunday that he believes the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has put the U.S. in more danger than it was in the lead up to the Sept. 11 attacks more than a decade ago.

“Before 9/11, there were single-level threat streams coming to the United States. So, pretty serious. Obviously they got in and conducted the attacks on 9/11. Now you have multiple organizations, all al Qaeda-minded, trying to accomplish the same thing,” Rogers said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Now you have two competing terrorist organizations, both of them want to get their credentials to the point where they can say, ‘We are the premier terrorist organization.’ Both want to conduct attacks in the West for that reason. And guess what? That means we lose at the end. If either one of those organizations is successful, we lose.”

“The threat matrix is so wide and it’s so deep. We just didn’t have that before 9/11,” Rogers said.

And there’s this:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday called for President Obama to target leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria after the beheading of an American journalist last week.

“It’s about time to assume the worst about these guys,” Graham during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They’re not the JV team anymore; they’re the most prominent terrorist organization in the world.”

ISIS leaders released a video last week of a man who appeared to have a British accent beheading journalist James Foley.

Graham said it would be easy for ISIS to target locations in the U.S. if they are not confronted directly by the Obama administration because members hold western passports.

“I would argue that the intel that we’ve been provided in Congress is that there are hundreds of Americans citizens holding U.S. passports, there are European citizens going to the fight,” he said. “They’ve expressed a will to hit the homeland. That’s part of their agenda to drive us out of the Mideast.

“There’s no way you can solve the problem in Iraq without hitting them in Syria,” the South Carolina Republican said.

“The goal is to hit ISIL in Syria to deal with their command and control,” he added.

“I think the purpose of going into Syria is deal with the threat to the homeland,” Graham said.

She also points to Bill Kristol on This Week with this – “I would like a little overreaction now!”

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards Kristol the Nobel Peace Prize, after Kristol is elected president, that bit of enthusiasm can be his acceptance speech. Until then, there are Democrats doing the Oslo thing, like Senator Jack Reed:

“We have to begin with the assumption that they could be such a threat, then we have to evaluate what their capabilities are, what their intentions,” he said. “I don’t think we can simply dismiss ISIS, but to jump from what they’ve done with this horrific incident with Mr. Foley to the idea that they would be an immediate threat to the homeland, I don’t think you jump to that.”

And there’s Senator Mark Pryor:

“I don’t think most Arkansans believe that we should be the world’s policeman,” Pryor said this week, according to the Baxter Bulletin.

“We need to work with our allies. We need to try to help and provide a stable situation, and certainly look out for the humanitarian concerns, but at the end of the day, a lot of these countries, they just have to take responsibility for their own countries,” he said.


Yes, Democrats are warmongers too and perhaps Hillary Clinton is as hawkish as Rand Paul says she is. But unless Rand Paul is willing to govern with a Democratic majority and face impeachment from his own, he’s not going to have any room to be a dove. Even Obama is getting hit hard and he’s hardly an isolationist. How in the world could Paul hope to fight that martial impulse as a GOP president? It makes no sense. If there is one thing you can count on in the modern Republican Party it’s the bloodlust for war.

She suspects that Rand Paul just doesn’t get it:

Again, the question is, if Paul wants to run on the peace platform, why in the world is he a Republican? They have about four people in the whole party who don’t believe we should be bombing the hell out of the entire Middle East right now. At least on the Democratic side leaders are taking a short breath before they run around in circles, rending their garments and wailing about the threat to “the Homeland.” I’m sure it won’t be long before they join in the hysteria, but it does show at least a couple of degrees of difference between the two parties.

It does, for now, but soon Obama may be very lonely. What he said in Oslo in 2009 will be dredged up and ridiculed. Severely limited absolutely necessary war is not something with which Americans are comfortable, and more horror stories, magnified in the media, because people love to be scared and can’t tear their eyes away, and advertisers know that, will seal the deal. But in Oslo, Obama did say we must accept the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and that means one must know what’s possible, and what’s not possible:

A U.S. offensive in Syria against the radical Islamist group that beheaded an American journalist would likely be constrained by persistent intelligence gaps and an inability to rely on fleets of armed drones that have served as the Obama administration’s signature weapon against terrorist networks elsewhere, U.S. officials said.

The Pentagon has conducted daily surveillance flights along Iraq’s border with Syria in recent weeks as part of a push to bolster U.S. intelligence on the Islamic State without crossing into Syrian airspace and risking the loss of aircraft to that nation’s air defenses, officials said.

The CIA has also expanded its network of informants inside Syria, largely by recruiting and vetting rebel fighters who have been trained and equipped at clandestine agency bases in Jordan over the past two years, U.S. officials said.

Still, senior U.S. intelligence and military officials – speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations – said American spy agencies have not yet assembled the capabilities that would be needed to target Islamic State leaders and provide reliable-enough intelligence to sustain a campaign of strikes.

There you have it. There’s doing what is absolutely necessary, because the world is a fallen place with any number of very nasty people, and they must be confronted, and there’s limiting your actions to doing only what’s really necessary, and no more, because “doing stuff” is addictive and can lead to slow-rolling decades of disaster, and then there’s what is even possible. Obama tried to explain that in Oslo. Everyone nodded. Yes, that is so – great speech – and now they finally see what that means, and they don’t like it at all. They wish it weren’t so, but it is so. The Norwegian Nobel Committee might have done the right thing after all. Oslo might not be a place anyone wants to visit, but the folks there can be surprising. Try the boiled salt-cod.

Posted in ISIS, Obama the Pragmatist, Obama's Oslo Speech | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Purest Politics

Call it identity politics, or tribal politics, but it’s clear that when it comes time to choose someone to run things, that someone should be one of “us” – because few have the time or energy or patience to consider the issues at hand, which can be complicated, with no neat and clean and satisfying way to fix the problems at hand. Sure, we should wipe out ISIS, and get Russia out of the east end of the Ukraine and make Putin eat humble pie, and stop Iran from even thinking of developing nuclear weapons, and get rid of that Assad fellow in Syria and that short strange man who runs North Korea – just do it. We do have the most awesome military the world has ever seen, and everyone else has nothing much at all. What’s the problem? Using diplomacy to find political solutions to any of this is Neville Chamberlain stuff, appeasement. Chamberlain gave the Sudetenland to Hitler and Hitler wasn’t appeased. Everyone knows what happened next. It’s the same with Putin – the West shrugged and let him take Crimea, as if that would satisfy him. It didn’t, and it’s the same with Iran and Syria and North Korea and maybe ISIS too. There’s no point in talking to any of these people. Stand up to them. Offer them nothing, and they don’t fold and slink off into the shadows in shame, bring on the pain – but no boots on the ground. All those years in Vietnam, the eight years in Iraq, the more than ten years in Afghanistan, and counting, were really stupid. Don’t do that again.

Those who think Obama is a weak fool, like all Democrats, will listen to John McCain and Lindsey Graham telling Obama to grow a pair and do something massive and violent, and listen to Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney, when that odd fellow resurfaces again, coming up for air like a giant killer whale. What they say feels right. It makes no sense, if you’d rather not commit America to multiple simultaneous massive foreign wars, each of which will likely last a decade or more, but it feels right – and Obama doesn’t “feel” right, even if many on the right often concede he’s doing the only possible thing that can been done with any of this. They kind of mumble as they say that, and hate it when they’re asked what they would do, specifically, right now.

Five years ago they would have done this. Ten years ago they would have done that. Ask them what they would do now. Five years ago they would have done this… Ten years ago they would have done that… They have no answer, but they will tell you Obama is weak. That man, if he even is a man, won’t stand up for America. Americans must know by now he’s not one of “us” – not that he was born in Kenya or anything. It’s the weakness. He may be doing the right thing quite often, damn it, but he’s a wimp. Anyone who voted for him is a fool, and thus also not one of us, the Real Americans.

That’s how identity politics is played, and in the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin was a master at that, probably because she had no alternative. With each passing day it became clearer and clearer that she had no idea what the issues were, much less who the key players were, domestic or foreign, but she let America know that she was one of us, the Real Americans, and Obama certainly wasn’t one of those. Think of Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers too – and don’t ask her any of those damned Katie Couric questions. This was about Obama, not about whether Sarah Palin really could see Russia from her house, or if she even knew what the Federal Reserve and Supreme Court actually did. People knew her. That was enough.

Palin almost pulled it off. Her supporters out there in the heartland, whatever that is, might again and again be forced to concede she was dangerously empty and uninformed, but they voted for her anyway. She felt right – and the world is a complicated place. Who really understands it? John McCain tried this too, dropping his policy talk, but it scared him. He’d give it a good try, at a few rallies asking who Obama really was, and the crowd shouted back – He’s a terrorist! – Kill him!

McCain dropped it. It was too dangerous, but identity politics isn’t always that dramatic. Everyone knows that the Republican Party is the party of businessmen, or at least those who know how the economy really works. That’s what the smirking and stiff Mitt Romney ran on – he may have been an awkward jerk, but he knew that you don’t spend what you don’t have, and when you’re in financial trouble, you slash spending. You cut out the dead wood – a businessman trying to save his business fires everyone in sight, and a father cuts the kid’s allowance to next to nothing, or eliminates it. Businessmen know this, and every family knows this.

Obama didn’t know this. He kept trying to stimulate the economy by borrowing money to pay people to work, so more people would be able to buy things, getting the economy moving again, when he should have been shutting down as much of the government as possible, to save money. People were also getting food stamps and unemployment benefits when there was no money for that, and that was exactly like continuing the kid’s allowance when the bank account was empty and the bills were piling up. No sensible parent would do such a thing. We all know that. Obama isn’t one of us. Shut it all down.

That would shut down the economy of course, collapsing demand for goods and services and thus driving a lot of folks out of business, creating more unemployed folks, who in turn would get no government help, further collapsing demand, driving even more folks out of business, creating even more unemployed folks, and so on, finally putting the economy in a death spiral – but the idea felt right, because government should be run like a business, and all this is just like your family finances. That’s nonsense, as the government isn’t a business out to make massive profits by getting lean and mean – everyone chips in for things that must be done for the common good, activities that aren’t designed to turn a profit – nor is it a family. A family cannot print money that everyone accepts to cover the bills. Still, it feels like that to many. It’s a matter of what you identify with, or who you identify with. Sensible people shut everything down in hard times, and unlike Obama and the Democrats, we’re all sensible people here, so when it comes time to choose someone to run things, that someone should be one of “us” – the sensible people.

That’s human nature. We’re all tribal in a way, but as Simon Maloy reports, odd things happen when the terms are reversed:

At this point, it would be safe to assume that the black community in Ferguson, Missouri, is probably feeling poorly represented by its elected officials. Over a week’s worth of unrestrained police crackdowns, curfews and bad-faith machinations by the local law enforcement – all with the blessing or tacit approval of political leaders – will tend to erode whatever trust one has left in the people in charge.

One of the upsides to living in a democracy, though, is that there are regular opportunities to boot out the people in charge. And so, with the situation spiraling out of control in the streets, activists and community leaders have set up voter registration drives in Ferguson. This act of civic engagement is drawing howls of outrage from conservatives and Republicans.

There is, however, justification, and also that outrage:

Low black voter turnout (combined with an unusual election calendar) has resulted in a local government that looks nothing like the population of Ferguson. The community is majority black, but the mayor is white, and five of the six City Council members are white. For members of the community who feel their interests aren’t being represented, the first step toward changing that is registering to vote.

For conservatives and the local GOP, this is apparently unconscionable. “If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” the Missouri Republican Party executive director Matt Wills told Breitbart News. “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.” Again, this is in response to a voter registration drive in a majority black community.

Wills wasn’t quite through, though. Wills explained that the shooting death of Michael Brown was a tragedy for everyone.

“This is not just a tragedy for the African American community this is a tragedy for the Missouri community as well as the community of what we call America,” he said. “Injecting race into this conversation and into this tragedy, not only is not helpful, but it doesn’t help a continued conversation of justice and peace.”


I don’t want to question the obvious expertise of a local Republican official, but I’m pretty sure that voter registration drives are not what’s responsible for “injecting race into this conversation and into this tragedy.”

He also cites Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller with the inevitable conspiracy theory:

Jesse Jackson and other liberal activists are rolling out voter registration efforts as part of a coordinated left-wing push to sign up voters during the wave of violent protests engulfing Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.

Racial activist and former Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson met with St. Louis clergy Monday to plan a formal Ferguson voter registration drive.

“Five thousand new voters will transform the city from top to bottom” Jackson explained during a stop at a Ferguson McDonald’s, where he discussed voter registration with local denizens.

Liberal activists – including from the George Soros-funded Center for Constitutional Rights – have promoted voter registration booths at multiple locations in Ferguson, including at the roadside memorial marking the spot where Brown was shot.


Jesse Jackson, George Soros, “coordinated left-wing push” – so many scary things!

Yes indeed, but folks want to be represented by someone like them:

Much of this whining is couched in terms of “politicizing” the death of Michael Brown, but that’s a hollow, lazy complaint made by people who don’t quite feel comfortable saying that they’re fine with the status quo. And it’s also baffling to see people complain, in the midst of a near total civic breakdown, that there are activists encouraging people to get involved to fix the root causes of the chaos. They’re evangelizing faith in the political system and encouraging people to act within established political norms. I’m not sure how one can view that as “disgusting” and “completely inappropriate.”

The black folks, seeing what’s happened in Ferguson, and keeps happening there, think the folks who run things should, from now on, be one, or more, of them. The white folks fear someone who is not one of “us” – the usual. It’s not exactly racism, being more of a tribal thing, but Josh Marshall came across this:

It’s incredibly unfair that it worked out this way but I think the historical take on the biggest success of the Obama presidency will be this.

As a white, suburban, middle (++) aged liberal, I saw the run up to his first election as proof of what I believed for a long time – we were in a post-racial world where the only thing that was holding individuals of color back was a willingness to do the hard work that the rest of us were doing to get ahead.

The re-surfacing of the hidden racism that had become invisible to me was (and is) worldview shattering. The breadth and depth and virulence of both institutional and individual racism are so enormous that I have a hard time coming to grips with it. I’m entirely embarrassed by my pre-Obama beliefs and am still trying to figure out what I can do to move from being part of the problem and becoming part of the solution.

While discussing Ferguson with folks who fall in to the “don’t think there’s any racism” category, I’m seeing a shift. Events like this, and the pro-protester media coverage seems to be chipping away at the middle. More people are starting to see the world like it really is.

Looping back to my hypothesis, I suspect that without an Obama presidency, the lens through which we view the current events would have been much less sympathetic to the protesters.

Oh, and healthcare.

This fellow is onto something. Our sense of who “us” is really did get scrambled this time. Those folks in Ferguson who aren’t “us” may be “us” after all, and Obama may have something to do with that. The days of Republicans reminding everyone, with some success, that they are the Real Americans, may be numbered. There’s the mess that was Ferguson, so badly handled by the powers that be out there, and then there’s Obama himself. Look, an angry black man! Where? Look, a radical socialist! Where? Look, a militant Malcolm X angry Muslim! Where? Look, a lazy shiftless try-not-to-use-that-word who sticks to nothing! Where? Look, an ignorant affirmative-action charity case who knows nothing! Where? Look, one of those ghetto folks, one who sneers and walks out on the wife and kids and dicks around with the local sluts! Where? Hey, that was sort of Bill Clinton’s thing, wasn’t it? He was the one who couldn’t keep it in his pants and he was white. This black guy is boring and normal, and smart as hell. He might actually be one of us. He might even be a Real American. Who knew?

It’s possible to lose at tribal politics, where identity is everything, when the concept of “us” shifts like this, and this leaves the Republican Party, and its Tea Party core, on the outside looking in. They’re in trouble. They need some advice, and although the party expelled Dave Frum, Bush’s former speechwriter, for warning them about this sort of thing one too many times, he hasn’t given up one them, and he offers this assessment of the party’s current problems:

Three big trends have decisively changed the Republican Party over the past decade, weakening its ability to win presidential elections and gravely inhibiting its ability to govern effectively if it nevertheless somehow were to win. First, Republicans have come to rely more and more on the votes of the elderly, the most government-dependent segment of the population – a serious complication for a party committed to reducing government. Second, the Republican donor class has grown more ideologically extreme, encouraging congressional Republicans to embrace ever more radical tactics. Third, the party’s internal processes have rigidified, in ways that dangerously inhibit its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The GOP can overcome the negative consequences of these changes and, in time, surely will. The ominous question for Republicans is, how much time will the overcoming take?

Who knows? But he is sure that conservatism will be reborn:

For every action – whether in physics or in politics – there is an equal and opposite reaction. The liberal surge of the Obama years invites a conservative response, and a multiethnic, socially tolerant conservatism is waiting to take form. As the poet T. S. Eliot, a political conservative, once gloomily consoled his readers, “There is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” The message reads better when translated into American vernacular: “It ain’t over till it’s over. And it’s never over.”

Jonathan Chait isn’t buying it:

The Republican Party constructed a geriatric trap for itself. Just how it will escape is hard to see. It is a small-government party whose base is wedded to the programs that constitute a large and growing share of government. The inability to touch the benefits of any old person, in combination with its still-extant support for defense and fanatical opposition to tax hikes in any form, have driven Republicans to propose massive cuts to the small share of government that benefits struggling workers. This priority has, in turn, saddled the GOP with the (correct) image of hostility toward the unfortunate.

And of course the unfortunate do vote, and turn out in greater numbers when told they’re useless moral failures. People are funny that way.

So, what will the Former Real Americans do now? Ah, they win the Senate and do this:

Mitch McConnell has a game plan to confront President Barack Obama with a stark choice next year: Accept bills reining in the administration’s policies or veto them and risk a government shutdown.

In an extensive interview here, the typically reserved McConnell laid out his clearest thinking yet of how he would lead the Senate if Republicans gain control of the chamber. The emerging strategy: Attach riders to spending bills that would limit Obama policies on everything from the environment to healthcare, consider using an arcane budget tactic to circumvent Democratic filibusters and force the president to “move to the center” if he wants to get any new legislation through Congress.

In short, it’s a recipe for a confrontational end to the Obama presidency.

Will that make them Real Americans again? Brian Beutler doubts that:

What McConnell’s promising makes very little sense. Even if you assume he and the House Speaker can unite their fractious conferences tightly enough to round up majorities for legislation, McConnell would still have a filibuster to contend with. And even if you ignore that obstacle, the political play is a known loser. Republicans controlled both the House and Senate when they shut down the government in 1995, and they lost the fight. Bill Clinton was a bit more popular at the time than Obama is now, but that’s not really what drove the dynamic. It’s just a losing ask to condition basic government services on weakening pollution restrictions or cutting healthcare spending or whatever. McConnell might be able to extract modest concessions in an appropriations tussle, but nothing big, and nothing along the lines of what conservative members will expect.

They’d still be on the outside looking in, with their base angry that this didn’t work very well, and Ezra Klein adds this:

McConnell intends to unleash a tactic that will almost inevitably end with shutdowns – whether he wants them or not. This might make sense if Barack Obama were running for reelection in 2016: the shutdown hurt his popularity, too, and perhaps it would make sense for congressional Republicans to mount a kamikaze mission against his third term.

But Obama isn’t up for reelection in 2016. These shutdowns will be a disaster for the Republican Party that will help elect Hillary Clinton – and help Harry Reid retake the Senate. Republicans will end up backing controversial positions with wildly unpopular tactics and the Democrats will take full advantage when they face the friendlier presidential electorate.

Let’s see – backing controversial positions with wildly unpopular tactics. What could go wrong? But there you have it. When it comes time to choose someone to run things, people who are too busy to attend to details decide that someone should be one of them, of what they see is “us” at the moment. Republicans have relied on that bit of human nature forever, but things shifted on them. There are those voter registration booths in Ferguson now, which infuriate them. Two can play at the game, their special game. It’s the purest form of politics, stripping away all discussion of policy and issues. There’s only that one basic question. Are you one of us? Answer correctly – and by the way, people know when you’re bullshitting them. So, who are the Real Americans? Wait! You said WHAT?

Posted in End of the Republican Party, Ferguson Missouri, Identity Politics, Tribalism in American Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Policing the Masses

Things are settling down in Ferguson, Missouri. The governor, Jay Nixon, is slowly withdrawing the National Guard:

“I greatly appreciate the men and women of the Missouri National Guard for successfully carrying out the specific, limited mission of protecting the Unified Command Center so that law enforcement officers could focus on the important work of increasing communication within the community, restoring trust, and protecting the people and property of Ferguson,” Gov. Nixon said. “As we continue to see improvement, I have ordered the Missouri National Guard to begin a systematic process of withdrawing from the City of Ferguson.” …

Meanwhile, the unified command, which includes officers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County, St. Louis City and other jurisdictions, will continue its mission to respond appropriately to incidents of lawlessness while protecting the rights of all peaceful citizens.

That’s nice, but over at the reliably left-side-of-things Daily Kos, there’s this reaction:

Did he really, seriously say “restoring trust”?

What does he have in mind for accomplishing that in a community where cops looked as if they had just parachuted into Taliban territory, pointed sniper rifles at protesters, tear-gassed them, shot them with rubber bullets, arrested them as well as reporters covering the story and, three times in a week, raided a church providing safe haven for protesters to get food, water and first aid?

All that did happen and no one seemed to be concerned about trust as this unfolded. The armored vehicles and lines of angry police in full battle-rattle, pointing amazingly powerful combat weapons at protesting unarmed women and children and clergy, did look like a bad day in Fallujah, or a series of bad days over there, way back when. This is, however, how an occupying power deals with a situation where more than a few folks in any large crowd are the enemy, out to kill you right then and there, and it’s a safe bet that the rest of the crowd, while looking innocent enough, wouldn’t mind if they did just that. It’s war, and it’s scary. The thing to do is send in overwhelming force and scare the shit out of all of them. Intimidate them. Subdue them. Make them understand how powerless they are, at least in this circumstance – and make sure no one gathers in groups of even two or three ever again – and keep the press away from it all. They don’t get to tell their stories to the world. The so-called free press is the enemy too. They give the enemy a platform. Deny the enemy that platform.

This is a matter of survival, one we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is what you do when the job is to impose a new form of order in a place where no one wants you there, when their seething resentment has turned to hatred and they’re likely to act on that. Even the infants in the strollers might kill you. One of them might be a suicide bomber – mothers are different over there. Don’t try to understand it. Everything is different over there, and it doesn’t matter if any of these folks trust you. That’s irrelevant. Submissiveness will do just fine. Break their will.

That’s what we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in more than a few other places – winning the hearts and minds of the locals is a long and difficult job, and there’s never time for that, and it seldom works anyway. You’re occupying their country, telling them how you think they ought to live, no matter how they think they ought to live. Endless discussion of why you’re right and they’re absolutely wrong never goes well. They’re not going to embrace country and western music and become NASCAR fans and do the Jesus thing. They’d rather you’d just go away. Sooner or later they’ll force the issue. That’s what happened in Iraq.

That would never happen here, but that’s kind of what happened in Ferguson. One more unarmed black kid was shot dead by the police and the community exploded, being mostly black. The police were almost entirely white, and they rolled in like an occupying army in an active war zone, there to intimate the local populace, the enemy, into total and abject submission. The idea was to be scary, so scary no one would mess with them, but that didn’t work out. America isn’t supposed to be enemy territory. We’re all Americans here, damn it. We only created police forces to take care of the few bad actors, the criminals, to keep us all safe – to protect and serve, as it says on the door of almost every police cruiser everywhere – not to treat us like the enemy. They serve us, but this time something went wrong:

A police officer who was part of the effort to keep peace during protests in Ferguson has been suspended for pointing a semi-automatic assault rifle at demonstrators, then cursing and threatening to kill one of them, police said Wednesday.

A protester captured the exchange on video that has been posted to YouTube and several websites. It happened Tuesday night during the latest of several protests that have followed the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

On the video, a man is heard saying, “Oh my God! Gun raised!” as the officer approaches. The identity of the man who shot the video is not known.

“My hands are up, bro! My hands are up!” the man said.

The officer walks near the man with his gun pointed and appears to say, “I will (expletive) kill you.”

Yeah, the guy was told to go home and sit the rest of this out. You don’t stand there in full body armor and point your super-duper military assault rifle at an unarmed fellow American and scream you’ll fucking kill him for not moving along peacefully. Ferguson really isn’t Fallujah – but the mistake is understandable. The federal government has transferred over four billion dollars’ worth of surplus combat gear to civilian police departments over the last decade – some have tanks now – along with sending them such gear in case 9/11 ever happens again, maybe some suburb of Boise – you never know. One thing leads to another. Dress the part, become the part. This guy just got into character a little too much. It happens to Hollywood actors all the time. Ronald Reagan came to believe he actually fought in World War II. He made movies about it for the Army and then for Warner Brothers. He got a little confused. So did this police officer.

Perhaps these folks shouldn’t play dress-up, but they say they must:

Law enforcement lobbying groups appear unsettled by a growing call to reform the federal programs that funnel military-grade equipment to state and local police, sparked by images of decked-out police officers confronting protesters in Ferguson, Mo., over the last two weeks.

The Daily Beast interviewed the leaders of several law enforcement groups and they were adamant in their belief that the programs, which help agencies obtain things like the mine-resistant MRAP vehicles, should not be cut off.

“The presence of an MRAP for defensive positioning should not unnerve a law-abiding citizen,” Jon Adler, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, told the Beast. “Police officers are human and bleed like everyone else. They deserve the best protection from violent assaults, and providing them with MRAPs or advanced body armor minimizes their exposure to serious injury or death.”

Yep, you never know when you’ll encounter landmines and the occasional IED out there in the suburbs of Boise, or a crazed suicide bomber. It’s a war zone out there, but law-abiding citizens shouldn’t get all twitchy about the tanks rolling by. If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about. You’ve done nothing wrong, ever, have you? Relax. But keep your nose clean. We’re watching.

That seems absurd to Americans – it’s a free country and you can do what you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, or gay – but everyone was talking about Sunil Dutta, a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech who had been an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for seventeen years, who laid it all out in a guest column in the Washington Post:

If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you.

In short, do what you’re told – shut up, submit – or bad things will happen. You may even die. I’m a cop. I have that power. They might even give me a medal. That’s just the way it is.

That may be how it is, but Heather Parton is confused when Dutta tries to soften that up a bit:

Later he suggested that one needn’t submit to illegal searches or stops and said that citizens are allowed to refuse to consent to a search of your car or home if there’s no warrant. He also says that an officer must let you go if there’s no legal basis to stop and search you. How that’s supposed to work is a little bit obscure. After all, that would easily be seen as arguing and telling him that he can’t stop you – and then he will feel free to tase you, pepper spray you, shoot you or beat you.

That is a puzzle, but that’s very American, and Michael Bond explains that:

One of the most worrying aspects of this drama is what it reveals about US crowd-control methods. In Europe, many police forces have started to accept that the traditional model of public-order policing, which treats all crowds as potentially dangerous, often makes things worse. This model dates back to the French Revolution, which seeded the idea that crowds turn people into primitive, dysfunctional automata, and that the only way to deal with protestors is to attack, disperse or “kettle” them – a draconian form of containment.

Such tactics are slowly being abandoned in Europe because social psychologists have demonstrated time and again that they can have a dramatic and often catastrophic effect on how people in crowds behave. They have found that the way a protest is marshalled has a greater influence on whether it ends peacefully or violently than the actions of any hooligan minority within the crowd. This puts the police in a powerful position, even before they take aim with rubber bullets or tear gas.

Europe seems to have this figured out, and Matt Steinglass says that’s why what is going on here amazes folks over there:

The confrontation in Ferguson, as many observers have noticed, looks uncannily like the ones in Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq. There is clearly some kind of a global blowback going on, in which military techniques of forcible population control developed for use at the periphery of states’ areas of sovereignty are now being applied at the centre. Leonid Bershidsky, a brilliant Russian journalist and editor, laid out the similarities in a fascinating column yesterday in Bloomberg View. “Police officers around the world are becoming convinced they are fighting a war on something or other, whether that’s drugs, terrorism, anarchists or political subversion,” Mr Bershidsky writes. “This mindset contrasts with the public’s unchanged perception of what the police should be doing, which is to keep the streets safe, a conceptual clash that can lead to unexpected results.”

The difference between these two kinds of policing, Mr Bershidsky writes, can be modeled as the division between the London Metropolitan Police Force established in 1829, which conceived itself as fighting crime in concert with the populace, and the repressive colonial police forces the British Empire employed in “colonies of rule” such as Ireland and India, who conceived of themselves as keeping potentially hostile local populations in line.

On June 19, 1829, Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Service in London, which would not use the military techniques of forcible population control that were being used in India and elsewhere. The “bobbies” – without guns – would consult with ordinary blokes to stop the few bad people from doing bad things. It was a cooperative effort – Arthur Conan Doyle later invented Sherlock Holmes, the private-citizen Consulting Detective, to show this at its best – and it has been a cooperative effort ever since. The Brits might suggest we do the same – better late than never.

That’s not going to work. Our guys like their new gear, and Amanda Taub points out how dangerous that can be:

When the ACLU asked officials in the town of Farmington, Missouri (less than a 90 minute drive from Ferguson) to provide a copy of training materials for its Special Response Team, which is roughly like a SWAT team, the town sent only a copy of a single article. The article warned that “preparations for attacks on American schools that will bring rivers of blood and staggering body counts are well underway in Islamic training camps,” and went on to say that “because of our laws we can’t depend on the military to help us … By law, you the police officer are our Delta Force.”

In contrast, SWAT programs in larger cities tend to train extensively, and constantly. The Los Angeles police department’s SWAT teams go through months of intensive training before being brought on, and once there spend at least fifty percent of their on-duty time training, former LAPD Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing told me. It is effectively impossible, Downing suggested, for small police departments to appropriately train their officers in the use of SWAT-style equipment, because they simply do not have sufficient resources or personnel. Small departments simply do not have the resources to support that type of program, but they do have the guns and trucks and armor, which they use.

It’s cool gear, and Taub also explains the Ferguson gear:

Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, or MRAPs, are heavily armored trucks designed to withstand the detonation of land mines or IEDs. They were first deployed by the US military in 2007, designed specifically for use in Iraq, where al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia militias were using highly developed IEDs. Now the vehicles are being passed down to police departments.

Asked why MRAPS were being used in Ferguson, a place with neither land mines nor IEDs, Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson replied that “people are using bombs now.” However, there have been no reports of bombs being used in Ferguson – he may have been making an existential point about bombs being items that exist in the world.

They do, and Gene Healy sees the future:

A Homeland Security report obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2013 revealed that the agency has considered outfitting its expanding inventory of drones with “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” targets of interest. Meanwhile, both Homeland Security and the Pentagon maintain a keen interest in developing crowd-control weapons for occupations at home and abroad. In 2007, the department’s science and technology arm “contracted for the development of the LED Incapacitator, a nauseating strobe” weapon meant to overwhelm and disorient targets with rapid, random pulses of light.

Some have called it the “puke saber,” but the final product won’t necessarily be handheld. As the department noted in a cutesy blogpost entitled Enough to Make You Sick, “output and size can easily be scaled up to fit the need; immobilizing a mob, for instance, might call for a wide-angle ‘bazooka’ version.”

Who wouldn’t want a Puke Saber? That would be so cool, but militarized forcible population control has its downside. The American population isn’t the enemy. We have, however, made one segment of it understand that it is the enemy. Lanre Akinsiku explains:

To be black and interact with the police is a scary thing. The fear doesn’t have to come from any kind of historical antagonism, which, trust me, would be enough; it can also come from many data points of personal experience, collected over time. Almost all black men have these close-call-style stories, and we collect and mostly keep them to ourselves until one of us is killed. You know how the stories go: I was pulled over one day and the cop drew his gun as he approached my window; I was stopped on the street, handcuffed and made to sit on the sidewalk because the cop said I looked like a suspect; I had four squad cars pull up on me for jaywalking.

We trade them like currency. And it almost goes without saying that these stops are de facto violent, because even when the officer doesn’t physically harm you, you can feel that you’ve been robbed of something. The thing to remember is that each of these experiences compounds the last, like interest, so that at a certain point just seeing a police officer becomes nauseating. That feeling is fear.

That is intentional. Fear keeps people in line. Ta-Nehisi Coates got a worried text message from his wife recently, about a bunch young guys fighting outside their apartment building, and knew what to do, or not to do:

My wife wanted to know what she should do. She was not worried about her own safety – boys like this are primarily a threat to each other. What my wife wanted was someone who could save them young men from themselves, some power which would disperse the boys in a fashion that would not escalate things, some power. No such power exists. I told my wife to stay inside and do nothing. I did not tell her to call the police. If you have watched the events of this past week, you may have some idea why.

Experience is the best teacher:

Among the many relevant facts for any African-American negotiating their relationship with the police the following stands out: The police departments of America are endowed by the state with dominion over your body. This summer in Ferguson and Staten Island we have seen that dominion employed to the maximum ends – destruction of the body. This is neither new nor extraordinary. It does not matter if the destruction of your body was an overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction of your body resulted from a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction of your body springs from foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Protect the home of your mother and your body can be destroyed. Visit the home of your young daughter and your body will be destroyed. The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.

Even white guys like Matt Zoller Seitz, who got into a fight with some Hispanic guy in front of a local deli, will get the message:

I said, “Oh, no, he didn’t hit me first. He poked me in the chest.”

“That’s assault,” my cop said. “He hit you first.”

“I don’t think he actually meant to touch me, though,” I said, while a voice deep inside me said, Stupid white boy, he’s making it plain and you’re not getting it!

“It doesn’t matter if he meant to touch you, he hit you first,” he said. He was talking to me warmly and patiently, as you might explain things to a child. Wisdom was being imparted.

“You were in fear of your life,” he added.

By now the adrenaline fog seemed to be lifting. I was seeing things in a more clinical way. The violence I had inflicted on this man was disproportionate to the “assault,” and the tone of this exchange with the cop felt conspiratorial.

And then it dawned on me, Mr. Slow-on-the-Uptake, what was really happening: this officer was helping me Get My Story Straight.

Seitz gets it now:

I’ve never been profiled. I’ve never been stopped and frisked. I’ve never experienced anything of the sort because of the gift that my parents gave me, and that my son’s parents gave him: white skin. I’ve had encounters with police, mostly during my youth, in which I’d done something wrong and thought I was about to get a ticket or go to jail but somehow didn’t, because I managed to take back or apologize for whatever I’d said to a cop in petulance or frustration; these encounters, too, would have likely gone differently, perhaps ended differently, if I hadn’t been white.

Again, I already knew this stuff. But after that night in front of the deli, I understood it.

Good for him. Everyone should understand it. Our police have become an occupying army in full combat gear, in what they see as enemy territory where there are only a few good folks. All others will be intimidated into utterly passive submission, and won’t be pretty. Some will die, but many Americans, who aren’t them, seem to be fine with that. Those are those “other” people. They should be policed, if that’s the term. We don’t even know what that means any longer. Does policing involve a puke saber? It’s time to talk.

Posted in Militarization of Police, Race and America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments