The Unfortunate Show-Me State

People tend to forget that the Cold War was not just the United States and the Soviet Union building up absurd nuclear arsenals that neither side dare use, but could, and might, or grabbing small nations to use as proxies in an attempt to gain effective control of this strategic region or that. It was also a public relations war. Those communists were atheists. “In God we trust” was adopted our official motto in 1956, and on Flag Day, 1954, the words “under God” had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance, which every kid in America dutifully recited each morning at school. This was about which way of life was better, and we had something to prove, but that called for more than official and mandatory God-talk. We had to show the world just who we were, so the State Department sent Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, and later Dave Brubeck, just about everywhere. America was jazz – open and free and happy and damned cool. The Soviets sent the Bolshoi and a lot of tractors everywhere else. They were formal and practical – not goofy. This wasn’t war of any kind, but it was just as serious, and kind of fun. Those of us who were kids in the fifties remember it all. The vinyl Ellington and Gillespie albums are in the other room.

This all came to a head on July 24, 1959, at the famous Kitchen Debate in Moscow – Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition there, in the nifty model kitchen of a nifty entire model house that we said anyone in America could afford. It was a cultural-exchange thing, and this amazingly American kitchen was filled with all the latest labor-saving gizmos and amusements, showing what a capitalist consumer market could do for everyone. Khrushchev wasn’t buying it. It was all toys. Nixon told him it was all great stuff, and the very reason communism was doomed. They argued back and forth and it was pretty much all nonsense, but this particular nonsense might have helped Nixon win the Republican nomination the next year, which he did. Then he lost to Kennedy and disappeared for eight years. The whole thing was forgotten.

Then we lost the public relations war. Bull Conner did that. It was blasting the young kids in Birmingham with the fire hoses. It was turning the police dogs loose on them. Elsewhere it was angry white crackers spitting on young black mothers. It was George Wallace standing in the door, refusing to let a young black man enter and enroll in his state’s university. Those images went out around the world. No words were necessary. This was the American way of life. Forget that model kitchen with the fancy gizmos. This was the American government doing awful things to its own citizens, the ones we said have certain inalienable rights, at the state level, with the federal government being sad about it, but then not doing a damned thing about it. The whole concept of American freedom and opportunity and inclusiveness, or at least tolerance, seemed to be a joke. The images said it all, and they may be one reason the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act passed the next year. Those images did incalculable damage. They were far more damaging than any words in any speech about America, or any book no one ever read. A totally illiterate peasant in South America or Africa or Asia could just look and see. We had to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. We passed some laws, hoping for the best. Then the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the subsequent riots that left many American cities in flames, produced more images for which no words were necessary.

Yes, the sixties were a disaster for us. Who could now believe a word we said about how wonderful we were? They had eyes, they could see, but time passes. Things settled down, and by 2008, we had elected our first black president. Every picture of him, a reasonable and thoughtful and courteous man, with a warm smile, and every picture of his perfect family, with the requisite cute dog gamboling about the White House lawn, countered all the images that had come before. The sixties were over and the South was, well, the South. All that stuff had been a temporal and geographic anomaly. That wasn’t America.

Missouri is America – the Show Me State – the starting point for the Pony Express and the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail, where folks headed west. The mean center of the United States population is the town of Plato in Texas County, Missouri, too. That town is the actual center of America, or at least of America’s population. Missouri is the center of America in many ways, but Plato is not Ferguson, a predominately black town of about twenty thousand, a suburb of St. Louis, with a white city council, but for one black man, and a police force of over fifty officers, with three black officers. Trouble was inevitable, and it came on August 9, 2014, when a white police officer shot and killed a young unarmed black man, Michael Brown. Brown and his friend wouldn’t walk on the sidewalk. Witness after witness says Brown asked why he had to, as he was heading home just down the street, and ended up facing the officer, hands up in surrender, and getting shot in the chest over and over and over again. That’ll kill you.

The community was outraged – Brown seems to have been a good kid – but Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson miscalculated. He said he’s look into it, and there was no way he would reveal the name of the police officer involved, and everyone should just go home and wait for an eventual investigation. There was no need to make a big deal out of this.

That was a bad move. The locals didn’t want to go home and sip lemonade and wait for the white guy to look into this. There were initial minor riots, a bit of looting, that didn’t last long, then long protest marches with thousands with their hands up, carrying signs that said “Don’t Shoot Me” – covered by the national and international press. This was a few weeks after the New York City Police had restrained a young black man they had found troublesome with an illegal choke hold, and that guy had died. That had been ruled a homicide, but no one had been charged with anything. Something was up, and here in Missouri, the images of the folks in the street were compelling. Images are always better than words.

Jackson must have known this, so he decided to put an end to it. He called in the county police force, and the police forces from other nearby towns, and they assembled all the surplus military equipment the federal government has been selling local police departments everywhere and rolled in with the armored personnel carriers and giant assault vehicles, and the troops in full combat gear carrying assault rifles. The snipers on top of some of these tank-things, in full body armor with advanced special rifles with laser scopes – aimed directly at this protester and that – was a nice touch – and then the flash grenades and tear gas flew everywhere. It looked like a war zone in Afghanistan for four full nights, and Jackson had his guys arrest and rough up two reporters, sitting quietly in a local McDonalds using the free internet access to file their stories. One was from the Washington Post and the other from the Huffington Post. The reporters caught it all on their cell phones. Oops. Someone also captured, on camera, his guys scaring off a television crew and then tearing down their equipment. It really was a war zone.

It just wasn’t done well:

For veterans of the wars that the Ferguson protests so closely resemble, the police response has appeared to be not only heavy-handed but out of step with the most effective ways for both law enforcement and military personnel to respond to demonstrations.

“You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests,” said Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst. “That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.” …

Scriven King, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s law enforcement component and a SWAT officer, attributed the initial spasm of violence to a lack of leadership and mismanagement of public perception on the Ferguson Police Department’s behalf.

“The first thing that went wrong was when the police showed up with K-9 units,” Scriven said. “The dogs played on racist imagery… it played the situation up and [the department] wasn’t cognizant of the imagery.”

King added that, instead of deescalating the situation on the second day, the police responded with armored vehicles and SWAT officers clad in bulletproof vests and military-grade rifles.

“We went through some pretty bad areas of Afghanistan, but we didn’t wear that much gear,” said Kyle Dykstra, an Army veteran and former security officer for the State Department.

They just didn’t get the concept:

As the violence continued to escalate over the course of the week, King said, Ferguson police also exacerbated tensions by allowing individual officers to engage with protesters.

“Officers were calling the protesters ‘animals,'” King said. “I can’t imagine a military unit would do that in any scenario.”

King added that if it were a military unit in a similar situation there would be a public affairs officer or civil affairs engagement team that would help bridge the gap between the riot control elements and the general population.

“I would hate to call the Ferguson response a military one,” he said. “Because it isn’t, it’s an aberration.”

These were wannabe soldiers, playing dress-up, but the damage was done. The images were out there. Everyone around the world saw that America would do to its own citizens what had done to countless locals in Iraq and Afghanistan – scare the shit out of them, to keep them in their place. Perhaps they’re wondering if there’s more to come. As more and more workers are left out the economy, no matter how hard they work, and left out of the political process, they might get uppity too. A fully militarized police might be needed to keep them in their place. This could move beyond matters of race. What America are we seeing here? Is the Show Me State showing us the future?

For America, this doesn’t look good. The images are appalling, but folks higher up decided to step in:

Federal and state officials unveiled a sweeping response Thursday to violent clashes between police and protesters over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, with Missouri taking over security operations from local police and authorities agreeing to accept Justice Department help in handling protests.

Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, President Obama called for national unity following the police shooting Saturday of Michael Brown, 18, in this St. Louis suburb. “Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” Obama said. “Let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.”

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. then announced a series of steps his department is taking, including a meeting held Thursday with civic leaders to calm tensions and an escalating civil rights probe in which federal investigators have already interviewed witnesses to the shooting.

In unusually blunt remarks, Holder said he was “deeply concerned” about “the deployment of military equipment and vehicles” on Ferguson’s streets, and that Missouri officials have accepted federal assistance “to conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.”

There was a fix:

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over security operations in Ferguson, led by Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, an African American who grew up in the area. “We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together,” Johnson said.

As a result, the heavy riot armor, the SWAT trucks with sniper posts and the gas masks were gone from the streets of Ferguson Thursday night, and Johnson marched with the crowd, eliciting cheers from the protesters. Johnson vowed to not blockade the streets, to set up a media staging center, and to ensure that residents’ rights to assemble and protest were not infringed upon.

“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” Johnson declared to reporters.

That seems to have fixed thing for now. He’s a good guy – so there will be better images coming from Missouri now, although that may not solve the underlying problem:

In a sudden burst of interest fueled by photos and video of heavily armed police that swirled on social media, politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed on Thursday – five days after the shooting – to condemn the tactics of the nearly all-white police force in the predominantly African American town.

The reactions were remarkably similar across the political spectrum. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), for example, called for authorities to “de-militarize this situation,” while Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a likely Republican presidential candidate, condemned “the militarization of our law enforcement” in a Time magazine essay.

Fine, and now there’s a bill limiting military weapons being transferred to municipalities:

A Democratic congressman plans to introduce a bill to restrict a Defense Department program that provides machine guns and other surplus military equipment for free to local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said the legislation is in response to the death of an unarmed teenager who was shot by a police officer in a St. Louis suburb. The bill comes as members of Congress have called for the Justice Department to investigate the shooting of a black teen by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Police in riot gear and military garb have clashed nightly with protesters since Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown and at times have trained weapons on them from armored trucks.

Johnson said city streets should be a place for businesses and families, “not tanks and M16s.” He said a Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement has led to police agencies resembling paramilitary forces.

“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said. He said his bill would limit the type of military equipment that can be transferred to law enforcement, and require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.

The bill targets a 24-year-old military surplus program that transfers equipment from blankets to bayonets and tanks to police and sheriff’s departments across the country. An Associated Press investigation last year of the Defense Department program found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.

The program is known as 1033, and Newsweek explains it:

America has been quietly arming its police for battle since the early 1990s.

Faced with a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the 101st Congress in 1990 enacted the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition that the Secretary determines is – (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” It was called the 1208 Program. In 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033.

The idea was that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors, which it has – to the tune of around $4.3 billion in equipment, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The St. Louis County Police Department’s annual budget is around $160 million. By providing law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment free of charge, the NDAA encourages police to employ military weapons and military tactics.

Yeah, well, it seemed like such a good idea at the time. It wasn’t, and in the New York Times, Jeremy Peters suggests some chickens are coming home to roost:

When the police bring the hammer down, whether on Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011 or outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the response from conservatives tend to be fairly consistent: The protesters got what they had coming.

But demonstrations this week over the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and the overwhelming law enforcement response that followed have stirred more complicated reactions, with many on the right torn between an impulse to see order restored and concern about whether the crackdown is a symptom of a state run amok.

You can’t have it both ways:

With broadcasts from Ferguson showing the streets engulfed in smoke as officers looked on wearing military fatigues and carrying high-powered rifles, some prominent conservative commentators and leading Republican politicians began questioning whether the police had gone too far.

These reactions point to a larger debate inside the conservative movement today, as Republicans struggle with how enthusiastically to embrace an ascendant strain of libertarianism within their ranks.

Rand Paul is one of those libertarians, but somewhat alone:

“There should be a difference between a police response and a military response,” he wrote. “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”

Other conservatives have focused on instances in which chaos has broken out in the streets. Images and headlines on The Drudge Report and Breitbart.com have singled out acts of violence among demonstrators and shown looters breaking store windows.

In one segment broadcast on Fox News on Thursday, a reporter walked down the street with demonstrators who he said were members of the New Black Panther Party, a radical group.

That worked before but it gets old:

Since Richard M. Nixon made cracking down on crime a central issue of his 1968 presidential campaign Republicans have held themselves up as the alternative to a Democratic Party they have derided as soft on issues of law and order. But an appetite for changes in the criminal justice system has been building among Republicans, many of whom believe the tough-justice approach has run its course.

Mr. Paul, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin are among those who say that the federal and state governments need to rethink the way convicts are sentenced and imprisoned, arguing that the current system is inhumane and too costly.

Mr. Paul’s remarks on Thursday were similar to those of other leading conservatives who have weighed in on the events in Ferguson.

“Reporters should never be detained – a free press is too important – simply for doing their jobs,” Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday, reacting to news that journalists from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post had been held by the police. “Civil liberties must be protected, but violence is not the answer.”

Erick Erickson, a conservative writer, took to Twitter to question why the police needed to display so much firepower. “It is pretty damn insane that people who spend all day writing speeding tickets,” he wrote, “hop in tanks with AR-15s at night.”

Perhaps so, but you do want law and order, but not a police state, and they haven’t quite worked out how you find something in-between, and there’s that other matter:

Another question raised by the unrest in Ferguson – one that poses far more discomfort for Republicans – is how race plays into unequal treatment under the justice system.

On this delicate issue, Mr. Paul went a step further than many other conservatives this week. With a system so broken, he wrote, it is no wonder black people in Ferguson feel singled out.

He added a personal aside. “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off,” Mr. Paul wrote. “But I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”

Is he allowed to say that? He won’t be appearing on Fox News again anytime soon. They’re telling us about the massive threat posed by the New Black Panther Party – all twenty-seven of those guys, at best guess. Every time someone looks at that group it’s smaller than the last time – but Fox News knows what keeps people watching, and buying reverse mortgages and denture cream from their advertisers. Let it be.

It’s the images that matter. Nixon and Khrushchev argued over a kitchen blender in 1959, about what America has to show the world about who they really are. In the early sixties there were those images from Birmingham and Selma, and then six years ago those images of Obama dancing with his stunning wife at the balls on inauguration night, and images of his pretty daughters looking on. Now there are images of a town in the Show Me State looking a lot like Baghdad in 2006 or so. All the words don’t matter. People see what’s going on.

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Unease in the Absence of Drama

There’s a rule out here in Hollywood – ignore them. They’ll appreciate it and you won’t come off as a jerk, as some yokel from Iowa who just saw a movie star and wet his pants. Locals know this. Nod if you must, and go about your business, and that’s more than politeness. High drama is for the soundstage or the location shoot, where the studios hire extras to be awed, or whatever the script calls for – not for the tobacco shop on Wilshire or the bookstore on Sunset. If these celebrities want drama their publicists will hire people to provide that, or they’ll tip off TMZ and the paparazzi. That’s a commercial decision, so a few years ago, at a theater over in Century City, now long gone, that really was Robin Williams locked arm-in-arm with Jack Nicolson, walking across the lobby at intermission deep in an animated conversation about something or other – and that was their business. Only an asshole would try to trail them and listen in, although these days everyone would try to get a cell-phone shot to post on-line a few seconds later. Everyone wants to add a little drama to their life, or borrow some. They visit Hollywood. They don’t live here.

Then one of these stars that everyone loves somehow, impossibly, dies, and the borrowed high drama explodes. Robin Williams just died, he hung himself, and the personal grief exploded all over Facebook and such places, from those who never knew him. Few did. He was an odd man. Still, those who loved his work, which wasn’t him exactly, say they felt a loss, which is puzzling. That led to someone posting this on Facebook – “I just want to put it out there that it is also okay not to have any feelings when something bad happens to a celebrity.”

Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes how that post was slammed:

This was met with initial, emphatic approval from a few, quickly followed by admonitions. Didn’t she get the memo that we were all supposed to be using this as a PSA about mental health? They bet she wouldn’t be singing this tune if she or someone she knew had suffered from depression!

Now there’s nothing wrong with using the surprising (apparent) suicide of a surface-happy comedian as a catalyst for discussing mental health issues. But how absurd to suggest it is wrong not to.

Something odd is going on here, and others react:

This reminds me of when Princess Diana died. I found out when I walked to the corner store to buy the newspaper. I read the headline and thought “Shit, that’s too bad” and didn’t give it another thought. Then the worldwide hysteria erupted and it was all Diana, all the time. I just didn’t understand what the big deal was. My wife, friends and family thought I was incredibly callous to have almost no reaction to Diana’s death.

Same thing with Robin Williams – I liked him and more than once busted a gut listening to him, but he was an entertainer with no connection to me. Why should I grieve? It sucks that his demons took him down and I understand why some people are sad, but I just can’t muster it.

Another person offers this:

It is as if Facebook and Twitter reactions to celebrity deaths and tragedies have supplanted going to church as the cultural litmus test for letting the greater community know you are a good person and people are compelled against all reason to participate.

And here’s the best of the reactions:

If someone were to die at the age of 63 after a lifelong battle with MS or Sickle Cell, we’d all say they were a “fighter” or an “inspiration.” But when someone dies after a lifelong battle with severe mental illness and drug addiction, we say it was a tragedy and tell everyone “don’t be like him, please seek help.”

That’s bullshit. Robin Williams sought help his entire life. He saw a psychiatrist. He quit drinking. He went to rehab. He did this for decades. That’s HOW he made it to 63. For some people, 63 is a fucking miracle.

Robin Williams did what he could and his persona drama was his own. He was a brilliant and unique comedian and a pretty good actor too. Let his work speak for itself. That wasn’t him, and no one has any right to “him” – so don’t borrow his drama for your own purposes. That’s the rule out here in Hollywood. Don’t be a jerk.

That’s easier said than done. People like drama, so when President Obama told his team that his organizing principle in foreign relations was “Don’t do stupid stuff” – dramatic moves always backfire – Hillary Clinton said that was no organizing principle at all. She likes high drama – we should have armed the Syrian rebels and all that. Be bold, even if it seems stupid. There may be a bit of Lady Macbeth in all this – sometime ya gotta kill to get ahead – but she made it sound patriotic, knowing how much Americans like high drama. They might even elect someone in 2016 who provides that for them.

Obama still isn’t listening to her:

Defense Department officials said late Wednesday that United States airstrikes and Kurdish fighters had broken the Islamic militants’ siege of Mount Sinjar, allowing thousands of the Yazidis trapped there to escape.

An initial report from about a dozen Marines and Special Operations forces that arrived on Tuesday and spent 24 hours on the northern Iraqi mountain said that “the situation is much more manageable,” a senior Defense official said in an interview.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking to reporters Wednesday night at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., said it was “far less likely now” that the United States would undertake a rescue mission because the assessment team reported far fewer Yazidis on the mountain than expected, and that those still there were in relatively good condition.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, credited American airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops as well as efforts of the Kurdish pesh merga fighters in allowing “thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days” and to escape the militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That’s boring. There will be no dramatic rescue mission where the United States gets to be heroic, even if more than a few of our guys die, and even if it means we’d have “boots on the ground” and effectively have a third Iraq War on our hands, or the third chapter of the same Iraq War that started when we tossed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait more than twenty years ago, and even if we’d now REALLY piss off those ISIS jerks and they’d come over here and blow up Cleveland. There will be none of that. Obama sent in a small team to assess the situation and the situation wasn’t as dire as everyone said, and those trapped folks are being led out of there now. Then Obama withdrew that small team. We weren’t going back into Iraq to fix everything again. There was no need to do anything stupid.

There was also no high drama anyone could borrow – we should act now, we should have acted sooner, this is all Obama’s fault, this is all George Bush’s fault, we’re going to war again, we should have never left Iraq and should still be at war, this would have never happened if Sarah Palin were president, and so on. It’s all moot. We didn’t do anything stupid. We did something small that let us understand the actual problem and resolve it – a few airstrikes and making sure the Kurds could do their work was all it took. That’s why they call the guy No-Drama Obama. That’s why Hillary Clinton sensed an opening. People actually hate that sort of thing. They want their drama.

In the New Republic, Cameron Hudson argues here that this Obama Doctrine of genocide prevention is sensible, but it’s not particularly satisfying to those who like high drama:

In an interview Friday with Tom Friedman of The New York Times, Obama remarked, “When you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, you have a strong international consensus that these people need to be protected and we have a capacity to do so, then we have an obligation to do so.” Some would argue that this explanation walks back from the high-minded justification for the forceful response to the potential massacre in Benghazi, Libya, in late 2011 when Obama asserted that a failure to act “would have stained the conscience of the world.” More importantly, it sets a new and seemingly higher bar for taking action to prevent genocide – one that is unlikely to be replicated very often.

If that’s the intent, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Genocide prevention, as a community of practice, is in need of bookending. In a world full of nails – or potential nails – the U.S. military is the literal hammer. Absent a clear understanding of the circumstances when force could be used to save lives, advocates and communities at risk hold out false hope that the cavalry is coming, when it so rarely is. Understanding when a military response is on the table and when it is not will focus our attention on the cheaper, more politically palatable non-military options that should always constitute the heart of genocide prevention.

That’s what happened here, and in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller sees Obama as inherently risk-averse:

The Friedman interview revealed another important reason why Obama’s risk aversion is likely to endure. The president raised the issue about the lack of follow-up to help Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow. “Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions… So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?'”

Even though he doesn’t come out and say it, you get the sense that if there was a chance to do it over again he’d be much more engaged. But there’s another way to read the president’s comment, too. And that’s this: Military action is only one step in a complex process that requires a huge investment to create a relatively stable and functional transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. And Obama understands that hitting the Islamic State (IS), as necessary as it may be, is hardly a panacea for rebuilding the new Iraq. More to the point, that’s not America’s job. And Obama isn’t going to correct his Libya mistake by getting bogged down in nation-building in Iraq.

As much as we crave drama, Obama won’t do anything stupid, although also in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko notes things often get out of hand:

The expansion of humanitarian interventions – beyond what presidents initially claim will be the intended scope and time of military and diplomatic missions – is completely normal. What is remarkable is how congressional members, media commentators, and citizens are newly surprised each time that this happens. In the near term, humanitarian interventions often save more lives than they cost: The University of Pittsburgh’s Taylor Seybolt’s 2008 review of 17 U.S.-led interventions found that nine had succeeded in saving lives. But they also potentially contain tremendous downsides – as recent history demonstrates.

On April 7, 1991, the United States began airdropping food, water, and blankets on the largest refugee camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border that were sheltering Kurds displaced by Iraqi Republican Guard divisions brutally putting down an uprising in northern Iraq. That same day, when asked how long the U.S. military would play a role within Iraq, President George H. W. Bush declared, “We’re talking about days, not weeks or months.” In support of the humanitarian mission in northern Iraq, the United States concurrently began enforcing a no-fly zone above that country’s 36th parallel. In August 1992, a U.S.-led no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel of Iraq was formed by unilateral declaration to compel Saddam Hussein’s cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors and to protect the Shiite population caught in a counterinsurgency campaign in the southern marshlands. Bush was right about the U.S. military involvement not being weeks or months: The northern and southern no-fly zones lasted another ten and a half years.

Yes, limited actions – not doing stupid stuff – can be just like Woody Allen said of his mother’s pot roast – the more you chew the bigger it gets. Obama may find his small smart stuff soon becomes big and stupid, even if it wasn’t stupid at the start, and there’s that drama queen, Hillary Clinton, lurking in the background. She seems to think that the United States made a big mistake by not supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) back in 2012 or so, when we could have done something dramatic. Our keeping out of it did, after all, create a power vacuum that eventually led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. She says that’s obvious, but in the Washington Post, Marc Lynch says it’s not:

The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve… Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective. …

Syria’s combination of a weak, fragmented collage of rebel organizations with a divided, competitive array of external sponsors was therefore the worst profile possible for effective external support… An effective strategy of arming the Syrian rebels would never have been easy, but to have any chance at all it would have required a unified approach by the rebels’ external backers, and a unified rebel organization to receive the aid. That would have meant staunching financial flows from its Gulf partners, or at least directing them in a coordinated fashion. Otherwise, U.S. aid to the FSA would be just another bucket of water in an ocean of cash and guns pouring into the conflict.

And the power vacuum thing is also questionable:

The idea that more U.S. support for the FSA would have prevented the emergence of the Islamic State isn’t even remotely plausible. The open battlefield and nature of the struggle ensured that jihadists would find Syria’s war appealing. The Islamic State recovered steam inside of Iraq as part of a broad Sunni insurgency driven by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloody, ham-fisted crackdowns in Hawija and Fallujah, and more broadly because of the disaffection of key Sunni actors over Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism. It is difficult to see how this would have been affected in the slightest by a U.S.-backed FSA (or, for that matter, by a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, but that’s another debate for another day). There is certainly no reason to believe that the Islamic State and other extremist groups would have stayed away from such an ideal zone for jihad simply because Western-backed groups had additional guns and money.

Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012, the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved.

Kevin Drum adds this:

Supporters of more aggressive military action have an easy job: all they have to do is point out what a mess the Middle East is today. And they’re right: it’s a mess. The obvious – and all too human – conclusion to draw is that things would be better if only we’d done something different three years ago. And the obvious different thing is more military support for the Syrian rebels.

But this is a cognitive error. Most likely, if we had done something different three years ago, the entire region would still be a mess – possibly a much worse mess – and we’d be right in the middle of it, kicking ourselves for getting involved in yet another quagmire and wondering if things would have gone better if only we’d done something different three years ago. Except this time the “something different” would be going back in time and staying out of things.

Our bias for the dramatic is the problem:

It is human nature to believe that intervention is always better than doing nothing. Liberals tend to believe this in domestic affairs and conservatives tend to believe it in foreign affairs. But it’s not always so. The Middle East suffers from fundamental, longstanding fractures that the United States simply can’t affect other than at the margins. Think about it this way: What are the odds that shipping arms and supplies to a poorly defined, poorly coordinated, and poorly understood rebel alliance in Syria would make a significant difference in the long-term outcome there when two decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq barely changed anything?

Alex Massie, however, says what we face now is new and different:

Make no mistake, we may not consider ourselves at war with ISIS but they most assuredly reckon themselves at war with us. And with anyone else who does not share their murderous corruption of Islam. The world has rarely been short on horror but there is something especially horrifying about ISIS. If heads on pikes won’t convince you, what would be enough to persuade you this is an evil that must be confronted? And if not confronted today it will have to be confronted eventually. Because these are not people and this is not a worldview that will be content to carve out territory and then, once it has established its base, live quietly and peacefully ever after.

In the end, all the wrangling about cause and effect and who started what and who is to blame this or that becomes a form of dissembling dithering. In the end we are responsible. Not so much on account of the unforeseen consequences of past blunders but because we – the United States and its NATO allies – have the power, the equipment and the opportunity to do something about it.

At the Washington Post, Adam Taylor chimes in:

What’s really worrying is that despite all the confusion over its name, the Islamic State “brand” actually seems pretty solid – and worryingly global. Its distinctive black-and-white flag was flown in London last week, and leaflets supporting it were handed out in the city’s Oxford Street on Tuesday. An American was arrested at a New York City airport this month after authorities were tipped off by his pro-Islamic State Twitter rants. The group has begun publishing videos in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil in a bid to reach Indian Muslims. There are credible reports that the group is hoping to target Asian countries – and Indonesia is so worried that it banned all support for the Islamic State. The list goes on and on. Whatever you call it – the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, or something else – its brand is potent.

Hell, even China is starting to worry:

China has been fighting a low-level separatist insurgency of its own in Xinjiang for decades and worries that foreign Islamic groups are infiltrating the region, emboldening the simmering independence movement. Uighur exile groups say China’s government overstates its terrorism problem and falsely paints protests that turn into riots as premeditated terror attacks. In any case, Beijing is likely alarmed by IS’ criticism of its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs and the group’s alleged plan to seize Xinjiang, no matter how far-fetched the idea might be. But just how actively authorities will deal with any IS threat remains to be seen.

Obama might not like drama but he’s got high drama in his hands now whether he likes it or not – unless Massie and Taylor are being overly dramatic. We’ve faced awful people before. Hitler was no sweetheart. There’s also the possibility that the best way to deal with dramatic threats is not to offer an even more dramatic response. Matching evil murderous rage with righteous murderous rage hasn’t served us well. When Dick Cheney said it was time to “take off the gloves” – and we did – no good came of that. War crimes trials may follow one day. Still, that sort of thing is dramatic, and folks love their drama. On the other hand, some things are just heartbreakingly sad, if not tragic, and not our business. The death of Robin Williams comes to mind.

Posted in Hillary Clinton, ISIS, No Drama Obama | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Forced Stoppage

There is no Tuesday evening column – a minor health issue – a lower-back thing with oddly intense pain – need to rest and pop a lot of ibuprofen. It would be hard to make sense given the circumstances. Maybe tomorrow –

Posted in Announcements | 1 Comment

Why We Fight

Frank Capra wanted to do Leni Riefenstahl one better. She made all those masterful Nazi propaganda films. Hitler was a jerk, but her film Triumph of the Will was superb, and that couldn’t stand, but Frank Capra was on it. He made Why We Fight – a series of seven patriotic documentaries full of apple pie and motherhood sentimentality, but intensely patriotic. There were some things worth fighting for, and those things had nothing to do anyone imposing their will on anyone else – “Let our boys hear the Nazis and the Japs shout their own claims of master-race crud and our fighting men will know why they are in uniform.”

Capra pulled it off. He made those Nazis and Japs seem like the enemy of common decency, the key American trait that was at the core of all his films. It’s a wonderful life, isn’t it? He just inverted that in these seven films for George C. Marshall – the guy who would later come up the Marshall Plan win the Nobel Peace Prize. Marshall knew the Signal Corps wasn’t up to the task. Hollywood could handle this. The maps, animated by the Disney folks out in Burbank, showed the bad guys overrunning this country or that, and the black areas spread, and it was time to stop them. The troops got it, and then the films were released to the general public. They got it too.

Those days are long gone. Korea was hard to explain, Vietnam was impossible to explain, and the less said about our 1983 invasion of Granada the better – although we won there, decisively. No one is quite sure why we did that, but it made Ronald Reagan smile. As for Afghanistan, more than ten years ago, the Taliban there had hosted al-Qaeda, so we got rid of them and arranged for more sensible folks to run the place. That made sense, but al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden then slipped off into the nearby mountains and we decided it would be better to deal with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Many asked why. Al-Qaeda hated him for being too secular and just not taking their worldwide Sunni jihad seriously, and few thought he was behind the 9/11 attacks – because he wasn’t. Ah, but he was a bad guy – he had gassed his own people – and he was developing weapons of mass destruction he would give to terrorists everywhere and use on us, here in America. He wasn’t.

Okay, fine – so then we were told that all along this had been a noble experiment, to see if we could remove a jerk and create a real secular Jeffersonian democracy right there in the middle of the Middle East, to show how things could be over there if folks just settled down and all got along. This new Iraq would then show everyone over there that secular democracy was cool. Other nations in the region would follow that model, eagerly, of course, and the whole region would be stabilized. That’s why we fought. Even Frank Capra would have a hard time selling that. It’s hard to get our boys to fight for a geopolitical theory – but they fought anyway, and they fought well. That’s what they do.

And then we left. Iraq wasn’t a perfect secular democracy, with everyone forgetting their own views of who said what about Allah and just getting the country running again, but it did have an elected government and that would have to do. We could do no more and they told us to go home anyway – they’d be fine. Yes, Malaki turned out to be the Shiite version of the Sunni tyrant, Saddam Hussein, just as corrupt and just as bloodthirsty in getting rid of Sunnis as Saddam was in getting rid of Shiites, but he had been elected. That was democracy, sort of. Nothing is perfect. Now everyone there hates him, but that’s his problem.

If only that were so, but it’s not. ISIS is taking over the north of Iraq – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, unless you call them ISIL, the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, although some just call them the Islamic State, IS, or the Caliphate. It’s the same bunch of Sunni madmen, out to kill anyone who doesn’t believe exactly what they believe, a blend of those who fought Assad in Syria and those who hate Malaki and all Shiites, filled with those who used to be in the Iraqi army, which we disbanded early on when we decided that anyone who had been even a passive member of Saddam’s Baathist Party could not be in the army or in the government there in any way at all. We sent a lot of highly-trained military people packing – forget reconciliation and everyone getting along. They had to go somewhere, and they did. We may have wanted Malaki to preside over a unified Iraq, to meet the threat of ISIS – which could mean the end of Iraq – but that could never happen now. Now we just want him gone. We’d like there to be an Iraq. We fought and died for one.

That’s why we fought, even if Frank Capra would be hard-pressed to explain that. Now we just have a mess, but somehow we’re still fighting, for something. This puzzles many, and it certainly puzzles Andrew Bacevich – the expert of foreign policy and military history at Boston University, who used to teach at West Point, the formal Army Colonel (armored) whose son, also a career Army officer, died in Iraq. This guy knows a thing or two, and he sees things this way:

From a moral perspective, President Obama’s response to the plight of Iraqi minorities targeted for extinction by vicious Islamists is justifiable and even commendable. Yet the resumption of American military action in Iraq – bombs for the wicked, bundles for the innocent – cannot disguise the overall disarray of U.S. policy in the region.

There’s a reason for that:

If recent U.S. actions in the Middle East contain a common theme, it’s this: a vague hope that suppressing rampant Islamic radicalism will restore order to a region that previous U.S. military efforts have done so much to destabilize… Each of the last five presidents has seen Iraq as an instrument to serve U.S. interests or has expected Baghdad to comply with specific American requirements. Each in turn has failed, bequeathing the consequences of that failure to his successor.

During the 1980s, to curb the ambitions of revolutionary Iran, Ronald Reagan sought to use Iraq as a proxy. The chief result, along with the vast and pointless bloodletting of the Iran-Iraq war, was to fuel the megalomania of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The administration of George H. W. Bush marked Iraq’s transformation from unseemly partner to full-fledged adversary. Bush punished Iraq for invading Kuwait – confident that from victory would come a “new world order.” Rather than order, the United States found itself saddled with responsibility for garrisoning the Persian Gulf.

To keep Hussein “in his box,” Bush inaugurated and Bill Clinton affirmed a policy of militarized containment. Yet the permanent stationing of U.S. forces in the Islamic world and the punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq stoked anti-American jihadism and thereby helped lay the basis for 9/11.

The events of September 2001 inspired President George W. Bush to make Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign to transform the Greater Middle East. Promising to liberate and democratize Iraq, Bush instead broke it.

Although Barack Obama’s vow to extricate the United States from his predecessor’s misbegotten war vaulted him into the White House, events have stymied his hopes of making a clean break. A weak Iraq state and ineffective military forces – created at considerable expense during the several years of American occupation – have proved unable to cope with resurgent violence.

That’s a fine quick summary of a situation where why we fight has been unclear, or not clear enough, or not useful, and Bacevich is glum:

To imagine at this late date that the United States possesses the capacity to reverse this sad situation is surely a delusion. So even if an infusion of American air power succeeds in saving the lives of those at immediate risk, Iraq will remain a basket case. Riding to the temporary rescue of Kurds, Yazidis or persecuted Iraqi Christians may salve American consciences, but it won’t redeem a bipartisan record of failure that now extends over several decades. That failure is definitive and indelible.

All he can suggest is this:

Step one is to stop doing what’s counterproductive. That means ending the excessive militarization of U.S. policy that Washington’s inordinate preoccupation with Iraq has promoted. Nothing would be more foolish than for President Obama to allow himself to be drawn into another large-scale conflict, as he himself appears to appreciate.

Step two means setting sensible priorities, differentiating between what is truly essential and what is merely important. Washington’s protracted obsession with Iraq over many years has badly skewed U.S. policy priorities. There are places that Americans should consider worth fighting and dying for. There are places on which the very fate of the planet may hinge. But Iraq is not one of those places.

Bacevich seems aligned with President Obama here, who has told his team that his organizing principle is “Don’t do stupid stuff” – which Hillary Clinton finds appalling as that’s not a core principle at all. Why we fight? That’s not it, it’s something else, and Kevin Drum digs deeper:

She’s basically hauling out an old chestnut: We need to be strong at home if we want to be strong overseas. And that’s fine as far as it goes. But it’s not an organizing principle for foreign policy. It’s not even close. At best, it’s a precursor to an organizing principle, and at worst it’s just a plain and simple evasion.

It so happens that I think “don’t do stupid stuff” is a pretty good approach to foreign policy at the moment. It’s underrated in most of life, in fact, while “doctrines” are mostly straitjackets that force you to fight the last war over and over and over. The fact that Hillary Clinton (a) brushes this off and (b) declines to say what her foreign policy would be based on – well, it frankly scares me.

She doesn’t win the Frank Capra Prize:

I don’t have any problems with Hillary’s domestic policy. I’ve never believed that she “understood” the Republican Party better than Obama and therefore would have gotten more done if she’d won in 2008, but I don’t think she would have gotten any less done either. It’s close to a wash. But in foreign policy, I continually find myself wondering just where she stands. I suspect that she still chafes at being forced to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war – and largely losing to Obama because of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if she still believes that vote was the right thing to do – nor would I be surprised if her foreign policy turned out to be considerably more interventionist than either Bill’s or Obama’s.

That may be so, and if so, how will she explain why we fight? Frank Capra is long gone. He’s not available, but maybe we should intervene in Syria, even at this late date, as people are dying there too. That would make John McCain happy, but Rodger Shanahan offers this:

There will of course be accusations that Obama is a hypocrite for intervening in Iraq but not Syria. That argument is simplistic and wrong. If the US is obliged to intervene militarily everywhere there is a humanitarian need, it would never stop intervening. Obama said as much in his speech. He is one of the few US leaders to understand the limits of American power. Moreover, the situation in Syria is far more complex. To have assisted one side would have meant breaching a nation’s sovereignty (no big deal) and potentially assisting the very Islamist forces that pose a security threat to the region and the West (a very big deal). The intervention in Iraq requires Obama to do neither of those things, so the calculus is completely different.

Ryu Spaeth explains that:

As Obama made clear, this authorization of force has modest goals: 1) to protect U.S. personnel in the Kurdish city of Erbil and 2) to facilitate a humanitarian mission for 40,000 Yazidi Iraqis who are trapped without food or water and face imminent slaughter at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. There is no equivalent situation in Syria with such clear, executable goals.

Furthermore, the Iraqi government is a U.S. ally, as is the regional government in Kurdistan, where the latest action is happening. The U.S. has an interest in bolstering the regime and keeping it together; that is not the case in Syria. While Obama said he would prefer the Iraqi government to take the lead in this endeavor, the U.S.’s hand was forced after ISIS took advantage of gridlock in Baghdad to sow chaos in Kurdistan, which had once been an oasis of stability in Iraq.

Finally, the U.S. is partly to blame for the situation in Iraq. This is what happens when you recklessly invade other countries.

At Politico, Aki Peritz disagrees:

It is well and good that the president said he won’t “rule out anything,” but the reality is that multiple jihadist groups already have a permanent foothold in Syria. … Will ISIL, or another Syria-based jihadi group, try to strike American targets before Obama leaves office in January 2017? If past actions predict future behavior, then the answer is probably yes. Would the administration respond to a terror attack on America or Americans with airstrikes – or perhaps more – of its own? That too is likely in the cards, given that the United States just bombed Islamic State positions to help our Kurdish allies.

Hopefully, America’s airstrikes near Irbil will prove to be the high-water mark for ISIL’s ability to export its fanatical ideology. But the group has shown itself to be an adaptable, ruthless foe bent on destroying its enemies – including the United States. Since that’s the case, it’s only a matter of time before this White House decides that America must strike Syria as well.

Jonah Shepp isn’t buying it:

First, if ISIS wants to attack Americans, deploying more American soldiers in its areas of operation makes the targeting of Americans more likely, not less (and creates a justification for it, at least in the militants’ own view). And second, if ISIS wants to carry out an attack on US soil, it won’t do so with the soldiers and materiel in Syria that Peritz would have us bomb. Rather, that threat would likely take the form of a few fanatics with American or European passports, and I don’t see how airstrikes would address that, short of killing every single ISIS member and sympathizer in Syria and Iraq (and not only there – Peritz might want to start ginning up support for airstrikes on London and New Jersey as well).

No, this conflict is not ultimately about US homeland security; it remains, first and foremost, a regional power struggle.

Shepp does point out that more than a few of the Syrian rebels would like us to jump on in:

Moderate Syrian rebels argue that, in order to challenge ISIS in Iraq, it would be necessary to tackle them in Syria too. “To protect [the Iraqi city of] Irbil from ISIS, you need to hit ISIS hard in the Euphrates river valley in Syria,” said Oubai Shahbandar, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition. “Stopping ISIS expansion requires a ground game. U.S. needs to coordinate with the tribes and the Free Syrian Army that have been fighting ISIS since January.”

“Airstrikes won’t deny ISIS territorial gain,” Shahbandar said. “U.S. needs to support those forces like FSA and tribes in Syria already on the ground fighting ISIS.”

Sure, why not? But this report in the Guardian complicates things:

According to Samer al-Ani, an opposition media activist from Deir Ezzor, several fighting groups affiliated to the western-backed Military Council worked discreetly with ISIS, even before the group’s latest offensive. Liwa al-Ansar and Liwa Jund al-Aziz, he said, pledged allegiance to ISIS in secret, with reports that ISIS is using them to put down a revolt by the Sha’itat tribe near the Iraqi border.

He warned that money being sent through members of the National Coalition to rebels in Deir Ezzor risks going to Isis. Another source from Deir Ezzor said that these groups pledged loyalty to Isis four months ago, so this was not forced as a result of Isis’s latest push, as happened elsewhere. Such collaboration was a key to the takeover of Deir Ezzor in recent weeks, especially in areas where Isis could not defeat the local forces so easily.

John McCain thought we should support that Military Council, as did Hillary Clinton, but it seems they may be working with ISIS, so Shepp adds this:

This complication reveals how facile and ignorant the neo-neocon case for intervention in Syria is. Simply sussing out who our friends and enemies are within the fragmented rebel “coalition” has always been a much more daunting task than the hawks were willing to admit. We don’t have the intelligence to conduct such an intervention, well, intelligently, and there’s just no getting it now. Compare that to Iraq: it’s a mess, sure, but at least our friends (Kurds), enemies (ISIS), and liabilities (Baghdad) are much more clearly defined.

In World Affairs Journal, Michael Totten suggests we keep it simple:

The Kurds of Iraq are our best friends in the entire Muslim world. Not even an instinctive pacifist and non-interventionist like Barack Obama can stand aside and let them get slaughtered by lunatics so extreme than even Al Qaeda disowns them. There is no alternate universe where that’s going to happen. Iraqi Kurdistan is a friendly, civilized, high-functioning place. It’s the one part of Iraq that actually works and has a bright future ahead of it. Refusing to defend it would be like refusing to defend Poland, Taiwan, or Japan. We have no such obligation toward Syria.

That’s it. That’s the entire answer. Washington is following the first and oldest rule of foreign policy – reward your friends and punish your enemies.

Is it that simple? Nothing seems simple here, but first things first:

Iraq’s embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, appeared to have lost his job on Monday, after the country’s president appointed a rival Shia candidate to form a new government in a bid to end the deadlock that has paralyzed the Baghdad government while jihadists have swept through the country’s north.

Maliki had seemed to be clinging to his post, but he was abandoned by party allies and sidelined by religious and regional backers who no longer believe he can save the crumbling state.

He’s toast and we have intervened:

Iraq’s military leadership was being closely watched by regional players on Monday. The US warned military officials not to get involved in the political process.

The US government said that it would arm Iraqi Kurdish militias to prevent the fall of the final bastion of pro-US territory in Iraq, while Britain is deploying RAF Tornado jets to provide greater surveillance in the north of the country.

The move to effectively remove Maliki came after the White House launched a fresh volley of phone calls to politicians in Baghdad on Monday. In his fourth diplomatic intervention in as many days, the US vice-president, Joe Biden, called both the Iraqi president, Fouad Massoum, and the man he has selected to try to replace Maliki, Haider al-Abadi, indicating that further US military support could follow swiftly if they succeed in their efforts to form a new government.

On Monday night US president Barack Obama welcomed new leadership in Iraq as “a promising step forward”, saying the only lasting solution is the formation of an inclusive government. Obama did not mention Maliki but called for Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through a political transition.

We can fix one bad election with another one, it seems, and we can now arm the Kurds as a separate entity, no matter what Baghdad says, because we have to, even if that begins the process of the separation of Iraq into autonomous states. Why did we fight for a single Iraq? It doesn’t matter now. We’ll have something there, better than the Iraq we created.

Malaki says he will fight this in the courts, perhaps like Donald Sterling out here in Los Angeles, but it’s over. Sterling lost his basketball team and Malaki lost his country and it’s time to move on – except Malaki still has his Shiite Army. That could be a problem if he uses those guys, and their tanks and planes, which we supplied, to wage a battle in the streets of Baghdad to hold onto key government buildings, claiming he still runs the place. We say we’ll cut off all aid if he does that. Will we also send in our troops to toss him out of the Ministry of Whatever building where he’d holed himself up? Is this what we signed up for?

Who knows what we signed up for? We probably shouldn’t do stupid stuff, but that’s about it. That may be the best organizing principle at the moment, and that wouldn’t have been a bad organizing principle back on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, starting all this. Or maybe it all started in 1916 with that Sykes–Picot Agreement that created Iraq, and most of these countries, out of thin air, or hot sand. What now? Make no sudden moves. That’s about it. That wouldn’t give Frank Capra much to work with, but there will never be another Why We Fight series. No one has known why we fight for seventy-five years now.

Posted in Iraq Falls Apart, ISIS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hillary and Joan and Bibi

Former English teachers probably shouldn’t be allowed to vote in presidential elections. Those Shakespeare characters keep getting in the way. Some things are inevitable. The younger Bush was bound to be Prince Hal, the heavy drinker and general goofball who got sober and became the heroic Henry V giving that “band of brothers” speech just before the Battle of Agincourt, rallying the troops go out there and win one for England – except George Bush with his bullhorn, standing in the smoking rubble in lower Manhattan, shouting out that we’d get the guys who’d done this, and then a few hours later saying now go shopping or else the terrorists have won, wasn’t exactly the same thing. We didn’t get the guys who did this either – we got Saddam Hussein for some reason – although people did go back to shopping. Obama got that Osama fellow, finally, long after that mattered much at all. There were new bad guys by then, worse ones – there always are. The parallel falls apart. The drunken wastrel, always getting in fights, even with his own father, the previous king, gets his act together and becomes the next wise king. The next-wise-king thing didn’t work out in this case.

Hillary Clinton, however, has always had a bit of Lady Macbeth about her. Everyone remembers Lady Macbeth. She was a ball-buster, telling her thoughtful and careful husband that even if those three witches prophesized that he would become the King of Scotland, he couldn’t just sit around and wait for that to happen. He had to DO something. She told him, over and over, to man-up and just go murder the current king, Duncan – that’s what real men do. She wore him down and he finally did just that, and then she nagged him into arranging the murders of people who knew too much or who just might be a bit pesky. A lot of people die in that play, but if you want power, and want to hold onto power, then lots of people have to die – that’s just the way it is. Those who live will fall in line. They’ll understand what’s going on. Perhaps Lady Macbeth was the first neoconservative.

That play is a tragedy of course – Macbeth is wracked with despair and guilt and Lady Macbeth commits suicide (offstage) – but that was just Shakespeare tacking on a happy ending, where the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Their consciences always catch up with them. Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and all that, but that sort of thing has little to do with the real exercise of power, even the exercise of power for good. Harry Truman was never visited by the hundreds of thousands of ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some things have to be done. That’s the nature of power. America led the world after that. The judicious application of death, or the fear of death, is leadership. Lady Macbeth understood that, at least for four of the five acts of that play.

Hillary Clinton also understood that as far back as July 2007:

Barack Obama’s offer to meet without precondition with leaders of renegade nations such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran touched off a war of words, with rival Hillary Rodham Clinton calling him naive and Obama linking her to President Bush’s diplomacy.

Older politicians in both parties questioned the wisdom of such a course, while Obama’s supporters characterized it as a repudiation of Bush policies of refusing to engage with certain adversaries.

It triggered a round of competing memos and statements Tuesday between the chief Democratic presidential rivals. Obama’s team portrayed it as a bold stroke; Clinton supporters saw it as a gaffe that underscored the freshman senator’s lack of foreign policy experience.

“I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive,” Clinton was quoted in an interview with the Quad-City Times that was posted on the Iowa newspaper’s website on Tuesday.

In response, Obama told the newspaper that her stand puts her in line with the Bush administration.

There was a great deal of back-and-forth on this idea that it is irresponsible and naïve to just talk to these folks. They need to fear you first. Make demands. If they don’t meet them, they’ll be damned sorry. Put the fear of death in them – not that she put it that way. But that was implied. She was saying that Obama just didn’t get it, and the next April it was this:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton warned Tehran on Tuesday that if she were president, the United States could “totally obliterate” Iran in retaliation for a nuclear strike against Israel.

On the day of a crucial vote in her nomination battle against fellow Democrat Barack Obama, the New York senator said she wanted to make clear to Tehran what she was prepared to do as president in hopes that this warning would deter any Iranian nuclear attack against the Jewish state.

“I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran (if it attacks Israel),” Clinton said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them,” she said.

This was a continuation of the same argument. As president, she might negotiate with Iran, or she might not, but they should know she was ready to wipe out every man and every women and child there, and leave the place a desert of glowing radioactive sand-turned-to-glass if they did anything stupid, or even thought of it. She wouldn’t hesitate. That’s why people should vote for her, because everyone knows that the judicious application of death, or the fear of death, is real leadership. Dick Cheney said so. No, wait – she didn’t mention Dick Cheney. She was just doing her Lady Macbeth thing.

Obama wasn’t impressed. He suggested this sort of talk wasn’t very useful – it tends to make the other side angry and harden their position and then make similar parallel threats – and Obama won his party’s nomination because enough Democrats had heard this sort of thing from Cheney, and Bill Kristol and all the neoconservatives, and knew where that had gotten us. Hillary Clinton had also voted to authorize the Iraq War and she never could quite apologize for that vote. It just wasn’t in her. That’s not how she understands geopolitics. That is, however, how John McCain understands geopolitics – war or the threat of war works wonders – and he lost to Obama too. Macbeth may have listened to Lady Macbeth, but that was his problem.

That was settled, and the final irony was that Obama named Hillary Clinton his secretary of state. She had do things his way, seemingly reluctantly, which might be the reason no one remembers one single big thing she did as secretary of state. Those years before she was replaced by John Kerry must have been interesting. No doubt she often told Obama to man-up. No doubt he nodded and thanked him for her suggestion, and then ignored her. He’d see the Shakespeare play.

Presidents do, however, have to leave after eight years, and now it’s her time to try again, and she’s reverting to type:

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton blamed the rise of Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria on failures of US policy under President Barack Obama, in an interview published Sunday.

Clinton specifically faulted the US decision to stay on the sidelines of the insurgency against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as opening the way for the most extreme rebel faction, the Islamic State.

“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton told the Atlantic.

Clinton, widely considered an undeclared presidential candidate, was an unsuccessful advocate of arming the Syrian rebels when she was secretary of state during Obama’s first term.

She told him to arm these guys. This is all about who kills whom. He wouldn’t listen, so now she’s gone public, and so has Obama:

In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times, President Barack Obama defended his administration’s foreign-policy approach in the Middle East. In Syria, Obama said the idea that arming rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.”

The president, though not mentioning his former secretary of state by name, said such a plan was unlikely to work and was never going to happen.

“This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards,” the president said.

Yeah, well, Clinton told the Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic otherwise:

As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events.

Professional Clinton-watchers (and there are battalions of them) have told me that it is only a matter of time before she makes a more forceful attempt to highlight her differences with the (unpopular) president she ran against, and then went on to serve. On a number of occasions during my interview with her, I got the sense that this effort is already underway. …

Of course, Clinton had many kind words for the “incredibly intelligent” and “thoughtful” Obama, and she expressed sympathy and understanding for the devilishly complicated challenges he faces. But she also suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good.

Lady Macbeth told her cautious husband some folks had to die, but as those three witches had said, some things were meant to be, which Hillary Clinton puts this way:

You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.

Some folks died, folks who shouldn’t have died, but what are you going to do? Achieve the objective, and Goldberg gets her to focus on the importance of the objective:

At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.

She might be saying you have to be a bit crazy, even murderously crazy, if you want to lead the world, or she might not be saying that:

During a discussion about the dangers of jihadism (a topic that has her “hepped-up,” she told me moments after she greeted me at her office in New York) and of the sort of resurgent nationalism seen in Russia today, I noted that Americans are quite wary right now of international commitment-making. She responded by arguing that there is a happy medium between bellicose posturing (of the sort she associated with the George W. Bush administration) and its opposite, a focus on withdrawal.

“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”

I responded by saying that I thought that “defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.” In other words, that the U.S., on balance, has done a good job of advancing the cause of freedom.

Goldberg forgives all, and there’s also this:

I asked her if she believed that Israel had done enough to prevent the deaths of children and other innocent people.

“Just as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians,” mistakes are made, she said. “We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are – and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position – that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.”

It does? But let that be, and consider this:

She also struck a notably hard line on Iran’s nuclear demands. “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out.”

When I asked her if the demands of Israel, and of America’s Arab allies that Iran not be allowed any uranium-enrichment capability whatsoever were militant or unrealistic, she said, “I think it’s important that they stake out that position.”

So there you have it. She’s a neoconservative Lady Macbeth, although Andrew Sullivan puts it this way:

So far as one can tell from her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, there is no daylight between her and John McCain or even Benjamin Netanyahu – but a hell of a lot of space between her and Barack Obama. The interview confirms my view that she remains neo-conservatism’s best bet to come back with bells on. It appears for example that her boomer-era pabulum about foreign policy on the Jon Stewart show – “We need to love America again!” – was not an aberration. She actually means it. And once we believe in ourselves again – don’t look at that torture report – it will be back to the barricades for another American century of American global hegemony. And why not start in Syria and Iraq? I mean: she’s already hepped up about the threat of Jihadism – and what could possibly go wrong this time? If only we believe in America!

Just forget that this country destroyed its military deterrence and its moral authority by the war that Clinton favored and has never fully expressed remorse for. Forget the trillions wasted and the tens of thousands of lives lost and the brutal torture we authorized and the hapless occupation that helped galvanize Jihadism, let’s just feel good about ourselves! And do it all again!

And so try and find a real difference between John McCain and Hillary Clinton on these topics. It’s certainly the same “fight them over there so we don’t fight them over here” fear-mongering.

Yeah, she went there:

One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States. Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’être is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank – and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.

Sullivan isn’t buying it:

Well, actually, their raison d’être is not to be against the West. Right now and for the foreseeable future, it is about defeating the apostates of Shia Islam and wimpy Sunni Islam. It’s about forcing other Muslims to submit to their medieval authority – with weapons left behind from the last American interventionist project. The West for these Jihadis is a long, long way away. But not for Clinton or for McCain who see every struggle anywhere as involving the US because … America! And that’s when you realize how fresh Obama was and how vital he has been – and how in foreign policy, a Clinton presidency is such a threat to his legacy.

And then there’s Israel:

Among those most eager for a return of the past is, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu. And you see in the interview with Goldberg how closely Clinton’s views mirror his. She hits every single neocon talking point: the Israelis have no responsibility for the killing of hundreds of children because “there’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.” That’s almost a paraphrase of the Israeli prime minister or Joan Rivers (take your pick of the nuance artists). You can almost feel the love between her and Goldberg in getting back to the good old days when Israel could never do any wrong, and our job was to keep throwing aid at it and pretending they’re not building ever more settlements. Almost all criticism of Israel is about anti-Semitism, after all. And Clinton even backs Netanyahu’s recent dismissal of a two-state solution! Yep: she’s not just running to succeed Barack Obama, she’s running against him.

And yes, that would be Hollywood’s red-carpet-queen, Joan Rivers:

A week ago, Joan Rivers told a TMZ news crew that she was perfectly fine with wiping out Palestine. This morning, she continued opining about Israel, but then took it into uncharted territory:

“We now don’t count who is dead,” she declared, saying it was “good” that thousands had died. “If you’re dead, you deserve to be dead. You started it.”

In her opinion, Hamas, which governs the Gaza strip, was “re-elected by a lot of stupid people who don’t even own a pencil.” Rivers then exploded when the cameraman asked her about the high mortality rate in the current conflict. “Go back to the atomic bomb and what we did in Japan. You don’t start wars and then decide ‘I’m sorry.'”

“They were told to get out, and if you don’t get out, you’re an idiot. At least the ones who were killed were the ones with low IQs.”

That’s what Hillary Clinton was saying, without the nuance. Joan Rivers – Joan Alexandra Molinsky – doesn’t do nuance, but she’s not running for president. Sullivan is more concerned with the woman who is:

Clinton’s position is Netanyahu’s. And that’s important to understand. If you want a United States with no daylight between it and any Israeli government, whatever that government may do, vote for Clinton. If you want someone who believes the Libya intervention was the right thing to do, vote for Clinton. If you think America’s problem is not torture or drones or destabilizing occupations but that we don’t tell the world how great we are enough, vote for Clinton. If you really long for 2003 again, vote for Clinton.

She may be the only option – if the GOP nominates a full-bore pro-torture neocon. But isn’t it amazing that after the catastrophes of the Bush-Cheney era, both parties could effectively be running neocons for the presidency in 2016! Welcome to Washington – where the past is always present, amnesia is a lubricant, and the leading Democrat is running as a neocon.

Actually, she’s running as Lady Macbeth – or Dick Cheney in drag in some sort of La Cage aux Folles (“the cage of mad women”) thing – but either way this might be a play you don’t really want to see again. Everyone knows how things turn out. One’s a tragedy and the other’s a farce. Obama, however, will be gone in 2016, and Elizabeth Warren won’t run, and the Republicans, who don’t want the Hispanic vote, or the black vote, or the women’s vote, or the youth vote, or the urban vote, or pretty much any votes but those of the Deep South, don’t stand a chance. Hillary Clinton is it, and it will be tragedy or farce, or both – but we’ve been here before. We’ll deal with it. We have no other choice.

Posted in Hillary Clinton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Slipping Into a Third War in Iraq

West Point, on the first day of June, 1990, was pretty cool – the nephew’s graduation. The setting is stunning, high on the bluffs on the west side of the Hudson, just up the river from New York City, and the cadets were fine young men and women – open and honest and invariably polite, and damned smart, and above all else, honorable. The graduation speaker was Colin Powell, at the time the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, saying the appropriate nice things about all the new Second Lieutenants, but then adding something that seems odd now, in retrospect. He told them all that the Cold War was over, so a giant army at the ready at all times was kind of pointless. It wasn’t that we’d study war no more, it’s just that there would be more studying war and far less waging war – we’d run out of enemies. He assured the graduates there would be plenty of honorable and useful and amazing things for them to do, but they’d be in the background from this point forward. It’s a good thing they weren’t listening carefully. No one listens to graduation speakers.

Powell was wrong of course. The family’s new officer was soon off to Kuwait, to help toss Saddam Hussein out of there, and after various postings here and there, liaison work in Istanbul and such, it was Iraq again – many tours at higher and higher levels, with a year off at our Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island – and then Kabul. The kid is a full-bird Colonel now, at the Pentagon for two years there doing the high-level stuff. It’s just odd that for his entire adult life, if adult life starts the day you graduate from wherever, we have been at war with Iraq, or in Iraq. Those younger than the Colonel must think this is quite normal – they know nothing else. Those of us older than the kid, don’t. We remember when no one thought about Iraq at all, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Mick Jagger was still relatively young and Ronald Reagan ate jellybeans in the Oval Office and smiled a lot – when we liked Saddam Hussein because he was sticking it to those jerks in Iran, if we thought of him at all.

That all changed, but we finally got over Iraq. We kicked the habit. On December 15, 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially declared the current war there over, at a highly symbolic flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad. The last of our troops left Iraqi territory on December 18, 2011 – and that’s when things returned to normal. The Gulf War, to toss Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, began on August 2, 1990, and lasted all of three weeks, but we had left him in power in Iraq. That wouldn’t do. Iraq would always be a problem, and after twenty-four years we decided to tell ourselves we had finally solved that problem, or close enough. We could move on. We could turn our attention to Putin, or to China, or to Iran and other pesky countries in the Middle East, or to trying to figure out why Israel is telling us exactly what we must do, or else. Iraq was over.

Iraq is not over. Kathleen Hennessey and David Cloud in the Los Angeles Times explain that:

For three years, President Obama has declared himself the man who closed the door on a dark decade of U.S. war in Iraq. Now he has opened the door again.

Other than insisting no U.S. combat troops will return to Iraq, Obama’s advisors outlined few clear limits and no definitive end to America’s latest military mission, which began Friday with airstrikes against Sunni militants and drops of humanitarian aid. Given Obama’s stated reluctance to use military force in Syria and other hot spots, the White House faced pressure to explain why Iraq was different, what airstrikes would achieve and whether Obama was launching a new phase of an old war.

The airstrikes against that ISIS crowd are increasing – jets and now those nasty Predator drones – so it does seem like a new phase of that old war. We’re getting sucked in again, even if we say we aren’t:

“I see this as a watershed event,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the top commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “Now that we are using lethal force in Iraq, that’s a huge bridge to cross, and it’s very difficult to get back across once you are over it.”

We’ve crossed that bridge, even if reluctantly:

The president for months resisted taking that step. In June, Obama began sending hundreds of advisors to Iraq to help train and supply government security forces under siege from the Al Qaeda offshoot known as Islamic State. Obama opted against airstrikes, aides said at the time, at least until Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s authoritarian government instituted democratic reforms.

Behind the scenes, however, the U.S. factories that produce Hellfire missiles began “working seven days a week in order to meet the need and push them out to Iraq,” a senior administration official said. Both manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft and satellites provided near round-the-clock intelligence on Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and other key areas.

And now the pressure will mount:

Some experts warned that “targeted strikes” would prove ineffective. Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said pinprick bombings have “zero meaningful chance” of ending the widening sectarian war in Iraq. Absent a clear defeat of the militants, Obama may face pressure to do more and more. “The mission creep and quagmire risk is very real,” he said.

If the militants, who are believed to have thousands of fighters, continue to make gains on the ground or shift to another part of Iraq, the U.S. could face pressure to widen the air campaign, or even to put U.S. personnel with Iraqi or Kurdish units on the ground…

That sounds like what happened in Vietnam in 1965 – the folks we support over there are going to lose it all, so we’d better help out, or do things ourselves until they get their act together. He, the post-Saddam country we midwifed into existence hasn’t yet got its act together, even if we thought it had, so we may have to do what they cannot do yet. Eight years of showing them how it’s done wasn’t enough. What are you going to do?

As for the humanitarian part of this, Rod Dreher is all in:

It is my devout hope that the US kills as many ISIS berserkers as we possibly can. I saw today video of a Christian child who had been decapitated by these monsters, and heads of Christians on pikes. There was news today that they were slaughtering Yazidi men and taking their wives as plunder. They are worse than Waffen SS. I’m pretty strongly noninterventionist, but that is not an absolute position, especially not when we can fairly be blamed for setting off this crisis. As they say in Texas, some people just need killin’.

And maybe we have to be the world’s policeman, as Dan Hodges in the Telegraph (UK) argues here:

When people say “We don’t want America to be the world’s policeman,” I don’t think most of them actually mean it. What they really mean is “We don’t want America to be the world’s policeman, and the world’s prosecutor, judge and jury as well.”

And that’s a fair argument. But at the moment, with the implosion of the authority of the UN, there is no effective prosecutor, judge or jury. Earlier this week the UN patted itself on the back for the successful conviction of Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. They are 88 and 83 respectively. Their victims – an estimated two million of them – died 40 years before. Pol Pot himself never faced justice. If we want a world based on laws then someone ultimately has to enforce them. And there is only one state on the planet with the means and inclination to do so. That state is the United States.

Sure, but once the bombing starts, when will it stop? At the New Yorker site, John Cassidy wonders about that:

That is one of the many tough questions that Obama and his colleagues will have to answer. Are the sole goals of the mission to help out the Yazidis and prevent Erbil from falling? Or is this the beginning of a U.S.-led effort not merely to halt the advance of ISIS on its eastern front, in the Kurdish region, but to roll it back everywhere in the country? On these questions, Obama was studiously ambiguous. … Already, though, one Rubicon has been crossed. A President who came into office on a promise to pull the United States out of Iraq, and who followed through on his pledge, has just ordered more combat operations in, or over, Iraq.

Josh Marshall is just puzzled by the suddenness of all this:

What’s happened to ISIS, which was supposed to be a fairly small, rag-tag force, highly spirited perhaps but not a force capable of making gains against a disciplined regular army? Quite a bit of American weaponry did fall into ISIS hands when the Iraqi Army fled. But advanced weaponry usually requires significant training to use effectively or at all and additional time to integrate its use into a fighting force. It seems highly questionable that all that weaponry could have transformed ISIS’s capabilities so quickly.

And if ISIS hasn’t changed, is it possible that the [Kurdish] pesh merga were never really the vaunted force they were made out to be? That’s the question asked by this editorial in a Saudi paper. Whether it’s one of these misapprehensions or the other or both, either would seriously change the situation in Iraq from what we’d been led to believe as recently as a few days ago.

Someone has some explaining to do, and if the Kurds can’t finish off ISIS on the ground, even with American air support, what happens then? At the Daily Beast, Jacob Siegel wonders about that:

The consensus among ex-CIA analysts, former military officers, and Iraq veterans who spoke with The Daily Beast is that the Peshmerga’s abilities were overrated. No one questions the Kurds’ willingness to fight, but their military prowess appears to have degraded in the years since the U.S. military stopped training them and withdrew from Iraq. … Air strikes against ISIS targets can weaken the group, buy time, and prevent it from massing on Kurdish forces, but according to military and CIA veterans, air power alone will not be decisive.

“The advisors need to be pushed out, if they haven’t been already,” said Nada Bakos, a CIA veteran who led the team analyzing the terrorist network that was ISIS’s predecessor in Iraq. The advisors she referred to are the special operations troops who have so far stayed away from the battlefield, offering intelligence and advice from headquarters in areas remote from the fighting.

Yeah, our guys need to get out there and fight alongside the South Vietnamese soldiers. No, wait – wrong war – but it’s the same thing. Juan Cole, however, sees 1991 here:

The Neocons who wanted to go to war against Iraq in the early zeroes always said that one reason a war would be good was that the US was spending a lot of money on the no-fly zone over Kurdistan – as if a whole war wouldn’t be much more expensive (it was, by about $1 trillion). Apparently not only has the Iraqi federal army almost completely collapsed, finding itself unable to take back Tikrit, but now the so-called Islamic State was making a move on Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Irbil. Obama’s hope that the so-called “Islamic State” can be stopped by US air power is likely forlorn. ISIS is a guerrilla force, not a conventional army. But one thing is certain. A US-policed no-fly zone or no-go zone over Iraqi Kurdistan is a commitment that cannot easily be withdrawn and could last decades embroiling the United States in further conflict.

We’ve been there before, but Obama is certainly not a neoconservative and he’s not George Bush either. In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman highlights that:

When he ran for president, Obama promised a new approach to military involvement overseas, one defined by limited actions with clear objectives and exit strategies. It was to be a clean break with the Bush doctrine that had given us the debacle of the Iraq War: no grand military ambitions, no open-ended conflicts, and no naïve dreams of remaking countries half a world away. Of necessity, that means American military action is reactive. Instead of looking around for someone to invade, this administration has tried to help tamp down conflicts when they occur, and use force only when there seems no other option – and when it looks like it might actually accomplish something, and not create more problems than it solves.

But even though it’s designed to avoid huge disasters, this approach carries its own risks, particularly when we confront situations like the one in Iraq where there are few good options. We can take some action to keep ISIS out of the Kurdish north, but that might leave them just as strong, with their maniacal fundamentalism still threatening the entire region. ISIS is a truly ghastly bunch, with ambitions that seem unlimited. Obama said he was acting “to prevent a potential act of genocide.” What if it happens anyway – and we could have done more?

Ezra Klein sees that too:

Calling something a “genocide” has a very particular power under international law, because the US is signatory to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

The treaty says that “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” The US is one of those Contracting Parties. Obama is justifying these strikes under international law as, in part, an effort to prevent a genocide.

But he’s stopping there. He’s willing to use air strikes to protect Americans and Kurds in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and to stop genocide against the Yazidi men and women trapped in Sinjar. But he’s not willing to go further, at least not barring substantial political change in Baghdad. … Obama doesn’t oppose all wars. But to him, a smart war is a very, very limited war.

Time’s Joe Klein suggests that might be the new normal:

Yes, we’re sick of war, sick of the region and particularly sick of Iraq – but, as seemed clear in the days after 9/11, and less clear since, this is a struggle that is going to be with us for a very long time. It doesn’t need to be the thunderous, all-consuming struggle that the Bush-Cheney government made it out to be. It will require a strategic rethink of who our friends and enemies actually are in the region. (As others have suggested, we may find that Iran is part of the solution rather than part of the problem – this is one case where America’s and Israel’s national security interests may diverge). And it will require a far smarter response than our first attempts to deal with Al Qaeda. It will have to be measured, proportionate – an insinuation rather than an invasion, acting in concert with true allies who also understand the threat and are capable of sophisticated covert operations.

Fine, but an insinuation rather than an invasion, time after time, is going to drive some folks up the wall. Everyone knows who they are. Bill Kristol, the man who argued for the Iraq War, a total war that would be over in a jiffy, because there was no history of any tension between the Sunnis and Shiites, and perhaps the man who first suggested Sarah Palin to John McCain, is one of those folks:

“If you’re going to get in, get in big and get in decisively now,” Kristol said. “If you go in incrementally, in this way, you don’t have the effect you want to have on ISIS; you don’t have the effect you want to have on bolstering your allies; you don’t have the effect you want to have in the region.”

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a somewhat dimmer and lesser light on that side of things, simply rips into Obama:

Virtually every action or refusal to act has now come back to haunt Obama. Trying to reconcile past mistakes with grudging action is impossible, and yet he refuses to admit error or commit wholeheartedly to a different set of policies. As John Bolton puts it, “The problem is not just Iraq, but the entire Middle East where state structures are collapsing and terrorism increasing to fill the vacuum. Thus we have moved from the American Century to the Obama Chaos.”

We should be pleased, I suppose, that he acted in some fashion. Now he needs a new policy team, a coherent policy for the region and recognition that retrenchment failed and is indeed the cause of many of the horrors we now see. That would require adequately funding the military, taking action to prevent Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and ensuring that non-jihadi rebels in Syria succeed – to name only a few significant policy reversals that would be required. Let’s hope that this is the first indication of an about-face on Obama’s entire foreign policy approach.

Andrew Sullivan cites those two and adds this:

The idea that what has been happening all over the Arab Muslim world since the Arab Spring is “Obama’s Chaos” just reveals that the neocons still have no idea that the world is more than America’s plaything. Wolfowitz just declared that the Iraq war had been “won” by 2009 – another sign that they have been chastened not a whit by the destruction and disorder and violence they unleashed more than a decade ago.

Sullivan has also said this:

Like most decisions that come down to the president alone, this is a very, very tough one. The reasons to resist being pulled back into any conflict in Iraq are too obvious and manifold to state. But let me note one massive irony: one reason why ISIS appears to have made so much progress is because they are armed with American military equipment, abandoned by the Iraqi army. And the only reason ISIS exists at all in Iraq – and al Qaeda [in Iraq] before them – is that the United States so thoroughly broke that country from 2003 on. So the proximate reasons for this American intervention are the unintended consequences of previous American interventions. You can see how global hegemony eventually provides endless reasons for its own perpetuation – and why some of us want to restrain and temper its ambitions.

Sullivan is, however, trouble by what Obama has done, and assumes that Obama is troubled too:

The danger of getting sucked into the Iraqi vortex is great. What if airstrikes are not enough? What if ISIS manages to invade Kurdistan – or does unspeakable damage to the dam now under its control? We are talking about a Jihadist force born of a fanatical fusion of a depraved version of Islam with brutality and violence of unlimited scope. What we are now signaling, in other words, is that there are limits to what the United States will tolerate with respect to ISIS’ dominance and power projection. That means we could find ourselves forced to intervene again and again on these lines and for these reasons. Only the president’s fortitude and restraint – or willingness to retreat from the goals he has just set out – can save us. At that point, if the immediate need to save the Yazidis and Kurdistan is behind us, it is absolutely imperative that any further military action be authorized by the Congress. An expeditious act of executive authority is one thing. Another risk of war is something else entirely. And such a decision should not be a president’s anyway. It should be a decision by the American people, through their elected representatives.

But there’s this too:

My main fear of the intervention is that it might convey to Iraq’s terrible leadership that the US once again will do their hard work for them – and thereby relieve them of the task of constructing a new government, capable of rallying Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to restrain ISIS. Perhaps the danger is now so great the dysfunction in Baghdad could break – and with indirect American support, a new and more widely legitimate Iraqi government can begin to roll back or at least cauterize the Jihadist onslaught. That’s the optimistic scenario.

But when has an optimistic scenario ever been borne out in Iraq?

That’s a good question. It’s been twenty-four years now, and each optimistic scenario has turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking, or magical thinking. Fix what’s broken in Iraq, turn around, and it’s broken in a new way, and now Obama has decided to engage in that magical thinking, because, as he saw it, he had no other choice. He has small and limited aims at the moment, which is refreshing after all these years, but those aims may not stay small. One thing leads to another. On the other hand, we’re all used to this by now. For most Americans, Iraq is all they know, the one thing out there that’s always the one big problem for us. Why did Obama think he could move on? Iraq is forever. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Posted in Back to Iraq, Iraq Falls Apart, Obama Orders Airstrikes in Iraq | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Breaking News of the Broken World

Conservatives and liberals, or progressives or whatever they’re calling themselves these days, will never agree. They can’t. They see two different worlds. Conservatives don’t see why we can’t get back to the way things used to be, when we were all free to do what we wanted to do, and everyone also pulled their own weight. They’d be ashamed if they didn’t, never expecting and never accepting government handouts, even if they had paid into the systems that had been put in place to help them out when things got tough. No one whined, and men were men and women were women and there was none of this in-between stuff – and everyone went to church too. Those black folk knew their place too. They were happy to be invisible, and were pleasant when they did somehow magically turn up here and there in public. It was the same with Hispanics and Asians. They used to be simply quaint folks that added a bit of color to American life, literally, and used to be no trouble at all. Gas was cheap too, and everyone loved America, except those godless communists – but everyone hated those communists. Those were the days, and conservatives didn’t seem to realize that song that opened each episode of All in the Family – Edith and Archie at the old upright piano singing about how those were the days – was Norman Lear, the ultimate Hollywood liberal, gently mocking Archie Bunker, in a loving way. Each week Archie Bunker came to discover that the good old days weren’t all that good. He’d been wrong about how things were, and wrong thinking that’s the way things should be.

This was liberal Hollywood propaganda of course, but not quite. Carroll O’Connor carefully made Archie Bunker a tremendously sympathetic character. Each week O’Connor’s Archie Bunker sincerely struggled with the issue at hand, eventually, and it was impossible not to feel for the guy. He expected perfection, his concept of perfection, in a world where there’s no such thing, and there’d never been such a thing. That was almost noble. Archie Bunker was, really, a good guy. He was actually quite lovable. A parallel might be what Nick Carraway said of Jay Gatsby in the Fitzgerald novel – the guy wanted what was impossible, that ideal girl from his past, which was absurd because she turned out to be a useless pretty little twit in the end, but there was something worthy of great respect in Gatsby relentlessly seeking that one thing from the ideal never-was past. Everyone seems to give up on their dreams. Gatsby didn’t.

That’s a conservative notion. Liberals don’t think that way. They’ll tell you that the past wasn’t all that hot, and the idea that the world is now broken, and that we need to get back to the way it was when it wasn’t broken, is nonsense. Liberals dream of how the world could be in the future, with a few changes to this and that, even if those changes make some folks uncomfortable, and even if those changes won’t fix everything. The idea is that the past was broken too, in its own way, and maybe the world is always broken, but we can try certain things to make things better. Some may work, some may not, and with some, like Obamacare, we’ll just have to wait and see – but we should do something useful when we can, like now. Move forward. There are no good old days. Slavery wasn’t all that hot. The state-sponsored segregation that followed slavery wasn’t all that hot. The Roaring Twenties ended in the collapse of the economy. The fifties were full of repression and conformity and fear. Let’s not go back. Let’s try new things. Conservatives always resist that, but like Archie Bunker, they’ll come around. The angry old white guys at Tea Party rallies do love their Social Security and Medicare. Gay marriage may take a bit more time. They’re still trying to deal with the nation having a young black president, and an intellectual no less, in the middle of his second term and still not wanting to take it back to the fifties, or the twenties, or even a century earlier. They’re still trying to figure out what to do about that. Impeachment might work, but it’s kind of late for that now. That won’t erase the last six years.

That’s the problem in all this – the past. Half of America thinks it was never broken, and things are horribly broken now, so we should go back there. The other half of America thinks the past was broken too, in its own way, and things may indeed be horribly broke now, but things are always broken. You do what you can to make things better. All else is idealistic nonsense about what never was. That’s Edith and Archie singing at the old upright piano.

That’s also John McCain screaming for the last year or more, as Iraq fell apart, about how Obama should have left a residual force of American troops there, even if the Iraqis wanted us gone, to keep a lid on things. We fixed everything there – the troop surge of 2007 gave the Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites the breathing room to work things out, and they did. Things were fine. The place was safe and secure. Everyone was happy. We won the war – and then Obama withdrew everyone and all hell broke loose. Maliki got all friendly with Iran and Syria, he tossed out all the Kurds and Sunnis in his government, and the suicide bombers came back to the streets. Those ISIS folks are on his doorstep and his own Army won’t fight for him, or the country. He has his own civil war on his hands now – and all we had to do was stay and hold his hand a bit, and tell him how these things work, so he would understand how to run a country. But no – Obama wanted to move on. Obama, then, lost Iraq. It was perfect, and now it’s broken. We have to find our way back to when we had finally made the place perfect, after more than eight years and almost five thousand American troops dead and maybe two trillion dollars spent. Those were the days.

Here, McCain is playing the part of Archie Bunker, a good guy saying we need to return to the past, especially this recent past, and nobly passionate about it, and dead wrong. Iraq was always broken. We just hung around there for a bit, and now it’s really broken:

The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly on Thursday with a re-energized Islamic State in Iraq and Syria storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s most formidable military force, the Kurdish pesh merga, was routed in the face of the onslaught.

The loss of the Mosul Dam, the largest in Iraq, to the insurgents was the most dramatic consequence of a militant offensive in the north, which has sent tens of thousands of refugees, many from the Yazidi minority, fleeing into a vast mountainous landscape.

In one captured town, Sinjar, ISIS executed dozens of Yazidi men, and kept the dead men’s wives for unmarried jihadi fighters. Panic on Thursday spread even to the Kurdish capital of Erbil, long considered a safe haven, with civilians flooding the airport in a futile attempt to buy tickets to Baghdad.

And meanwhile, in Baghdad:

As chaos tore through northern Iraq, political intrigue unfolded in Baghdad, with political leaders meeting late into the night in the fortified Green Zone to choose a replacement for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite who has become an increasingly divisive figure.

American officials have worked to engineer his ouster, believing he is incapable of establishing a national unity government acceptable to Iraq’s main minority groups, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. American officials have implied that more military aid would be provided if Iraq’s political class chose a new leader.

ISIS is closing in and they want to change the org chart? Well, at least that’s something, much like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic as the joke goes, but even that won’t be easy:

As Iraqi leaders, the country’s top religious authorities and top Iranian officials, who wield considerable power within Iraq, pushed for Mr. Maliki’s removal, he was refusing to step aside Thursday night. Even those within his own State of Law bloc were demanding that he leave.

“Everyone is saying no to Maliki now,” said a Member of Parliament from State of Law, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the discussions. “He’s rejected by all parties.”

That may be so, but he’s no dummy:

If he were to step down, Mr. Maliki has reportedly demanded immunity from prosecution for himself, his family and his inner circle, and a massive security detail, paid for by the state.

Given the number of enemies he has accrued over his time in power, and the well-documented instances of human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial killings under his watch – not to mention wide-scale corruption at the highest levels of his government – many believe that Mr. Maliki would be immediately under threat of arrest, or assassination, were he to leave office without guarantees of immunity and protection.

“Maliki knows if he steps down, virtually he is a dead man,” said Ali Khedery, a former American official in Iraq, who over the years has advised five American ambassadors and several American generals and was once close to Mr. Maliki himself.

This is the government we helped create. It’s hard to see how a residual force would have saved Iraq – the standard line on Fox News – and there’s this too:

Adding to the sense that the country was rapidly coming apart, suicide attackers struck twice in Kadhimiya, a Shiite district in Baghdad that is home to an important shrine, killing nearly three dozen people. And in Kirkuk, a northern city long divided between Arabs and Kurds that is now under Kurdish control, two explosions struck near a Shiite mosque, killing 11 people and wounding more than 50 others.

After ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, on June 10, the militant group vowed to march on Baghdad. But its rapid advance south toward the capital stalled in the face of newly mobilized Shiite militias, and volunteer Shiite fighters determined to protect Iraq’s capital and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala.

The Kurds had tried to seize on the chaos, protect their borders and consolidate their autonomy, while staying out of Iraq’s broader civil war. The pesh merga were considered well-armed and well-motivated, determined to protect their Kurdish enclave in the north.

But the latest fighting has shown that even the pesh merga are not up to the fight with ISIS. Kurdish officials have complained of a lack of ammunition and begged American diplomats for more weapons. But the United States, so far, has held off on significant arms shipments to the Kurds, fearing that it could undermine the central government in Baghdad.

Now, the Kurds have been battling a group of militants from ISIS who are using powerful American weapons they took from the battlefield, left by the Iraqi Army.

Ah, had we only stayed, with a few thousand troops, had Obama only tried harder to renegotiate the total withdrawal of our troops that George Bush had initially negotiated, or something, things would be different, like in the good old days when the place was run like Iowa or Kansas, or Texas. Yeah, sure – the place was broken already. These are just the details.

There’s only one way to fix this – go back in and fix what’s broken, by force if necessary, to get things back to where John McCain and the remaining neoconservatives and the folks at Fox News thought they were, even if it takes another eight years and another five thousand dead American troops and another two trillion dollars. Those were the days, after all, but Obama doesn’t think like that:

President Obama has authorized airstrikes against Sunni Muslim extremists who punctured Kurdish defenses in a powerful offensive in northern Iraq on Thursday, and has sent U.S. military aircraft to drop food and water to besieged Iraqi civilians in the region.

Obama, in a late-night statement delivered at the White House, said that strikes would be launched against extremist convoys “should they move toward” the Kurdish capital of Irbil, where the United States maintains a consulate and a joint operations center with the Iraqi military.

“We intend to take action if they threaten our facilities anywhere in Iraq… including Irbil and Baghdad,” he said.

Authorization for airdrops – an initial round of which was completed just before Obama spoke – and for potential airstrikes was a major development in the Iraq crisis that began in June.

A senior administration official described the airstrike authorization as “narrow,” but outlined a number of broad contingencies in which they could be launched, including a possible threat to U.S. personnel in Baghdad from possible breaches in a major dam Islamist forces seized Thursday that could flood the Iraqi capital.

We will protect our consulate and a joint operations center, and save those folks trapped on that mountain, but that’s about it:

U.S. aircraft also are authorized to launch airstrikes if the military determines that Iraqi government and Kurdish forces are unable to break the siege that has stranded tens of thousands of civilians belonging to the minority Yazidi sect atop a barren mountain outside the northern town of Sinjar.

“As we can provide air support to relieve that pressure, the president has given the military the authority to do so,” the senior official said. He said that congressional leaders had been consulted, but that Obama had the legal authority as commander in chief to launch the strikes to protect U.S. personnel and national security interests.

That might be disputed, and probably will be, but that’s it – protect our few folks there and save the Yazidi from genocide, but there will be none of this idealistic crap about an Iraq that never was and never will be:

Obama has sent more than 700 U.S. troops to Iraq since June to protect the U.S. Embassy and international airport in Baghdad and facilities in Irbil, and to assess the capabilities of Iraqi forces.

But he repeated his pledge that no ground combat troops would be returned to Iraq, where the last U.S. forces withdrew at the end of 2011.

“I know many of you are concerned about any military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these,” he said in remarks directed at the American people. “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”

That last bit must have had John McCain so angry he was spitting nails, but Obama isn’t big on the grand idealistic adventure:

I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain – with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help, in this case, a request from the Iraqi government – and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.

This is not fixing Iraq and wiping out ISIS. The world is always broken, but we can try certain things to make things better. Some may work, some may not, but at least we can do this:

I’ve therefore authorized targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mt. Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there. Already, American aircraft have begun conducting humanitarian airdrops of food and water to help these desperate men, women and children survive. Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, “There is no one coming to help.” Well today, America is coming to help. We’re also consulting with other countries – and the United Nations – who have called for action to address this humanitarian crisis.

Obama is saying that the world can be an awful place, but it always has been that way, in spite of conservative daydreams, and he’s doing the responsible limited thing here:

I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and to welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces. …

Once Iraq has a new government, the United States will work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counter-terrorism challenge.

None of Iraq’s neighbors have an interest in this terrible suffering or instability.

There he goes again, letting others have a say in these matters, not LEADING as he should, and as America should, which shames America, or not:

I’ve been careful to resist calls to turn time and again to our military, because America has other tools in our arsenal than our military. We can also lead with the power of our diplomacy, our economy, and our ideals.

But when the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action. That’s my responsibility as commander in chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.

Obama seems to have anticipated the real question here – leadership. Do leaders point to the ideal and convince everyone to strive for it, which in this case might mean, for a truly bold American leader, just taking on the whole Middle East, every damned country, bombing everything in sight until they shape up, and maybe find Jesus, and fix everything once and for all? Or do leaders acknowledge the world has always been broken in so many ways that sometimes you do what you can – what’s possible, and what’s the right thing to do, even if it doesn’t fix everything?

That seems to be the issue here. Conservatives and liberals will never agree on what real leaders do, because they can’t agree on how the world once was – perfect. One side believes it never was perfect and never will be, but we can do the right things and make things better, however unsatisfying that might be. The other side wants to get back to the Garden, where nothing was yet broken. Those were the days. That’s how the song goes. But it’s only a song.

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