The Art of Bombing Effectively

This should sound familiar. Imagine the United States propping up a hopelessly inept foreign government halfway around the world, one we had helped create to be our ally to keep the bad guys at bay, and one we had fought for, for nearly a decade, at great cost in American lives and a whole lot of money, but which was now being threatened by those same bad guys, who had grabbed chunks of our baby government’s territory but would skip across the nominal eastern border to safe havens in the country next door, which was itself in chaos, but was, nevertheless, a sovereign nation we had no business bombing, to stop the bad guys in their effort to kill our baby. That might sound like Iraq and the threat from ISIS to put an end to it, skipping away into Syria to regroup and resupply when necessary, and that’s a nation in chaos itself from a long civil war. We are reluctant to bomb ISIS in Syria. There are geopolitical considerations. Syria has always had the full backing of Russia and things are still tense in the Ukraine. Putin has been testing the West, and testing us, and it might not be wise to bomb targets inside his baby in the Middle East, even if the folks we’d be bombing are out to topple the Syrian government that Russia has been nurturing and arming – with advanced antiaircraft systems that could take down our planes. It’s complicated. Putin and Assad want those bad guys wiped out too, but having us wipe them out, from the air, would cross a line. America has no business bombing anything in Syria, and anyway, Obama might not have the authority to do that. The 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force might still be in effect, but that was to use military force to take care of the 9/11 bad guys. That was for taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan. They had harbored al-Qaeda. Using it as implicit approval to take out Saddam Hussein had been a stretch, and it certainly had nothing to do with Syria, or with ISIS, these new guys al-Qaeda tossed out years ago, for being jerks. The president can’t just bomb anyone he damn well pleases.

This sounds familiar because Richard Nixon felt the president could do just that. The hopelessly inept foreign government halfway around the world that we were propping up at the time was South Vietnam, ISIS was the Vietcong, and the country in political chaos just to the east was Cambodia, where the Vietcong went to regroup and resupply, and Nixon had no authority to bomb the crap out of them over there. In March 1969, Nixon authorized secret bombing raids in Cambodia anyway. They had no effective government to protest and the American people knew nothing of this, but the idea was to take out their supply lines and arms depots. That was Operation Menu – fourteen months of massive bombings that no one knew were happening that had started out as merely Operation Breakfast. It got bigger and bigger, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. There was, however, no way to keep it a secret forever so a year later it was this:

On the evening of 25 April Nixon dined with his friend Bebe Rebozo and Kissinger. Afterward, they screened one of Nixon’s favorite movies, Patton, a biographical portrayal of controversial General George S. Patton, Jr., which he had seen five times previously. Kissinger later commented that “When he was pressed to the wall, his [Nixon's] romantic streak surfaced and he would see himself as a beleaguered military commander in the tradition of Patton.”

He decided to send in the troops:

The following evening, Nixon decided that “We would go for broke” and gave his authorization for the incursion. The joint U.S./ARVN campaign would begin on 1 May with the stated goals of: reducing allied casualties in South Vietnam; assuring the continued withdrawal of U.S. forces; and enhancing the U.S./Saigon government position at the peace negotiations in Paris.

In order to keep the campaign as low-key as possible, General Abrams had suggested that the commencement of the incursion be routinely announced from Saigon. At 21:00 on 30 April, however, President Nixon appeared on all three U.S. television networks to announce that “It is not our power but our will and character that are being tested tonight” and that “the time has come for action.”

The American public didn’t want more troops on the ground of course, and who told Nixon he could invade a neutral country? This was a dangerous escalation, and on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University, after students had set fire to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building, Governor James Rhodes called out the Ohio National Guard to restore order. The National Guardsmen eventually opened fire on the unarmed protestors at the campus – four students died, nine were seriously wounded, with of them paralyzed for life – which was followed by this:

Two days later, at the University at Buffalo, police wounded four more demonstrators. On 8 May 100,000 protesters gathered in Washington and another 150,000 in San Francisco on only ten days’ notice. Nationwide, 30 ROTC buildings went up in flames or were bombed while 26 schools witnessed violent clashes between students and police. National Guard units were mobilized on 21 campuses in 16 states. The student strike spread nationwide, involving more than four million students and 450 universities, colleges and high schools in mostly peaceful protests and walkouts.

Simultaneously, public opinion polls during the second week of May showed that 50 percent of the American public approved of President Nixon’s actions.

This was a mess that split the country right down the middle, but congress acted:

Senators Frank F. Church (Democratic Party, Idaho) and John S. Cooper (Republican Party, Kentucky), proposed an amendment to the Foreign Military Sales Act that would have cut off funding not only for U.S. ground operations and advisors in Cambodia, but would also have ended U.S. air support for Cambodian forces. On 30 June the United States Senate passed the act with the amendment included. The bill was defeated in the House of Representatives after U.S. forces were withdrawn from Cambodia as scheduled. The newly amended act did, however, rescind the Southeast Asia Resolution (better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) under which Presidents Johnson and Nixon had conducted military operations for seven years without a declaration of war.

The Cooper-Church Amendment was resurrected during the winter and incorporated into the Supplementary Foreign Assistance Act of 1970. This time the measure made it through both houses of Congress and became law on 22 December. As a result, all U.S. ground troops and advisors were barred from participating in military actions in Laos or Cambodia, while the air war being conducted in both countries by the U.S. Air Force was ignored.

Oh yeah, we had been bombing Laos too, but Congress had now established the new rules. Bomb any neutral country you damn well please, to protect our few remaining troops and save that hapless and now totally useless government we had nurtured halfway around the world, but DO NOT send any troops in there. Choose any country you’d like, but bomb, don’t invade. We’ll ignore the bombing.

The Cooper-Church Amendment applied to only that war and that specific situation, but it established a framework that allows the one thing and forbids the other. Nixon hadn’t had to lie about the massive 1969 bombing campaign in the first place. Had they found out about it, the half of the American public would have been outraged, but their senators and representative could have explained it to them. Bombing doesn’t count. That was the new rule.

That’s still the rule now:

The U.S. and five Arab countries launched airstrikes Monday night on Islamic State group targets in Syria, expanding a military campaign into a country whose three-year civil war has given the brutal militant group a safe haven.

Using a mix of manned aircraft – fighter jets and bombers – plus Tomahawk cruise missiles, the strikes were part of the expanded military campaign that President Barack Obama authorized nearly two weeks ago in order to disrupt and destroy the Islamic State militants, who have slaughtered thousands of people, beheaded Westerners – including two American journalists – and captured large swaths of Syria and northern and western Iraq.

U.S. officials said the airstrikes began around 8:30 p.m. EDT, and were conducted by the U.S., Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The first wave of strikes finished about 90 minutes later, but the operation was expected to continue for several more hours, according to one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly by name about an ongoing mission.

Obama isn’t Nixon. This wasn’t secret, and this wasn’t just us, going it alone. Somehow John Kerry got Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to fly in there with us too, and Saudi Arabia is the main Sunni power in the region, flying in there bombing the crazy Sunnis, the ISIS folks. It seems we won’t be taking sides in the centuries-long war of Shiites and Sunnis after all. That’s impressive, and Iraq, all Shiite now, is not listed, even if we have recreated an air force for them. That’s fine. They really are useless and would have complicated matters. We’re helping the sane Sunnis take care of the crazy ones, and even better, Syria isn’t screaming about their sovereignty now:

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. informed Syria’s envoy to the U.N. that “strikes will be launched against the terrorist Daesh group in Raqqa.” The statement used an Arabic name to refer to the Islamic State group.

They were informed and seem okay with that. They’ll watch. This is good for Assad. ISIS wants him gone too. It seems unlikely that Putin will declare war on the United States for bombing their ally Syria when Syria said yeah, they told us and we’re not complaining. Syria stepped back, and the United States really didn’t have to step up:

At a conference on Sept. 11 with Secretary of State John Kerry, key Arab allies promised they would “do their share” to fight the Islamic State militants. The Obama administration, which at a NATO meeting in Wales earlier this month also got commitments from European allies as well as Canada and Australia, has insisted that the fight against the Islamic State militants could not be the United States’ fight alone.

We’ll coordinate – multilingual air-traffic control will be a real bitch – but it’s not our fight. It’s everyone’s fight. Republicans will bitch about how we should have done this all alone, because we’re the ones who are supposed to save the world and Obama just doesn’t get that, because he hates America or something, but let them bitch. This will get the job done, and it’s same job as the one in Cambodia long ago:

Some of the airstrikes were against Islamic State group’s self-declared capital in Raqqa in northeastern Syria. Military officials have said the U.S. would target militants’ command and control centers, re-supply facilities, training camps and other key logistical sites… An anti-militant media collective called “Raqqa is being silently slaughtered” said among the targets were Islamic State buildings used as the group’s headquarters, and the Brigade 93, a Syrian army base that the militants recently seized. Other airstrikes targeted the town of Tabqa and Tel Abyad in Raqqa province, it said. ….

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the plan “includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control logistics capabilities and infrastructure.” He said he and Dempsey approved the plan.

And then there’s ISIS:

The militant group, meanwhile, has threatened retribution. Its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said in a 42-minute audio statement released Sunday that the fighters were ready to battle the U.S.-led military coalition and called for attacks at home and abroad.

They’ll come and behead us all. There are thirty thousand of them. There are three hundred million Americans. Sure they will. Even the other Sunnis think they’re crazy. They’re dropping bombs on them too.

This leaves Republican hawks in quite a pickle. If all goes well, ISIS will be gone one day, perhaps not soon, but perhaps soon enough. They can say “we” didn’t do it, but does that matter? They’ll say it does. That’ll be hard to sell. Still, it may take years to finish the job. Obama himself has suggested two or three years, maybe more, and Andrew Sullivan suggests that such an effort raises another problem:

It’s been a remarkable aspect of the foreign policy “debate” over the last month that I haven’t heard one single leading Republican express any misgivings about a new Iraq war’s impact on fiscal policy. And yet, for a few years now, we have been subjected to endless drama about the mounting debt when it comes to anything the government wants to do. Cost was one (ludicrous) reason to oppose Obamacare; it’s behind cutting off 3 million long-term unemployed from any benefits; it has led to proposals to turn Medicare into a premium support system and for cutting social security. Some of this fiscal vigilance I find useful – if it weren’t so transparently a way to dodge GOP responsibility for the debt and to blame Obama for all of it and if it weren’t raised as a matter of urgency when the world economy was deeply depressed (the one time when fiscal lenience is warranted). But it is hard to resist the conclusion, after the last few weeks, that it’s all a self-serving charade.

Sullivan wonders where the fiscal conservatives are now:

The ISIS campaign is utterly amorphous and open-ended at this point – exactly the kind of potentially crippling government program Republicans usually want to slash. It could last more than three years (and that’s what they’re saying at the outset); the cost is estimated by some to be around $15 billion a year, but no one really knows. The last phase of the same war cost – when all was said and done – something close to $1.5 trillion – and our current travails prove that this was one government program that clearly failed to achieve its core original objectives, and vastly exceeded its original projected costs.

If this were a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure project for the homeland, we’d be having hearing after hearing on how ineffective and crony-ridden it is; there would be government reports on its cost-benefit balance; there would be calls to end it tout court. [No, Republicans don't toss in French terms.] But a massive government program that can be seen as a form of welfare dependency for the actual countries – Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kurdistan – facing the crisis gets almost no scrutiny at all. And what scrutiny it gets is entirely due to partisanship and the desire to portray this president as effectively useless.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum, tries to straighten things out:

The only problem with Sullivan’s post is the headline: “Does The GOP Really Give a Shit about the Debt?” Surely that’s not a serious question? Of course they don’t. They care about cutting taxes on the rich and cutting spending on the poor. The deficit is a convenient cudgel for advancing that agenda, but as Sullivan says, “it is hard to resist the conclusion, after the last few weeks, that it’s all a self-serving charade.”

Indeed it is. And not just after the last few weeks. After all, if they did care, they’d be demanding that we raise taxes to fund the cost of our latest military adventure, right?

Well, there may be a fight about that, even if they never had a problem with the money that Bush spent on his Iraq war, all of which was put on the tab. We sold the world’s favorite IOU, United States Treasury Bonds, to pay for all that, exploding the national debt. We’ll pay later. We’ll be paying forever. None of them said a word. This, on the other hand, would be Obama asking for war appropriations, off-budget emergency appropriations. They could run with that, demanding the end of Obamacare to fund the ISIS fight, but they might get laughed out of the room, and already strange things are happening over on Fox News:

Retired four-star Gen. Jack Keane joined Megyn Kelly on a bonus hour of “The Kelly File” live tonight to react to the breaking news that the U.S. Air Force and Navy, joined by Arab allies, launched an intense bombing campaign in Syria against multiple ISIS targets.

Characterizing it as a “significant night,” Keane noted that the U.S. has four Arab Muslim countries – all Sunni – attacking a Sunni terrorist organization.

“That did not come easy,” Keane said, pointing out that UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain should be very helpful allies in the fight against ISIS and should aid President Obama in bringing other nations into the anti-ISIS coalition.

Someone on Fox News just said Obama is not effectively useless, or implied it – unless he was saying that John Kerry, that guy who was such an antiwar fool just after he came back from Vietnam with medals he didn’t deserve, did a masterful job. Can he even hint at such things over on Fox News? Obama and Kerry caught them by surprise, pulling off the seemingly impossible. They got the Sunnis to do the right thing, to help us put down their own crazies.

That’s impressive, and the parallels to what Nixon did in Cambodia in 1969 are obvious – bomb the “neutral” mess of a county to the immediate left, where the bad guys think they’re safe, to hold onto all you’re fought for, for almost a decade – but that’s where the parallels end. Don’t do it in secret, and get other nations who have a stake in the problem to join in. Oh, and there’s one other thing. Don’t sit around with Bebe Rebozo and Henry Kissinger watching George C. Scott pretending to be General Patton, for the sixth time, dreaming of glory, and then order an invasion. Don’t think like a Republican hawk. This isn’t a rousing Hollywood movie. Remember, Ronald Reagan made a few rousing war movies, but he also starred in Bedtime for Bonzo.

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The Kansas Way

Never trust cultural critics, those who look at the sweep of history, and at the moment, and tell us all where this is all heading. The struggle of our times, after Hitler and Tojo were gone, was the epic battle between consumer capitalism, with its assumption that only the individual matters and individual choice determines all good, and rigid communism, where the state determines what is good for everyone, generally, where the individual doesn’t matter a whole lot, as only the collective does. That’s what the Cold War was all about, and that would be an endless stalemate, forever. It wasn’t. Communism collapsed. The Berlin Wall fell and then the Soviet Union just up and disappeared. The eternal struggle was over. That called for a reassessment. Francis Fukuyama decided to write about “the end of history” in a 1989 essay that he turned into a book three years later – explaining the end of history as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Cool. Everything was settled. The Cold War was over. Communism was dead – in fact, every other system of organizing human society for the greater good was dead too. The job now was to find a way to have everyone settle down and deal with the inevitable – everyone was going to be just like us. They might not like that but they’d eventually see the light, or we’d help them see the light – for their own good, because we’re nice guys and do have the only proven way to run things. That’s what was in the air. That was the premise of the whole neoconservative thing that eventually gave us eight years of war in Iraq and thirteen years of war in Afghanistan, after all the other reasons for those wars fell apart. We could now see the inevitable sweep of history. Every nation would be a secular Jeffersonian democracy, with an economy based on consumer capitalism, where the individual is everything and the state does next to nothing at all. Francis Fukuyama later decided to take it all back. History didn’t end – the players just changed – and Fukuyama admitted as much and went on to split with the crew who hadn’t figured that out. There would be no New American Century after all. Nothing is inevitable. History is never settled, once and for all. The collectivists were just severely fundamentalist Muslims this time, not belligerent Russians in cheap suits.

The original contrast was stupid anyway. America, the home of the brave and the land of the free – where anyone who is a Real American is a rugged individualist and accepts personal responsibility (and Jesus) – is filled with Tea Party folks who believe this deeply and who will also fight to the death to keep their Medicare and Social Security. Both are collectivist, if not socialist, but the Tea Party argument is about which sort of people deserve such things, as it is with Obamacare.

They’ve been a bit puzzling about this, saying that there’s nothing wrong with new rules that prevent insurance companies from screwing us over simply to make big bucks, and health insurance is a good thing, but there’s something wrong with this new law, which makes health insurance fair and comprehensive and cheaper, and then actually helps people purchase that insurance. It’s all good – save for covering birth control (“slut pills” for “those people”) – but for that part about making it affordable for the wrong sort of people. Why should they get special help? That’s collectivist, if not socialist – but then it’s no more collectivist than Medicare and Social Security, where everyone gets more back than they ever paid in, and no more collectivist than government roads and bridges and schools, and public parks, and an air-traffic control system that keeps planes from crashing into each other. No one argues with those. We all pay our taxes, sort of, and elect those who we hope will vote to use that tax money on useful things.

That’s what happened with Obamacare. It was passed into law, fair and square, and the Supreme Court listened to those who said that those who represented the majority at the time had no authority to pass such laws, and then ruled that they actually had that authority – sorry. Another bit of socialism was added to all the others, but there never had been an epic battle between consumer capitalism and rigid communism. Folks in the West just got to vote for the collectivist programs they wanted put in place. The other guys didn’t. That was the only difference, so those who told us that Medicare was socialism and were it to pass we’d lose our freedom and any sense of personal responsibility – as Ronald Reagan did in 1961 – had no idea of the sweep of history and where it was heading. We had already arrived at our version of soft participatory communism. We called it democracy. People sometimes vote that everyone should chip in for the good of all. The only question is where you draw the line – but the people decide that. If those who love individual freedom think the people are wrong about that line – that Obamacare crossed that line – then they’ll have to argue that the people shouldn’t run things, because the tyranny of the majority undermines personal freedom, that democracy is oppression. Good luck with that.

An alternative is to run a demonstration experiment to prove that personal freedom should be at the core of any political system, to prove that collective efforts that the people agree to always lead to disaster. Ronald Reagan got his chance. From 1967 to 1975 he was Governor of California – voters out here gave the man who hated communism, and anything like it, a chance to show what personal freedom and rugged individualism and accepting personal responsibility could do for a state. That didn’t go well. The state with the amazing highway system and the best state colleges and universities in the nation, free to anyone who wanted a degree, and the best school systems in America, and social services that made sure no one was left behind, lost all that. It was all slowly dismantled in the name of freedom and personal responsibility, and we never recovered out here. But taxes were low. The state was paying for next to nothing.

Everyone was on their own – sink or swim – but they were gloriously free – to sink or swim. The wealthy and major corporations did will. That was about it, and it took a few years for people to figure out what had happened, but with the mentally ill tossed out on the street, sleeping in the corners, and a school system ranked third from the bottom, right down there with Mississippi, and the roads and bridges falling apart, they figured it out. No Republican holds any statewide office out here now. Reagan had replaced Edmund “Pat” Brown, the Democratic governor who had made California the most admired state in America. We brought back his son, Jerry Brown, twice, to try to fix things. The Republican Party out here is pretty much extinct. All of us out here have Republican friends who talk of moving to Texas. Rick Perry is fine. He thinks like Reagan. He’s for freedom, not the so-called people. One can be rich in Texas, even if it is an ugly place. Who needs sunsets over the Pacific anyway?

The alternative is Kansas. They have Governor Sam Brownback, now running for reelection and in the middle of his grand demonstration of how things should be run in a sink-swim state. In Forbes, Howard Gleckman explains how part of that is going:

Once again we are testing the question: Can tax cuts pay for themselves? The answer – yet again – is a resounding no.

We’ve tried this experiment time and again. And tax cut proponents such as economist Art Laffer continue to insist they can turn fiscal dross to gold: Cut taxes deeply enough and the resultant boom in economic activity will boost revenues. Magic. Painless. Everything a politician would ever want.

Except this is fiscal snake oil. Over the past few years, Brownback and the Kansas legislature have gone all-in on this theory. The good news: They have left little room for ambiguity (though Brownback and his defenders are scrambling to find some, given the dismal results of their ambitious experiment).

Art Laffer was Reagan’s go-to guy on taxes, and he’s back, and still wrong:

The tax cuts in Kansas have been breathtaking. In 2012, at Brownback’s urging, the legislature cut individual tax rates by 25 percent and repealed the tax on sole proprietorships and other “pass-through” businesses. It also increased the standard deduction (though it eliminated some individual credits as well).

In 2013, the legislature cut taxes again. It passed a measure to gradually lower rates even more over five years. By 2018, the top rate, which was 6.45 percent in 2012, will fall to 3.9 percent. It also partially restored some of the credits it eliminated in 2012. This time, it did raise some offsetting revenue for the first few years but far less than the statutory tax cuts. The Center on Budget & Policy Priorities wrote up a nice summary of all the tax changes.

So what happened after all those tax cuts? Revenues collapsed.

From June, 2013 to June, 2014, all Kansas tax revenue plunged by 11 percent. Individual income taxes fell from $2.9 billion to $2.2 billion and all income tax collections plummeted from $3.3 billion to $2.6 billion, a drop of more than 20 percent.

The state is broke – free, but broke – which led to this:

Brownback and his defenders have blamed their revenue shortfall on the federal government (natch). They say that the fiscal cliff deal in late 2012 drove investors to accelerate capital gains realizations to beat a tax hike on investment income. It certainly did that, but given that gains are less than 10 percent of individual income, blaming the state’s dramatic decline in revenue on capital gains timing is pretty lame.

Besides, while Kansas individual income tax revenues bumped up a bit in 2013 over 2012 (as the fiscal cliff theory would suggest), the increase was only about $23 million. From 2013 to 2014, income tax revenue dropped by far more – by $713 million.

There’s no way to hide those numbers, and no way to hide this:

Since the first round of tax cuts, job growth in Kansas has lagged the U.S. economy. So have personal incomes. While more small businesses were formed, many of them were merely individuals taking advantage of the newly tax-free status of those firms by redefining themselves as businesses. The business boom predicted by tax cut advocates has not happened, and it certainly has not come remotely close to offsetting the static revenue loss from the legislated tax cuts.

One can argue whether cutting taxes is a good thing. One can argue about whether government is too big. One can even argue about whether low taxes increase business activity. But one cannot credibly argue that tax cuts increase revenue or even pay for themselves. They didn’t for Ronald Reagan. They don’t for Sam Brownback. They won’t for the next politician who tries…

This may not be the wave of the future, and then there’s another matter:

News that the state’s credit rating had been downgraded put a damper on Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Pat Roberts’ Republican unity celebration Wednesday morning. Standard & Poor’s lowered Kansas’ bond rating to AA from AA+, citing the state’s unbalanced budget caused by income tax cuts signed into law in 2012.

“The downgrades reflect our view of a structurally unbalanced budget, following state income tax cuts that have not been matched with offsetting ongoing expenditure cuts in the fiscal 2015 budget,” said Standard & Poor’s credit analyst David Hitchcock in a release. S & P also downgraded the state’s appropriation-secured debt to AA- from AA. The rating agency gave the state a “negative” outlook on both ratings and projects that the state will face serious budget woes by the end of fiscal year 2015.

Brownback did, however, have a response:

The governor pushed back against the downgrade, which comes on the heels of a downgrade by Moody’s Investor Services in May that also cited the tax cuts.

He accused the ratings agencies of not understanding the state and making faulty analyses.

“You know breaking addictions to high taxes is hard. That’s a difficult thing to do. And that’s what we’re trying to do, is break addictions to high taxes,” Brownback said.

This isn’t economics, then, a state trying to overcome a personal moral failing. Addicts need help, and Jesus, and this is obviously the same sort of thing. Thomas Frank – who wrote the book on Kansasadds this:

You might recall that Sam Brownback was, in his days in Congress and the Senate, one of the most prominent national leaders of the Republican Party’s moral-purity wing; he even briefly ran for president in 2007. Matters of the spirit were quite the thing in conservative rhetoric in those days, and Brownback was always in that movement’s fore, crusading against offensive entertainment, stem cell research, and other abominations. Put a man like Brownback in charge of an executive branch, however, and a different figure emerges. He wanted to build a “red-state model” in Kansas, he used to say, a community of righteousness that could “show the way back to being America again.” What he has constructed instead is a microcosm of everything that is wrong and disastrous with conservative governance.

It is a grand experiment:

You’ve got runaway incompetence in the state administration; heavy-handed partisanship, with conservative Republicans crushing moderate Republicans after the familiar pattern; corporate money – Koch Industries is based in Wichita – sloshing around like a vast underground aquifer. You’ve got privatization, deregulation, and an enthusiastic race to the bottom.

You’ve got tax cuts so severe they’ve brought on fiscal catastrophe and thrown the state’s school system into crisis. You’ve got bullying by state legislators against organizations that criticize Brownback’s healthcare plans, and hints of pay-to-play corruption just under the surface. And, of course you’ve got credit downgrades as all this becomes known to the outside world.

Follow the links. You’ll see. And there’s only one answer:

In a 2013 speech about his red-state model, for example, he talked about the “principles” that undergirded his plan, and insisted they were not of the kind detectable by ratiocination: “it can’t be mental principles; it’s got to be things that connect through the heart.”

And Brownback meant it. During the 2012 debate over whether to swallow his strychnine tax cuts, Brownback’s team brought to Topeka none other than economist Arthur Laffer, he of the repeatedly discredited theory that cutting taxes magically increases government revenues. Laffer’s formula has been tried again and again at the national level and has famously failed, but the Kansas legislature jumped when presented with its very own chance to defy “mental principles.” Unfortunately, the rules of accounting prevailed and now Sam Brownback’s reelection campaign is begging voters to persuade themselves that everything they’ve read in the newspaper is a falsehood; that things are really and truly OK, despite the evidence of the senses: “The sun is shining in Kansas and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

It isn’t shining:

There has also been a shock-and-awe quality about the Brownback years. So numerous are the consequences of Kansas’s tax cuts (to choose the central item from Sam Brownback’s list of reforms), that it is difficult to try to process them all. By this I do not merely mean to point out that the tax cuts turned out to be much better for the rich than for everyone else; that’s kind of a cliché at this point – or that the tax cuts haven’t brought the economic growth Brownback said they would; that, too, is always the way these things turn out. More important is the panorama of disaster they have inflicted on education in the state: Fewer teachers working with more students, cuts to sports and art programs, and even school closings here and there.

Local governments, meanwhile have tried to make up the shortfall by raising property taxes (which are paid by a big part of the population in rural states), with the ironic result that while the hated moderate yuppies in the posh Kansas City suburbs get to enjoy Brownback’s tax cuts, the hardworking conservatives of the poorer counties have to pay much more. Other institutions have felt the pain as well: There was a risk, at one point, that the state’s courts would run out of money, and now Kansas prisons, that favorite conservative institution, are reportedly being forced to operate with insufficient guards. But what’s the big deal? A leader of the conservatives in the state legislature admitted in July that chopping back government was, in fact, one of the goals of the tax cuts all along.

Frank is not amused, or surprised:

Ten years ago, when I wrote a book about politics in the place where I grew up, I was impressed by the populist tone of the state’s conservative rebels. I was amused by the way they mocked the state’s successful and well-connected professional class. (This kind of thing still goes on, of course. On Thursday, Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who also finds himself behind in the polls, denounced his opponent as “another millionaire politician trying to deceive voters and buy a U.S. Senate seat.”) In the aftermath of the slump brought to you in 2008 by Wall Street, those populist rebels won. Thanks to the Great Recession, those rebels were able to defeat their opponents completely. The offices of the state are now nearly entirely at their command.

And what have the populists’ leaders done with that power? To say they proceeded to sit down and write passionate love letters to Wall Street is hyperbole, but it’s not sufficient. What is going on here is so freakishly self-damaging, so bizarrely self-contradicting that it makes you think of a man trying out his new shotgun on his own foot, or of a president putting a meth addict in charge of the nuclear football.

Think back over all those years of prayer and organizing and going door to door and yelling about the liberal elite with their lattes and their fancy Volvos – what has it fetched the rebellious right-wingers of my home state?

It fetched them a bit of ridicule, but they would say just wait – this is the future of America, the American way, the Kansas Way – and it also fetched them this:

A new poll from Fox News shows Democrat Paul Davis ahead of Gov. Sam Brownback in the governor’s race and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in a tight race with independent Greg Orman. …

Fox is a favorite news source of many conservatives, and a survey from the Brookings Institution showed that 53 percent of Republicans trust Fox more than any other television news source.

“Kansans continue to be alarmed by Sam Brownback’s historic cuts to our schools and colossal mismanagement of the state economy. They know Kansas can do better,” the Davis campaign said in a statement.

The Brownback campaign and the Kansas Republican Party both declined to comment on Fox’s poll.

What are they supposed to say, that they got the grand sweep of history wrong? It happens. Never trust anyone who tells you what is going to happen next, because it’s inevitable. No one knows what was inevitable until after it happens. These guys just proved that.

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Old Iron Pants

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

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

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

Then there’s this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sullivan suggests this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are no politic answers anymore:

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

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

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

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

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The Heart and Mind of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda Marcotte sees something else at play here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is serious stuff:

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

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

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

Scotland Votes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it’s coming apart:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course he does, and Adam Shaw reports this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s also this stuff:

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

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

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

Oh, there’s always more:

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

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

Oh crap, but there is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers sees things differently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The General Idea Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the battle begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conservative blogger Allahpundit then adds this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sullivan then cites Steven Cook with this:

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

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

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

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Consenting to be Fooled Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Containment, however, a fine idea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The excitable Andrew Sullivan is appalled:

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

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

Sullivan cites the scholar Ramzy Mardini on the nonsense here:

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

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

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


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

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

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

That means Obama missed an opportunity:

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

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

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

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

Fine, but Sullivan is still not happy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question answers itself.

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