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.