Made for War

Jesus may be the Prince of Peace, but the lion isn’t going to lie down with the lamb, ever, and no one is beating their swords into ploughshares. The world is too dangerous a place for that – it always was and always will be. We are a species that thrives because we can’t just all get along. Why did Rodney King even ask that question? We want what we want, individually or collectively, and we do our best to grab it, and then do all we can to hold onto it. Even if that does not mean we simply eliminate those competing for what we want – murder is discouraged in all societies – we do seek dominance, and the humiliation of others, to keep them from getting any ideas about what we have declared is ours alone. Collectively, we wage war for the same reason. We want something like oil, or land, or a seaport or two, or we want to defend our way of life, as we often say these days. It’s all about what we want that someone else has, or that we have now but that is being threatened. That means war, and in war we seek dominance, and the humiliation of others, but we don’t usually go all-out with the killing. There are limits. Genocide is frowned upon. Still, the idea is to keep those other folks from getting any ideas about what we have declared is ours alone. Many will die, just not all of them. To win a war is to dominate. Throw in a little humiliation and that’s even better. That will keep those folks from getting any ideas down the road.

That didn’t exactly work out with World War I – the Great War, the War to End All Wars. The Treaty of Versailles was explicitly designed to humiliate the Germans, so they’d make no more trouble, ever. They’d feel only shame, forever, but the terms of that treaty just pissed them off. Hitler masterfully exploited their anger and we got the next war soon enough, the war which wasn’t supposed to happen, which couldn’t happen. It happened. The humiliation of others is not a useful tool of dominance, and it’s the same woth torture. With all forms of torture you don’t get good information, just what the person thinks you want to hear, whatever they scream out because their pain is so exquisite and prolonged. They’ll say anything. You still have to figure out if any of it is remotely true. It might be. It might not be. Now there is even more work for you to do, to see what you can verify.

That was the problem with our official policy of what everyone knew was torture in the Bush-Cheney years. It wasn’t particularly useful, but maybe that wasn’t really the point. It was something better, it was assumed to be humiliating. We could do this to anyone, anywhere, any old time we wanted. No one could stop us. Maybe that was the whole point of that seemingly pointless exercise. We were defending our way of life, but not by getting the bad guys to reveal nefarious plots. Even now no one knows what we thought we learned for bad guys in extreme pain. So what? We were defending our way of life through dominance and the humiliation of others. No one would mess with us now.

We may pay the price for that, or maybe we’re paying it now, but our embrace of torture was only one of our many tools of dominance. We began the war in Iraq, in 2003, with what we boasted was a Shock and Awe campaign, with the emphasis on Awe. Saddam Hussein would head for the hills, if he lived, and everyone else in Iraq would be in awe of us and lay down their arms and just give up. In the first two minutes they’d know who the top dog was. It would be all over almost before it started. The Germans used to call this Blitzkrieg – lightning war –and it worked wonders on September 1, 1939, in Poland. Poland fell almost immediately. Shock and Awe works. That’s why Hitler won the war and we all speak German now. We don’t? No one told Donald Rumsfeld.

All of this is a sorry business, but there nothing all that unusual about it. The history of the world is not a history of extended periods of peace, punctuated by an odd and disastrous major war now and then. It’s a history endless war, periodic major wars and continual minor wars almost everywhere, all the time, with an odd stretch of a few years of relative peace, here and there, but not too often. We are the species that kills each other to get what we want, which in a Darwinian way is good for the species. War sorts out the strongest from the weakest, either eliminating the weakest or making them useful tools of the strong, providing labor or amusement – and we love it. That’s why we watch professional football or NASCAR races or whatever. The weak are going to be dominated, and often be in great pain – drivers sometimes die in NASCAR races and professional football players end up with massive brain damage – and we cheer the team with the “killer instinct” that humiliates the other pathetic losers and brings on the pain. We instinctively know how the real world works. We get it.

That means that now, as we go to war in the Middle East again, this time to take care of ISIS and a few other matters, we also get it. We have to go to war. The Prince of Peace will forgive us, or maybe He won’t notice. This is who we are – we do have to sort out who the top dog is or nothing makes sense. There are our values, and our way of life, and the stuff we’ve got now, and the stuff we want. We cannot abandon those, even if ever since that first night of Shock and Awe in Baghdad everything turned out all wrong, and even if we lost five thousand American lives in the effort, and spent two trillion dollars, more or less, that we didn’t have. We just have to do this.

Of course we do. At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum says we’re in love with war:

The more I think about our campaign against ISIS, the more dismayed I become. I always figured that if the time ever came when a president wanted to bomb Iran, it would be pretty easy to whip up the usual war frenzy over it. That’s been baked into the cake for a long time. But Iraq? And without even a very big push from President Obama? I mean, for all that, I’m not happy over his decision to go back to war in Iraq; he’s been relatively sober about the whole thing.

But it barely matters. The mere concrete prospect of a new war was all it took. According to polls, nearly two-thirds of Americans are on board with the fight against ISIS and nearly half think we ought to be sending in ground troops. That’s despite the fact that practically every opinion leader in the country says in public that they oppose ground troops. At this point it would take only a tiny shove – a bomb scare, an atrocity of some kind, pretty much anything – and 70 percent of the country would be in full-bore war frenzy mode.

It’s like we’ve learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.

Drum doesn’t get it – maybe he doesn’t spend his Sunday afternoons watching professional football – but Republicans get this. A few weeks ago, as Dana Milbank explains, it was this:

President Obama still holds to a “no boots on the ground” pledge, but to listen to recent pronouncements in the House and Senate, it would appear that many Republicans are clamoring for a new ground war in the Middle East – a position even hawks hesitated to take a few weeks ago.

Consider one member of the Senate panel, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who three months ago said: “I don’t think we need boots on the ground. I don’t think that is an option worth consideration.” After Obama announced a no-boots-on-the-ground plan last week that sounded much like what Graham was asking for, Graham revised his view. “This idea we’ll never have any boots on the ground to defeat them in Syria is fantasy,” he said Sunday on TV.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Graham practically pleaded with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to endorse the use of U.S. ground troops against the Islamic State. “Do you agree that somebody’s got to go in on the ground?” he asked. “Can you envision a coalition of Arab states that have the capabilities… without substantial U.S. military support?” Finally, the senator challenged the general: “If you think they can do it without us being on the ground, just say yes.”

“Yes,” said Dempsey.

This was evidently not the answer sought by Graham, who then asked if Dempsey would recommend U.S. ground troops in Syria “if nobody else will help us.” Dempsey, not quite as categorical as Obama, pledged that if circumstances change to merit U.S. ground forces, he’ll recommend that.

That wasn’t much, but Graham is not alone:

House Speaker John Boehner, asked about Obama’s no-boots vow, replied: “I would never tell the enemy what I was willing to do, or unwilling to do.”

Backbencher Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) was more blunt. He told the Associated Press that, rather than depending on “undependable” foreigners, he favors “all-out-war” waged by American forces.

As the House kicked off its debate Tuesday on training Syrian rebels, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) declared that Obama “was far too quick to rule out options and tools that he in fact may need later.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said this – “We have made this decision not to have ground troops. We do not need another half-pregnant war in the Middle East. If it’s important enough to fight, it’s important enough to win.”

That’s just a taste of it. These guys want war. Who doesn’t? The public does, or maybe not. Greg Sargent looks a public opinion a little more closely:

The polls actually show at least some public caution about rushing headlong into another war. In particular, focusing too much on public support for generic “action” risks being misleading – Americans support what they perceive as low risk action. A CNN poll released Monday shows that while 73 percent of Americans support air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, 59 percent think we are not at war with ISIS; 54 percent oppose arming the Syrian rebels; and 60 percent oppose sending in ground troops.

As Drum says, “the press is really in love with war.” And indeed, that may be helping create the impression of a public that feels the same way: News orgs have already shown a willingness to hype their own polling to portray the American people as shuddering in fear of grainy footage of terrorists and slavering for more bloody conflict. The bluster from GOP operatives who claim national security is now a huge winner for them – and the credulous media treatment of these claims also help to reinforce this impression.

But my guess is that the GOP emphasis on national security is more aimed at revving up core voters (which is central to GOP midterm strategy) than anything else. A recent NYT/CBS poll showed that 62 percent of Republicans support sending in ground troops – a position supported by only minorities of independents and moderates.

We may not love war after all:

To be clear, the support that does exist for sending in ground troops is higher than one would have hoped. But I’d caution against assuming the public is all that gung ho for another protracted and costly ground war in the Middle East.

Of course, if there were another terror attack on American soil, all bets would probably be off.

Ah, then America would be fine with sending in the troops, two or three hundred thousand of them, to settle things once and for all – just like we sent our troops into Afghanistan thirteen years ago to settle things once and for all, ridding that place of the Taliban that had supported Osama bin Laden and getting him too – just like we sent the troops into Iraq a year so later to get rid of Saddam Hussein, fixing that sorry place once and for all – just like Obama fixed everything when he decided to screw all that stuff about Pakistan’s sovereignty and sent in that team to take out Osama bin Laden, there, no matter what the Pakistanis thought, and fix things once and for all.

There’s a pattern here. These things never end. The history of the world is not a history of extended periods of peace, punctuated by an odd and disastrous major war now and then. It’s a history endless war, periodic major wars and continual minor wars almost everywhere, all the time, with an odd stretch of a few years of relative peace, here and there, but not too often. We didn’t even get that. And these things really are endless:

American and Afghan officials signed a long-term security pact here on Tuesday – nearly a year after the agreement was cast into limbo by a breakdown of trust at the highest levels of each allied government.

The new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, sworn in just a day earlier, oversaw the signing of the security pact in a cordial ceremony at the presidential palace, sending a clear message that he meant to heal an alliance that had soured under his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

“We have signed an agreement for the good of our people,” he said, outlining a relationship of “shared dangers and shared interests” with the United States.

The deal, known as a bilateral security agreement, will allow 9,800 American and at least 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after the international combat mission formally ends on Dec. 31. Most of them will help train and assist the struggling Afghan security forces, although some American Special Operations forces will remain to conduct counterterrorism missions.

This guarantees at least ten thousand troops there for at least ten years, to help out, training, maybe. Things may heat up, but they do need help:

In Afghanistan, a multi-front Taliban offensive this summer has raised serious questions about the ability of the Afghan security forces to keep the insurgency at bay as they suffer soaring casualty rates and continue to struggle with logistical problems. And there are new concerns about Afghan political unity after a bitter election dispute between Mr. Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, revived some of the ethnic and geographic dividing lines that had seemed to ebb under Mr. Karzai’s management.

Yet despite the rapid changes, some analysts say the security pact may still offer Afghanistan a different path, helping to solidify the country’s political dispensation and create the underpinnings necessary to avoid state collapse.

We have to keep ten thousand troops in Afghanistan or there will be no Afghanistan. We’re it, but that’s okay:

American officials, for their part, appeared simply relieved that an episode that had stirred much rancor – and multiple diplomatic interventions by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry – had finally come to an end.

After signing the pact in Kabul, the American ambassador, James B. Cunningham, firmly embraced Hanif Atmar, the new Afghan security adviser, who signed for his country. And in Washington, Mr. Obama said the agreement reflected a “continued commitment to support the new Afghan unity government.”

Senior White House officials said the lesson of Iraq – where despite training from American advisers, the security forces have been unable to hold back the advance of Sunni militants – is that a unified government is a precursor to maintaining stability after the bulk of American troops are gone.

“This is exactly what we planned for,” Antony J. Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, said in an interview. The agreement puts the United States on a “very deliberate glide path that enables us to sustain our support for the Afghan security forces, which already are in the lead throughout the country.”

So the International Security Assistance Force will be replaced by a training mission headquartered in Kabul with six bases around the country – but there will be American Special Operations forces all over the place, for when things get hot, and they will:

The Taliban denounced the security pact as a “sinister” plot by the United States, and used it to launch its first propaganda assault on the new Ghani administration.

“With this action, the new staff of the presidential palace has proved their disloyalty to the religion and history of Afghanistan,” said a Pashto-language statement posted on Twitter. The following post read: “Death to America!”

We just guaranteed ourselves another ten years of war in Afghanistan, but there was not much coverage of this agreement in the American media. War is what we do. War is who we are. Where was the news in this? And the Republicans couldn’t raise a stink, saying Obama was going to pull everyone out of Afghanistan and ruin everything, like he did in Iraq when he didn’t tear up Bush’s agreement to get the hell out of there and then force the Iraqi government to let us stay, on our terms, not theirs. Fox News was silent on this matter. Obama wasn’t being the antiwar panty-waist everyone knows he is. They hate when that happens.

Oh well, and in Foreign Policy, Ioannis Koskinas had already argued that this just had to be:

Like it or not, Afghanistan remains a key battlefront in the fight against extremists, terrorists, and fanatics hiding behind the veil of religious fundamentalism.

The uncertainty that surrounded the prolonged election process, in many ways, emboldened the insurgents and strengthened their narrative. Additionally, while the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is due to end at the end of this year, al Qaeda fighters, while diminished in number, remain strong in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although unsavory in Washington political circles, al Qaeda’s presence and the introduction of groups who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State make an enduring U.S. counter-terrorism task force in Afghanistan long past 2015 necessary. Complicated by the Taliban’s significant gains in parts of Afghanistan in past months, at times aided by foreign fighters, Obama would be smart to reconsider his earlier arbitrary timeline to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 2015. It is imperative that Ghani and Abdullah have the necessary time to combat the insurgency physically, but also counter their narrative through reform initiatives.

On the political right, Ed Morrissey sees Obama as a foolish fellow who finally gets it now:

Of course, the war isn’t coming to an end in Afghanistan any more than it came to an end in Iraq. The Taliban have picked up their efforts as the US prepared to leave, and will no doubt continue to pressure Kabul politically as well as militarily for years to come. The best that the US can do in Afghanistan is attempt to keep the Afghan security forces from collapsing while all sides tire of the fight and find a way to settle the tribal wars that have been ongoing since the Soviet withdrawal. … The residual-force arrangement may not prove successful in keeping Afghanistan from collapse, but at least they show that someone has learned a lesson from the American withdrawal from Iraq.

Okay, fine – the war isn’t coming to an end in Afghanistan any more than it came to an end in Iraq – war is forever. And nothing we can do may keep Afghanistan from complete collapse, but we should do stuff anyway. That’s what we do. That’s what we do as species. We make war. We were made for war. It thins the herd and only the strong survive, as they should, and once a year we sing about peace on earth and good will toward men. Who are we kidding?

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Miscalculation and Adjustments

Something always goes wrong. Plans don’t work out. What you said was a brilliant idea turns out to be obvious nonsense. You miscalculated. You made a mistake, a fundamental mistake, a mistake from which there is no recovery. This is bad enough in a marriage, but it’s deadly for a politician and in both cases there seem to be two choices. One is to brazen it out – there really was no mistake, or if there was one, everyone at the time thought exactly what you thought, so everyone made the same honest mistake. Say you regret nothing. That’s the manly and heroic thing to do. That may end your marriage, but politicians know that voters will admire you for sticking to your guns. No one wants a leader who has self-doubts, who sits around and wonders if he (or she) did the right thing. Voters want certainty, if not a bit of swagger. In 2004, John Kerry was a flip-flopper, a guy who clearly thought too much. George Bush never wavered. He was never uncertain about anything, even if he didn’t know much about anything. He was a rock.

He was also dumb as a rock. John Kerry is now our secretary of state, actually convincing the major Sunni nations of the Middle East to help use take down the Sunni madmen of ISIS over there, even if that might help that Shiite fellow Assad, in Syria, and the Shiite guys in Iran, who want their nukes. One thing at a time – it’s tricky – but we had to make adjustments after we removed Saddam Hussein in Iraq and unleashed a regional religious civil war over there. We were supposed to unleash glorious secular democracy. Oops. John Kerry is trying to contain the damage we caused by that miscalculation, and George Bush is back in Texas painting pretty pictures of puppies. The two always thought differently. The other choice, when something goes terribly wrong, is to forget trying to brazen it out. People know better. They won’t admire you for your refusal to see the obvious, so you go the other way. You say okay, it seems THAT was a mistake. Let’s fix it. Let’s not dwell on who made the mistake and why, but let’s fix it.

That’s not manly and heroic – perhaps it’s even a bit feminine – but there are also a considerable number of voters who, when they see a man of unwavering conviction, see a dangerous fool. In 2008 they saw John McCain, and someone even more certain that she knew what she knew that she knew, Sarah Palin. Barack Obama won easily. He sometimes changes his mind. He doesn’t change his values – the typical center-left stuff about using the government to actually help its own citizens – but he changes his mind when the facts on the ground have changed. The surge in support for gay marriage took him by surprise. He “evolved” on that issue. He got the point. This really was an issue of equal protection under the law, and common decency. Obama could have quoted John Maynard Keynes – “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Obama could have quoted John Maynard Keynes, but that would only have caused more trouble. The Republican Party is the party of unwavering conviction, with its Values Voters and that Tea Party crowd who will never compromise on anything, all folks who pride themselves on never changing their mind, ever. America never makes mistakes. Obama is always apologizing for America – one of the major themes of the 2012 Romney campaign. This must stop, and so on and so forth. They have their voters who think that way, about half the country – or maybe less, but they all come out to vote in each and every election. The other half of the country who sees things the other way – let’s fix things. Those who say there’s nothing to fix, and there never was anything to fix, puzzle them. Patriotism is one thing, but what planet do they live on?

There’s no need for those planets to collide, but they did, awkwardly, on April 13, 2004:

President Bush flounders in answering a question about what his “biggest mistake” after 9/11 might have been. During a White House press conference, Time reporter John Dickerson asks Bush: “In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You’ve looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?” Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, is horrified by what he later calls Bush’s “tortured response to a straightforward question.” Bush attempts to buy a moment with a quip – “I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it” – but continues to fumble, saying: “John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just – I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.”

After what McClellan will recall as “an agonizingly long pause… a terrible silence [that] hung embarrassingly in the air,” Bush continues: “I would have gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would have called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein. See, I happen to believe that we’ll find out the truth on the weapons. That’s why we’ve sent up the independent commission. I look forward to hearing the truth, exactly where they are. They could still be there…”

Yes, Bush decided to brazen it out, but the interesting thing is that he never saw that question coming. It never occurred to him that he could make a mistake, but now someone had suggested that was possible, and that sounded reasonable, so he came up with this:

“I hope I – I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t – you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”

McClellan will write that he remains “stone-faced and motionless” as Bush manages to flounder through the question without actually admitting any mistakes.

McClellan knew they were in trouble and he knew why:

McClellan will later reflect: “There were many other times, in private and in public, when the president defended the most fateful decision of his administration. But few will be remembered as vividly as the one he made that night. It became symbolic of a leader unable to acknowledge that he got it wrong, and unwilling to grow in office by learning from his mistake – too stubborn to change and grow.” McClellan believes Bush is afraid to admit a mistake for “fear of appearing weak,” and will write: “A more self-confident executive would be willing to acknowledge failure, to trust people’s ability to forgive those who seek redemption for mistakes and show a readiness for change.”

McClellan wrote that stuff and then was ripped to shreds by Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly and all the rest – and defended himself on MSNBC and publicly endorsed Obama in 2008 on CNN. He endorsed the guy who trusted people’s ability to forgive those who see that they’ve made a mistake and is more than ready to fix it. That’s how you end up doing the right thing, eventually, or even sooner. Yes, unlike Bush, Obama was not a rock. Who needs a rock?

Now we’ll have to answer that question, because of this:

The United States underestimated the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq and Syria, President Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday night in which he also acknowledged the Iraqi army’s inability to successfully tackle the threat.

On CBS’s “60 Minutes,” correspondent Steve Kroft referred to comments by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, in which he said, “We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.”

“That’s true. That’s absolutely true,” Obama said. “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”

Obama’s remarks were his frankest yet in acknowledging that the rise of the Islamic State took the United States by surprise.

We miscalculated. Can that ever be forgiven? Paul Waldman wonders about that:

This is all about a couple of sentences in the interview, in which the President said something that few seriously dispute. You can argue that it happened because ISIS grew rapidly, which would have been hard to predict, or you can argue that the Iraqi Army’s instantaneous collapse in places like Mosul was an unlikely outcome, but at this point no one is going to say that we had perfect information and understood exactly what ISIS’s capability would become.

Waldman wonders why this was such big news. If Obama had said we knew about ISIS all along, that we knew about them years ago, everyone on the right would scream that he was lying, and he would be lying – the man knows nothing. On the other hand, if Obama wasn’t lying and had known about ISIS all along, why the hell didn’t he do something about those folks years ago? The man is incompetent. But then, if Obama is being truthful here, that he and the intelligence community actually miscalculated, that’s an even bigger deal. He should have known about ISIS all along. The man is in way over his head. They’ve got him now.

Waldman puts that this way, emphasizing the role of the press in all this:

If no one would really dispute what Obama admitted, why is it such big news? Did we expect him to say, “No, in fact we understood ISIS perfectly at every stage and predicted exactly what they would do, and nobody misjudged anything”? I’m old enough to remember when George W. Bush got a lot of negative media attention for his unwillingness to admit that he had ever made a mistake, even as the Iraq War spiraled downward and things weren’t looking too rosy at home either. The common thread uniting that period and this one is that so many in the press are focusing on the public relations aspect of governing, essentially punishing the president for not being more careful with his words.

A big part of the reason is that this is just what political reporters do. Whenever you have a big story like a war, it will be reported by two sets of journalists. The first is those with expertise in the subject – in this case, foreign affairs and national security reporters. The second is the political reporters. The latter have always exhibited a strange contradiction, in which they can’t stand politicians who are relentlessly “on message,” but also swiftly punish any politician who strays off message with endless “gaffe” coverage.

Now it’s Obama’s turn, for better or worse, and Waldman fears the worst:

The lesson he may take from it is that he shouldn’t admit mistakes (so long as that reluctance stops short of being almost pathological, as Bush’s was). But that’s exactly what we want presidents to do, not simply because it means being honest, but also because it helps everyone – both the public and those in government – to understand where we’ve fallen short and where we might fall short again. In this case, the limitations of our intelligence and particularly our ability to predict future events ought to be in the forefront of everyone’s mind as we make decisions. As we learned the last time we fought a war in Iraq, there are few things more dangerous than leaders who are sure they understand everything about a situation and know exactly what’s going to happen.

Imagine Sarah Palin as president. That’s what Waldman is talking about, and in another item he asks us to imagine what’s going to happen the next time there’s any kind of Islam-inspired terror attack on American soil:

The news media would amp up the fear to levels we haven’t seen in the last decade, encouraging everyone to look for sleeper cells lurking down at the Piggly Wiggly. Republicans would of course unite behind President Obama in our time of mourning – kidding! They’d go on TV to denounce him for being so weak that the evildoers struck us in our very heart, and proclaim not only that the blood of the victims is on the hands of every Democrat, but that more attacks are coming and we’re more vulnerable than we’ve ever been. Dick Cheney would emerge snarling from his subterranean lair to warn us that this is only the beginning and we really need to start bombing at least five or six more countries. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already said about ISIL that “this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home,” might just tear off his shirt and scream, “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” right on Fox News Sunday.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum draws some conclusions:

Democrats and Republicans are both good at some things and bad at others. One of the things that Republicans are good at is making – and repeating over and over and over – firm predictions about the outcomes of their policy preferences. If you fail to wage eternal war in the Middle East, there will be a terrorist attack in the United States. If you lower taxes, the economy will improve. Etc.

These are easy things to understand for voters. And guess what? Eventually there will be a terrorist attack. Eventually the economy will improve. So when those things happen, Republicans have a nice, simple story already planted in the public mind that allows them to take credit or place blame for it.

Democrats are not so good at this.

Obama was honest about ISIS but honesty isn’t always the best political policy:

Most government policies really do have only a modest effect on economic growth. Likewise, most government policies have only a modest effect on the chances of someone eventually pulling off a terrorist attack. But honest or not, it means voters don’t associate Democrats with much of anything. They don’t give them credit for improving the economy, for example, or for preventing terrorist attacks. And honest or not, it’s political malpractice.

Perhaps so, but then Waldman did point to reality:

Other than cowering in fear, what more could we possibly do to forestall terrorism? For years we’ve been taking off our shoes in airports, going through metal detectors in more and more buildings, and letting the NSA read our emails and track our phone calls. The U.S. government created a national security and surveillance apparatus with nearly a million federal employees and outside contractors holding top-secret security clearances, a colossus of listeners and watchers built on the foundation of our fear.

What really protects us, though, is that so few Americans have any desire to commit terrorist acts. Muslim-Americans in particular are more assimilated and loyal to their home than their counterparts in other western countries (and they’ve withstood a stunning level of surveillance and even harassment from law enforcement agencies over the last 13 years with an admirable equanimity and restraint). Those overseas who might like to strike at America, meanwhile, have apparently found getting a tourist visa, coming to the U.S., and buying some of our copious weapons of destruction just too challenging a task to carry out. It’s a tribute to their limited talents and imagination that they keep trying to blow up airplanes, as though that’s the only thing they can think of.

We seem to be dealing with killer clowns, but in that same Sunday interview, Obama saw an alternative to sending in twenty divisions and killing them all:

Well, I think there’s going to be a generational challenge. I don’t think that this is something that’s going to happen overnight. They have now created an environment in which young men are more concerned whether they’re Shiite or Sunni, rather than whether they are getting a good education or whether they are able to, you know, have a good job. Many of them are poor. Many of them are illiterate and are therefore more subject to these kinds of ideological appeals. And, you know, the beginning of the solution for the entire Middle East is going to be a transformation in how these countries teach their youth. What our military operations can do is to just check and roll back these networks as they appear and make sure that the time and space is provided for a new way of doing things to begin to take root. But it’s going to take some time…

Military action against ISIS will buy us some of that time, but it’s no answer to the underlying problem:

With the allies, with their ground troops, and if we do our job right and the Iraqis fight, then over time our role can slow down and taper off. And their role, reasserts itself. But all that depends, Steve. And nobody’s clearer than I am about this – that the Iraqis have to be willing to fight. And they have to be willing to fight in a nonsectarian way – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd alongside each other against this cancer in their midst.

We’re working on that and it isn’t easy – and Americans might not have the patience for that. Go in, wipe them out, and come home – just like before. The problem would be solved once and for all, just like before. No, wait…

Andrew Sullivan sees the same problem:

Well, if anything can calm me down, it’s this no-drama president carefully explaining what his strategy is. It’s not about transforming the Middle East, or unseating Assad, or directly intervening to try and achieve in the future what we couldn’t achieve in the past. It appears to be about minimally containing the threat of Jihadist networks so as to create some space for “a new way of doing things to begin to take root”…

But the same worries persist. What if it becomes impossible to roll back a network like ISIS? What if air bombing campaigns – with civilian casualties – actually galvanizes ISIS and empowers it with a new global identity with which to draw recruits? What if the broken Iraqi state can never be put back together as a multi-sectarian democracy? What if a “new way of doing things” is actually decades in the future? Are we really going to be bombing for decades? And in how many countries does that formula apply?

This is a gamble:

I can see what the president would like to happen. But even he implies it won’t happen for a long, long time – which means we will be bombing for exactly that long time. And there are unintended consequences to all such wars which he doesn’t even seem to contemplate. Those are my worries – an indefinite military commitment, with no way to achieve the underlying changes that would end such a commitment, with the real possibility of blowback.

That’s all true, but at least for the next two years we will have a president who is more than willing to admit mistakes, and willing to make adjustments, willing to learn and grow, as Scott McClellan put it. Half the country will hate that about him, and half the country will love that, and the facts on the ground might change – they might turn out to be as Sullivan fears. What then? “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Can we live with that? It won’t ever happen again.

Posted in ISIS, Obama Admits Mistakes, Political Cost of Admitting Mistakes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Consequences of Work

Donald Trump seems to be perpetually surprised, and a bit angry, that every man, every real man, doesn’t want to be just like him. He is, after all, the most respected and admired man in America. Don’t tell him otherwise. He’ll say you’re just jealous. That’s fun to watch, but then Wayne Newton seems to think he’s the coolest and sexiest thing ever. Spending your entire life in Las Vegas, that loud neon city in the middle of the desert, designed for no other purpose than to trick desperate fools out of as much money as possible, will do that to you. Standards are different there. The place is all flash and vague fear, and frantic hope to win at least a little money, or at least break even, and that frantic hope to be cool, in a place where no one knows you’re really a dork. Hey, it worked for Wayne Newton – but no one in their right mind ever goes to Las Vegas, on purpose, which explains why so many people do just that. The Las Vegas Visitors Bureau knows this, which is why they ran an ad campaign for many years with a simple message that said it all – What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Come for a visit. Pretend to be whatever you want to be. There are no consequences.

There is also Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – but that’s another matter. Go to the fake Paris and pretend you’re in the real one. That’s harmless enough, if you stay away from the slots and the blackjack tables. There will be no consequences, which is how we’d all like life to be. There won’t be any pesky French people either. You can be one. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

There is something quintessentially American about Las Vegas, the city of no consequences, where you can say and do anything you please, and where even Wayne Newton is somehow cool. Life should be like that, even if it isn’t. Mitt Romney found that out with that forty-seven percent comment that ruined his run for the presidency:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…

Our message of low taxes doesn’t connect… so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful…

What happens in a room full of wealthy donors doesn’t stay in a room full of wealthy donors. You don’t call nearly half the country morally inadequate slugs. Romney suffered the consequences. This isn’t Las Vegas, but now there’s this:

A GOP House candidate in Nevada has been caught on tape telling a crowd at a fundraiser that Mitt Romney was right to say that 47 percent of the country mooch off the government. Cresent Hardy, the Republican candidate for Nevada’s 4th district, added that since 2012, when Romney made his remarks, the “47 percent” has only grown.

“Can I say that without getting in trouble, like Governor Romney?” Hardy said, at a fundraiser held last Thursday at the Falcon Ridge Golf Club. “The 47 percent is true. It’s bigger now.”

Two years had passed since Romney’s original comments. Hardy thinks we live in the land of no consequences, or hopes we do – he is running for office in Nevada after all – but he’s a minor figure. That doesn’t explain the man from Ohio:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) seemed to echo Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that 47 percent of Americans are “takers” who suck up government benefits during a speech at a conservative Washington D.C. think tank on Thursday. Addressing the American Enterprise Institute, Boehner suggested that President Barack Obama’s economy has lulled many unemployed people into a sense of dependence on government.

“This idea that has been born, maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, that you know, I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around. This is a very sick idea for our country,” he said.

“If you wanted something you worked for it,” Boehner said, adding, “Trust me, I did it all.”

Neither Hardy nor Boehner seem to believe there are any real consequences to saying such things, and in this year’s midterm elections there probably aren’t. Such talk fires up the base in a very specific district or just one state, and Paul Krugman is not surprised:

It’s hardly the first time a prominent conservative has said something along these lines. Ever since a financial crisis plunged us into recession it has been a nonstop refrain on the right that the unemployed aren’t trying hard enough, that they are taking it easy thanks to generous unemployment benefits, which are constantly characterized as “paying people not to work.” And the urge to blame the victims of a depressed economy has proved impervious to logic and evidence.

But it’s still amazing – and revealing- to hear this line being repeated now. For the blame-the-victim crowd has gotten everything it wanted: Benefits, especially for the long-term unemployed, have been slashed or eliminated. So now we have rants against the bums on welfare when they aren’t bums – they never were – and there’s no welfare.

The Romney-Hardy-Boehner crowd actually got what they wanted:

I don’t know how many people realize just how successful the campaign against any kind of relief for those who can’t find jobs has been. But it’s a striking picture. The job market has improved lately, but there are still almost three million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months, the usual maximum duration of unemployment insurance. That’s nearly three times the pre-recession total. Yet extended benefits for the long-term unemployed have been eliminated – and in some states the duration of benefits has been slashed even further.

The result is that most of the unemployed have been cut off. Only 26 percent of jobless Americans are receiving any kind of unemployment benefit, the lowest level in many decades. The total value of unemployment benefits is less than 0.25 percent of GDP – half what it was in 2003, when the unemployment rate was roughly the same as it is now. It’s not hyperbole to say that America has abandoned its out-of-work citizens.

These people were cut off, so they had to go back to work, except there is no work out there. There was no jobs boom as all those lazy bums gave in and went back to work. What Krugman calls the theory that “cruelty is the key to prosperity” ran into an economy where only the rich recovered from the collapse of everything in Bush’s last year. The issue was structural, not moral, which Krugman explains this way:

Now, as anyone who has studied British policy during the Irish famine knows, self-righteous cruelty toward the victims of disaster, especially when the disaster goes on for an extended period, is common in history. Still, Republicans haven’t always been like this. In the 1930s they denounced the New Deal and called for free-market solutions – but when Alf Landon accepted the 1936 presidential nomination, he also emphasized the “plain duty” of “caring for the unemployed until recovery is attained.” Can you imagine hearing anything similar from today’s GOP?

Is it race? That’s always a hypothesis worth considering in American politics. It’s true that most of the unemployed are white, and they make up an even larger share of those receiving unemployment benefits. But conservatives may not know this, treating the unemployed as part of a vaguely defined, dark-skinned crowd of “takers.”

My guess, however, is that it’s mainly about the closed information loop of the modern right. In a nation where the Republican base gets what it thinks are facts from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, where the party’s elite gets what it imagines to be policy analysis from the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, the right lives in its own intellectual universe, aware of neither the reality of unemployment nor what life is like for the jobless. You might think that personal experience – almost everyone has acquaintances or relatives who can’t find work – would still break through, but apparently not.

That’s not exactly true. Earlier, in the summer, the man who went down with Mitt Romney’s sinking ship, Paul Ryan, tried to undo the damage:

Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, outlined a plan to combat poverty on Thursday that would consolidate a dozen programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” that largely shifts antipoverty efforts from the federal government to the states.

Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a leading voice in his party on fiscal matters, said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that the federal government represents the “rear guard – it protects the supply lines.”

In short, get the federal government out of all this social safety net stuff. Let each state do what it wants. Let’s see what happens, and let’s let whatever each state comes up with be a plan to make these struggling folks better people, which is the real problem:

Mr. Ryan tumbled somewhat awkwardly into the antipoverty discussion this year when he said a “tailspin of culture in our inner cities” perpetuated poverty, a comment that Democrats and some African-American groups called racist. But since then, Mr. Ryan has appeared to try to make amends, traveling the country to listen to Americans in poorer cities as he prepared to unveil this proposal.

The Opportunity Grants resemble block grants to individual states, which would have autonomy to spend on whatever antipoverty programs they desire as long as Washington approves the plan. The federal government currently spends about $800 billion on social welfare programs like food stamps and housing assistance. Mr. Ryan said that total spending would remain the same, and that his plan would not add to the deficit.

It’s just a different way of doing what needs to be done with confused and morally inadequate human beings:

If a state opted into the pilot program, it would have low-income residents meet with case managers who would create an “opportunity plan” offering both financial advice and coordinating the provisions of the several different programs they need. The residents would sign contracts with these case managers that would offer incentives to reach financial security and sanctions if they do not.

In short, we don’t need to spend more money. We have to force people to shape up, with an approved plan to be a better person, and fine them heavily if they don’t meet the specific milestones in the plan. All they need is a kind of “life coach” to help them become adequate human beings.

Needless to say, this went nowhere – it was arrogant and condescending, and having the long-term unemployed take weekly quizzes on the collected works of Ayn Rand seemed both silly and offensive – and John Boehner just killed it. That was probably for the best, but Krugman summed up the central problem here:

Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

This intellectual divide is most obvious when the subject is the persistence of poverty in a wealthy nation. Liberals focus on the stagnation of real wages and the disappearance of jobs offering middle-class incomes, as well as the constant insecurity that comes with not having reliable jobs or assets. For conservatives, however, it’s all about not trying hard enough.

There may be no way to reconcile those two views. Liberals and conservatives will always disagree about this, so maybe we should talk about something else, something more fundamental. Patrick Spaet offers this:

Probably no other sentence comes up at a party as often as: “So, what do you do?” There is an unspoken question behind this: “Are you useful?” Work determines our social status: tell me what your job is – and I’ll tell you who you are.

Whoever isn’t “doing” anything, and says openly that he can’t be bothered to work, and that by no means any work is better than no work, is suspected of slacking, and of inciting others to do the same–with the result of this contagious slacking being that the whole of our hardworking society will plunge into an abyss. The mantra of our time is “I work, therefore I am.”

He says “the work fetish has become deeply ingrained in the DNA of western industrial nations” and he’s not impressed:

Our attitudes towards work are extremely schizophrenic: we secretly aspire to sloth, while we loudly praise work. There isn’t an election poster that doesn’t promise more jobs. The call for more work is similar to the Stockholm syndrome, in which the victims of hostage-taking eventually develop a positive relationship with their captors. We constantly hear the drivel of “growth,” “competition,” and “local prosperity,” to convince us that we have to “tighten our belts,” because only that way are “secure jobs” possible – while everything else presents “no alternative.” A wage increase isn’t in the cards, because otherwise the company will go broke. We can’t tax too much, because otherwise the job generators will go abroad. All of these things have become the consensus – even among the wage slaves themselves.

This situation is all the more schizophrenic in that we take every opportunity every day to escape toil and work: who voluntarily uses a washboard, if he has a washing machine? Who copies out a text by hand, if he can use a photocopier instead? And who mentally calculates the miserable columns of figures on his tax return, if he has a calculator? We are bone idle, and yet we glorify work. The Stockholm syndrome of work fetishism has befuddled our minds. It is the paradox of the present: the religion of work has attained the status of a state religion, at exactly the point in time when work is dying. The sale of labor power will be as promising in the 21st century as the sale of stagecoaches in the 20th century.

This is happening already:

We live in an era of capitalism in which the productivity of labor is so high that fewer and fewer workers are needed. The current mass unemployment in southern Europe – with a youth unemployment rate to some degree of over 50 percent – is only a taste of the great feeding frenzy that is still ahead of us. Computers and robots are taking over jobs everywhere.

The fast food chain McDonald’s has just installed thousands of “Easy Order” machines in their outlets worldwide. Customers enter their orders on the touch screen, pay for them using the machine, and pick up their food from the sales counter. McDonald’s can thus dispense with hundreds of otherwise unconscionably-low-paying jobs. At the other end of the line, even lawyers are now being sacked. In the United States, so-called “e-discovery programs” – complex and adaptive software products – are increasingly taking over research work, where formerly lawyers sifted through mountains of files and court documents. An Oxford University study concludes that by 2030 approximately 47 percent of all jobs in the United States may fall victim to automation.

Work isn’t disappearing because we’re too stupid. It also isn’t disappearing because the wealthy are forking over too much of their money to taxes, as the neoliberals would have us believe. Most people will not find a job in the short or long term, because capitalism is collapsing in the short term, and in the long term our labor force is being replaced by machines.

And now, the really depressing part:

Already more than a billion people worldwide are underemployed or unemployed, and this is a rising trend. But the scarcer jobs become worldwide, the more we praise work, instead of taking it easy. We could reduce the average working time drastically if we wanted to. “Growth” isn’t possible in any case. What exactly is supposed to grow, except people’s misery?

Liberals talk about circumstances and conservatives talk about character and both miss the point. Neither matters now and Spaet comments on the comments he received:

“Nobody has a right to be lazy,” they argued. “Those who don’t work are doing harm to society. They are just social parasites.”

Well, this is a prime example of the work fetish. And commentators like this one overlook the fact that most existing jobs are bullshit jobs. As Henry David Thoreau put it: “Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.”

He could have also quoted Bertrand Russell – “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” We’re having that collective nervous breakdown now.

Earlier this year, Andrew Sullivan put it this way:

It’s struck me that there is an underlying anxiety to several of our current debates on economic and social issues. That anxiety is that the American work ethic – unparalleled in the developed world – is under threat. …

With wages stagnant for most Americans since the mid-1970s, and hard, often back-breaking work failing to provide real gains in income, doesn’t the logic of the work ethic get attenuated? Isn’t it also affected by your knowledge that many people at the very top of the pyramid rake in unimaginable dough for working far less hard than your average teacher or healthcare worker? And isn’t the vast accumulation of wealth among so few itself a contributor to the decline in the work ethic, since it provides so many dependents with such easy, unearned cash? It’s not just the left that has created these disincentives. Global capitalism has done its part as well.

The logic of the work ethic now does slam up against the hard reality of the global economic system – splat – and Sullivan also ties this to the issue of marijuana legalization and immigration reform:

One strong thread in the opposition is the fear that we’ll all stay on the couch, binge-watch Netflix and sleep in late, while the Chinese eat our lunch. And it’s strongest among those who experienced the American dream – the over-60s – than among those for whom it seems like a distant memory – the under-30s. And then there is immigration reform. Isn’t there an obvious, if unstated, cultural fear here that Latino culture is less work-obsessed than white Protestant culture (despite the staggering work ethic of so many Latino immigrants)? Beneath the legitimate concerns about border enforcement and security – which Obama has beefed up beyond measure, by the way – there is an anxiety that the core identity of America might change. We might actually begin to live more like Europeans do. Heaven forfend.

Good god, we’ll all turn French! No, their pop music is awful and their language incomprehensible and their cars silly, but Sullivan is sensing that we are facing a real debate about what we value in life, and what makes life meaningful:

Work is an ennobling, mobilizing endeavor. It is our last truly common denominator as Americans. But what if its preeminence is unavoidably weakened by unchangeable economic forces? What if the accumulation of wealth through work is beginning to seem like a mug’s game to more and more, trapped in a stalled social mobility escalator? Why wouldn’t people adjust their values to fit the times?

He says we may have to think about that now:

I believe in work. I don’t want the welfare state to be a cushion rather than a safety net. At the same time, it seems to me that as a culture, we have a work ethic that can be, and often is, its own false idol. The Protestant work ethic we have, for example, is the imperative for industrious striving, self-advancement and material gain. It is emphatically not about being happy. And at some point, if those two values are not easily compatible, something will give.

And would it be such a terrible thing if exhausted American workers were able to take real vacations of more than two weeks a year; or if white-collar professionals could afford to take a breather in mid-career without worrying about their health insurance; or if 63-year-olds could actually enjoy two more years of leisure at the end of their careers? Would it be so awful if more Americans smoked pot and were able to garner a few more moments of chill and relaxation rather than stress or worry? How damaging would it be if a little Catholic, Latin culture mitigated the unforgiving treadmill so many of us are on?

That leads to two questions:

At what point, in other words, is the pursuit of material wealth eclipsing the pursuit of happiness this country was founded to uphold? Is the correction against the Protestant work ethic a destruction of the American values or actually a sign of their revival after a period of intense and often fruitless striving? I suspect the latter.

Yeah, but there is noble dignity in intense and often fruitless striving, isn’t there? There are only so many times you can be told that before you laugh at that notion. That’s why some people laughed at Romney’s forty-seven percent comment, after they figured out that outrage was probably inappropriate – the economy is what it is. The collapse is permanent. That Hardy fellow in Nevada was right too – the forty-seven percent is growing. Both of them think something can be done about it, like cutting them off and letting them die if they don’t shape up, but Paul Ryan’s plan, to fund Ayn Rand mentors to teach all of them the right attitude about work, was absurd. The work is gone. John Boehner thinks that somehow an idea that has been born – maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, as he concedes – that people really don’t have to work. He calls that sick, but more and more people really don’t have to work, not in this new world. They’re totally unnecessary.

What do we do with these people? Maybe we turn all of America into one big Las Vegas, where everyone pretends to be something they’re not and also very cool, playing the slots, hoping to break even, and the only ones who are actually working are the hookers and cheesy lounge acts and the janitorial staff, and Wayne Newton. What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.

Posted in Jobs Crisis, Structural Changes to the Economy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Kind of Country We Want

Rude awakenings are useful. That is how we really learn. Nothing is what your thought it would be. Life slaps you in the face. What were you thinking? Snap out of it! You’re not going to be a famous jazz musician, or a brilliant baseball player, or write the great American novel, or be a movie star or the next Steve Jobs. Ambition and desire and hard work and the right attitude are necessary conditions to get there from here, but they are not sufficient conditions. Talent matters, and you’ve got that or you don’t. Accept that. Plan for what talent you actually have, if you can figure out what that is. If you cannot, then embrace being rather ordinary – it’s not so bad. Ordinary people can be happy too, once they know what’s what. Did life slap you in the face, again? There’s only one proper response. Thanks, I needed that. You did, actually. Don’t kid yourself.

Everyone has his or her own ever-expanding list of personal rude awakenings, some devastating – the loving spouse runs off with the neighbor – and some just irritating – the person on the other end of the line actually has no idea how to fix your computer. Okay, so be it. Note what you’ve just learned and move on. Make adjustments. Something else will come along soon enough to slap you in the face anyway. Practice making adjustments – it’s good for you. Severe idealism can kill you.

Young teachers know this, and there was that odd dispute in the faculty room back in the seventies, over what we were supposed to be doing. The department head was furious – you don’t let students rewrite badly done essays until they get it right, or at least make some sort of sense, and them the give them the highest grade they can finally manage. Wait, what’s wrong with that? Aren’t we supposed to be teaching the kids how to analyze what they read, and how to explain, clearly, what they’ve come up with – you know, how to decipher language and how to say what they think, coherently and convincingly? That’s when the department head exploded – no, no, no, the kid screwed up the first time so flunk his sorry ass. The kid had his chance. We’re not here to teach English. We’re here to teach CONSEQUENCES! What were you thinking? Snap out of it!

There wasn’t much to say to that, but it was a rude awaking, even if a minor one over a minor matter. So THAT was what teaching was about! Who knew?

Of course nothing changed. What had been a young teacher’s open policy became a quiet understanding with students who actually wanted to get it right – and as anyone who has taught high school English knows, well, there aren’t a lot of those. And then it was time to move on, to California, to a career in the real world. In large corporations, and particularly in systems work, no one thinks about such things, and after moving into management, and then into senior management, it became clear the issue is moot in that world. No one cuts anyone any slack, ever. Meet the numbers or get out. That unpleasant afternoon in the faculty room was long ago and long forgotten, until now. There was something else going on there, a larger dispute, that is being played out now in other ways. What we want kids to learn is what we think matters in this world, and the country is more divided than ever before about what matters. The issue had to come up again.

At the Washington Post’s WonkBlog, Christopher Ingraham points to all sorts of tables and charts in a Pew Research Center study that he says shows how dramatic our differences are:

Liberals and conservatives prioritize very different values when it comes to educating their kids: Liberals are much more likely to preach the value of tolerance, while conservatives emphasize religious faith. Among all political types, liberals stand out for their general indifference toward teaching obedience. On the other hand, they place a higher value on curiosity, creativity and empathy…

The differences underscore why the public school system in the United States, which for reasons of pure practicality requires something of a one-size-fits-all approach, is such a lightning rod for disagreement and controversy. Conservatives and liberals expect – and often demand – very different things from their children’s schools.

The charts are snazzy, and maybe there’s nothing new here, but things are heating up:

For the third straight day Wednesday hundreds of high school students walked out of their classrooms in suburban Denver in an act of civil disobedience to protest proposed curriculum changes that would curtail lessons about civil disobedience and other topics such as civil disorder.

The Jefferson County school district west of Denver has been embroiled in controversy for months following the election last year of a slate of conservative school board members who ran on the promise to overhaul teacher pay, emphasize charter schools and closely examine curriculum. Dustin Zvonek, the Colorado state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group affiliated with the Koch brothers, has praised the new board members for their agenda.

The Koch brothers do want to change the country and are working from the bottom up, at the local level, and this is about authority and order and consequences:

The protests were ignited by the recent suggestion by Julie Williams, one of the newly elected board members, that the teaching of advanced placement U.S. history in the district’s 17 high schools should be scrutinized to promote more “positive aspects” about the country and less discussion on “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

The proposal called for instruction in which “theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law,” according to a district report.

Martin Luther King becomes the bad guy. Anyone who has an issue with how things are is the bad guy. Teaching obedience matters, and of course the students were having none of it:

Since Monday, when 100 students walked out at Evergreen High School, the protests have continued to gather steam, fueled by social media. By Wednesday, there had been student walkouts at nine high schools with more planned for the rest of the week.

Katharine Turner, a 17-year-old senior at Chatfield High School, was one of hundreds who left classes to march down a busy street, many chanting the emerging slogan, “Don’t Make History a Mystery.”

“I want to someday teach history,” Katharine said Wednesday morning. “I believe students need to learn the facts – all of them.”

Ashlyn Maher, 16, another Chatfield senior, agreed. “Some of the greatest things in history happened because of civil disorder and protest.”

The Koch brothers would dispute that. There is the law. There is authority. Question those and there’s chaos. Recognize who is in charge. They’re your betters. That’s the general idea, and the Jefferson County school district has a mess on its hands. The Koch-sponsored board members are pissed off at the new national Advanced Placement history curriculum and saying things like this – “It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American history for generations” – and the College Board folks back in New Jersey are saying they’re just covering what they always covered, and the most basic structural and philosophical elements of our history don’t seem to include the notion that the Founding Fathers were evangelical fundamentalists who wanted a Christian theocracy. They didn’t even want obedience, or at least meek submission to what the guys at the top say is good for the little people who are foolish enough to think their issues are so damned important.

This won’t turn out well. In a way it’s like that dispute back in that faculty room back in the seventies. Is it important to learn who has the power, and to learn the severe consequences of not getting what they want right, the first time, or is it important to get it right eventually, working it out for yourself, and learn something along the way? Do that and those in authority will be quite uncomfortable, or angry. This is a dispute about who matters in this country.

The New York Times’ David Brooks, everyone’s favorite warm and “nice” conservative, tries to straighten things out for the little people:

We need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite – during the American Revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

The “people” are hopeless, you see. They want things, and do stuff to get what they want that only causes chaos. A responsible elite class is the only thing that makes a country work. Everyone knows this. That’s what the Colorado dispute is about, after all, although Brooks sensibly won’t touch that particular third rail. He simply has advice for the only people who matter:

Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

Powerful people might follow a code of public spiritedness. That means restraining your partisan passions and parochial interests for the sake of domestic tranquility. Re-establish the lines between public service and private enrichment.

In short, keep a low profile, and donate a few bucks to a soup kitchen now and then. Perhaps he’s thinking of the guillotines in Paris in the late eighteen century. One can’t be too careful. No one needs that kind of rude awakening. Right now, the “masses” are being heard – the peasants are revolting, as the old joke goes – and that’s not good. So tone it down. A lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford will work wonders, and you can still keep all your power. Someone responsible has to run things, after all. We need our aristocracy.

At Salon, Jim Newell has some comments:

The “masses” will be fascinated to hear that they currently “directly wield” power. Who knew? It still sort of seems like elites run everything and “the masses” just stand by, watch and live by the decisions. Sure, we have charlatans who come around and pretend like they’re giving power to the masses by ginning up deluded strategies – that Cruz and other members of the Republican Party can shut down the government in order to extract the “peoples’ demands” via ransom. But “the masses” and that elite-consensus leadership still overrule all. The financial crisis came and went and the banking sector continues as it ever was, tailored by a few modest reforms unnoticeable to the naked eye. The president has just begun a years-long bombing campaign in Syria without receiving either direct authorization or a war declaration from Congress. If this is what the elites’ nightmare scenario of democracy giving way to mob rule looks like, then mob rule is pretty lame.

And there’s this:

Whatever “responsible elite” of lore that Brooks is channeling – the Kennedys, Roosevelts, whoever – may have felt that “privilege imposes duties,” but they hardly skimped on the luxuries. They all owned gilded “compounds.” They spent in line with their social class, at least partly to make sure that their social class was known. The upper class shouldn’t feel a need to dupe the middle, working and lower classes by pretending to be less wealthy than they are. Instead, if the upper classes want to feel “responsible” and altruistic, they should look to eliminate policies that favor them at the expense of the middle, working and lower classes. Civic-minded members of the responsible upper class, for example, should support the end of tax exemptions that allow them to reap windfall profits on the sales of their $4+ million homes.

And everyone should win the lottery. That’s not going to happen, and the economist Paul Krugman, also a New York Times columnist, adds this perspective:

Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

This intellectual divide is most obvious when the subject is the persistence of poverty in a wealthy nation. Liberals focus on the stagnation of real wages and the disappearance of jobs offering middle-class incomes, as well as the constant insecurity that comes with not having reliable jobs or assets. For conservatives, however, it’s all about not trying hard enough. The House speaker, John Boehner, says that people have gotten the idea that they “really don’t have to work.” Mitt Romney chides lower-income Americans as being unwilling to “take personal responsibility.” Even as he declares that he really does care about the poor, Representative Paul Ryan attributes persistent poverty to lack of “productive habits.”

Let us, however, be fair: some conservatives are willing to censure the rich, too.

One of those would be Brooks, but Krugman is not impressed:

I’ve just reread a remarkable article titled “How top executives live,” originally published in Fortune in 1955 and reprinted a couple of years ago. It’s a portrait of America’s business elite two generations ago, and it turns out that the lives of an earlier generation’s elite were, indeed, far more restrained, more seemly if you like, than those of today’s Masters of the Universe.

“The executive’s home today,” the article tells us, “is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small – perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths.” The top executive owns two cars and “gets along with one or two servants.” Life is restrained in other ways, too: “Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.” Actually, I’m sure there was plenty of hanky-panky, but people didn’t flaunt it. The elite of 1955 at least pretended to set a good example of responsible behavior.

But before you lament the decline in standards, there’s something you should know: In celebrating America’s sober, modest business elite, Fortune described this sobriety and modesty as something new. It contrasted the modest houses and motorboats of 1955 with the mansions and yachts of an earlier generation. And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? Because it could no longer afford to live that way. The large yacht, Fortune tells us “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”

Reagan reversed that as best he could, and the second George Bush completed the job, and Brooks is full of shit:

Is there any chance that moral exhortations, appeals to set a better example, might induce the wealthy to stop showing off so much? No.

It’s not just that people who can afford to live large tend to do just that. As Thorstein Veblen told us long ago, in a highly unequal society the wealthy feel obliged to engage in “conspicuous consumption,” spending in highly visible ways to demonstrate their wealth. And modern social science confirms his insight. For example, researchers at the Federal Reserve have shown that people living in highly unequal neighborhoods are more likely to buy luxury cars than those living in more homogeneous settings. Pretty clearly, high inequality brings a perceived need to spend money in ways that signal status.

The point is that while chiding the rich for their vulgarity may not be as offensive as lecturing the poor on their moral failings, it’s just as futile. Human nature being what it is, it’s silly to expect humility from a highly privileged elite. So if you think our society needs more humility, you should support policies that would reduce the elite’s privileges.

If the elite owns the government, then that cannot happen. A new chart on the average income growth during post-recession expansions shows that. This time, for the first time, all the income growth went to the top one percent. Kevin Drum posts the chart and adds this:

The precise numbers (from Piketty and Saez) can always be argued with, but the basic trend is hard to deny. After the end of each recession, the well-off have pocketed an ever greater share of the income growth from the subsequent expansion. Unsurprisingly, there’s an especially big bump after 1975, but this is basically a secular trend that’s been showing a steady rise toward nosebleed territory for more than half a century. Welcome to the 21st century.

Jordan Weissmann adds this:

Through mid-century, when times were good economically, most of the benefits trickled down to the bottom 90 percent of households – then came the Reagan era and actual trickle-down economics. Suddenly, the benefits started sticking with the rich. Since 2001, the top 10 percent have enjoyed virtually all of the gains.

This isn’t a totally new story. But it is a vivid and visceral illustration of what we’ve basically known to be true for a while…

Ryan Cooper adds this:

Most staggering of all, during our current economic expansion, the bottom 90 percent is suffering declining incomes. Not only is the rising tide not lifting everyone equally, it’s actually submerging nine out of ten people.

And Andrew Sullivan adds this:

So it seems that the theory behind trickle-down economics has been empirically refuted: its impact has been overwhelmingly trickle-up. It is also quite clear by now that huge tax cuts do not remotely pay for themselves – and the recent experience in Kansas only adds a final coda to this. [See the previous discussion of that Kansas experiment.] And yet the GOP shows absolutely no sign of absorbing these facts, or having anything to say about the dangerous political instability of huge social and economic inequality and crippling debt that are their consequence.

This is why I have such a hard time with contemporary American conservatism. It is still incapable of moving on from Reagan, even as the world has changed beyond recognition.

It has? The Jefferson County school district west of Denver doesn’t think so. What kind of country do we want? There are those at the top, who are there for a reason. They know stuff, and you don’t, so don’t make waves, and don’t let the kids know about anyone who once made waves in the past. It might give them ideas. There’s authority, and consequences for those who question it. We have to teach our kids about consequences. That’s the main thing. We don’t want them to have ideas.

Isn’t that the same conversation from that faculty room back in the seventies? That was reason enough to leave teaching. Rude awakenings are useful. Ah, but in this case you can’t leave – sorry. The only option is to fight back. Cut someone some slack today, so they can grow and learn. It will drive those in authority crazy. It’ll be fun. That’s the kind of country we want.

Posted in America Need an Aristocracy, Income Inequality, Questioning Authority | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Without Permission and Without Apology

They called her Amazing Grace. That would be the late Grace Murray Hopper – Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. The Navy named a guided-missile destroyer after her – because she really was amazing. She dragged our military, kicking and screaming, into the computer age, with disarming wit and a brilliant mind. Those two things seldom go together, but she was the one who invented the language that became COBOL, the first platform-independent programming language. That changed everything – modern life would not be possible without general programming languages – and she came up with the term “debugging” a computer or a system. While she was working on a Mark II Computer at a Navy research lab in Dahlgren, Virginia, in 1947, her team discovered a moth stuck in a relay, screwing things up. She smiled and told everyone they had “debugged” the computer, because they had, and the term stuck. What’s left of that moth can be found in the group’s log book at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, because it’s historic in an ironic way. What’s not ironic is her work creating most of the systems that make our modern Navy, connected in real time around the world, even possible. She was also famous for being able to explain to the befuddled top brass, in simple terms, what all the new systems would do and why they were absolutely necessary. They often didn’t get it, but there were ways around that. She was often fond of saying what everyone knows – “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” That’s sometimes given as it’s easier to apologize than to ask for permission, but the idea is clear. Get the job done. Hell, sometimes you don’t even have to ask for forgiveness, or apologize. What’s done is done. There’s nothing to say. Grace Hopper may have been the highest ranking woman ever in our military and at the time of her retirement one of the oldest active-duty commissioned officers in Navy history – just shy of ninety – but she was a pirate at heart.

There are, however, limits to such pirate-thinking. Teenagers know this. The heartfelt apology or the sincere plea for forgiveness just does not cut it when you took the family car out for a spin and ended up at rock concert in Altoona. You’re grounded. There’s an actual authority figure with the power to make you pay for your foolishness, for doing what you knew you shouldn’t have done. You should have asked for permission. Yeah, you wouldn’t have got it, but you should have asked. Maybe, had you asked, you really would have received permission, or something. But now it’s too late. You misjudged where the power lies. It wasn’t with you. In this case, apologies only make things worse.

You’ll get over it. You won’t be a teenager forever, and in the real world you will soon enter no one is ever quite sure who has the real power at any given time. We even have a government like that, with its separation of powers. Congress gets to do certain things and the president others, and the judicial branch, at the Supreme Court level, gets to decide others, mainly about whether the president or Congress is breaking the rules – but Congress, with the states, can change the rules, amending the Constitution, if Congees and the states, representing the people, decides that the Supreme Court is flat-out wrong. There’s no “parent figure” here. Do what you will. Apologize later, if necessary. It’s seldom necessary.

The system guarantees a perpetual mess, or glorious democracy at work, but now that we’re at war with ISIS – unless we’re not because we’re not sending in troops – one question keeps coming up. Okay, we’re bombing the crap out of ISIS in Syria now, not just Iraq – Iraq asked us to do that and Syria didn’t – and we are sending in those boots on the ground, at least five or six hundred troops, as advisors or something, so, should Obama have asked Congress for permission to do this? This sure looks like war.

That’s where things get complicated. The president is free to wage war as he sees fit, against ISIS, but he’s not free to declare war. Only Congress can do that, and only Congress can fund a war – because war is a serious business. Congress has only declared war five times – the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and then World War II. Those were formal wars. Everything else was something else. The commander-in-chief has needed permission to take military action from time to time, but that permission has taken many forms. There have been military engagements authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolutions and then fully funded by Congress, like the Korean War, and other lesser military engagements that had no declaration of war, but these were not formal wars. Something else was authorized by Congress, spending mostly, as with the Vietnam War. That was authorized by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution back in 1964, and in 2002 there was the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq – to match the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists – which was really a catch-all. The terms of the 2001 act were vague. George Bush could do whatever he wanted, anywhere, and Congress would advance the funds, because jihadist terrorism was everywhere, not just in Iraq, and we were fighting terrorism in general, really, which is everywhere, and as Bush put it, we were really fighting evil itself, which is certainly everywhere. That was blanket permission and that resolution is still in force. Obama has that one in his hip pocket.

Is that good enough? ISIS had nothing to do with 9/11 thirteen years ago. Congress wasn’t voting for killer drones killing bad guys in Syria this week, guys who were tossed out of al-Qaeda years ago for being too stupidly brutal, even for them. Give it up. That old thing doesn’t pertain now.

After all, last year the Supreme Court tossed out key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – things had changed over the years. If anyone wants to stop Republicans in many states from making sure that blacks and Hispanics and students and the poor and elderly never vote again, well, Congress have to come up with new legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed problems of the sixties, you see – that old thing pertains to nothing now. The Supreme Court was clear. It’s up to Congress to fix that old thing, or come up with something new, otherwise the Court sees no way they can tell Republicans they cannot disenfranchise anyone at all that they find troublesome. Some laws pass their expiration date.

Congress won’t pass anything on this matter. There’s no point in trying. Nothing of the sort could ever pass the solidly Republican House these days, where the Tea Party folks want their country back, their pre-1965 country. That might be regrettable, depending on your politics, but the Supreme Court said that the politics of all this wasn’t their concern. The old law talked about old times. It cannot be enforced now, and it might be the same with the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists, which also talked about old times. It might be that Obama needs to go back and ask for permission for the new war, which isn’t exactly the old war, which might not even be a war, but sure looks like one.

Clay Hanna, one of the boots on the ground in the previous war in Iraq, argues that Obama should get congressional authority for the very real new war:

If Congress declares war, and the full force and might of the U.S. military and her allies are deployed, I have no doubt that we will fatally strike the Islamic State.

But without this clarity, without “boots on the ground” and above all an acknowledgement of what these really are, the president’s strategy amounts to nothing more than amorphous rhetoric and disingenuous platitudes. It is at the core a cynical plan to incite war and fund violence, backed by a vague hope that not only will we remain unaffected but somehow we will achieve peace. Don’t deceive yourself or us any longer, Mr. President: There is no good war and no participant gets to walk away with clean hands. Not even you.

This is war. Send in the troops, lots of them, and man-up. Stop the careful talk, and Congress should man-up too. Authorize war. Otherwise, stop talking nonsense.

That’s not going to happen. Obama won’t ask – he says he already has authorization – and Congress is unlikely to man up. Brian Beutler argues here that Congress wants war but doesn’t want to authorize a war, because “voting on the issue would violate the Optimal Preening Principle, which tends to govern these debates” – and that’s not to be underestimated:

Killing terrorists, or alleged terrorists, might be popular. But it’s also something the military (and thus, the president) does. Meanwhile, on a good day, Congress votes on legislation. The president might use a new AUMF to do things the public overwhelmingly supports, but that won’t help the embattled congressperson who would have to defend granting the president unlimited war-making power or defend voting against bombing terrorists because the AUMF wasn’t expansive enough. Instead, by not being forced to take a stance, Obama’s opponents will be able to frame the issue however they want to.

Likewise, when something goes wrong – as it inevitably will – members of Congress won’t want to be linked to it with their votes, and won’t want their votes constraining them from harrumphing about it on camera. Constituents won’t credit them if things go swimmingly anyhow, so they see no upside in sticking their necks out.

That may be how the political world works, but at Politico, Bruce Ackerman finds that inexcusable:

Neither the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel nor the White House Counsel has issued a serious legal opinion presenting its side of the argument. This represents a profound breach of the rule of law. Worse yet, Congress’ failure to address the constitutional issues during its regular session threatens to create a legal vacuum which only the courts will be in a position to resolve. Unless extraordinary steps are taken, the result will be the worst of all possible worlds, in which a problematic Supreme Court decision only exacerbates the ongoing crisis of constitutional legitimacy.

Our separation of powers system really does guarantee a perpetual mess, but a constitution lawyer, Eric Posner, argues that Ackerman has it all wrong:

Ackerman is right that the Obama administration’s reliance on the 2001 AUMF is phony, but he’s wrong to say that Obama has broken with American constitutional traditions. That tradition dictates that the president must give a nod to Congress if he can, but otherwise he is legally free to go to war, subject to vague limits that have never been worked out. That’s not to say that Congress is helpless. It can refuse to fund a war if it objects to it. But the real constraint on the president’s war-making powers is not law, but politics.

Except when you’re a teenager, it’s always better to apologize after the fact than to ask for permission before acting. There are vague limits that have never been worked out. That’s life, and in Foreign Policy, Paul Miller looks at the politics of those who would constrain Obama:

Conservatives are in a bind. They want to support some sort of action against the Islamic State (IS), criticize President Obama for his lack of strategy, and differentiate themselves from George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq — all while avoiding the label of isolationism. The result is a mess.

But after Iraq, everything is a mess:

If you think the lesson is, “We screwed up because we invaded under false pretenses,” then you are likely to argue for extreme caution and careful examination of our motives before undertaking any intervention in the future, much like many liberals currently do.

If you think the lesson is, “We screwed up because we tried to do nation-building, which is impossible and wrong-headed and foolish to even try,” then you are likely to gravitate to a sort of paleo-conservatism and the belief that the military should only be used to blow things up, which is sufficient for keeping America safe.

I find the liberals’ explanation morally simplistic and not backed up by the facts. Our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan were manifold and came from many, many problems. Reading it like a morality play in which the gods of war punished American hubris for invading without sufficient cause neglects the problems in the planning, management, and oversight of the wars; the drift in American military doctrine since Vietnam; the problems of coalition counterinsurgency; and the dilemmas inherent in coercive peace building.

Maybe Obama shouldn’t ask and Congress shouldn’t agree, or not agree, because no one knows what to ask for. Would that be authorization for endless coercive peace building? That’s a hard sell, and as Jack Shafer argues, that can lead to dark places:

In attacking Syria’s enemy, the United States wasn’t looking to make friends with Syria. President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down in 2011, and it was only last year that the United States was prepared to bomb Syria for having crossed the chemical-weapons “red line” to kill its own citizens. Not that the United States is remarkably choosey about which nations it counts among its allies. Among the Middle East nations joining with the United States to strike Syria is Qatar, which has allowed one of its sheikhs to raise funds for an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. As you know, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda in all of its flavors, including the Syria-based Khorasan Group, upon which U.S. bombs fell this week. The Khorasan Group is said to be plotting attacks on the United States and Europe.

Our perpetual war is complicated, however, by the fact that the Islamic State is the sworn enemy of Al Qaeda, from which it split earlier this year because it couldn’t play nice with Al Qaeda’s other affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also fighting the Assad regime. Or, to look at it another way, the enemies of America’s enemies are not automatically America’s friends; and even America’s friends – which can be permissive about the flow of money to Al Qaeda – aren’t necessarily America’s friends either.

America has allies in Syria’s civil war, of course, including Harakat Hazm, part of the Free Syrian Army. Harakat Hazm is fighting Assad, but it has also fought alongside America’s enemy Jabhat al-Nusra, which has not disqualified it from receiving U.S. weapons and training. Harakat Hazm took exception to the American-led bombing of Syria in a statement, calling it an “external intervention” and “an attack on the revolution,” according to a Los Angeles Times report. So Harakat Hazm, America’s friend, which fought with America’s enemy against Syria – which is neither friend nor enemy – objects to the fact that America bombed Syria in pursuit of the Islamic State, which is also Harakat Hazm’s enemy. Meanwhile, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah is drone-bombing Jabat al-Nusra along the Lebanon-Syria border at the same time Israel is downing Syrian jets.

Confused yet? You’ll have plenty of time to catch up.

That’s because this conflict will likely go on for years, because no one can imagine where it’s going or figure out who is on which side, at least this week:

A war with a conclusion that its participants can’t see or can’t imagine is a war without end. None of the dug-in parties in Syria and Iraq look like pushovers, but neither do any of them look like sure bets. Without American intervention, the current war will likely rage on. With regard to American intervention, not even the Pentagon dares to predict an end.

For Americans, at least so far, this war is rumbling on like background noise. The usual markers of military victory – body-counts tabulated, territories seized and banked, no-fly zones established, governments-in-waiting imposed, and elections supervised – don’t apply to the Syria war. The borders, combatants, allegiances, and military objectives in the Syrian war are too fluid to conform to our usual expectations. Nor do the usual markers of peace seem to exist. There are no peace talks taking shape, no shuttle diplomacy, no evidence of a dominant power about to exert its might to create a lasting peace by flattening everybody.

And in this case, Obama should ask for permission for what, exactly? Ir might be better to do what seems like a good idea at any given moment. He can always apologize later, if necessary, if anyone can figure out what just happened. That’s how Grace Hopper got things done, most of which turned out quite well.

Of course Andrew Sullivan has to butt in:

One way of looking at this is to ask: what should we call this war? Is it, as the Obama administration ludicrously argues, merely an extension of the war against al Qaeda, begin in 2001? Is it a new war on Syria – a sovereign state we have now bombed with no UN authorization? Is it a continuation of the 2003 Iraq War? Or was the 2003 war effectively a continuation of the Gulf War in 1991? I cannot decide. When you have so many over-lapping wars, most without any understanding of “victory”, and when the CIA launches covert wars all over the world all the time anyway, and when a conservative Republican president and his liberal Democratic successor both agree on the necessity of an endless war that creates the terrorism that justifies more war, it’s bewildering.

Sullivan decides to quote the Onion:

Declaring that the terrorist organization’s actions can no longer be ignored, President Obama vowed Wednesday that the United States would use precision airstrikes for as long as needed to ensure that ISIS is divided into dozens of extremist splinter groups. “ISIS poses a significant threat to U.S. interests both overseas and at home, and that is why we are committed to a limited military engagement that will fracture the terrorist network’s leadership and consequently create a myriad of smaller cells, each with its own violent, radical agenda,” said Obama during a primetime address to the nation.

Sullivan is exasperated:

Gitmo remains open; we are still at war in Afghanistan; we are still at war in Iraq; and all this is true despite a president elected explicitly and clearly to end the failed wars he inherited. This comes perilously close to proving that our democracy doesn’t really have much of a say in whether this perpetual war should continue or not. The public just wants “something to be done” in response to videos of beheadings, and seems to have little interest in carefully processing the pros and cons or unintended consequences – even after the catastrophe of the Iraq War under Bush…

Those who argue that the US is in terminal decline, its democracy attenuated, its leaders interchangeable in a perpetual war based on no threats to the United States, have some more evidence on their side from the last couple of months. We are told, in response, that we live in a new world, in which these amorphous threats really do require a forever war to pre-empt and forestall them. But we can never know exactly what those threats really are – because it’s all classified.

I feel, I have to confess, helpless in the face of this – and my job requires me to understand these issues as well as anyone. What of other Americans, going on with their lives, struggling to make ends meet much of the time, barely able to digest what’s left of the news? It’s a recipe for passivity and acceptance, as the CIA and the Pentagon and their myriad lobbyists and fear-mongers do what they want – with no accountability even for war crimes, let alone policy mistakes.

Yeah, well, people do things, questionable things, stupid things, even evil things, and they don’t ask for permission. Who would they ask? What authority with the power to stop them gets to say yes or no to them? That doesn’t seem to be the American people. The issues are too bewildering, and they also don’t know when they’re being lied to, or they find out that they’ve been lied to, years later, when it doesn’t matter anymore. Congress has the constitutional authority to say no to authorization for endless coercive peace building, endless war everywhere, but those guys have their issues. Each of them has to look good to their voters or their career is over. And no one feels compelled to apologize for anything. People might suddenly realize something went terribly wrong. It’s far better no one knows. They didn’t know before, did they? Why trouble them? It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission of course, but it’s stupid to ask for forgiveness when no one knows what you’re talking about.

Then there’s Grace Hopper. It’s a good thing she wasn’t a politician. With her attitude she would have caused real trouble.

Posted in Declaring War on ISIS, Endless War, ISIS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Good War This Time

No one is the same person they were a dozen years ago. Or they’re depressingly the same person, having learned nothing from all that can happen and will happen as the years roll by. Sure, personalities don’t change – the shy don’t become bold and the bold don’t become shy – but over the years you learn what just doesn’t work, so you stop trying to get people to laugh at certain jokes, and you might learn that what you thought about the world just isn’t true. A good attitude won’t save your job when the company is sold to Microsoft or Bain Capital. No one cares about your attitude. In fact, no one cares about you. Ah, your wife does – and then there’s the divorce. Your kids care about you, as they should – then they’re gone, out into the world, and they don’t think about you much at all. That’s how it should be, but there’s always your dog, always happy to see you with that goofy dog-smile. Dogs have small brains. You make adjustments. Much of what you thought a dozen years ago just wasn’t so. Your values and general principles haven’t changed – good is still good, evil is still evil, and you do know right from wrong and try to be a decent person – but you make adjustments. Otherwise you turn into Archie Bunker, singing that song with Edith about how the old LaSalle ran great, and then being perpetually bewildered and angry, and voting Republican.

That’s the party of how things were and still should be. Be wary of adjustments. No one is sure about climate change, really, and there may have been gay people here and there, way back when, but they had the good sense to keep that quiet. Hispanics weren’t always asking for a say in matters either, and blacks knew their place, and everyone was happy – look at Louis Armstrong. He was happy, and back then we also fought good wars against bad people, like Hitler, reluctantly but then brutally, because that had to be done. That’s what we do. That’s what we always do. We don’t fight unless it’s necessary – except the Korean War was a little unsettling. Why did we fight that one, and why did we settle for a draw, and why have we been fine with that draw for the last sixty years?

Vietnam only made matters worse. By 1968, a year of anger and bewilderment, the American public had come to realize that war didn’t seem to be one of those good wars against bad people. Few saw any reason we should be there. Some thought we shouldn’t have been there in the first place – that was none of our business. Some thought what had seemed like a good idea at the time wasn’t a good idea any longer, given the useless jerks in Saigon we ended up supporting. Even the folks who wanted to keep fighting seemed to argue that we should stay there fighting because we were there fighting, not someplace else – maybe things might work out. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 promising “peace with honor” – he had a secret plan to end that war. He said nothing of winning that war. He implied that we could get the hell outta there – but with dignity. We couldn’t. We only got out. That wasn’t a good war.

Perhaps the first Gulf War, where we tossed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, after he had simply grabbed it, was a good war. We did toss him out, leading a broad coalition of allies, and then we left, having fixed things, that one problem. We didn’t march on Baghdad and take over Iraq and occupy it. Dick Cheney, our secretary of defense at the time, said that would be a stupid idea, and he was clear about that:

If we’d gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn’t have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it – eastern Iraq – the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq. The other thing was casualties. Everyone was impressed with the fact we were able to do our job with as few casualties as we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action, and for their families – it wasn’t a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? Our judgment was, not very many, and I think we got it right.

Cheney will never live that down no matter how many times he says 9/11 changed everything. It didn’t. The first Bush administration did get it right. The second Bush administration – where Cheney was the son’s vice president and mentor – got it wrong. We did what he once said was stupid, at his insistence. Everything he said would happen did happen. How many additional dead Americans was Saddam worth? There were no weapons of mass destruction. There were no ties to al-Qaeda. We took down Saddam Hussein’s government, and what did we put in its place? That would be a Shiite strongman, Nouri al-Maliki, in bed with Iran, who systematically excluded the Sunnis and made their lives miserable. They had formed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became ISIS, staffed with former generals and senior military planners who had been purged from the now all-Shiite Iraqi military. Oops. We arranged for Nouri al-Maliki to be gone, but the new guy isn’t yet doing much to make things better.

That wasn’t a good war either, and it’s not even over. We just don’t participate any longer, but Barack Obama had seen this coming. When he was just a state senator, in 2002, almost a dozen years ago to the day, Obama gave his now-famous Iraq War speech:

I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

That’s the key passage, and then there’s this:

I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

Cool. Saddam Hussein was worth no additional dead Americans at all. We get that now, a little late. Obama agreed with the old Cheney. The new one had lost his way, not that it mattered much. Americans were angry and frightened. They thought this would be a good war. That’s how we think. Damon Linker says that’s how we always think:

We Americans hear the “moral context” [for war] argument all the time. Professional, highly intelligent warmongers like Robert Kagan specialize in making the moral case for every single war we fight, telling us over and over again in suave, historically literate essays why all good things – very much including world order itself – depend on the U.S. dropping bombs on, and sometimes invading and occupying, nations around the globe.

The civic sermons have had an effect – so much so, in fact, that our president actually thinks he can get away with making the case for “destroying” ISIS while simultaneously denying that doing so is an act of war.

The United States has started bombing ISIS in Syria, not just in Iraq, and has bombed them inside Syria without Syria’s permission, which sounds a lot like war, but we say it’s a good thing, as we always do, causing no end of trouble, which Linker thinks should stop:

I submit that America has heard quite enough about the “moral context” that always seems to justify our use of military force (whatever we choose to call it). What we need is a little less about how important it is for us to blow other people to bits and a little more about what it’s like to live in a world in which a single nation has the power to strike a deadly blow wherever it wishes, anywhere on the planet.

The first step in moral reasoning, after all, is the imaginative act of placing oneself in another’s shoes. Judged by that standard, Americans regularly fail even to begin to reflect morally on how the nation conducts itself in the world.

We ought to:

How would we feel, I wonder, if we lived in a world in which another country was so powerful that it could inflict military pain on any nation, including us, with impunity? Without an act of imagination, we can’t even begin to answer that question – because we are the only nation in that position, or even close to it. Russia, our nearest rival, may be flexing its muscles in Ukraine. But as with all of Russia’s post-Soviet military adventures, this one is taking place right next door. The United States, by contrast, hasn’t fought a war with a neighboring power since the mid-19th century, and it regularly (as in, every few years) starts wars many thousands of miles from its territory. In this sense at least, America truly is an exceptional nation.

I will never write a word in defense of ISIS and its bloodthirsty, homicidal ambitions. But if we wanted to understand some of what motivates people from around the world to join its seemingly suicidal cause, we might start with the very fact of America’s incontestable military supremacy and the cavalier way we wield it on battlefields across the globe.

Every time we project our power to the other side of the planet, we provoke another around of asymmetrical blowback, which sparks another act of force projection, which inspires still more (ultimately futile) resistance to the global hegemon. Round and round it goes – with Monday night’s Tomahawk missiles over Syria starting a brand-new cycle.

If this is what defending our national interests truly requires, then this is what we should be doing. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about its character.

Obama didn’t see it that way when he spoke at the UN, as this our “vision” versus their awful one:

This is a vision of the world in which might makes right – a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed. America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might – that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future…

America is and will continue to be a Pacific power, promoting peace, stability, and the free flow of commerce among nations. But we will insist that all nations abide by the rules of the road, and resolve their territorial disputes peacefully, consistent with international law. That’s how the Asia-Pacific has grown. And that’s the only way to protect this progress going forward.

He has a vision, a benign imperialist vision, where America only helps people choose their own future, where everyone follows the rules – or they get bombed. So did George Bush. Bush had the same vision. Michael Tomasky knows what people are thinking:

Last week, a Politico reporter phoned me to ascertain my thoughts on the new war. Among the questions: Was there concern among liberals that Barack Obama was in some sense now becoming George Bush, and did I see similarities between the current war and Bush’s Iraq war that, come on, be honest, made me squirm in my seat ever so slightly? My answer ended up on the cutting-room floor, as many answers given to reporters do.

Now he’s made up his mind:

The answer is a reverberating no. In fact it’s hard for me to imagine how the differences between the two actions could be starker. This is not to say that they might not end up in the same place – creating more problems than they solve. But in moral terms, this war is nothing like that war, and if this war doesn’t end up like Bush’s and somehow actually solves more problems than it creates, that will happen precisely because of the moral differences.

There you go, the moral stuff again, but he has a point:

Obama didn’t lie us into this war. It’s worth emphasizing this point, I think, during this week when Obama is at the United Nations trying to redouble international support to fight ISIS, and as we think back on Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 snow job to Security Council. Obama didn’t tell us any nightmarish fairy tales about weapons of mass destruction that had already been destroyed or never existed. He didn’t trot his loyalists out there to tell fantastical stories about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.

The evidence for the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State is, in contrast, as non-fabricated as evidence can be and was handed right to us by ISIS itself: the beheading videos, and spokesmen’s own statements from recruitment videos about the group’s goal being the establishment of a reactionary fundamentalist state over Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. That’s all quite real.

Is it? It could be them baiting us. It could be that’s all they’ve got, but this is an important difference too:

This war doesn’t involve 140,000 ground troops. That’s not just a debating point. It’s a massive, real-world difference. I know some of you are saying, well, not yet, anyway. Time could prove you right. But if this works more or less as planned, it establishes a new model for fighting terrorism in the Middle East – the United States and Arab nations and fighting forces working together to do battle against terrorism. That’s kind of a huge deal.

And that leads to this:

This coalition, while still in its infancy, could in the end be a far more meaningful coalition than Bush’s. The Bush coalition was an ad hoc assemblage bribed or browbeaten into backing the United States’ immediate geopolitical aims. It was brought together pretty much so Bush could deflect the essentially true unilateralist charge and stand up there and say “41 countries have joined together” …

This coalition is smaller, but the important point is that it’s not built around a goal that is in the interest only of the United States. Defeating the Islamic State is a genuine priority for the region, and the idea that these Gulf States that have been winking at or backing violent extremism for years might actually work with the United States of America (!) to fight it is little short of amazing. I’m not saying Obama deserves the credit here, although it seems clear he and others in the administration have worked hard on this point. Rather, the fact is that the Saudis and the Emiratis and others are now doing, however reluctantly, what it’s in their self-interest to do.

Andrew Sullivan, however, doesn’t see much difference from Bush here:

Sure, we are indeed not being grotesquely misled this time about non-existent WMDs. But we are going to war despite the fact that ISIS is no more a direct threat to the United States than Saddam was – arguably much less, in fact. We have no answer this time to the unanswered question last time: what if our intervention actually galvanizes Islamist extremism rather than calming it? And the Arab coalition that Tomasky cites as evidence that this war is a far less American-centric one than 2003 has some issues when you confront reality. …

It sure isn’t close to the coalition George H W Bush assembled in 1990 – and it’s much smaller than George W Bush’s coalition in 2003. More to the point, the key element of any successful strategy will be the position of the Sunni Arab tribes – and they are still sitting on the sidelines. Turkey is AWOL so far. And the fact that the Arab states do not want their contributions to be broadcast more widely reveals the depth of the problem. Obama has Americanized the problem. Once you do that, the regional actors get even more skittish, because the only common thing for so many of the populations represented by these autocrats is loathing of the United States. This is the Arab world. The US will never get anything but hatred and cynicism and contempt from it.

And then there’s question of authorization:

George W Bush got a few Security Council resolutions (if not the final, vital one). Obama hasn’t even bothered – he’s bombing a sovereign nation without even feigning a request for formal authorization. GWB – against Cheney’s wishes – procured a clear declaration of war from the Congress. Obama seems to have decided that he is more in line with Cheney’s views of executive power than George W Bush’s – and has blown a hole so wide in any constitutional measures to restrain the war machine that he has now placed future presidential war-making far beyond any constraints. If that isn’t an outright abandonment of almost everything he has said he stands for, what would be?

And there’s the vision thing:

Bush’s war had a vague and utopian goal: the establishment of a multi-sectarian democratic republic in Mesopotamia. He had close to no plans for the occupation; and no real understanding of how quixotic a project he was promoting. Obama’s goals are just as quixotic – “ultimately destroying” ISIS from the air alone – and he has no Plan B for failure. Bush tried to defeat a Sunni insurgency with a multi-sectarian government in Baghdad. It never happened – and we had to bribe the Anbar tribes instead, and, even then we needed 100,000 troops to keep the lid on the whole thing.

And then there’s the Baghdad government:

Obama says he is fighting a Sunni insurgency with a broadly based Baghdad government – but replacing Maliki has led to no such thing. There is still paralysis in Baghdad over the interior and defense ministries, no cross-sectarian national entity to take the fight to ISIS, and the real risk of a Shiite government actually reinforcing the Sunnis’ sense that the US and the Shiites are now intent on persecuting them even further. That makes the prospects for this attempt at pacification even worse than in 2006. And look: I think Obama is sincere in doing what he can with the Baghdad mess; but we have to be crazy to buy this line of argument in counter-insurgency at this point in history. We are fighting a Sunni insurgency on behalf of a Shiite government and a near-independent Kurdistan, a fight which might well empower Iran and even Assad. This is about the worst formulation for this struggle as one could come up with. It does not bring Sunnis into the struggle; it may well keep them out.

And Obama’s response to this was to turn into Bush:

It is true we are not sending in 140,000 troops into another country. We are sending almost none – but to achieve the same result! To do the same thing we did last time and hope for a better outcome is the definition of insanity. But to do the same thing with even less of a chance to achieve it takes things to a new level of incoherence.

This is an illegal war, chosen by an unaccountable executive branch, based on pure panic about a non-existent threat to the United States, with no achievable end-point. Apart from all that, it’s so much better than Bush, isn’t it?

How do we get ourselves into these things? Damon Linker thinks it a matter of lack of imagination. Perhaps so, but Obama should have listened to himself a dozen years ago, and Cheney should have listened to himself back in 1991 – but the years pass and one makes adjustments. No one is the same person they were back in the day. Perhaps that’s the tragedy here.

Posted in American Imperialism, Bombing ISIS in Syria, Obama as Bush | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What We Think We Know Now

People hate Mondays. It’s back to the real world, of work and obligations and general unpleasantness. It’s a shock, and the shock this time was reading The Washington Post and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times accounts of the big news story of the day – the United States had started bombing ISIS in Syria, not just in Iraq, and had bombed them inside Syria without Syria’s permission. Not only that, at least five Arab states – Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – had joined in, more or less. But these are Sunni nations, and ISIS is a Sunni outfit, so we learned that John Kerry somehow persuaded the sane Sunnis that the crazy Sunnis needed to go, and it had to be those guys with us in this. We spent eight years and five thousand American lives and maybe two trillion dollars, and counting, on a new and improved post-Saddam Iraq, but it looks like we asked Iraq to stand down. That Malaki fellow we had pinned our hopes on had created a Shiite pro-Iran Iraq, with an incompetent Shiite army full of cronies, and he had systematically excluded all Sunnis from government, and from most everything else. That’s why many of them were almost okay with ISIS taking over here and there. They were murderous clowns, but they were better then that Shiite gang in Baghdad, who would just as soon see them dead.

It’s complicated. We arranged for Maliki to be gone, but the new guy in Baghdad, also a Shiite, is kind of dragging his feet on creating an “inclusive” government, much less an Army that is Iraqi, not Shiite. It was best to have them sit this one out. We didn’t want this to look like a Shiite war on Sunnis, where we were siding with the Shiites from Baghdad. Their differences are not our problem. ISIS is our problem, and an internal Sunni problem. We made it clear that what was happening was an effort by five Sunni nations, so far, to help us take care of the ISIS crowd that was giving them a bad name. Having the Shiite Bullies of Baghdad a part of things – acting to protect their Iraq by helping us go get the guys who want to replace that Iraq with their Islamic State, which would be a triumph for their odd take Sunni views – would screw that up. That would make this a religious war, not an effort to start the process of neutralizing and then eliminating a dangerous terrorist organization that could screw up everything in the Middle East and then screw up the world, and attack us here at home. We had to tell Iraq to stay home. We had to take the religious stink off of this simple effort to begin to eliminate a serious threat. Perhaps we did.

That’s why people hate Mondays. The simple weekend, with its simple pleasures, is over. It’s back to the complicated real world, with its depressing surprises. We’re actually bombing the bad guys in Syria now, expanding what we do best to one more country over there, when we were supposed to be backing away from bombing this and that. Bombs from the sky do anger the locals, even those who we are supporting – America is always butting in, and bombing, to get what it wants. As much as we tell them it’s for their own good, they just don’t seem to believe it. In 2009, Obama gave that “New Beginning” Cairo Speech – we wouldn’t be doing that sort of thing anymore – we’d offer an open hand, not a clenched fist. Now we’re bombing another country. We think we had to, and maybe we did, and we did get other Arabs to join in, so it’s not just us, but bombs are bombs.

Dab Drezner, that professor of international politics at Tufts, thinks this might be pointless:

How will this change anything on the ground? Hey, remember Iraq? The United States has been conducting hundreds of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in that country for the past month. In contrast to Syria, there are actual ground forces in Iraq with an interest in reclaiming territory. So, in many ways, Iraq is an easier test of the effect of U.S. air power on changing the balance of power on the ground. And yet, according to The New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick and Omar Al-Jawoshy, things haven’t changed all that much in Iraq: “After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country.” Given that it will be months before the Free Syrian Army receives any training, the evidence from the Iraq campaign does not bode well for any immediate success in Syria.

And we don’t yet know what a victory would look like:

Jeffrey Goldberg, a supporter of this action, notes that, “It is true that there exists no strategy for victory, and no definition of victory.” To paraphrase Vice President Biden, that seems like a big friggin’ deal. Especially since, as Goldberg further notes, “This struggle is now owned by the United States.” So if the bombing campaign will produce, at best, a stalemate, is there any feasible action on the ground that will affect the situation?

That Goldberg item is here – it’s a bit depressing – and from the Los Angeles Times:

The fact that the Obama administration is preparing to overhaul its approach and vet, train and equip the so-called moderate Syrian rebels attests to its lack of confidence in the only opposition fighters it has backed so far: the loosely organized Free Syrian Army, more a shifting franchise operation than a unified fighting force with a coherent central command.

Analysts doubt that the White House’s initial pledge of about $500 million will be sufficient to train and equip a new army to defeat the Islamists, who are flush with captured weapons and cash from oil smuggling and other illicit enterprises. Moreover, the Syrian rebels say their principal aim is to overthrow not the Islamists but the Syrian government, whose formidable military is backed by Iran and Russia.

In effect, this newly revamped, U.S.-backed rebel force, whenever it is ready to deploy – the buildup could take years – will be fighting a war against two powerful adversaries, Islamic State and the Syrian military. That equation hasn’t generated much optimism.

There is no feasible action on the ground:

“We spent hundreds of billions of dollars and years of effort trying to build up forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and look at what we got for it,” said Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma. “We don’t have a partner in Syria. That’s the reality of the situation.”

It’s not yet clear whether Washington’s purported allies in Syria are completely on board with the U.S. offensive against Islamic State. One of the administration’s favored moderate rebel factions, Harakat Hazm, part of the Free Syrian Army alliance and a recipient of U.S. missiles and training, issued a statement Tuesday denouncing the “external intervention” – that is, the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Syria – as “an attack on the revolution.”

The guys we’re trying to help don’t want us butting in. It was a bad Monday, and Drezner adds this:

What happens if these airstrikes do not degrade and destroy the Islamic State? The Pentagon said the initial bombing did a good job, but let’s face it – it’s all downhill from here in terms of tactical surprise. Now the Islamic State knows that these attacks will be coming – which raises a troubling question. We know that one of the ways that violent non-state actors in this region can attract adherents is by seeming resilient in the face of attacks. If the Islamic State continues to endure in the wake of attacks from the most powerful air force in the world, won’t these attacks bolster rather than degrade their ranks? And if that’s the case, is there any other possible next step except the introduction of ground forces into Syria?

That’s depressing, and so is this:

I said last week that I’d start making point predictions here. So, here goes: I’m 70 percent certain that there will be no fundamental change in the Islamic State’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq for the rest of this calendar year.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum adds this:

The front page is dominated almost entirely this morning by the news that we’re bombing ISIS militants in Syria. I confess that this doesn’t strike me as worthy of quite such breathless coverage. Two weeks ago President Obama said he was going to bomb Syria, and now he’s doing it. Did anyone expect him not to follow through on this?

But of course I get it. Bombs are headline generators whether they’re expected or not.

And as for the Drezner seventy-percent prediction that nothing will change:

That’s probably a good bet. This isn’t because aerial campaigns have no value. Of course they do. It’s because in most cases they have limited value unless they’re used in support of ground troops with a well-defined mission. And so far, there’s no well-defined mission and no one is committing ground troops to the fight. Presumably the new Iraqi government will send in troops eventually, and then we’ll see whether our commitment of air resources was worthwhile. Until then we just won’t know.

This then was a big friggin’ deal, if you wish, but it was also just another Monday of the same old troubles, although something had changed. We have new allies, just not the ones we’re announcing. Slate’s William Saletan explains that:

Start with Syria. The United States can’t admit to working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because he’s the dictator our proxy ground forces, the Syrian rebels, are trying to overthrow. In overnight reports, the Obama administration denied it had given Assad advance warning about the strikes. Yet we managed to hit at least 50 targets in three parts of the country – including the west, where Assad has substantial air defenses – without a flinch from the Syrian military. The regime didn’t even deploy active radar against us. That’s amazing. A little too amazing…

Some noticed that, and the administration has some explaining to do, which won’t be easy:

Unfortunately, Syria didn’t play along with the no-warning story. The regime disclosed exactly what happened: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sent a letter to Syria’s foreign minister via Iraq’s foreign minister. The same message was delivered to Syria’s U.N. ambassador. It specified where the strikes would occur.

This morning, the administration adjusted its story. “We did not coordinate with the Assad regime,” said the Pentagon’s spokesman. “While the United States did inform the Syrian regime through our U.N. ambassador of our intent to take action, there was no coordination and no military-to-military communication.” The Pentagon defines coordination with the same precision Bill Clinton applied to the term sexual relations. In the case of the Islamic State, it depends on what the meaning of IS is.

And then there’s Assad’s ally, Iran:

An official U.S.-Iran partnership would alarm everybody: the Iranian right, the American right, the Gulf states, and all the Sunni tribes and fighters we’re trying to cultivate in Iraq and Syria. Accordingly, Kerry excluded Iran from last week’s conference of countries united against ISIS. But under the table, we’re flexible. Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, says the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs requested Iran’s help in a recent meeting with Iran’s deputy foreign minister.

The Associated Press says the two countries have engaged in “back-room contacts about cooperation for weeks.” Reuters adds that “in private, Iranian officials have voiced a willingness to work with Washington,” at least in a nonmilitary capacity. “Washington’s preferred dynamic,” according to Reuters’ sources, “is for Tehran to work separately toward the goal of defeating Islamic State while the two countries seek to ‘de-conflict’ their activities.” In Iraq, for instance, the United States has tacitly accepted Iran’s arms shipments to Baghdad.

Today, an Iranian official told Reuters that the United States discussed its Syrian military plans with Iran three times before going in, including a notification shortly before the attack. The official said the United States assured Iran we wouldn’t hit Assad’s forces. When the State Department was asked about the Iranian account, it fell back on Clintonian technicalities: “We communicated our intentions, but not specific timing or targets, to the Iranians. As we’ve said, we won’t be coordinating military action with Iran.”

Then there’s that other unannounced ally:

The ally no one wants to acknowledge is Israel. That would play into ISIS propaganda, which frames Obama as the “mule of the Jews” and Saudi rulers as “guard dogs for the Jews.” In the first Persian Gulf War, we used Israeli intelligence but didn’t advertise it, lest we offend our Arab allies. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of Israel’s contributions to the anti-ISIS coalition, “Some of the things are known; some things are less known.” An anonymous Western diplomat said the United States was using Israeli satellite images, “scrubbed” of their Israeli traces, to show its coalition partners damage from strikes against ISIS in Iraq.

No such role has been acknowledged yet in Syria. But the Obama administration began its surveillance flights over Syria only a month ago. In all likelihood, Israeli satellite coverage was even more thorough and useful in Syria than it was in Iraq. Last week, a senior Israeli military officer told reporters that Israel was passing intelligence about ISIS to the U.S. and that “if Israel has intelligence on ISIS targets in Syria – and are asked to share it with the international coalition – I believe that we would cooperate.”

That’s sly, and then there’s Turkey:

Officially, it has refused to join the military campaign. Cynics think this is part of a deal that freed Turkish hostages from ISIS custody a few days ago. But Turkey’s policy already has a loophole: It forbids the United States from launching strikes from its territory against ISIS, except for unarmed drones. In an interview Monday, Turkey’s president worried that bombing ISIS would leave the job “half done.” Somebody has to deal with the social and political consequences, he argued. Maybe that’s the role Turkey will adopt, at least officially.

Yeah, someone from the outside has to come in and clean up the mess the next day. Turkey could, although the New York Times’ Ross Douthat isn’t sure that there has to be a mess:

To the extent that these strikes have a limited military objective that either connects directly to the Iraqi front (by denying the Islamic State a secure rear) or targets groups plotting more actively against the United States, they trouble me much less than a more open-ended strategy in which we seek to conjure up a reliable ally… to be our well-armed boots on the Syrian ground. Or put another way: The idea that we can somehow hope to defeat ISIS outright in Syria, where we currently have no real allies capable of winning a war or securing a peace, without first seeing the Islamic State pushed back or defeated in Iraq – itself probably a long-term project – seems like the height of folly, and a royal road to another quagmire or bloody counterinsurgency campaign. But the possibility that strikes in Syria might modestly help our existing allies in Iraq seems at least somewhat more plausible, with a more limited worst-case scenario than a full-scale Syrian intervention if they don’t ultimately do much good.

Not that, um, worser-case scenarios couldn’t follow airstrikes: Our air campaign could unite the Islamic State and its Islamist rivals into a more formidable front, civilian casualties could radicalize more of the local population, the spectacle could further jihadi recruitment in the West, etc. Things can always get worse, and we should never forget it.

They can also get better too:

As someone who burned pretty hot against our bombing campaign in Libya, where it was so very easy to imagine both American interests and regional stability suffering more (as I think they pretty clearly have) from Qaddafi’s fall than from his continued tyranny, my skepticism is a little cooler this time in part because the existing situation is already such a disaster, with no upside for American interests whatsoever, that the downsides simply don’t look as frightening as they otherwise might. With the Libya intervention, we risked creating an ISIS-like abyss in Africa; in Iraq and Syria today we already have one, and unless we intend to just shrug off our current role in the world there is a clear need for some kind of American response. I’m doubtful that this is the right one, but not knowing what the right one is my sympathies are with President Obama, and I’ll be hoping that events as they unfold will lay some of my skepticism to rest.

So, bombs away – this cannot be as bad as Libya, or the ISIS-Syria mess so bad now that bombing is the best we can do. We may be able to do some good this time, with no more than the bombs.

Daniel Larison argues that this is nonsense:

Every step along the way, the administration has set down restrictions on what it would be willing to do, and it then cast those restrictions aside within days or weeks of imposing them. The administration is currently saying that there won’t be American forces on the ground engaged in combat, but as we should know by now every statement like this is entirely provisional and can be revoked at any time. Furthermore, because the administration persists in the lie that the 2001 AUMF covers this military action, it is very doubtful that the president will seek Congressional authorization for this war even if the war involves U.S. ground forces. I very much hope that Obama doesn’t yield yet again to the pressures in favor of escalation, but there is no reason to think that he will be able to resist them indefinitely.

The pressures in favor of escalation are rather intense after all, with Mohammed Al Ghanem, writing in Politico, arguing that now is the time to go after Assad and ISIS together:

Assad’s record presents clear evidence: If his regime somehow survives the current conflict, ISIL will mysteriously regenerate itself while Assad approvingly observes. Unless the United States wants to be striking ISIL in Syria yet again in another five to 10 years, America should hit Assad now.

Larison is exasperated by talk like this:

Attacking Syrian regime forces would drag the U.S. into a much larger, riskier, and more ambitious campaign that could have very dangerous consequences for U.S. pilots and could create yet another crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. The war against ISIS already promises to be long and desultory, and a war against the Syrian regime would make everything harder, raise the costs of the ongoing campaign, and risk the possibility of regime collapse and the even greater chaos that would consume the country as a result. The war against ISIS is a serious mistake, but fighting both the regime and ISIS at the same time would be a disaster.

Yes, but what should we do? Well, someone has a plan:

Fox News deity Bill O’Reilly is “tired of the phony rhetoric surrounding the ISIS terror threat” and doesn’t trust that Syrians can handle the job, U.S. training or not, he said on the Factor last night. At the same time, he knows advocating for American troops to take up the fight themselves is extremely unpopular. But O’Reilly, problem solver that he is, has a solution: “elite fighters who would be well paid, well trained to defeat terrorists all over the world.” Since that worked so well in Iraq last time around. What we need is more Blackwater.

In the O’Reilly fantasy, the 25,000-person force would be English-speaking, “recruited by the USA and trained in America by our special operations troops,” and dubbed “the Anti-Terror Army,” because the Avengers is already taken.

To his credit, O’Reilly hosted an actual military expert to assess his blueprint for keeping the American people safe. “This is a terrible idea. It’s a terrible idea not just as a practical matter but as a moral matter,” said Dr. Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “It’s a morally corrosive idea to try to outsource our national security.”

O’Reilly politely told that professor that he was full of shit. O’Reilly knows what he knows he knows, but the blogger Allahpundit knows more:

The flaw is that there’s no obvious next step if the mercenaries succeed in routing ISIS from Raqqa and eastern Syria. Who takes over and rules that half of the country if that happens? Assad? He’ll butcher the Sunni civilians there and the Sunnis know it. A new sectarian rebellion against the regime would spring up overnight. Some sort of multinational Sunni force of Saudi, Turkish, and Jordanian troops? Iran will never let the Saudis have that kind of foothold, and besides, none of those countries want the headache of pacifying radicalized Sunni Syrian civilians. NATO doesn’t want it either, of course; an army of western peacekeepers would be even more culturally estranged from Syrian Arabs than a multinational Sunni force would.

The theoretical virtue of Obama’s “arm the Syrian moderates” plan is that if the moderates were to defeat ISIS, they’d be comparatively well positioned to take over as rulers of eastern Syria. They’re natives and they’re Sunnis; they’re probably acceptable to the locals. But of course, the moderates aren’t going to defeat ISIS, which puts us back at square one.

So, what have we learned here? What do we think we’ve learned here, even if we haven’t learned much? We’ve learned that Mondays are a bitch. Another week begins and the old problems are still there, and they just got worse. We’re bombing inside Syria now, and the Syrian government, which we hate, loves it, as does Iran, which we hate, because those folks hate us. And the new and improved Iraq, which we created at great cost, is still useless. There’s a reason that every Happy Hour on Mondays after work is packed with the depressed, shoulder to shoulder, drinking heavily.

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