Old Iron Pants

Maybe you had to be there, but 1968 was an amazing year. People write books about that year – and there still are television specials – because that was the year of the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite telling America it was time to pack it in, and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and there were those riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There was the Prague Spring and the student revolt in Paris about the same time and at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos won big for the United States, and then gave that fist-in-the air Black Power salute on the podium. Do we cheer, or not? And then, on a new episode of Star Trek, on November 22, the crew aboard the Starship Enterprise became enslaved by those nasty humanoid Platonians, who possessed a telekinetic ability to force them to do anything they wanted them to do, and Captain Kirk, played by the scenery-chewing Canadian white guy, William Shatner, was forced to kiss Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, a stunning black woman who once sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It was American television’s first interracial kiss. The world as we knew it was falling apart and Lyndon Johnson had already given up. At the end of an Oval Office address, at the end of March, he departed from the prepared text and looked right in the camera – he would not seek and he would not accept his party’s nomination for another term as president. Screw it. No one could make any sense of any of this. He was tired of trying to.

That set the stage for the epic showdown between Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy, a stunning contrast and a bit of a rematch of 1960 when Nixon lost to Bobby Kennedy’s older brother, but in June, Bobby Kennedy was shot dead out here in Los Angeles – just down the hill from here, actually – and then, in Chicago, the best the Democrats could come up was was Hubert Humphrey, the Happy Warrior who looked a bit like Elmer Fudd. All bets were off, and complicating matters there was a third-party candidate, the states-rights segregationist George Wallace. Wallace wasn’t going to get far but he could steal votes from Nixon, because his version of Nixon’s law-and-order thing was far more brutal and direct – kill all the bastards – and while Nixon had his “secret plan” to end the War over in Vietnam – peace with honor – Wallace chose a running mate who wondered why we hadn’t used nuclear weapons over there, reducing North Vietnam to glowing rubble.

That would be General Curtis LeMay – Old Iron Pants – the guy who had thought up and then directed the massive firebombing campaign that wiped out most of Japan’s major cities back in the day. He said that had we lost that war he fully expected to be tried for war crimes. Half a million dead Japanese civilians and five million homeless will do that, but we didn’t lose the war and he rose to become the man who built the Strategic Air Command into its full Doctor Strangelove awesomeness. Stanley Kubrick was thinking of him. Then LeMay moved up. In 1961 he was made the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, where he was always going head-to-head with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who he thought was a wimp. George Wallace loved this guy, Old Iron Pants, as long as he toned down the stuff about nuking everyone in sight. Even George Wallace wasn’t that crazy.

Then there’s this:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, LeMay clashed again with President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade and, after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis – whereby Kennedy secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey and Italy – “the greatest defeat in our history.”

You can also listen to this – “In a secretly recorded meeting on October 19, 1962, President John F. Kennedy discusses the Cuban missile crisis with his military advisors. After criticizing Kennedy’s call to blockade the island as too weak a response, Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief of staff, tells the president that his refusal to invade Cuba would encourage the Soviets to move on Berlin.”

The audio isn’t very good but it’s good enough. Be brutal. Take care of the problem once and for all. Anything else is defeat, or worse – it will encourage the bad guys to do even worse things. That’s what Old Iron Pants says. Kennedy politely and respectfully ignored him. Later, George Wallace didn’t.

All that may seem like ancient history now, but history has a way of repeating itself:

Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship.

Even as the administration has received congressional backing for its strategy, with the Senate voting Thursday to approve a plan to arm and train Syrian rebels, a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who served under Obama until last year, became the latest high-profile skeptic on Thursday, telling the House Intelligence Committee that a blanket prohibition on ground combat was tying the military’s hands. “Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility,” he said. “We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.”

Old Iron Pants wanted to invade Cuba even if the Soviets sent every one of their nuclear missiles back home. Send troops. Anything else is defeat, and this time the disagreement about that is in the open:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tried to reassure the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon were in “full alignment” and in “complete agreement with every component of the president’s strategy.”

Some lawmakers were skeptical. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, suggested that Obama should listen more closely to his commanders. “I think it’s very important that he does follow the advice and counsel that he receives – the professional advice of the military. They are the ones best suited to do that.”

“I realize he’s commander in chief, he has the final say and the final obligation and responsibility,” McKeon added. “I would also request that he not take options off the table.”

There are geopolitical reasons to take certain options off the table, given our curious allies in this effort, not military reasons, but this sort of thing is nothing new:

In 2009, shortly after Obama took office, Pentagon leaders pressured the new president – who had run on a platform of ending the war in Iraq – to deploy a surge of troops to Afghanistan to rescue the faltering fight against the Taliban.

After a lengthy and tense internal debate, Obama did send more troops, but not as many as some commanders wanted. At the White House, Obama’s top aides privately expressed frustration that the Pentagon had tried to restrict his choices to get the result the military preferred.

At the Pentagon, military commanders expressed their own frustration last year as Obama weighed whether to take action in Syria following the determination that President Bashar al-Assad had employed chemical weapons against civilians. Although the Pentagon had internal disagreements about whether military action was warranted, there were widespread concerns that Obama was on the verge of ordering strikes without articulating goals or a clear strategy.

And so it goes, but one of those “wise men” on the right, Charles Krauthammer, tries to straighten it all out:

As for the short run, the Islamic State knows it will be pounded from the air. But it deems that price worth paying, given its gains in propaganda and prestige – translated into renown and recruiting – from these public executions … We tend to forget that at this stage in its career, the Islamic State’s principal fight is intramural. It seeks to supersede and supplant its jihadi rivals – from al-Qaeda in Pakistan, to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, to the various franchises throughout North Africa – to emerge as champion of the one true jihad.

The strategy is simple: Draw in the world’s great superpower, create the ultimate foil and thus instantly achieve supreme stature in radical Islam as America’s nemesis.

Ah, don’t send in troops. That’s just what they want us to do. ISIS was deliberately baiting us, and the rest of the West, with beheading videos, hoping to drag us back into an unwinnable war, sort of the same unwinnable war, and to be that top dog, the successor to al-Qaeda. That’s the idea, and the now antiwar Andrew Sullivan is fine with that:

My inference from this is that we should not take the bait. I fully understand how hard that is, given the Jacksonian impulse in American culture, given the PTSD of 9/11, given the horrifying depravity of these Jihadist lunatics. Krauthammer’s reaction, in contrast, is to talk smack – “When the enemy deliberately draws you into combat, it is all the more imperative to show the world that he made a big mistake.”

And so we are supposed to send ground troops back into Iraq in order to win back urban centers from a deeply marginalized and radicalized Sunni minority, and turn this entire thing into a US vs Jihad battle. You can see why Krauthammer admires Netanyahu so much. He doesn’t just support a permanent war, he seems to relish it. You could summarize this column with a classic Bushism: “Bring It On.”

You could, but this is not a Bush thing. This predates the clueless cowboy. Old Iron Pants has returned. This time his name is Krauthammer, and Sullivan is not impressed with the guy:

He seems to believe that ISIS can be defeated by US forces, and the gist of the latest neoconservative gambit is that half-measures won’t do. Once you’ve committed to “ultimately destroying” ISIS, you have to commit to it. Don’t rule out ground troops; rally the country with Manichean rhetoric; score cheap points at home by declaring yourself more manly than the president; and react to any further ISIS grandstanding by ratcheting up the rhetoric – and thereby disappearing down yet another Mesopotamian rabbit-hole.

It is as if the lesson of the Iraq war was that we didn’t use enough firepower.

Hey, that’s what Old Iron Pants said about Vietnam, although Krauthammer adds this:

A common mantra is that American cruelty – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “torture,” the Iraq war itself – is the great jihadist recruiting tool. But leaving Iraq, closing Abu Ghraib and prohibiting “enhanced interrogation” had zero effect on recruiting. In fact, jihadi cadres from Mali to Mosul have only swelled during Obama’s outstretched-hand presidency.

Turns out the Islamic State’s best recruiting tool is indeed savagery – its own. Deliberate, defiant, triumphant. The beheadings are not just a magnet for psychopaths around the world. They are choreographed demonstrations of its unbounded determination and of American helplessness. In Osama bin Laden’s famous formulation who is the “strong horse” now?


So we’re back on bin Laden’s horse again, are we? Of course, the implosion of American decency and horror in the last decade did not create Jihadism. But it sure didn’t help.

Bombing the crap out of a country, breaking it apart, unleashing its sectarian demons, occupying it for a decade, and then up-ending its long-standing dynamic of Sunni minority rule: that has something to do with it. More to the point: those very tactics proved that military force cannot do what Krauthammer wants it to do. The Iraq war revealed the limits of American power more dramatically than any of Obama’s more minimalist policies.

That last sentence is critical. The Iraq war was what actually revealed the limits of American power, and if so, that leads Sullivan to say what some find unthinkable, even if we should know better now:

We cannot end Jihadism ourselves or by military force alone; it has to be defeated within the Arab and Muslim world. This is not merely an abstract argument: we have a decade of experience now that proves it. What the neocons are proposing is a Likudnik strategy of brutal warfare to allegedly wipe out the enemy. It hasn’t worked in Israel – and they have far more at stake than we do. It has deepened bitterness, drawn atavism to the surface like pus, altered Israel’s democracy in profound and troubling ways, violated core Western values, and won … well, a constant low-level war which can be relied upon to flare again and again indefinitely.

Sullivan suggests this:

America is bigger and better than that. When fanatics use brutal performance art to bait us into a trap from which we have few escapes, our task is to ignore them. That may be a very hard sell in the current climate. But if we cannot see it clearly after the last decade, we are truly careening toward the rapids.

Our task is to ignore them? Are we allowed to do that, or even think that?

It doesn’t matter. We are not ignoring them. We’re bombing them, and now the French have joined us in that, and we’re arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels, if we can find any, even if, when that was being debated, the CIA let it be known that they thought that idea was a fool’s errand:

One Democratic member of Congress said that the CIA has made it clear that it doubts the possibility that the administration’s strategy could succeed. “I have heard it expressed, outside of classified contexts, that what you heard from your intelligence sources is correct, because the CIA regards the effort as doomed to failure,” the congressman said in an email. “Specifically (again without referring to classified information), the CIA thinks that it is impossible to train and equip a force of pro-Western Syrian nationals that can fight and defeat Assad, al-Nusra and ISIS, regardless of whatever air support that force may receive.”

He added that, as the CIA sees it, the ramped-up backing of rebels is an expansion of a strategy that is already not working. “The CIA also believes that its previous assignment to accomplish this was basically a fool’s errand, and they are well aware of the fact that many of the arms that they provided ended up in the wrong hands,” the congressman said, echoing intelligence sources.

In Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko suggests it’s all a fool’s errand:

Given that two administrations have failed to achieve their end states of defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, we should be extremely doubtful of the Obama administration’s strategic objective of destroying ISIS or its ability to threaten the United States or any of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Furthermore, it is difficult to ascertain what the Obama administration has learned from the total failure to eliminate the Taliban and al Qaeda and all affiliates. Based upon White House statements, it appears that its sole lesson from the post-9/11 era is to avoid massive ground invasions, and to emulate the policies from Yemen and Somalia, which again, according to U.S. government data, have not worked.

On Friday, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby was asked how ISIS would be destroyed, beyond airstrikes and supporting partners on the ground. He replied: “It also is going to take the ultimate destruction of their ideology.” If this is truly the ultimate pathway for ISIS destruction, then it was strange that it did not appear anywhere in President Obama’s strategy speech. Furthermore, altering the interpretation that others hold of a religious ideology is something that governments are really bad at.

Old Iron Pants never tried that. He just leveled whole cities in Japan. It’s just not the same sort of thing, and the blogger Allahpundit adds this:

Increasingly, I think this whole arm-the-rebels plan is just a perfunctory mad-libs answer to an obvious question about O’s ISIS strategy.

Everyone understands that we can put a hurt on them from the air; we can probably also pull together a force in Iraq between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga to push ISIS back into Syria. But what happens then? If the plan is to destroy them, how do we get them once they’re back inside their home base and hunkered down in Syrian cities? We don’t. In reality, we’re practicing a containment strategy, the first step of which is to shove ISIS out of Iraq and the second step of which is to drone their key leaders and terror camps once they’ve returned to Syria. Destroying ISIS will be left to the Shiites who are really motivated to do it, be it Assad, Iran, Hezbollah or, most likely, Shiite militias from Syria and Iraq. This pipe dream is less an actual plan than a rhetorical one, so that O has an out-of-the-box answer handy when someone asks him “Who’s going to fight our battle in Syria?” What’s he supposed to say, “Shiite death squads”? That may be the correct answer but it’s not a politic one.

There are no politic answers anymore:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran has a role to play in an international coalition to take on Islamic State extremists.

“The coalition required to eliminate ISIL is not only, or even primarily, military in nature,” Kerry said yesterday at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Iraq, referring to the group by an acronym for its former name. “It must be comprehensive and include close collaboration across multiple lines of effort.”

“There is a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran,” he said.

Curtis LeMay thought that Kennedy secretly agreeing to remove our missiles from Turkey and Italy was the greatest defeat in our history, but this could top that. These are the bad guys. We’re saying that they could be helpful, but we could just bomb them all, you know. We could send in the troops. That’s what Old Iron Pants whispered in Kennedy’s ear back in 1963, although he wasn’t exactly whispering. Had Kennedy listened to him we’d all be dead now. Then in 1968, the year when everything fell apart, he was on the ballot, whispering the same thing to us all. Now guys like Charles Krauthammer are doing that whispering, and in Washington there seems to be an Old Iron Pants in every office in the Pentagon. Now it’s Obama’s turn. We’re caught in a loop here.

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The Heart and Mind of America

The French-born master historian of all things American was Jacques Barzun – an outsider who became an insider. He could fit America in the great sweep of Western Civilization and explain all sorts of cultural phenomena, but he too could get tripped up. Cultures shift. Barzun once said this – “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Those days are gone – Field of Dreams was a nostalgia movie, for those who longed for the days when baseball seemed to matter, before the Dodgers and Giants left America’s City and headed for the west coast, because that’s where the money was. The Washington Nationals just won their division, but they used to be the Montreal Expos. Loyalty is fungible, and there were years of scandals with hitters juiced up on steroids and other stuff, and a strike or two here and there, shutting down the season, with the players and owners deadlocked over who got which part of the vast amount of money the game generated, even if they were all rich. Attendance dropped. They were all jerks, arguing with each other over what could have easily been worked out – and the game was too slow anyway. It was downright pastoral in an age where everyone was wired up and tuned into everything, instantaneously. With baseball you had to wait and savor the moment, that time before the next pitch, where the pitcher, in a tight spot, just stares at the batter, and stares and stares and stares. He’s thinking. How do I fool this guy – with the slider, or the fastball, or the curve, or the change-up? Then he starts his wind-up – and the batter steps out of the box, to mess up the pitcher’s timing, or to just mess with the guy’s head. It’s a battle of wits, and Barzun seems to have loved that.

Americans no longer do. They turned to professional football, with its play-clock. Move it or lose it. Delay of Game will cost you five yards. Thinking too much is a luxury you can’t afford. Do something, now, even if it turns out to be disastrous – you have no choice – just like in real life. Americans could relate to that. We know we can’t wait, ever. That’s why we invaded Iraq. We couldn’t wait to see if Saddam Hussein really had those weapons of mass destruction – the smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. The French, among others, thought we were crazy, but they had probably taken their native son, Jacques Barzun, far too seriously – and now we’re off to fight ISIS – as we once again have no time and no choice. Barzun got it wrong, or time passed him by. If you want to know the heart and mind of America you had better learn football, quick.

George Carlin got it right in his epic comparison of the two games, with observations like this:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

That may be a bit broad, but football seems to be life as we know it:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe!

Liberals found this insightful and amusing. They liked Carlin. Conservatives generally shrugged. This was just more insignificant liberal nonsense, and football is America’s game. For years the Dallas Cowboys called themselves America’s Team, although for the last several years they’ve been awful, so everyone has reconsidered that – but the idea is that football is a fine sport, played by fine men. They are out there to inflict pain and humiliation on the other guys out there, those who are weaker, but what’s wrong with that? That’s how you win, and that’s how you win in life. Any sign of weakness invites attack. Those with the “killer instinct” get the job done. Shock and awe win. Ask Dick Cheney about that. Total dominance, humiliating the other guy, is what matters. In fact, it’s heroic.

One thing leads to another. This means that professional football is populated by those who have been trained to get what they want through inflicting serious pain on others to win – those who are the very best at that are selected out, to fill the roster. The good hit is everything. The fans cheer. It should be a “clean hit” – there are rules – but it’s a hit nonetheless. The heroes of the game also have that “killer instinct” that assure a win.

That made it odd that the New England Patriots cut ties with their superstar Aaron Hernandez – after he was indicted for murder. It’s three murders now, but he does have that killer instinct. They were appalled at a trait they value, shutting down that part of the brain that can imagine the suffering of others and recoils at the thought of pounding others into submission. Yes, Hernandez crossed the line, he actually killed actual people, but that line is just one point on a continuum. Hernandez is the kind of guy the NFL likes. He just didn’t see the one bright line here, but he had been carefully conditioned to not see other lines on the same continuum. He had honed his merciless bragging killer instinct, his iron will to dominate, to a fine point, and it had served him well. He just couldn’t turn it off, at will, when he needed to. Few if any professional football players are potential murderers, but they’ve been selected out because they have something in common with them. They make a living, a fortune actually, by being borderline sociopaths on the field. Most of them, however, leave that on the field. They go home to the wife and kids, where things are different.

Now we’re beginning to understand that this isn’t always so. Being a borderline sociopath for a living, and only for a living, may be harder to manage than anyone thought, or maybe the game itself, through its incentive structures, simply attracts established borderline sociopaths. They’ve started popping up everywhere, and CNN has a list:

Adrian Peterson – One of the top players in the NFL, he left the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday to deal with child abuse accusations in Texas. Peterson had been deactivated by the Vikings and missed Sunday’s game, and then reactivated Monday. But the team said it needed to correct its mistake and deactivated him again…

Greg Hardy – The Carolina Panthers’ defensive star also took a leave of absence because of legal troubles. As with Peterson, Hardy will be paid while he is away from the team. Hardy was convicted by a judge in July on misdemeanor assault charges. He asked for a new trial in front of a jury, which is scheduled for mid-November. Hardy played one game then was deactivated as the outrage against the NFL grew over how it was dealing with domestic violence issues. He has proclaimed his innocence of the charges, which were filed after police said he assaulted his then-girlfriend and threatened to kill her. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and received a 60-day suspended sentence…

Jonathan Dwyer – The most recent player to be arrested, the running back is alleged to have assaulted a 27-year-old woman and an 18-month-old child. Sgt. Trent Crump, a Phoenix police spokesman, said it would be reckless to identify the victims. Dwyer, 25, spent Wednesday night in the Maricopa County Jail, and the Arizona Cardinals deactivated him. Crump said neighbors reported two incidents in July. Dwyer posted bond and was released from jail Thursday after a judge set a $25,000 “cash-only” bond and required him to wear an electronic monitoring device and abide by a curfew. He won’t be able to take part in any team activities after his release. The woman didn’t allege any violence until last week, when she called from another state, where she had moved with the child. The most serious of six charges were three counts of assault, one of which caused a fracture….

Ray Rice – The running back without a team is appealing his indefinite suspension by the league. While Rice has called punching his future wife in the head and knocking her out “inexcusable,” he is seeking to have the opportunity to play in the NFL again. The players’ union has complained that Rice didn’t receive due process from [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell, who suspended him in June to a two-game ban, then increased the penalty to an indefinite suspension. That came earlier this month after TMZ Sports posted a video that showed the punch. Rice was three days away from completing the original suspension when the indefinite ban was handed down and when the Baltimore Ravens terminated his contract.

Ray McDonald – On August 31, three days after Goodell created an NFL policy against domestic violence, San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald was arrested on an accusation of felony domestic violence. The new policy imposes a minimum six-game unpaid ban for first-time offenders and up to a lifetime ban for second-time offenders.

Quincy Enunwa – The Jets practice squad player’s arrest went practically overlooked outside of the New York area. According to USA Today’s “NFL Players Arrests” tracker, he was arrested on September 4. Enunwa was charged with simple assault after a woman told police he pulled her off a bed at a hotel, causing a head injury, ESPNNewYork.com reported. He pleaded not guilty, ESPN said, adding that the player was still practicing with the team.

The NFL doesn’t quite know what to do with these guys. They have the traits they want on the field – beat the crap out of the weak – but those traits seem to be part of them at all times. Beat the crap out of the weak – women and children in this case – to show them who’s in charge. As for Adrian Peterson beating his kid, Amy Davidson covers the odd facts of the matter:

This preschooler wasn’t paddled or, as Peterson put it to police, “swatted”; he was whipped with a stick and left with open wounds on his body. It’s also not obvious that Peterson has been at all straightforward. (This is something a jury or judge will work out.) In his statement, Peterson said, “I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen.” This is apparently a reference to the specific wound to the child’s scrotum and a particularly ugly one to the leg. (In another text message, he told the boy’s mother the same thing, adding, “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, but I’m all tearing that butt up when needed!” He also wrote that she would probably get “mad at me about his leg. I got kinda good with the tail end of the switch.”) Peterson claimed to the police that he hadn’t noticed that the “tip of the switch and the ridges of the switch were wrapping around” the boy’s thigh.

The kid was four. Peterson was disciplining him, and Amanda Hess covers what other NFL players were saying:

Reactions from around the NFL imply that “love” is a valid reason for beating a child. “I got an ass whippn at 5 with a switch that’s lasted about 40 mins and couldn’t sit for 2 days. It’s was all love though,” Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett tweeted in Peterson’s defense. Added New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram Jr.: “When I was kid I got so many whoopins I can’t even count! I love both my parents they just wanted me to be the best human possible!”

This is normal, and this is love, really, even if that four-year-old still can’t sit down. Maybe he learned something. Slate’s William Saletan argues that it doesn’t work that way:

Corporal punishment teaches itself. Peterson thought he was teaching the opposite. According to reports, he was punishing his son for pushing and scratching another child. He says he explained this to the boy. “Anytime I spank my kids, I talk to them before, let them know what they did, and of course after,” he told investigators.

But when you hit a child for hitting another child, the hitting does all the talking. That’s the upshot of a recent study of more than 100 children and their parents. Every parent who approved of spanking a child for hitting a sibling passed this belief on to their kids. And 79 percent of kids who came from homes with lots of spanking said they’d hit a sibling for trying to watch a different TV show – almost the same scenario that led to Peterson’s beating of his son. According to the researchers, “Not one child from a no-spanking home chose to resolve these conflicts by hitting.” The kids absorbed the model, not the lecture.

Amanda Marcotte sees something else at play here:

Christian conservatives defend the practice of spanking children, even with weapons, by saying that parents are not supposed to do so in anger.

“You want to be calm, in control, and focused,” writes Chip Ingram of Focus on the Family and that a parent who embraces corporal punishment “is not an angry, insensitive person with a big club and a vicious agenda.” This echoes a common refrain from parents to justify spanking, that they don’t do it in anger and they reserve it for serious infractions that require a lot of time and processing so the child doesn’t do it again.

Unfortunately, parents are overestimating their own abilities to keep it in check. Researchers at Southern Methodist University strapped audio recorders onto the arms of 33 mothers to see if and when they used spanking, and found that instead of retreating to a quiet space to calmly administer a spanking, mothers who spank are just hitting in anger and frustration. Kids got spanked for finger-sucking, messing with pages of a book, or getting out of a chair when they weren’t supposed to. Parents who spank say they do so around 18 times a year, but the SMU researchers found it was closer to 18 times a week.

That’s odd, but using violence to keep the very young and the exceedingly small in line, to exert total dominance, may indeed become habitual. You don’t even think about it, and then there’s the race factor, which provides an array of habits. Josh Voorhees comments on that:

The perception that black parents are more likely to employ corporal punishment than their nonblack counterparts is borne out by academic research. In one study that examined 20,000 kindergartners and their parents, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that 89 percent of black parents had spanked their children, compared with 79 percent of white parents, 80 percent of Hispanic parents, and 73 percent of Asian parents. There is no single reason why blacks are more likely to turn to the rod for discipline, but the numbers are correlated with factors that include socio-economic status, religious upbringing, and even the heartbreaking feeling that, as it’s often put, “I’d rather my child get a beating from me than from police.”

Society itself creates a sense that beating the crap out of the weak does some good, even if indirectly, but Michael Eric Dyson thinks it’s more than that:

The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

This has always been about dominance, just like in pro football now, on the field, and elsewhere, and then there’s the political:

On Tuesday’s edition of his radio show, Fox News host Sean Hannity used a discussion of the Adrian Peterson case as a vehicle for his fears about “liberals,” arguing that bringing child abuse charges against the NFL running back could result in the government infringing upon parents’ rights to instill values in their children…

“Here’s where my fear goes with all of this,” Hannity said. “You guys are gonna tell parents what they can and cannot do – for example, is it going to become illegal if a parent teaches the politically incorrect view that being gay is not normal?” He added, “Because I think we’ve gotten to the point where, if we don’t politically correct our kids, we might as well just hand our kids over to the government the day they’re born and let them raise them.”

This is serious stuff:

“My problem here is: Do parents have the right to instill their values in their children?” Hannity asked. “The problem is, we send these kids off to school, and maybe they’re taught that God is dead and maybe they’re taught that it’s okay to have sex, or maybe they’re taught values that contradict what the parents are teaching, whatever it might be – Heather has two mommies, daddies, roommates. That’s the government circumventing parental values.”

That’s an odd defense of Peterson. The Adrian Peterson case will prevent parents from teaching kids that “being gay is not normal” – somehow. Ah well, Hannity is who he is, but the question remains. Why has America’s game, played by America’s heroes, suddenly generated all these events – Peterson beating the crap out of his four-year-old son, to teach him a lesson he may not even understand, but out of love – Ray Rice punching that woman in the face and knocking her out cold, and then marrying here, presumably because now they both know that she knows her place? Why are there all these other stories of severe domestic violence against women, by very big and very strong men? Could it be that Jacques Barzun was wrong and George Carlin was right about the heart and mind of America? We have always wanted dominance. Professional football shows us how it’s done. We simply apply the lessons, generally. Football is American’s Game.

Posted in Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Understanding America through Football | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scotland Votes

Thirty-three years ago Southern California seemed like a fine idea. It wasn’t Rochester, New York. There were surfers and palm trees, and there was work. The booming aerospace industry was hiring everyone in sight, and Hughes and TRW and all the rest were all located in the South Bay, right by the beach. Rand Corporation, where all the secret planning went on, was a few feet from the Santa Monica Pier, where it still is. Life was good. The money was good. The big ocean was blue – but things were different here, especially after work, when it was time to unwind. That may have been Happy Hour in every establishment from Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, but hardly anyone was drinking fine single-malt scotch. What? Back east, that’s what Very Important Men – in finely tailored expensive suits – sipped after work. Not here – that was a drink for rainy days with a cold winter on the way. It was from Scotland after all. That’s a misty-moody place. They don’t have palm trees there, and no one out here ever gave Scotland even a passing thought.

Fine – sip your vodka on the rocks, with a twist, but one of the icons out here is the famous Queen Mary – built in Clydebank, Scotland. She was christened on September 26, 1934, and then sailed the North Atlantic from 1936 to 1967 for the Cunard Line, and she’s been moored out here in Long Beach ever since, restored to her original elegance, and now a floating hotel and museum. Winston Churchill always used the Queen Mary to sail across the Atlantic to meet with FDR and our military planners. You can sleep in his suite. The thing looks amazing – check out the forecastle – and the Queen Mary was built in Scotland. Those folks knew how to build ships, and they invented golf. Those folks shouldn’t be ignored.

They were ignored out here, save for Scotty on Star Trek and Willie the Groundskeeper on The Simpsons. They were colorful characters, of secondary importance. It was Mel Gibson who got serious about Scotland in 1995 with Braveheart – the story of William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish patriot who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, which few remember. Gibson plays Wallace of course, the noble guy who suffers a lot and is drawn-and-quartered in the end. Gibson specializes in suicidal half-mad good guys who suffer a lot, physically, in extreme close-up – his Passion of the Christ was an extended bloody gore-fest about the actual physical suffering of Jesus and not much else – and Braveheart was more of the same. But Braveheart did win best picture. People also learned a bit about Scotland. Gibson himself was arrested for drunk-driving in Malibu in 2006, where he screamed at the cops about how they were all Jews and the damned Jews were taking over the world. Mel hasn’t worked much in Hollywood since. But he did introduce us to Scotland, and to a famous Scottish fellow.

Gibson actually might have gotten Scotland right. Look at the history – there was the Roman Empire occupying what is now England and Wales, the province they called Britannia, and they tried various invasions and occupations of southern Scotland, but they got the crap beaten out of them. They finally built Hadrian’s Wall – the crazy folks were north of the wall. Don’t mess with them. It’s just not worth it. They could rule themselves, and did, but by 1286, they couldn’t. They couldn’t decide who the rightful King of Scotland was at that point. They foolishly asked Edward I of England to arbitrate between claimants for the crown, as an impartial outsider, and he chose John Balliol, the new King John, but that meant Edward owed him. Edward I was suddenly recognized as Lord Paramount of Scotland, the feudal superior of the realm, and he certainly lorded it over them. When he asked the Scots to fight for him in France, however, that was too much – they signed an alliance with France. That in turn was too much for the big guy from the south side of the old Roman wall. King John was deposed by Edward, who then took personal control of Scotland. That’s what pissed off William Wallace. Mel Gibson made a movie about that.

Robert the Bruce fixed it all, completing Wallace’s work as the Scots slowly regained their independence, but they were in still bed with France. The Scots Guard – la Garde Écossaise – was founded in 1418 by Charles VII of France. Those guys fought alongside Joan of Arc against England during the Hundred Years War – but the guys on the south side of the old wall couldn’t be ignored. In 1502, James IV of Scotland signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with Henry VII of England, and he also married Henry’s daughter, Margaret Tudor. That was a smart move. This would be the Union of the Crowns. Forget Catholic France. Mary, Queen of Scots – a Catholic and former queen of France – was forced to abdicate in 1567, and in 1603, James VI, King of Scots, inherited the thrones of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Ireland.

Cool. When the first Queen Elizabeth died, leaving no son or daughter, he became King James I of England and Ireland – the King James Bible guy – he commissioned that translation. Scotland was still a separate state, but now it was just part of the whole. The Scottish kings followed, but the fourth of them, James II, was tossed out on his ear in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The English Parliament preferred William and Mary, not someone who was Catholic and buddy-buddy with the French, and it’s been a mess ever since. The only fix has been the 1706 Treaty of Union and the Acts of Union the next year. The respective parliaments on each side of the old Roman wall agreed to create a new entity, the Kingdom of Great Britain – and that’s been in place since May 1, 1707, working well enough. Both parties did well in the Industrial Revolution, and for a long time the sun never set on the British Empire. The Scots built their ships. It was their empire too.

Now it’s coming apart:

Scotland was a flurry of last-minute campaign activity hours before voting was to begin Thursday on a referendum to determine whether it would leave Britain. Advocates on both sides of the debate – “yes” for independence and “no” for unity – spread across Scotland on Wednesday to rally support as polls showed the outcome appeared too close to call. …

“Yes” supporters say they want to take power from British politicians in London and place it in the hands of decision-makers in Scotland. “No” campaigners warn that independence from the United Kingdom, which would reduce Britain to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, would bring unwanted economic risks. Questions remain over what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether it can rely on continued tax revenue from its dwindling oil reserves in the North Sea. …

More than 4 million people are registered to vote in Scotland, which has a population of about 5.3 million people, and turnout is expected to exceed 90%.

No one knows what will happen, but it comes down to this:

On the “no” side, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave an impassioned speech at a rally Wednesday in Glasgow urging voters not to let nationalism break apart the United Kingdom.

“The vote tomorrow is not about whether Scotland is a nation, we are,” Brown said. “Let us tell the undecided, the waverers, those not sure to vote. Let us tell them what we have achieved together. We fought two world wars together, and there is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh and Irish lined side by side.” …

In Perth, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s pro-independence first minister, cast the “yes” campaign as the underdog.

“This is our opportunity of a lifetime, and we must seize it with both hands,” Salmond said. “Know that by voting ‘yes’ what we take into our hands is a responsibility like no other, a responsibility to work together to make Scotland a better nation.”

The White House released a statement from President Obama in which he called the United Kingdom “an extraordinary partner for America and a force for good in an unstable world.”

“I hope it remains strong, robust and united,” Obama said.

Of course he does, and Adam Shaw reports this:

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in his final push to beat back Scotland’s drive for independence, amid dire warnings that a breakup could bring the United Kingdom a nuclear and economic nightmare. …

Credit Suisse, Japan’s Nomura and other banks warning of a deep recession for both Scotland and the rest of the U.K., and even the Royal Bank of Scotland, has pledged to move operations south of the border should Scots vote “yes.”

There are also serious defense implications should Scotland vote for independence, not just for the United Kingdom but for the United States and NATO. Cameron recently told Parliament that a number of NATO members had raised concerns about the referendum and a NATO official told FoxNews.com that secession would mean Scotland is no longer part of NATO and would have to reapply.

Of similar concern is the cornerstone of the UK’s national defense, a system capable of delivering nuclear weapons from ballistic missiles launched from four Trident submarines stationed along Scotland’s west coast. The Scottish government’s plan for independence, which includes an Independence Day of March 24, 2016, suggests that the nukes would no longer be welcome, saying “we will be able to remove Trident from Scotland’s soil and stop paying toward the £100 billion lifetime cost of a new generation of nuclear weapons.”

The move has shocked many British military analysts, with former British defense chief Sir Mark Stanhope telling SNP [Scottish National Party] leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond such a move would usher in “a dangerous period of destabilization in our nuclear defense posture at a time when the international picture is clearly deteriorating.”

In August, the Royal United Services Institute released a report finding that relocating Trident to Falmouth, England, would cost $5.8 billion, could not be completed by the 2020 deadline set by the Scottish government and may be politically unfeasible.

There’s also this stuff:

Defense experts say a weakened United Kingdom makes for a weakened NATO, the 28-member alliance whose covenant requires any external threat against one to be answered by all.

In addition to the nuclear issue, the UK has a series of military and intelligence bases in Scotland, some or all of which may have to be moved. The task would be monumental, and a British Ministry of Defense spokesman told FoxNews.com that they have not yet started contingency planning.

A breakup could even have serious implications for President Obama, who at a joint press conference with David Cameron in June said the United States wanted the U.K. to remain a “strong, robust, united and effective partner.” Should Britain destabilize following a “yes” vote, and undergo a recession and face a requirement to move nuclear weapons from Scotland, it could affect Britain’s military effectiveness in the fight in the Middle East, say experts.

Oh, there’s always more:

Additionally for Obama, one of his strongest personal allies could be in trouble, as some members of Parliament have said Cameron will likely face a leadership challenge should he fail to keep the United Kingdom together.

In such a scenario, Cameron would have less political capital with which to persuade fellow politicians of deeper military involvement in the Middle East, and could also be distracted by domestic affairs at home to focus on backing Obama’s plan in the Middle East.

Oh crap, but there is this:

Herbert London, president of London Center for Policy Research and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that an independence vote’s effect on NATO and the U.S. would be minimal.

“It’s inconsequential,” London told FoxNews.com. “We have seen the general emasculation of British military capabilities in recent years. It will not have any dramatic effect on NATO as their commitment is minimal to begin with.”

The Brits were useless anyway. With or without the Scots, they’re still useless – but everyone agrees that the price of scotch would skyrocket – as if that matters. And even if Scotland votes no, in the New Yorker, John Cassidy wonders if the union can survive:

For, although the unionist side seems likely to win this round, in the longer term the impact of the referendum could well be disastrous for those who want to maintain the status quo. About the best they can hope for is a federalized Great Britain that retains the word “United” in its name but is, for most intents and purposes, two separate countries. And even that outcome may prove to be unsustainable. Indeed, the English, who today are lamenting the possible dissolution of their beloved union, may well end up kicking the Scots out of it.

In the Atlantic, Nora Biette-Timmons sees the same thing:

Some Conservative Party leaders, for instance, are urging Westminster to revoke the voting rights of Scottish MPs over English-only legislation if Scotland ultimately chooses not to secede on Thursday. Others are calling for more dramatic constitutional overhauls of the United Kingdom. “While the majority of us would like Scotland to stay in the UK, a large majority of us in England now want devolution for our country too,” John Redwood, a Conservative MP from southeast England, wrote in the Financial Times on Wednesday, on the eve of the independence vote. This devolution, he argued, could take the form of an English Parliament as well. “What has emerged from the Scottish referendum is the idea of a federal state, with much greater power being exercised in the constituent nations of the union,” he noted. “What is fair for Scotland now also has to be fair for England.”

Whatever the result, Alex Massie argues here that the Scots will make peace with the result:

There will be a deep sadness in many places if Scotland votes Yes and, in other parts, some raging disbelief if she votes No. How could it be otherwise? This may be a wee country but the matter of Scotland is nothing small. Some folk will leave if we vote yes and that, I think, will be a great pity. Others will react poorly to a No vote but at least cling to the consolation that losing a battle is not the same as losing a war. The nationalists have known defeat before and coped; they can do so again. Their faith will remain. It will be harder, I think, for Unionists to accept the song is over.

But hatred? Real hatred? How can we really hate our opponents? We may think them sorely mistaken but we can also agree – if we try to remember to do so – that they are not motivated by baser motives than we are ourselves. They are our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. Our neighbors too. To hate them is in some sense to deny a part of ourselves.

In that respect we really are all in it together. Today, tomorrow and Friday too. Come what may. Be not afraid. It is, probably, going to be fine. The little white rose of Scotland, so small and sharp and sweet, will still bloom.

That’s pretty, but in the New Statesman, Ewan Morrison sees something that’s not pretty:

In truth, the Yes camp is a ragged collection of factions all seeking power for themselves – a bigger slice of the political pie in a much smaller country. The unity and positivity behind the singular Yes has masked the divisions on the Yes side, between Greens who want no more drilling and the “it’s-our-oil” men; between steady state anti-capitalists and “business for Scotland”. There are even within the Yes Camp factions of the old left that have long been pushed out of modern politics. The chanted “Yes”, it turns out, is as much about silencing the dissent among the ranks of Yes followers as it is about silencing opponents.

How will so many disparate and vying factions manage to create a better, more “positive” Scotland? We could have had an answer to this if months back the Yes factions had actually made concrete plans for the future and recognized their divisions, but instead they chanted the mantra of fantasized unity: Yes Yes Yes. This is why the word plastered all over our country has come to mean absolutely nothing. It’s an illusion of positivity. A hope about hope. A pure advert, selling us something we don’t need, something that does not even exist – a post-political dream of a new nation untroubled by the conflicts of the past or grim realities of the world beyond. Say it enough times and you start to believe it. Yes Yes Yes. Say it and see it too many times, and it vanishes into meaninglessness.

Clive Crook, however, who thinks Scotland could come to regret independence, nevertheless is for it:

It comes down to this: Scots are bound more tightly to each other – by history, culture and ethnicity – than they are to the rest of the U.K. In this sense, Scotland is, and for centuries has been, another country. Its desire for full nationhood has waxed and waned, but it certainly isn’t new. The union is hundreds of years old, but the things that make Scotland different haven’t been smoothed away, which tells you something.

What has changed in recent decades is that the U.K. has become both less hospitable to the Scots and less necessary.

One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers sees things differently:

I am an American and I love Scotland and Scottish culture. My father is from Scotland, my grandfather served as an officer in a famous Scottish regiment, The Black Watch, and he was given an award for bravery posthumously by the King of England in WWII. I am involved with Scottish charities in the US and have been a Trustee representing one of the largest Scottish charities here in the U.S.

Sometimes when dealing with the home country, I’ve heard my fellow Scottish-Americans mutter, “The smart ones left”. I can’t help but feel this may be true, as the “Yes” vote seems an increasing possibility.

Who rules who? The last three prime ministers are Scottish or of Scottish descent. The Scots have historically been a force at the Bank of England. Scotland is subsidized by the rest of the U.K. and unlike the English they have their own separate parliament. In fact, it makes (barely) more sense that England would tell Scotland to leave at this point, rather than the other way around.

This isn’t the thirteenth century or even the seventeenth century. There’s 300 years of cooperation and prosperity with the English. Where was Scotland before the Union in 1707? It was broke! That’s why they agreed to join. The U.K. assumed their debt and gave Scotland access to their markets to trade. I hope they like independence, because they’re coming out the same way they went in.

Yes, there is that history, but these things happen.

So, should those of us on the other side of the pond care? A diminished Britain and a new upstart Scotland do destabilize NATO, along with much else. That’s an issue, but everyone wants their freedom right now. The vaguely Russian people of the Crimea got theirs, thanks to Vladimir Putin, and he’s trying to help “his people” in eastern Ukraine now, with Estonia next. The Kurds won semi-autonomy in Iraq, and want more. ISIS is trying to invent a whole new country, a caliphate as they call it, something distinct from Iraq and Syria. There are separatist movements everywhere. The world as we know it is falling apart, and we don’t know what comes next, but it’s probably very bad indeed.

Something should be done, and the folks at The Onion suggest this:

A tragedy is unfolding in Scotland. One glance at this week’s headlines reveals that the region’s fractious political situation is intensifying, with separatist activists gaining more and more support every day. Barring something drastic, Scotland seems bound inexorably for a cataclysm. Can the United States stand idly by as Scotland descends into civil war? …

How many Scots need to die before Obama says “Enough is enough” and steps in? The United States has a moral imperative to intervene, starting immediately with air raids to break the militant separatists before they gain a stranglehold on power. But that will not be enough. We need boots on the ground as soon and in as great numbers as possible.

Well, we’ve done it before. Satire works that way. When John McCain and Lindsey Graham say this, and Fox News picks it up, then it will be time to worry. Until then, this is the same story that started with the Romans putting up that wall long ago, the story that Mel Gibson picked up in the middle for his blood and guts movie, and that same story continues today. We’re onlookers. The only thing to do is sip some of that fine single-malt scotch, before it becomes so expensive that it’ll have to be all-American bourbon. Now that is a problem.

Posted in Scottish Independence | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The General Idea Again

The basics are pretty clear. We have a government of the people and by the people and for the people, where the military reports to an official elected by the people, the president. The military may have the guns, but the president is the commander-in-chief. The generals make suggestions. The president listens, but the president decides what to do. The president can also remove generals who don’t do what the president has decided should be done, and many presidents have done just that. Those are the rules we set up in the late eighteenth century in our Constitution. Over on Fox News, from time over the last six years, there has been talk of how the world wouldn’t be such a mess if the generals just took over all the decisions about who we fight, where, and why, and for how long, which often drifts into talk of how America would be better off if we just let the military run things here at home, but no one blurts out “Let’s have a military coup today!” They may think Obama is a fool, and that our military is magnificent beyond measure, but they know the rules. They don’t like those rules. There’s always been a bit of tension about this.

There was the curious case of General Stanley McChrystal – once in charge of things in Afghanistan, as Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A). On June 10, 2009, the Senate approved McChrystal to take command in Afghanistan, but it always seemed an odd choice. McChrystal’s career had been as a Special Forces guy – get in, get the bad guys, and get out before anyone knows what happened – the stuff no one talks about, or is denied. And of course those of us with long memories remember how McChrystal was implicated in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire – McChrystal seemed to be at the center of things. McChrystal was put in charge of the paperwork to award Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for valor, but McChrystal was one of eight officers recommended for discipline by a subsequent Pentagon investigation. They all knew the whole thing was a battlefield screw-up. The Army declined to take action against McChrystal – no point in keeping that controversy alive. And in Iraq, McChrystal’s unit, Task Force 6-26, had some issues with its interrogation methods, at Camp Nama, where it was accused of abusing detainees, sort of torturing them –some died before anyone figured out they knew nothing and were nobody in particular. After Abu Ghraib, when that sort of thing became an issue, thirty-four members of that task force were disciplined – McChrystal wasn’t. But he isn’t exactly a sweetheart. What was Obama thinking in appointing McChrystal to run things in Afghanistan?

But McChrystal had a reputation – beginning in late spring 2007 his teams launched a new series of covert operations that coincided with the famous Surge of 2007 – killing or capturing many of the key al-Qaida leaders in Iraq. In a CBS 60 Minutes interview Bob Woodward described this new special operations capability – joint teams of CIA and Army Special Forces. It was a new way of doing things. Several senior officials said that these joint efforts by what were essentially paramilitary units were the most significant contributor to the defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq – the guy was good – brutal and secretive, but good. And then David Petraeus converted him into a counterinsurgency guy – win the hearts and mind of the locals, keep the peace and get them to love their own government, and build a working society, and also drive the bad guys away and eliminate their key leaders. Obama must have figured the guy knew what he was doing, at least by now.

Then McChrystal started sending reports that we’d win it all over there if Obama would just send in more troops, lots and lots of troops, so Obama did, but McChrystal always said that wasn’t enough, and he seemed to develop an attitude. That was described in an impeccably-sourced Rolling Stone profile – all the mocking and sneering at Obama and Biden and every ambassador in sight, calling them all fools. What the hell did they know? What does any civilian know? No one tried to hide any of this from the Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, so the profile went online, and on June 23, 2010, two days before it hit the newsstands, McChrystal tendered his resignation.

Obama accepted it. McChrystal issued an apology and resigned from the Army, and everyone over at Fox News went ballistic. McChrystal was right about Obama and Biden and all the rest, wasn’t he? It wasn’t fair! All presidents should defer to the military, as everyone knows. As for Michael Hastings, he died in a mysterious car wreck in June 2013 just down the street here – his body burned beyond recognition. He was working on a story about the CIA at the time. That worried some people. This might be payback. Others grinned. He got what he deserved. No one knows what happened down on La Brea, even now, but back in 2010, Obama simply replaced McChrystal with David Petraeus, a discreet man who knows what the rules are. Obama later made Petraeus head of the CIA, where he was forced to resign over a sex scandal, a hot and heavy affair with a sexy journalist. His wife really was old and frumpy, but this was a surprise. Maybe Petraeus didn’t know what the rules were after all, but folks at Fox News were still unhappy. This time they were just sad. Petraeus blew it. They couldn’t pin this on Obama.

That was the problem. Obama was the one who had played by the rules. If a general says give me fifty thousand more troops and I’ll wipe out the bad guys – and some you didn’t even know were bad guys – the president can say no, that’s a policy decision, and your job is to implement policy. You might not like the policy in question, but that’s just too bad – you don’t get to decide such things. If you want to set policy, run for office. If enough people can be convinced to vote for you, because they think you should be the one deciding who we fight and how and when and why and where, then go for it. Otherwise, make your suggestions, argue for this or that, but be prepared to be disappointed now and then. You’re not the decider.

None of this ever settled, and here we go again:

Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House. Instead, Obama had decided to send an additional 475 U.S. troops to assist Iraqi and ethnic Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.

Obama made a geopolitical decision here, in tricky times, when our boots on the ground, even a very few of them, could make things far worse in the Middle East, given how we’re now seen over there. Those boots have to be carefully placed, and half of America would scream bloody murder if we started down that road to war. This is Obama’s call, but General McChrystal had started something:

Austin’s predecessor, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, said the decision not to send ground troops poses serious risks to the mission.

“The American people will once again see us in a war that doesn’t seem to be making progress,” Mattis said. “You’re giving the enemy the initiative for a longer period.”

Austin couldn’t say that – he’s active-duty and he knows better – but James Mattis can – he’s retired. It’s a tag-team thing, but Obama has his reasons:

Supporters of the president’s approach say that the use of U.S. ground troops could easily send the wrong message to Iraqi soldiers, encouraging them to hang back and allow the Americans to fight, and it might discourage Iraq’s new government from moving quickly in efforts win over Sunnis estranged by the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. “We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region,” Obama said.

That’s a policy decision. These two generals have good suggestions, but they’re not to the point, although Marc Thiessen doesn’t agree. He was one of George Bush’s speechwriters, after being a speech writer for Donald Rumsfeld, and he tells us this is just another example of Obama versus the Generals – another screed about how the generals are always right. Do what they say. You won’t be sorry. That worked just fine for his boss, George Bush. All you have to do is swallow your pride and admit you don’t know jack-shit about anything. Why can’t Obama be more like Bush? Listen to these guys.

Now the battle begins:

President Obama’s top military adviser said Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States forces in ground operations against Islamic extremists in Iraq if airstrikes proved insufficient, opening the door to a riskier, more expansive American combat role than the president has publicly outlined.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that while he was confident that an American-led coalition would defeat the Islamic State, he would not foreclose the possibility of asking Mr. Obama to send American troops to fight the militants on the ground – something Mr. Obama has ruled out.

“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” General Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

General Dempsey acknowledged that this would run counter to the president’s policy, but he said, “He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

This is very odd, but we say every soldier is a hero, even the guy playing clarinet in the Army concert band in Italy, so maybe they’re always right and the president is always wrong, at least this one is. That’s been the argument for over six years on Fox News and from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and from every actual Republican in office, or retired, or bored, but the White House wasn’t going to get into that discussion:

The White House insisted on Tuesday that Mr. Obama was not shifting his policy and that General Dempsey was not out of sync with his commander in chief.

“It’s the responsibility of the president’s military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies,” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said to reporters. “It’s also the responsibility of the commander in chief to set out a clear policy.”

In short, Dempsey is allowed to say what he wants, and he should, and offer alternatives, lots of them, but that’s all they are. They will be considered, but Obama will get one thing he asked for:

Congress is moving quickly this week to approve President Obama’s plans to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels but also ensure that Capitol Hill is kept informed of plans to recruit, vet and train those forces.

Under plans formulated in recent days by House Republicans, Congress would authorize the Pentagon to begin operations to counter the rise of the Islamic State terror group in the coming days, and likely set up time for a more robust debate on broader military action in Iraq and Syria later this fall after the midterm elections.

The process is expected to begin with the House voting to grant Obama the authority to begin training Syrian rebels and Iraqi military forces as part of an amendment to a larger measure that funds federal agencies and is expected to pass after debate on Tuesday and Wednesday, aides said. Once the House votes, the Senate would take up the issue by next week before adjourning for the elections.

That’s going to sail through. It’s an easy sell. Others die in combat, those mysterious moderate rebels fighting Assad, not our folks, but they might be hard to find:

On August 19, the Syrian Support Group, which had previously arranged a few shipments of nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army, sent a letter to donors explaining why the group was shutting its doors. “Over the last year, the political winds have changed,” the letter read. “The rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra [an Al Qaeda-affiliated opposition force in Syria] and the internal divisions among rebel forces on the ground have complicated our efforts to provide direct support.”

The letter noted that “more significant support” was heading to the FSA from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, and other governments. But rivalries and rifts within the opposition had impeded the overall effort. “It was difficult to keep things going with the changes in the FSA and its Supreme Military Council and the advent of ISIS,” says Majd Abbar, who was a member of the Syrian Support Group’s board of directors. “It made our operations extremely difficult.”

They may have disbanded before we can find five thousand to train, and there’s this:

Syrian rebels and jihadists from the Islamic State have agreed a non-aggression pact for the first time in a suburb of the capital Damascus, a monitoring group said on Friday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the ceasefire deal was agreed between IS and moderate and Islamist rebels in Hajar al-Aswad, south of the capital. Under the deal, “the two parties will respect a truce until a final solution is found and they promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the Nussayri regime.”

Nussayri is a pejorative term for the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

Well, that makes things a little awkward, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

Perhaps this was all anticipated by the Obama administration and others – indeed, it does help explain the apparent desire of John McCain and Lindsay Graham to go to war with the entire region. But it doesn’t speak well for the idea that anyone who encounters ISIS understands immediately the organization must be destroyed at any cost lest or the world will come to an abrupt end.

The conservative blogger Allahpundit then adds this:

If ISIS’ grip begins to loosen in Sunni areas of Syria as the U.S. pounds them from the air, what are “moderates” more likely to do? Join with their hated enemy, the Shiite Assad, in stamping out ISIS, at which point Assad might turn around and attack the ” moderates” – or join with ISIS and fend off Assad in the name of keeping Iran’s Shiite death squads from cleansing those Sunni areas? Arguably, the more effective we are in damaging ISIS, the greater the risk that our “moderate” partner will turn on us and join the battle against the de facto US Assad alliance.

The generals, who are always right, didn’t think of that. Send troops. That’ll fix things. How? Andrew Sullivan suggests this:

A clear-eyed assessment of the actual situation does not lead many to believe that ISIS was about to take over all of Iraq. If it were, do you think Turkey would be hanging back? In fact, its capture of Mosul may well have been its high watermark -unless Americanizing the war gives ISIS a new lease on life.

We wanted something else over there, and stage-managed the exit of Maliki, demanding certain things to get it done:

The condition was a unified, multi-sectarian government in Iraq – which was the point of the “surge” as well. It never happened under the surge – which is why it failed; and it hasn’t happened even as these loons have come close to Baghdad.

Today, the Iraqi parliament could not confirm the new prime minister’s nominations for the defense and interior ministries – the two that really count, and the two that are still a function of Iraq’s permanent sectarian divides. So as the US president commits this country to war in defense of “Iraq” the same “Iraq” is so divided it cannot form the government that Obama explicitly said was a prerequisite. Which means it was not a prerequisite. It was more bullshit for an open-ended war with no Plan B that had already been decided upon.

To me, that does not seem something that we elected Obama to do.

Actually, General Dempsey has a Plan B for when this all falls apart, as it must – send in the troops and do something or other, and John Boehner is with him:

“I just think that if our goal here is to destroy ISIL, we’ve got to do more than train a few folks in Syria and train a few folks in Iraq and drop some bombs,” Boehner told reporters Tuesday morning in the Capitol. “I just don’t know that it’s enough to achieve the objective the president announced.”


Neither John Boehner nor the neocons at the Washington Post actually call for ground troops – Obama has allowed them to cavil and complain from the sidelines, without getting them to vote for a new war – but you can see the general drift. The Beltway never truly believed it had screwed up in Iraq – bloviators like McCain actually believe the Iraq war was a success – and so the notion that a new Iraq War would be obviously a terrible thing does not truly occur to them. This is the price we pay for there being no accountability in Washington – the very war criminals and ideologues that gave us that catastrophe now want to repeat the entire thing, by fanning the flames of panic and hysteria.

Sullivan then cites Steven Cook with this:

Last Wednesday’s speech, which was clearly intended to alter the perception of helpless incompetence, merely reiterated the ad hoc approach to Iraq that his administration has pursued since early June. There may be good reasons to go to war against ISIS, but no one has actually articulated them. Are we protecting Erbil and American personnel? Undertaking a humanitarian mission? Fighting evil? Helping the Free Syrian Army? Assisting Washington’s regional allies against the ISIS threat? No one knows, but we are nevertheless turning the aircraft carriers into the wind. This is no way to go to war.

The disheartening aspect of this episode is that the White House’s instincts were initially correct: Foley’s beheading, that of Steven Sotloff, and most recently the murder of David Haines may be horrible, but they are not very good reasons to commit the United States to the conflict in Iraq and inevitably, Syria – two countries that are likely to be at war with themselves for decades. That may be unavoidable, but before the United States leaps in, policymakers should actually develop a strategy. In other words, identify realistic national goals and determine what resources are necessary to achieve those aims.

You know, do your damned job. And don’t defer to the generals, no matter what the perpetually outraged folks on Fox News are saying. Set a useful policy, no matter how subtle and complex, and the generals will fall in line. That’s their job, isn’t it? If they don’t get it, let them go. Lincoln fired General George B. McClellan – for getting everything all wrong. Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command – for mouthing off about how Truman’s policies were all stupid, and how he had better ideas. Obama dismissed Stanley McChrystal. It’s been done. Perhaps General Dempsey should keep his suggestions for Obama private, and not scare us all into thinking it is war in Iraq again, and then moving on into Syria. That’s not his call. Those who wish it were are imagining a different country.

Posted in Deferring to the Generals, Obama's ISIS Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Consenting to be Fooled Again

“Water, water every where, and not a drop to drink…” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave us that earworm in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – perhaps the silliest famous poem in all of literature. Many millions of schoolchildren will never forgive him. They had to memorize that damned thing, and recite it, but that isn’t done anymore. The sixties happened, so everything had to be socially relevant, and then we moved into the age of standardized multiple-choice achievement tests. The school’s state funding was riding on those. Coleridge was forgotten, but he wasn’t that good in the first place. He could spin a fine tale in just the right words, words falling just so, but emotional and intellectual depth just weren’t his thing. He was better as a critic, and as a literary theorist. He was the one who came up the idea that there was a collaboration between the reader and the author, the reader, or the viewer of the play or whatever, providing the key element that made it all work. That would be the “willing suspension of disbelief” – if a writer could offer a “human interest and a semblance of truth” in a rather fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative, no matter how absurd it was. If the thing “feels” true, the reader will ignore the implausible and the impossible.

This was a useful idea. This cut the legs out from under the literalists who were ragging on Shakespeare, folks Coleridge found infinitely stupid. Yes, this or that couldn’t possibly have happened, but so what? The good stuff isn’t in what’s likely. People are more than willing to ignore how things really work, in the real world, and what would happen if someone actually did the things that are done in certain tales. The semblance of truth is good enough. They seek something more important, some sort of thing that is more “true” than facts and logic – the real facts of the matter. That’s how literature works.

Coleridge had nothing to say about politics, but our Republicans have long known about this. Obamacare is working just fine, all of Obama’s stimulus stuff didn’t lead to runaway inflation and soaring interest rates, and lowing taxes, especially on the rich, never once in all of history produced sudden prosperity and a surge in tax revenues, but that doesn’t matter. There’s a larger truth here, and recently, in Iowa, Bill Clinton had a few things to say about that:

Former President Bill Clinton railed against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sunday and framed the midterm elections as more broadly about defining “the terms in which we will relate to each other and relate to the rest of the world.”

Speaking at Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) annual steak fry fundraiser, Clinton said, while much had improved in America, one problem still prevailed: “We don’t want to be around anyone that disagrees with us.” …

In his speech, the former president decried Republicans for spending “all their time dissing the president and dumping on the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.”

“Half the time, they’re not even running against their opponents. They’re trying to get you to check your brain at the door, start foaming at the mouth,” he said. “The last thing they want you to do is think.”

He thought he was mocking them, but the Republicans are going to gain control of the Senate this time around. They know what they’re doing, and how to get the necessary votes. Thinking has nothing to do with it. Their folks are willing to suspend disbelief, even given facts and logic. They think there’s a larger truth here, and maybe it can’t even be explained, logically and systematically. It just is. Obama is a devious scheming tyrant, and at the same time rather dim and obviously incompetent. Everyone knows this, even if they can’t explain it. These are “thoughts all too deep for words” – as Coleridge’s buddy Wordsworth put it. Our own Republican Party has a lot in common with the early Romantic poets.

Our own Republican Party has it right. The American public is more than willing to suspend disbelief:

President Obama’s plan for a military campaign against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria is drawing public support. And, in a rare display of bipartisanship, majorities of both Republicans (64%) and Democrats (60%) approve of the president’s plan.

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Sept. 11-14 among 1,003 adults, finds that overall, 53% approve of Obama’s plan, while 29% disapprove; 19% do not offer an opinion.

However, as many say their greater concern is that the U.S. will go too far in getting involved in the situation in Iraq and Syria as that it will not go far enough in stopping Islamic militants (41% each).

Yes, but we should do something, whatever it is, and Paul Waldman digs deeper into this Pew poll:

The most interesting result, however, comes on the question of whether this action will increase or decrease the chances of terrorism in the United States. You’ll recall that President Obama and Republicans have very different perspectives on this question. When he made his case for this engagement, Obama said that ISIS could become a threat to the United States “if left unchecked.” Republicans, on the other hand, are arguing that ISIS is already a threat to the U.S., and a dire one at that. When you combine that with the general conservative presumption that terrorist threats are alleviated only with force and anything less only demonstrates weakness that invites attack, you’d think that Republicans would say that taking military action against ISIS will reduce the threat (even if they might believe that even more force would reduce the threat even more).

But not only is that not happening, there isn’t that much support from anyone for the idea that this campaign will make us safer. Only 18 percent of Americans overall – 23 percent of Republicans and 15 percent of Democrats – think the new military campaign will decrease the chances of a terrorist attack here at home.

And we should do something, and it will be useless, but we should do it anyway. Philip Klein, and the conservative Washington Examiner, adds this twist:

A Wall Street Journal poll found that an overwhelming 74 percent of Americans favored at least air strikes against the Islamic State. But before seizing on this as evidence that Americans are now on the side of the uber-hawks, it’s telling that just 34 percent supported sending combat troops. Another way of thinking about this is that Americans don’t like it when the bad guys are kicking the U.S. around on the world stage and the president doesn’t seem to have any sort of plan to do anything about it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that, in actuality, they are willing to do whatever it takes to stop the bad guys. …

The reality is that if Americans don’t want to bear the costs, they will have to tolerate a certain level of chaos in the world and the insecurity that comes along with it. On the other hand, if they want the U.S. to project strength and leadership abroad – and to aggressively respond to threats against American interests – there’s no way to do it on the cheap.

Philip Klein is an unhappy man now, but he’s a literalist. War is war, so go fight it, and in the American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy feels Obama’s pain:

Obama resorts to bombing because our pundits demand that he “do something.” Leaving Iraq to its own devices, to suffer, burn, and ultimately rebuild, is too cruel, and ISIS with its spectacular propaganda videos makes a great cable news bite and social-media campaign. It’s evil, it’s scary, it’s on YouTube, so what are we going to do about it? Obama would be weak and callous if he did nothing. That he can’t actually do much that matters in the long run is unimportant—our humanitarian urges and Islamophohbic fears will be satisfied as long as we get some kind of action right now. So we bomb.

There’s no political risk in bombing, as there is in putting “boots on the ground.” There won’t be too many body bags shipped home to Dover AFB to trouble voters. What’s more, bombing can be of any intensity political conditions demand: if John McCain is howling louder than usual on “Meet the Press,” just drop a few more bombs. That shows you’re a real leader.

Daniel McCarthy is unhappy too. Bombing is bullshit, and so is tough talk. In fact, Michael Tomasky simply wishes Obama would drop the bullshit and tell the American people the truth about ISIS. We cannot “defeat” these folks, as facts and logic show:

We’ve been trying to destroy Al Qaeda for 13 years now. We have not. We will not. And we will not destroy ISIS. We can’t destroy these outfits. They’re too nimble and slippery and amorphous, and everybody knows it. So why say it? Why not say what we hopefully can do and what we should do: contain it. We have contained Al Qaeda. Some of the methods have been morally problematic (drone strikes that sometimes kill innocents, etc.), but the methods have worked. Al Qaeda, say the experts, is now probably not in a position to pull off a 9/11. Containment is fine. It does the job. But no, I guess a president can’t say that. A president has to sound like John Wayne. It’s depressing and appalling.

Containment, however, a fine idea:

Containing the Islamic State is important. If you can’t be bothered to care about, oh, the potential for unspeakable subjugation of 15 or 30 million women who might be forced to live under ISIS rule if the group achieves its stated goals, think about ISIS building a real nation-state out of Iraq and Syria. Al Qaeda trained in remote and backwards Afghanistan. Imagine the terrorist training facilities ISIS could set up with that much territory in the heart of the Middle East. Or imagine this (Sunni) state with nuclear capacity, which it surely would seek as counterweight to Shia Iran, if it becomes a nuclear power someday.

Perhaps we can only do what’s possible, settling for containment, not victory, but we should at least do that, and Steve Chapman says we should know our limits:

The United States is not incapable of fighting reasonably successful wars. It did so in the 1991 Iraq war, the 1999 Kosovo war and the 1989 invasion of Panama. In each case, we had a well-defined adversary in the form of a government, a limited goal and a clear path to the exit. We generally fail, though, when we undertake open-ended efforts to stamp out radical insurgents in societies alien to ours. We lack the knowledge, the resources, the compelling interest and the staying power to vanquish those groups.

The Islamic State is vulnerable to its local enemies – which include nearly every country in the region. But that doesn’t mean it can be destroyed by us. In fact, it stands to benefit from one thing at which both Obama and Bush have proved adept: creating enemies faster than we can kill them. We don’t know how to conduct a successful war against the Islamic State. So chances are we’ll have to settle for the other kind.

In the Atlantic, Uri Friedman sees the real problem here:

The distinctions between war and peace, of course, have long been murky (think America’s “police action” in Vietnam during another seemingly endless conflict: the Cold War). And few declarations of war are as clear as, say, those issued during World War II. Obama, moreover, has been careful to present his counterterrorism measures as limited to specific groups in specific places that pose specific threats to the United States – rather than, in his words, a “boundless ‘global war on terror.'” But over the course of his presidency, these efforts have expanded from Pakistan and Yemen to Somalia, and now to Iraq and Syria. “This war, like all wars, must end,” Obama declared at National Defense University.

Last week, the president set aside that goal. Thirteen years after his predecessor declared war on a concept – terror – Obama avoided explicitly declaring war on the very real adversary ISIS has become. All the same, U.S. soldiers are now going on the offensive again in the Middle East. What is the nature of their enemy? Is it peacetime or wartime? After Wednesday’s speech, it’s more difficult than ever to tell.

Obama is turning into a classic neoconservative. That’s how the conservative blogger Allahpundit sees it:

He’s spent six years using, and even expanding, the counterterror tools that Bush gave him, but not until now did he take the final step and adopt Bush’s view of war itself.

Obama isn’t responding to an “immediate” threat against the U.S. in hitting ISIS; he’s engaging in preemptive war to try to neutralize what will, sooner or later (likely sooner), become a grave strategic threat. It’s like trying to oust the Taliban circa 1998 for fear of what terrorists based in Afghanistan might eventually do to America – or, if you prefer, like ousting Saddam circa 2003 for fear of what he might eventually do to America with his weapons program. Obama’s going to hit ISIS before cells nurtured in their territory hit us – and good for him. But let’s not kid ourselves what this means: If, as Conor Friedersdorf says, Obama’s now willing to preemptively attack a brutal Iraqi enemy for fear of what he might do down the line to America and its interests, he should have also supported the war in Iraq in 2003.

Obama is arguing for preemptive war, based on what might happen, maybe. It’s the Bush Doctrine, even if Sarah Palin still has no idea what that is. It just feels right. Suspend that disbelief.

The excitable Andrew Sullivan is appalled:

As you are by all accounts aware, the US now faces its deadliest foe, its most terrifying enemy – the likes of which we have never seen – in the deserts of Iraq. If we do not send ground troops into that country again, we will all die at home… 90 percent of the country thinks we are directly threatened by the new Caliphate. And far from calming the hysteria, our leaders have fanned it.

Very few people in political leadership have laid out what this group is actually capable of, what the limits of its potential are, or examined the contingent reasons behind its recent sudden advance. It has been framed as an abstract but vital fight against “pure evil” …

Sullivan cites the scholar Ramzy Mardini on the nonsense here:

Despite its territorial gains and mastery of propaganda, the Islamic State’s fundamentals are weak, and it does not have a sustainable endgame. In short, we’re giving it too much credit.

Consider the fall of Mosul, which catapulted the impression that the group is a formidable force able to engage on multiple fronts simultaneously and overpower a U.S.-trained army that dwarfs its size. In reality, it was able to gain such vast territory because it faced an impotent opponent and had the help of the broader Sunni insurgency. The Iraqi army, lacking professionalism and insufficiently motivated to fight and die for Sunni-dominated Mosul, self-destructed and deserted. The militants can be credited with fearlessness and offensive mobility, but they can hardly be said to have defeated the Iraqi army in combat. At the time, Islamic State militants represented less than 10 percent of the overall Sunni insurgency. Many other Sunni groups helped to hold territory and fight off Iraq’s Shiite government and Iranian-backed militia forces …

The Islamic State’s capture of Sinjar in the northern province of Nineveh further added to perceptions of its dominance and helped precipitate Washington’s decision to carry out airstrikes in Iraq. But that episode was also misinterpreted. Kurdish forces were not only taken by surprise, but since they had only recently filled the vacuum in Sinjar left by Iraq’s fleeing army, they were stretched too thin and poorly equipped to sustain a battle outside their home territory. Lacking ammunition and other supplies, they conceded the territorial outpost and retreated within their borders in Iraqi Kurdistan.


ISIS is already over-stretched, and the regional powers who are actually threatened by it, have been slowly mobilizing against it. All of that was happening before Obama decided to Americanize the conflict. Immediately, there is less incentive for the regional actors to do the work themselves, and IS now has a global legitimacy. The US president is now its chief enemy! It can leverage for further recruits.

Those Sunni recruits are likely to come from the region, especially if Shiite forces from Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus are its foes. But more importantly, this titanic global struggle will create and foster indigenous, Jihadist terror in the US in response to the war. The only terror attacks we have suffered since 9/11 have been these kinds of attacks. And we just incentivized them.

Let me be clear. I have no illusions about Jihadism or the evil of ISIS. I passionately oppose everything they stand for in every single respect. I abhor their brutality, their twisted version of religion, their pathetic neuroses disguised as faith, their inability to cope with the modern world, and their foul theocracy. But everywhere this kind of extremism has flourished in the Middle East – think of al Qaeda’s failed attempt to turn Jordan – has collapsed because the vast majority of Muslims – like anyone anywhere – do not want to be governed by these murderous loons. That’s why al Qaeda distanced itself. Zawahiri knows that the Caliphate’s path is self-defeating in the end.

That means Obama missed an opportunity:

So we had a chance to allow that process to take place, to see regional actors be forced to confront it, to allow natural alliances – temporary and durable – form in that region. But a couple of videos and we lost our shit. I am not a pacifist. I do not oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

If that sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. But that was a different person at a different time. And we will all live with the consequences of his capitulation to panic.

Marc Ambinder tells Sullivan to get a grip. Obama is not George Bush:

I don’t actually think, in his heart of hearts, Obama believes that the U.S. is going to “war” with anyone. Counterterrorism campaigns do not neatly fit into our black-and-white descriptions of the way conventional wars begin and end. There will never be “victory” in the sense that terrorists will stop trying to attack the United States. What there will be, instead, is managed risk. A constant effort to detect and degrade the threat. A balance of measures – political, military, legal, and otherwise – focusing on the capacity of terrorists to create havoc outside their geographical boundaries. Preventing them from obtaining or developing weapons of mass destruction.

Fine, but Sullivan is still not happy:

It seems to me that this ignores one critical lesson we have learned (or I thought we had learned) from the war on terror from 2001 onward. That simple lesson is as follows: American military force to pummel Jihadists from the skies can create as much terror as it foils. Our intervention can actually backfire and make us all less safe. How many Jihadists, for example, did the Iraq War create? Our intervention gave al Qaeda a foothold in Iraq and then, by creating a majority Shi’a state for the first time, helped spawn Sunni support for the Caliphate. If the Iraq War was designed to counter terrorism, it failed. It may well be that any Shi’a majority state in Iraq will always be at war with its Sunnis. Expecting this new government to be any different is mere window dressing for the immense and powerful centrifugal forces beneath.

If the impact of military force were that simple, we could wipe out Jihadism from the face of the earth. But force is never that simple, it’s especially complex in the countervailing myriad of factions and nations and sects of the Middle East, and it wins no friends, and merely makes more enemies. What Ambers is talking about is a global version of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. We are “mowing the lawn” with this kind of action, which spawns more hatred of the US, does not lead to a political settlement, and in fact makes such a settlement less likely, and therefore future “police actions” inevitable. It’s a cycle of violence breeding violence, in which we enable and empower Jihadism, rather than insisting that this is a problem first and foremost for the Muslim and Arab world, not us.

So Yemen is no longer producing Jihadists? And Somalia? We’ve turned them into perpetual, low-level Jihadist factories, churning them out as we continue to decimate them.

You don’t have to check your brain at the door for this one:

Our wars in other people’s countries are inevitably unpopular – would you like some distant super-power suddenly striking your town or village? – and so they immediately undermine a huge amount of what they are trying to achieve. This is truer now than ever – after the US has been revealed as an incompetent occupier, an inveterate meddler and a practitioner of torture. We are the biggest recruitment tool that Jihadism has ever had.

All of that seems to have been wiped from our collective memory banks in a single month. We do not seem to understand that because there is a problem, we are not necessarily the solution. We may even unwittingly be part of the problem! Now, of course, if terror groups are plotting attacks on the US, I’m glad and grateful that we have a police operation to monitor and take them out when we are in danger. But that is emphatically not the case in Iraq and Syria. ISIS – even the war machine tells us – posed no threat to the homeland – until we intervened. We have created a new and vital narrative that all but encourages loser-wannabes in the West to launch terror attacks because the US is attacking Muslims again.

Of course, this isn’t fair to the good intentions of the president, but the Middle East is never fair. We actually begin this war with what we usually end a war with: reluctant allies, pitiful military support, and a commitment from the Arab world that is – how shall I put it? – somewhat typically restrained and two-faced. As for all those arms we have been plying all those countries with? Well, it appears only American arms are really capable of doing anything. Remind me again why we have bankrupted ourselves for this?

Let’s see. It seemed like a good idea at the time? Or we willingly checked our brains at the door, because what we were doing seemed a righteous and appropriate response to that September morning thirteen years ago, even if invading Iraq and occupying the place made no sense at all? Perhaps it was noble and idealistic. We couldn’t believe one bad thing would come of it, even if we were warned. We believed everything would come out fine, willingly suspending any disbelief that might arise. That is how Coleridge said you should read or watch Shakespeare. Check your nitpicking logical brain at the door. Sense the underlying essence of the thing, the good stuff. There are startling truths about life there. What’s wrong with approaching everything that way?

The question answers itself.

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Peter Pan at War

There’s no need to discuss Ovid and Jung and the mythic archetype of the child-god who is forever young – or the old guy whose emotional life is that of an adolescent, who says it’s all about independence and freedom, who hates stupid boundaries and pesky limits and laws, who finds any sort of restriction absolutely intolerable. That’s the archetype operationalized and Hollywood is full of such guys, and then there’s Justin Bieber. Young girls swoon at these bad boys, who aren’t really that bad – they’re just free spirits. Sure, they never grew up, but what’s wrong with that? No one wants to grow up. Grandmothers often dress like some sort of fifteen-year-old innocent sexpot Lolita, and middle-aged men of means buy that Porsche, not the old-man Buick sedan, and an Asian schoolgirl girlfriend makes things perfect.

Adolescence is perfect. All of pop music is based on that notion, as are most movies and every sitcom on television. When not populated by actual adolescents, these are filled with male characters who might as well be adolescents, guys who haven’t quite grown up, the man-child bumbling about or the heroic rebel who refuses to grow up. Adult men, who meet their responsibilities and play by the rules, are shown loosening up and discovering their inner-child, usually with the help of that manic pixie dream girl – from Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina to Zooey Deschanel in every role she’s ever played. Guys like waifs. That exasperating manic pixie dream girl will show you what life is really about. Loosen up. Adult responsibilities are boring.

That seems to be a cultural given, but it cannot be good for the culture. Someone has to go to work every day and provide for the family. Someone has to be responsible. Someone has to keep at the dull but necessary task and see it to the end. Someone has to be the adult. The whole structure of society would collapse if everyone decided to be Peter Pan, the fantasy character who never wanted to grow up, who refused to grow up. In the J. M. Barrie tale Peter Pan was charming. In real life, guys who refuse to grow up are jerks, like the preposterous Justin Bieber. Someone might remind him that judgment and discretion are part of being an adult – not that he seems to care. He’s a star.

Justin Bieber is a star because we seem to have become what might be called a Peter Pan Nation, refusing to grow up, and there are lots of these guys. Dan Kiley wrote about this back in 1983 in The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up – followed the next year by The Wendy Dilemma: When Women Stop Mothering Their Men – but this The Peter Pan Syndrome is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and certainly not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a specific mental disorder. Kiley was just saying that there are a lot of jerks out there, and women who enable them, providing handy and rather longs lists of characteristics and behaviors. Both books sold millions of copies, even if it was the silliest of pop psychology. It was the eighties.

This notion, that something is going on, that there might really be a syndrome of some sort out there, has persisted. Laurence Steinberg, the Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Temple University, who has pretty much written the book on adolescence – many books actually, including his recent Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence – argues there’s more adolescence out there than ever before:

The yawning gap between the haves and have-nots will undoubtedly be a focus of discussion in this year’s midterm elections. But while the fact that income inequality has been growing is well known, little attention has been paid to how the changing nature of adolescence may be contributing to this troublesome trend.

That’s an odd notion, but adolescence has become longer:

It is often said that adolescence begins in biology and ends in culture – it starts with the onset of puberty and ends with the transition of young people into the traditional roles of adulthood: full-time employment, marriage (or its functional equivalent), and residential and economic independence from one’s parents.

Using these markers, it’s clear that this stage of life is significantly longer today than it has been before. The age of puberty has been falling, whereas the age at which people take on adult roles has been rising, and neither trend shows any sign of abating. By my estimate, adolescence, which in 1950 was approximately seven years long, now lasts around 15 years.

Steinberg covers the physiology of this, but there are the economics:

Unfortunately, as the transition from adolescence to adulthood has been prolonged, the ability to forgo immediate gratification for the prospect of a greater payoff in the future has become increasingly important. As has been widely reported, a college degree is now a requisite for a decent job; there are few economic advantages anymore to completing just a few years of college, even if one gets an associate’s degree along the way. Nowadays, though, the average undergraduate will need close to six years to complete what we continue to refer to as a “four-year degree.” That’s a lot of gratification to delay…

Yes it is, but what’s the point anyway? The economy may now not offer any eventual gratification for those who keep at the dull but necessary task and see it to the end. Earn that degree, somehow, finally, and there’s no job out there. It may be best, or inevitable, that you stay home and play Peter Pan, refusing to grow up. That may be the only option. Twenty two percent of adults in their twenties and thirties live with their parents now, out of necessity. That may sound awful, but Susan J. Matt – her latest is Homesickness: An American History – thinks that those specific statistics only sound awful to those stuck in the twentieth century:

By mid-century, experts were arguing that tightly bonded families were out of place in America. Sociologist W. Lloyd Warner explained that because the economy required individuals to move frequently, “families cannot be too closely attached to their kindred… or they will be held to one location, socially and economically maladapted.” Those who tried to maintain strong kin ties were criticized. In 1951, psychiatrist Edward Strecker, preoccupied with the Cold War and the need for a mobile fighting force, accused American mothers of keeping their “children enwombed psychologically,” failing to “untie the emotional apron string which binds her children to her.” He dubbed these women the nation’s “gravest menace.”

Today, we continue to believe young adults should leave home. When they don’t, their living choices are chalked up to poor employment prospects. While economic realities surely play a part in their residential choices, the media give short shrift to other motives. The idea that families might be drawn together by feelings of affection is left out of the equation, as is the possibility that this generation wants to become something other than mobile individualists. Yet there’s considerable evidence that millennials hold values that center more on family and less on high powered careers. A recent poll found them far less concerned with financial success than the population at large. They also are closer to their parents, whom they fight with less, and talk with more than earlier generations.

She doesn’t see unnaturally prolonged adolescence here, just a rational and loving choice made by young adults, although she admits for many this may be making the best of a bad situation. In a New York Times piece, one everyone is talking about, A.O. Scott isn’t buying it, because it’s clear to him that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore:

It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”) is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.

Peter Pan was happy, after all – no parents and certainly no daddy told him what to do – but something is going on here:

This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood – rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now – as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups…

The journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of YA books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups “should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.” Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as “Don’t tell me what to do!” as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff.

It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon. Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.

God, listen to me! Or don’t. My point is not so much to defend such responses as to acknowledge how absurd, how impotent, how out of touch they will inevitably sound. In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same YA novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

That assumes Hollywood has a heart, but let that pass:

What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.

Scott is unhappy about that and resigned to it:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

Who wouldn’t tell Justin Bieber to get off the damned lawn, right now? There may be great things in our evolving culture of perpetual adolescence, but there are some jerks out there too. In Christianity Today, Alissa Wilkinson puts it this way:

Growing into a full humanity requires cultivating virtues that temper one another. Some are associated with adulthood – courage, tenacity, autonomy. Others are more closely associated with childhood – curiosity, humility, generosity. So, yes, only engaging in “juvenile” culture could shape us in bad ways. … But only engaging in “grown up” culture can, too, as can reflexively defending sophisticated products and rejecting simpler ones.

As Scott points out, the kind of culture creative output that results from our cultural shift doesn’t merely mean we end up with “juvenile” culture and fart jokes and boy-men and girl-women. It also means we end up with a lot of “childish” culture. Or maybe “childlike” is a better term. We get things that test the edges of the accepted in playful ways. We have stories that find wonder everywhere. We experience pleasing blows to our self-importance. And sometimes, if we are paying attention, we are even returned to a time when things like faith, and hope, and love came easily.

That’s fine. That sounds good. Return to the simple stuff. Don’t reflexively defend sophisticated and complicated ideas and plans, the adult stuff. Find your inner child, like Lindsey Graham does here:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) blasted President Barack Obama’s plan to defeat ISIS during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, calling the commander-in-chief “disingenuous and delusional” and warning that Americans will be “killed here at home” unless he sends ground troops into Iraq and Syria to defeat the terrorist threat.

Comparing the estimated 30,000 ISIS fighters to the Nazis, Graham warned that “this idea we’ll never had any boots to defeat them in Syria is fantasy.” He argued that given the growth of the “radical Islamic army” and its control of territory in northern Iraq and Syria, “it’s going to take an army to beat an army.” “This is ISIL versus mankind,” he said, using another acronym for the group.

“To destroy ISIL, you have to kill or capture their leaders, take back their territory, cut off the finances and destroy the capability to regenerate. This is a war we’re fighting not a counter terrorism operation,” Graham continued. “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”

Martin Longman assesses this:

There really is no excuse for a 59-year-old man to not be housebroken. The idea that we are all going to get killed if the president doesn’t immediately send ground troops to Iraq and Syria is the intellectual equivalent of having night terrors about monsters in your closet and under your bed. It is unbecoming for a grown man to publicly display this degree of cowardice.

Maybe Peter Pan shouldn’t go to war in the Middle East, but Graham’s buddy in this has been saying the same thing, and even the Jonah Goldberg thinks these guys should just grow up:

McCain’s second criticism: Obama is not attacking the root cause of the Syrian war, which is the behavior of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters in Iran. He said the U.S. should be bombing government targets at the same time it is bombing Assad’s Islamic State enemies. I, too, am dispositionally interventionist, but it seemed to me that McCain was outlining not only a formula for chaos, but also a program that could not possibly be sold to the American people.

I asked him this question: “Wouldn’t the generals say to you, ‘You want me to fight ISIS, and you want me to fight the guys who are fighting ISIS, at the same time? Why would we bomb guys who are bombing ISIS? That would turn this into a crazy standoff.'”

“Our ultimate job is not only to defeat ISIS but to give the Syrian people the opportunity to prevail as well,” McCain answered. “Remember, there are 192,000 dead Syrians thanks to Assad. If we do this right, if we do the right kind of training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army, plus air strikes, plus taking out Bashar Assad’s air assets, we could reverse the battlefield equation.”

The U.S. could conceivably wage war on two fronts against two vicious parties that are also warring against each other, on a battlefield in which another set of America’s enemies – Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – are also fighting. But this is a much too complicated mission for any post-Iraq War American president to prudently tackle, even a president not quite as reluctant as Obama.

For those Americans who are moving toward McCain and away from Paul on crucial questions concerning the U.S.’s role in the world, I can’t imagine that they would be able to stomach such a war, either.

McCain does seem like an angry and frustrated teenage boy here, a typical adolescent unable to think straight in his fury, which he sees as righteous. That many considered him the right choice for president six years ago is an indication of just how “adolescent” the nation has become, and Longman adds this:

If you think John McCain actually understands the complexity of trying to hold together an alliance to fight ISIS that includes Sunni governments in Amman, Riyadh, Cairo, and Ankara and Shiite governments in Baghdad and Teheran, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. The war in Syria is sectarian in nature, as are most of the problems within Iraq.

If you are trying to get Baghdad to govern inclusively, you can’t take the side of the Sunnis in Syria. If you can get consensus from the Sunni powers to eliminate the most radical and effective army on their side of the fight, then you’ve accomplished something. But, if you take it too far, everything will blow up in your face.

I wake up every day thanking fate that John McCain never got to order our armed forces around.

That may not last. There are few grown-ups left, and few left to vote for them. A.O. Scott thinks that’s cultural, but Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir thinks Scott got it wrong:

There really is something beneath his “death of adulthood” premise, whether or not you like the prejudicial phrase. But to coin a phrase: It’s the economy, stupid. Scott’s essay appears to treat “culture” as a sealed and self-referential system, one that shapes and reflects human consciousness but has only an incidental relationship with economic, political and social factors that lie outside its purview. We have moved so far from the old Marxist view of culture as an ideological “superstructure” erected upon the economic base of society that we now pretend it’s an entirely autonomous force, or a mystical-cum-psychological shadow play that gives “human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations,” in Scott’s phrase.

That’s just not so.

Well, if Scott gets to play frustrated English professor in his article, I get to play former college Marxist in mine, and insist that sometimes economic forces really do shape the cultural zone. Real wages have fallen since Don Draper’s heyday, especially for American men and double-especially for the middle-class and working-class white men who were once the bulwarks of the mid-century model of adulthood. We now live in a culture (using the word in its anthropological sense) of diminished expectations and permanent underemployment, where many or most young people will never be as affluent as their parents. Lifetime job security is an antediluvian delusion, and in many metropolitan areas home ownership is out of reach for all but the rich. It’s just as useless to object to those changes as it is to complain about grownups reading Harry Potter books, but certainly those things were the essential underpinnings of classic adulthood, and without them it’s no surprise to see the old order fading away. …

With the outsourcing of most traditional manufacturing jobs and the rise of the service economy, in which most people who work stare into a screen all day – whether they work at Target or on Wall Street – has come a set of cultural shifts Scott does not mention. Work and entertainment exist on a continuum with no clear dividing line between the two, and the distinction between producer and consumer has become confused. Indeed, an individual citizen’s most important economic role, in the post-industrial West, is that of a consumer, inhaling goods, products, services and entertainment, as much of that as possible delivered electronically or shipped to your door. (Consumption power has grown even as real income has fallen and inequality has grown, one of the many paradoxes in late capitalism.) Being a producer in the old-fashioned sense comes second if it comes at all. Many of us – myself and A.O. Scott very much included – produce things that aren’t even things, and whose exchange-value and social utility are nebulous at best.

That makes us kids:

The old-style masculine adult clearly thought of himself as productive first and foremost, even if he was actually a species of cultural parasite. The consumer, on the other hand, is a distinctly childlike figure, a dependent who demands pleasurable stimulus 24/7 from the comforting and/or imprisoning info-bubble around him. “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all,” Scott writes. “We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.”

He is right that this happened, but he doesn’t appear to see (or doesn’t want to say) exactly how and why it happened. … It’s the latest manifestation of the corrosive, creative and revolutionary force of capitalism, which may or may not be in terminal decline but continues to shape us into its instruments.

O’Hehir is arguing that modern consumer capitalism itself demanded a population of perpetual adolescents with low impulse-control and the attention span of a gnat just to keep things running smoothly, and profitably. That would explain a lot, and those perpetual adolescents would be inclined to elect other perpetual adolescents, with the same traits, to run things. It makes perfect sense. No one wants to grow up, and now Peter Pan goes to war. It will be wonderful, right?

Posted in American Childishness, Anger and Fear | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

By Any Other Name

One of the most famous lines in literature is “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – Juliet telling Romeo that the names of things don’t matter. She’s referring to family names – “Deny thy father and refuse thy name, or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” But she is a Capulet, and he’s a Montague, and their families hate each other, and at the end of the play Juliet and Romeo are both quite dead. True love is one thing, but names matter. We make sense of the world by naming things – this is one of these, not one of those. That’s how we keep things straight – a cat is not a dog, a Ford is not a Chevy, and a man is not a woman, although in that last case we are now beginning to understand the ambiguities there. Still, we make sense of the world through differentiation, assigning names to things, and associating like things by name under a more general name.

Plant taxonomy is like that, an endless process of sorting things by genus and species and subspecies and variety, assigning names all along the way. That brings order to chaos, even if some botanical names are a hoot. Gazania is a genus of flowering plants in the family Asteraceae, formally described by German botanist Joseph Gaertner in 1791, and named after Theodorus Gaza, the fifteenth-century translator of the works of Theophrastus – so they have nothing to do with the Palestinians in Gaza at all. Gaertner liked those translations of Theophrastus. It’s just a name, but that specific name fixes that genus in its proper place. It is what it is and not anything else. That’s the important thing. Making sense of the flora of the world is a monumental task.

Making sense of everything is a monument task, a process of differentiation by assigned and arbitrary names we all agree to use for this or that, to keep things strait, so we know what the hell we’re talking about. We all knew what we were talking about when we talked about the Estate Tax, a heavy tax on the richest of the rich, to try to make sure that vast wealth wasn’t entirely passed on, creating an America with a hereditary aristocracy of a very few, where the feckless idle children of the very rich had everything. That money needed to go back into general circulation, for the good of everyone – those rich kids could make on their own, just like daddy, or not – but then the Republicans hired Frank Luntz to launch a renaming project. The Estate Tax became the Death Tax. That name changed everything. Now that tax was theft for those who had done nothing wrong, money ripped away from grieving families, probably at the funeral of their loved one, at the graveside. The argument about the danger of creating an America where a few wealthy families controlled everything, in perpetuity, evaporated. This tax was just mean, and we have those families anyway – the Koch clan and the Walton family. The one wants to destroy public schools and end all regulation of everything, and the other wants to make sure workers never organize again, anywhere. What’s so bad about that? All you have to do is change the name and people think differently.

That sounds so easy, but it isn’t. War is war, we all know that, but the United States hasn’t formally declared war on anyone since 1941 or so, as everything else was something else. There have been military engagements authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolutions and the fully funded by Congress, like the Korean War, and our own military engagements, but not formal wars but authorized by Congress anyway, like the Vietnam War, as we called it., and in 2002 there was the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq – which was really a catch-all. 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 fighting evil itself, which is certainly everywhere. That was blanket permission and that resolution is still in force, but it wasn’t a formal declaration of war.

We don’t declare wars anymore. The word got stretched. Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, but Congress didn’t. That was a metaphor, and an indication of seriousness – we’d do stuff. Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, and we did lots of serious stuff, but that too wasn’t a war. It was just talk, and if these had been wars, it’s pretty clear both poverty and drugs won. War, used as a noun, has been misused. We may not know what the hell we’re talking about anymore, even as we’re about to go to war in Iraq for the third time in twenty-three years, if it is a war.

That’s where things get tricky:

The White House said Friday that the new conflict President Barack Obama is embarking on in the Middle East is a war, but only in the sense of the U.S.’s long fight with al Qaeda.

“The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

When Obama spoke to the nation Wednesday about broadening the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, he was less than explicit about whether he considers the new struggle a war. That prompted questions from some quarters about why the White House was shying away from using the term to describe the widening conflict.

The White House is being careful. Words matter. Specific nouns matter. We use those to make sense of the world around us. We all want to know what we’re talking about here, and the White House finally decided we were talking about war, sort of:

At a briefing for reporters Friday, Earnest offered the new formulation that sought to recognize the gravity of the new undertaking, while also staving off visions of ground wars like those the U.S. embarked on in recent years.

Earnest stressed, however, that the fight is not one between the U.S. and ISIL but between the militant groups and many countries.

“ISIS has indicated they’re ready to go to war against the world,” the press secretary said. “This president, as is expected of American presidents, is stepping up.”

The president is stepping up? What does that mean? He’s not going to ask for a declaration of war. He says that 2002 resolution is all that he needs to get things going. Maybe stepping up is a metaphor too, because a day earlier his secretary of state, John Kerry, was saying this:

“I think that’s the wrong terminology,” Kerry told CNN Thursday. “If somebody wants to think about it as being at war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counter-terrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

That might not satisfy many House Republicans, including this fellow:

Rep. John Fleming said many see the president’s strategy as not nearly enough.

“This is a stalemate strategy,” he said. “I think that we would want to see an all-out war, shock and awe. We put troops on the ground, we put all of our assets there after properly prepping the battlefield, and in a matter of a few weeks we take these guys out … and we leave a stay-behind force to keep our friends up and going, and also maybe a no-fly zone in Syria over the area Assad controls.”

Others are worried that the situation will escalate and noted their constituents are, too. Rep. John Carter, whose Texas district includes Fort Hood and who chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said he told members in the meeting that if Congress is going to commit to this strategy, it must fund the military at a higher level.

“If we’re going to do this, nobody’s that got any sense can think any way other than we will eventually have boots on the ground. We already have 1,500. Those people are not wearing ballet slippers over there,” said Carter. “And so the reality is, if we’re asking these tired, overcommitted quite patriotic families to do this some more, we’ve got to start reinforcing them. We’ve got to start building our military back, not cutting it.”

If this is a war, as the White House said on Friday, in spite of what Kerry said on Thursday, then fight the damned war. Go wipe them out, it’ll be quick and easy, and then leave a few weeks later. Mission Accomplished. America will love it. We’ll do something big for a change. Use what we did in 2003 in Iraq as a model. No, wait…

Obama doesn’t want to do anything like that again, so he’ll keep this limited, but Daniel Larison suspects Obama cannot keep this limited:

Escalation was always very likely, because that has been the pattern in U.S. interventions over the last twenty-five years. Obama already demonstrated in Libya that the U.S. would go far beyond the original stated goals of an intervention, and he is now on record saying that his greatest regret about the Libyan war was that the U.S. didn’t follow it up with a post-war military presence. That should be something to bear in mind when you next hear Obama pledge that there won’t be any American ground forces in combat in this new war. That’s why we should have expected this from Obama, but what made escalation even more likely is that our current political culture and foreign policy debate don’t really permit the U.S. to limit itself to small, achievable goals when it uses force overseas. That is especially true once administration officials irresponsibly stoke public fear about a group being an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Sooner or later, the mismatch between the administration’s alarmist rhetoric and the initial “limited” action was going to be fixed by adopting a more aggressive policy.

When everything is a war on something – poverty, drugs, saturated fats, or whatever – when a regional religious conflict arises, one that will mess up the Middle East we want and may one day generate folks who will turn on us, back here, it has to be all-out war with them, now, because everything is war. Misuse the word and these things happen. There will be boots on the ground, our boots, and Rich Lowry explains why:

ISIL has occupied an enormous amount of territory in Iraq and Syria, including major population centers. That is why it declared a caliphate and why it has unprecedented resources. To defeat it, this territory must be taken back and it is unlikely to happen exclusively from the air – especially in the cities. It will take ground forces.

We hope to work with proxy forces, but they are motley groups that will almost certainly need vetting and advising by special operators working closely with them on the ground. But the president ruled out American ground forces. The cynical interpretation is that he is hoping to do enough against ISIL to satisfy domestic political opinion and keep the terror group at bay until he can hand off an incomplete campaign to his successor, who will be left with the difficult choice of whether to truly defeat ISIL.

There must be war, and at Foreign Policy, James Jeffrey adds this:

Sometimes local forces are not enough. U.S. troops have capabilities they cannot approach, beginning with the crucial combat multipliers: “speed” and “decisiveness.” The commitment of even a few U.S. troops with actual ground combat missions signals credibility and seriousness. Such a troop presence can integrate rival local forces (as U.S. joint platoons did with the Kurds and Iraqi Army in 2010-2011), prevent friendly atrocities against civilians, and shape the goals of ground combat.

Still, local forces in Iraq and Syria should be the first choice, with commitment of our ground troops only an emergency contingency. Once in combat they introduce entirely new risks beyond those of drones or F-18 strikes, Special Forces trainers, and Navy SEALs. These risks begin with casualties. Ground combat is bloody. While overall casualty rates are down from Vietnam, thousands have died in each of America’s last two wars, and tens of thousands have suffered serious wounds.

Yes, these things happen, and but Ed Morrissey says Obama isn’t convincing America to love that:

It’s true that a move to send ground troops to deal with ISIS would create a large amount of political backlash, and would also call into question Obama’s endgame strategy in Afghanistan – even more so that ISIS has. If the American public won’t back a decision to put combat troops back into Iraq, then it would take a President willing to go it alone politically at home to give that order, and clearly that’s not the case with Obama. However, a lack of progress against ISIS will play badly for Obama too, and it will sap the resolve of Americans to see the job through to victory. We may end up looking weaker than we do now, especially if we can’t even get our traditional allies on board for just the 30,000-foot tactical decisions.

In short, Obama must be bold, but he’s a sniveling little wimp, and a coward. A bold leader would drag America kicking and screaming back into war, and then slap them upside the head until they admit war is good in this case, as in all cases. All we need is a strong leader, because this is war. That’s the magic word.

Jonathan Chait, however, points out that “war” isn’t the only magic word here:

The nub of neoconservatism is a belief that the only possible strategic failure is the insufficient use of military force. This is more of an atavistic reflex than a cogent form of thought. [Ted] Cruz assails Obama, “Instead he suggested targeted attacks and focuses frankly on political issues that are peripheral from the central question of how we protect America from those who would take jihad to our nation.” Targeted is bad. Political is bad. Protecting is good.

And there’s more, like the use of “serious” as a bludgeon, with the master of that being Dick Cheney at a gathering of the remaining neoconservatives at the appropriate place:

“The American Enterprise Institute is one of those places where serious matters receive serious attention, and that’s the spirit that brings me here this morning,” announced Cheney. Ted Cruz, who has positioned himself as the most vocal spokesman for neoconservatism among the party’s presidential field, calls Obama’s approach “fundamentally unserious.” Jennifer Rubin, the neoconservative pundit, assails “Obama’s consistent un-seriousness about the Islamic state.” Charles Krauthammer asserts, “The question is his seriousness.”

The constant repetition of this word is not coincidental.

Words matter and Chait also notes this:

The most forbidding challenge posed by ISIS is that it is wreaking havoc not only against American allies (like Kurdistan) but also against American foes, like Syria and Iran. One possible response, as the United States is already doing by partnering with Iranian-backed militias, is to identify ISIS as the greater evil and accept alliances of convenience. Another is to refuse to intervene out of the belief that opposing Iran and Syria takes priority.

Neoconservatives reject both these alternatives in favor of a heroic struggle against evil in all its forms. In his speech, Cheney threatens strikes against Bashar Al-Assad and the Iranian regime (“we will take military action if necessary to stop” from acquiring nuclear weapons) even while prosecuting an existential war against their enemies.

Ted Cruz, speaking at a conference of Middle Eastern Christians, provoked boos by proclaiming: “ISIS, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, state sponsors like Syria and Iran, are all engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East. Sometimes we are told not to loop these groups together, that we have to understand their so called nuances and differences. But we shouldn’t try to parse different manifestations of evil that are on a murderous rampage through the region.”

Especially instructive here is Cruz’s invoking “so-called nuances and differences” between groups that are at war with each other.

Those nuances and differences are the taxonomy of the Middle East, the names of each genus and species and subspecies and variety of every faction and interest group at play over there. They’re useful specific names, so we know what’s what. The neoconservative folks want to shift the language and make them all simply Very Bad Guys. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a Very Bad Guy by any other name would still stink to high heaven. And Romeo and Juliet still end up dead.

Obama doesn’t want the war that they’re proposing, but the “war” that Obama is proposing, if it is a war, may not go well either, as Zack Beauchamp explains:

Even assuming the Iraqi and Syrian rebel forces can be made strong enough to take on ISIS in purely military terms, there’s a list of everything that needs go right – politically – for Obama’s strategy to work out:

(1) The Iraqi government needs to stop repressing and systematically disenfranchising Sunnis. It also needs to accommodate their demands for positions of power in government in perpetuity, so ISIS doesn’t just pop back up after the US leaves.

(2) The US must avoid sending the signal that it’s coordinating with Iran, which would put it on the Shia side of a sectarian war.

(3) Syrian rebels armed and trained by the US don’t simply take their new weapons and defect to ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

(4) US airstrikes and US allied military campaigns need to avoid killing large numbers of civilians, which could cause a pro-ISIS popular backlash.

(5) If the US actually does manage to demolish ISIS’s control on territory, it needs to ensure that neither Syrian President Bashar al-Assad nor al-Qaeda simply take over the land that ISIS has vacated.

(6) The United States has to do all of this without deploying ground troops or otherwise getting caught in a bloody, brutal quagmire.

For the outcome to end well, every single one of these events must go the right way. There’s a reason that one US General told the Washington Post that the new campaign in Syria is “harder than anything we’ve tried to do thus far in Iraq or Afghanistan.” Given how those wars ended up, that’s a pretty ominous comparison.

That’s dire, but this really is harder than anything we’ve tried before, because it’s not exactly clean and simple kill-the-bastards war, but it’s not peace-and-love hippie not-war either. The effort is primarily political, with assorted kill-the-bastards elements, with some of that done by us but most of that done by others, if we can talk them into it. It’s no wonder the White House cannot quite name what this is, and little wonder that they’re getting hammered by the right for not doing enough, and hammered by the left for doing too much. Everyone else is simply confused. A war by any other name is still a war, isn’t it?

That’s true, until you decide it’s time to name the new species, because that’s the only way to make sense of things. A rose by any other name might not turn out to be a rose at all, and everything these days is always a war on something or other, every single day, but those aren’t wars at all. The only way we’re going to get through this is by thinking straight, but that hard when we’ve stretched the word “war” so far that it could mean anything now. It would be nice to know what we’re talking about. In that famous balcony scene, Juliet was onto something – drop the old names and deal with what’s real at the moment. Cool. But she died because that’s sometimes impossible. This may be one of those times.

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