No Need to Listen Any Longer

The good Americans – who like to call themselves the Real Americans – have told the rest of us what’s wrong with us. Mitt Romney didn’t do that directly – he spoke to a private gathering of good Americans and explained to them what’s wrong with the rest of us – and that was secretly recorded and then broadcast to the world. But it wasn’t a lecture. He spoke, rather clinically, of the Forty-Seven Percent. Those were the Americans who had no sense of personal responsibility, who expected their government to do things for them with the tax money it collected from everyone – money the good people had paid to the government. That money was for other things. These people should get off their lazy fat asses and make something of their sad little grubbing lives. They should take responsibility for those basically immoral lives– but his point was strategic. He had decided to write off these people.

That was his only point. These morally inadequate people were going to vote for Obama anyway. His plan was to win the votes of everyone else, the good people, and he really wasn’t trying to be insulting. He was explaining how he’d make the most of his donors’ money, how he would use it efficiently. They were sitting right there in front of him. This was for them. He was just explaining his general plan to win the presidency to those who would finance it – but nothing is private anymore. When the video of his comments went public, even with the shaky images and bad sound, people were insulted. They had thought they were good people, struggling hard to just get by, and thus actually chock full of personal responsibility. Who the hell was this guy? He was a rich and powerful jerk from a rich and powerful family. What did he know about personal responsibility?

That sunk Mitt Romney, along with his general cluelessness and his awkwardness and woodenness. The complete absence of anything even vaguely resembling charisma didn’t help either – but it’s not as if his Forty-Seven Percent comments were anything new. Reagan had spoken of those Welfare Queens. Paul Ryan and every other Republican who worships Ayn Rand talks of the Makers and the Takers – another way to designate who is a good and who is bad in this world. Everyone from Herman Cain to CNN’s Erin Burnett made fun of the Occupy Wall Street crowd back in the day – those people should just get jobs, anyone with an ounce of self-respect can get rich, and those folks in the street are just jealous. These are not good people – and now those black folks in Ferguson and Baltimore aren’t good people either. Get a job. Maybe the police wouldn’t have to beat the crap out of you or shoot you dead if you weren’t hanging around with nothing to do, with a bad attitude. And no one should get food stamps or anything else. That only makes these moochers-with-attitude even worse people. Life is hard for them? That’s their own damned fault. Ask Bill O’Reilly.

There has always been a whole lot of lecturing going on, and much of it is from the social conservatives. Abortion is murder, no matter what the circumstances, rape of incest or whatever, and maybe contraception is murder too. God said so. Good people have nothing to do with either, and they have nothing to do with gays. Those are not good people. They should not be allowed to marry each other. They don’t deserve it – and Hollywood is ruining everything too. It’s all those naked people. Good girls are modest, and now there are all these pre-teen girls dressing like tramps, or little whores, or skanks, or whatever. And don’t get them started on sex education, or on what that leads to – premarital sex. Good girls are pure and keep themselves pure. Bad girls don’t. This is a matter of family values. Should we listen and mend our ways?

That just got harder:

In the wake of a tabloid report alleging that he molested several underage girls while he was a teenager, reality-television star Josh Duggar said Thursday that he “acted inexcusably” and was “deeply sorry” for what he called “my wrongdoing.”

The 27-year-old Duggar, a high-profile member of the evangelical Christian family that stars on TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting,” also resigned his post with the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying organization.

“Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret,” Duggar said in a statement posted on Facebook on Thursday. “I hurt others, including my family and close friends. I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation.”

“We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”

Hours before Duggar’s statement, In Touch Weekly had published a partially redacted police report from the Springdale Police Department in Arkansas that, the tabloid said, contained details of the allegations against Duggar. The report redacted the name of the suspect and the alleged victims, all juveniles, but listed Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar as relatives. The incidents occurred in 2002 and 2003.

Well, nothing is private anymore:

Josh Duggar is the oldest child in the family that stars in the popular show, “19 Kids and Counting,” which began as “17 Kids and Counting” in 2008. Duggar, his wife, Anna, and their three children live in Washington, where Duggar worked as executive director of FRC Action, the nonprofit lobbying arm of the Family Research Council.

The FRC, a conservative Christian organization led by Tony Perkins, is known for its advocacy against same-sex marriage, “with the mission to champion marriage and family as the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society.”

Perkins said in a statement Thursday that Duggar resigned from his post “as a result of previously unknown information becoming public concerning events that occurred during his teenage years.”

“Josh believes that the situation will make it difficult for him to be effective in his current work,” Perkins added.

Understatement is amusing, but this is a mess:

Duggar was running a used-car lot before he became the new face of the Family Research Council. Duggar’s dad, Jim Bob Duggar, served in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1999 to 2002. As executive director of FRC Action, Josh Duggar would attend the major functions and share photos of himself with Republican candidates.

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar said in a statement, also posted on the Duggar family’s Facebook page on Thursday, that the period 12 years ago was “one of the most difficult times of our lives. When Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes, and we were shocked. We had tried to teach him right from wrong. That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before.”

Josh Duggar’s wife, Anna – who is pregnant with their fourth child – added that her husband told her of his “past teenage mistakes” two years before he proposed to her and that he had received counseling that “changed his life.”

This is awkward, and it is political:

The Duggars have endorsed Mike Huckabee for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and on Friday morning, the former Arkansas governor said that he and his wife, Janet, wanted “to affirm our support for the Duggar family.”

“Josh’s actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, ‘inexcusable,’ but that doesn’t mean ‘unforgivable,'” Huckabee wrote on Facebook. “He and his family dealt with it and were honest and open about it with the victims and the authorities. No purpose whatsoever is served by those who are now trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalizing the story. Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things.”

It may be time to circle the Republican wagons:

The FRC, from which Josh Duggar resigned on Thursday, is known in Washington for hosting a Values Voters Summit, which regularly gathers Republican politicians trying to run for president. The organization’s budget in 2013 was about $13 million, according to its financial statements.

“Family Research Council is one of the major players among the pro-family social conservatives and has a major D.C. presence,” said Tobin Grant, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University, who compared the FRC to the Heritage Foundation or the American Family Association. “It still represents an old guard of people who are pushing the culture wars and traditional family values.”

On the other hand, in 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center controversially listed FRC as an anti-gay hate group. Republican politicians trying to run for president have ignored that – liberals whine about all sorts of things – but this will be hard to ignore.

Bob Cesca points that out:

Huckabee’s soft-pedaling here, as well as his attempt to pivot the scandal into the laps of everyone else but the perpetrators, makes it seem as if Josh Duggar innocently blurted an obscenity on the radio, or was caught shoplifting a bag of chips from a 7-Eleven. He confessed to repeatedly molesting young girls. Then he and his family engaged in a lengthy cover-up, while foisting Josh into the spotlight of their television show and allowing him to proselytize in support of the twisted Duggar concept of “family values,” which included shaming the LGBT community. There’s no way to soft-pedal something like this, but Huckabee managed to do it, and it inextricably tethers the presidential candidate to these unforgivable people.

And it kind of makes sense, too.

Usually when an anti-LGBT Christian conservative is caught in a sex scandal, the real crime is the hypocrisy. In the case of Josh Duggar and his family, it’s about the crime and the hypocrisy and the scam, all functioning in tandem, that make this particular scandal so horrendously ugly.

And here we go again:

Huckabee has repeatedly shoehorned himself into various news cycles by condemning everyone from single mothers to Beyoncé. Regarding the latter, where was the soft-pedaling about Beyoncé’s (comparatively inconsequential) song lyrics, for which he publicly scolded both Beyoncé and, amazingly, the president and Mrs. Obama?

Interesting how Huckabee reprimanded the Obamas for allowing their daughter to listen to Beyoncé, and yet he can’t quite bring himself to similarly wag his finger at Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar for manufacturing an environment that led to their son becoming a sexual predator, while concurrently burying the crime and scamming television viewers into unknowingly following the allegedly wholesome, Christian life of that predator. Put another way: Beyoncé and the Obamas are immoral because of song lyrics, but Jim Bob, Michelle and Josh Duggar are, according to Huckabee, “honest” and “good people.” (Insert your own race-based observations here.)

This can only get worse:

Jim Bob Duggar withheld the molestation from the police for an entire year while he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, and when Jim Bob finally reported the molestation to the police, he approached a family friend in the Arkansas State Police who was later nabbed for child pornography. And then the Duggars knowingly and self-righteously presented themselves as reality show saints, floating like winged cherubim above the homosexual riffraff, hurling down condemnations and outright lies at the sodomites whenever an opportunity presented itself. The Duggar television brand, while based on real life, is clearly and carefully sculpted to bury the nasty truth.

For seven years, television viewers, whether hate-watching or not, made the “19 Kids and Counting” show a massive hit; glued to their TVs for never-ending Duggar marathons, rooting for America’s largest and most clean-cut Christian family. Jim Bob, a self-professed Christian, obviously calculated that the gold-mine was worth con-job.

Likewise, Mike Huckabee is scamming his political supporters, hubristically comporting himself as a serious candidate when it ought to be fully transparent to anyone paying attention that he’s running simply to burnish his career and to augment his personal wealth.

Huckabee’s candidacy isn’t about helping his supporters who, by the way, are donating their hard-earned cash and limited spare time to his campaign; Huckabee’s candidacy is all about increasing his media cache, it’s about boosting his speaking fees and strengthening his hand in preparation for his next Fox News Channel contract. Former George W. Bush speechwriter, David Frum saliently refers to Fox News and AM talk radio as the “conservative entertainment complex” and Huckabee is one of the main stage players.

This can’t be emphasized enough: Huckabee is taking money from ordinary Americans who think he’s in the race to win and to change things, when in reality he has no hope of winning and he knows it.

That is a bit harsh, but then there’s Joan Walsh:

This comes on the heels of court transcripts revealing that bullying patriarch Bill O’Reilly, another purveyor of right-wing family values, used to return to his family and “go ballistic,” in his words, once dragging ex-wife down the stairs by the neck in front of his daughter. The daughter called his outbursts “scary and demeaning,” but also told a counselor she didn’t have much of a relationship with him because he was “never around.”

Of course, that didn’t stop O’Reilly from lecturing African Americans on how to raise their families, blaming black community troubles on “no supervision, kids with no fathers.” Now we know that instead of taking care of their own children, O’Reilly and the Duggars were out telling other people how to take care of theirs.

Or in the case of the Duggars and LGBT folks, telling them they couldn’t have any. With 19 biological kids of their own, the Duggars should have been way too tired for that level of homophobic activism, but they made time for it. And yes, a staple of their screechy preaching has been that LGBT people… wait for it… molest children!

That really was their thing:

Stellar mom Michelle Duggar made a robocall pushing the repeal of a local anti-discrimination ordinance, arguing that it would allow “child predators” to threaten “the safety and innocence of a child.” Maybe she had a guilty conscience.

Josh himself claimed anti-discrimination laws “protect one group of people over another” and make it hard to “protect the well-being of women and children in our cities.”

On the campaign trail in 2012, Duggar told reporters “Our family is like the epitome of conservative values. People connect to us in that way.”

Much of the 2016 GOP presidential field has connected to Josh, at least, who seems to have a vanity photo with a most of the 19 (or so) and counting GOP presidential contenders. The entire Republican field is united on the inferiority of gay families, but hails parents like the Duggars, who let their son prey on his sisters for a year without going to authorities.

Meanwhile, Fox News remains silent about the behavior of O’Reilly, because his angry white patriarch shtick is the core of its brand. The NFL is now more sensitive to the concerns of women’s rights advocates than Fox is.

It was a tough week for sanctimonious creeps, but it wasn’t so great for the rest of us, either.

We’ve been lectured for far too long, and the Atlantic’s Megan Garber explains the particulars here:

All reality TV – and reality TV about families, in particular – revels in the systemic collision of intimacy and publicity, the none-of-your-business and the everybody’s-business. All famous families are alike; all famous families are unhappy in their own way.

But the Duggars, whose recent additions to their family have made them, now, the stars of “19 Kids and Counting,” also represent a unique strain of reality TV stars. They are, on the one hand, like the Thompsons and the Kardashians and the hair-gelled kids from Jersey Shore: They consider what it means to be a family. These shows, which celebrate and denigrate their stars in pretty much equal measure, would be painfully unwatchable if it weren’t for that. And “19 Kids” presents a particularly charming answer to the question of family-hood. It offers up a (very large) group of people who enjoy each other, who tease each other, who laugh with each other—who seem to like as well as love each other.

The difference between the Duggars and their fellow reality-TV families, though, has been that the Kardashians and the Thompsons and their fellow families don’t claim moral superiority over their viewers. They claim, instead, a moral distance from those viewers. The Kardashians, in some ways the polar opposites of the Duggars, revel in their uniqueness, in their marginality, in the collection of idiosyncrasies that got them their own reality show(s) in the first place. The Kardashians have no interest in making people want to be like them. They have an interest, instead, in making people want to be not at all like them. They have an interest in inspiring fascination rather than emulation. Their weirdness is their capital, and their currency.

Not so the Duggars, who use their fame – their TV show(s), their book(s), their various political appearances – as platforms for evangelism. And evangelism not just for a religion, but for something more basic: a lifestyle. A lifestyle that is so inflected with moral messaging that we might as well call it A Way of Life. The Duggar children are home-schooled. Michelle Duggar, who recently recorded a robocall arguing against protections for LGBT and transgender residents of Fayetteville, Arkansas, doesn’t allow her daughters to wear shorts or skirts with hems that fall above the knee because an exposed thigh, she has explained, amounts to “nakedness and shame.” The girls generally avoid beaches and swimming pools under the same logic. Jessa Duggar (whose recent wedding TLC treated as a Very Special Event, dedicating multiple episodes to it) married her fiancé not just having never had sex with him, but having never kissed him.

Fine – if that makes her happy – but the whole thing was one long lecture, or a sales job that somehow ended up on The Learning Channel:

The overall effect of the show and the books and the overall omnipresence of the Duggars is promotional – and promotional, in particular, of a way of life that rejects the norms of the mass culture in favor a kind of moral libertarianism. “19 Kids and Counting” doubles as an extended infomercial for “family values” as the Duggars define them. … And the show, being what it is, spreads the messaging beyond television alone. On TLC’s website, the older Duggar children keep “life books”: virtual scrapbooks “where you can immerse yourself in the milestone events of Duggar family members who’ve recently had memorable life moments – courtship, marriage, pregnancy, and so on.” Michelle has her blog. Jessa has her Instagram account. Josh has his, too – and, until yesterday, a high-profile job at Washington’s conservative Family Research Council.

So the Duggars have built a micro-empire by way of the mass media. They are celebrating the rejection of mass culture through the tools of that culture. They have been using their fame; now, they are victims of it. The extremely sad scandal they are now contending with is what happens when family values collide with cultural norms.

Garber wonders what The Learning Channel will do now:

Earlier this year, the network cancelled “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo,” its alternatively beloved and belittled spinoff of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” after that show’s matriarch, Mama June, began dating a convicted child molester. (He never appeared on the show.) But “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo” was not morality in the guise of entertainment; with “19 Kids” the stakes are higher. What will TLC do now that the show that so stridently celebrates the wholesome is wholesome no longer?

That’s easy – they pulled all past episodes and are mum on continuing the thing. That makes sense, because the new the headline from Gallup is “On Social Ideology, the Left Catches Up to the Right” – so the writing is on the wall:

Gallup first asked Americans to describe their views on social issues in 1999, and has repeated the question at least annually since 2001. The broad trend has been toward a shrinking conservative advantage, although that was temporarily interrupted during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Since then, the conservative advantage continued to diminish until it was wiped out this year.

Ed Kilgore adds detail:

That in itself is significant, but if you add partisanship into the mix, the change is even more significant. As recently as 2009, 31% of self-identified Democrats also self-identified as “conservative” or “very conservative” on “social issues.” That was a bit of an outlier, but the number was in the low twenties earlier. Now it’s at 14%, even as the “liberal/very liberal” total has spiked to an all-time high of 53%. There’s been a smaller but still significant shift among Republicans from “conservative’/very conservative” to “moderate,” but the overall trend is being driven by Democrats.

Kevin Drum adds perspective:

For a long time, one of the rocks of political analysis in America has been the simple fact that conservatives outnumber liberals. That’s been true since at least the 60s, and probably for the entire postwar period – and it’s been a perpetual millstone around Democratic necks. They couldn’t win national elections just by getting the liberal vote and a little bit of the center-right vote. They had to get a lot of the center-right vote.

But it now looks like that era is coming to an end. With social issues increasingly defining politics, a social liberal is, for all practical purposes, just a plain old liberal – and the trend of increasing liberal ID is already underway.

How did that happen? It was all the lectures, lectures about very bad people. Says who?

Posted in America Turning Liberal, Duggar Sex Scandal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Personal Note

It was December 14 in Paris almost fifteen years ago, cold and dark at dawn, followed by heavy rain, and I was bleary-eyed from staying up all night watching CNN-International in the hotel room. Somewhere in the middle of the night there was Al Gore on the screen, conceding the presidential election to George Bush.

So that was that. And a few hours later I was across the street at the Café Bonaparte doing that French breakfast thing – lots of black coffee and smoking my pipe, and leafing through Libération and Le Figaro and Le Monde, trying to get a sense of what people made of the whole thing. Now and then I’d glance up and stare at the old church next door, where Descartes is buried.

But you can only do so much coffee, and sitting and watching, so it was walking, as the rain started.

Walking the rainy December streets of Paris, with the pipe, is fine, in a Hemingway sort of way or something. The city has its winter smells – wet leaves and bread baking somewhere, and a whiff of burnt diesel from all the odd little cars. And there are the sounds – strange chatter and distant up-and-down silly sirens. And what E. M. Forster once said about winter in London was just as true in Paris – the air did taste like cold pennies. But by noon it was time to find a clean, well-lighted place, and there, in the warren of small streets behind the Odéon, was 16 Rue des Quatre-Vents, the Moosehead – everyone’s favorite Canadian bar in Paris. It would do.

And then the conversation started – with the old fellow who walked in, who claimed he ran a wire service but looked like a bum. We were about the only two customers that afternoon, so we ended up buying each other beers and talking about international politics. It was better than walking in the rain. And he was a good sort – not French, but not exactly a Brit, and certainly not an American. He’d lost it all. He wasn’t anything in particular any longer. He’d just knocked around Paris for decades on the edge of the news business, a go-between, a forwarder of this and that. But he knew things.

Of course we covered the current American political madness, and the French stuff, de Gaulle and Algeria, de Gaulle and NATO, and the nuclear weapons – the whole idea of France’s independent force de frappe and all that. We were appropriately cynical. It was all madness. But the thing I remember now is that he turned to me and said something peculiar – “You know it’s over for America, don’t you?”

The talk that followed that had to do with George Bush, as you would expect. The American electoral system, never very sensible, had broken down, and the guy who had fewer votes was appointed by the Supreme Court, which was bad enough, but the guy was clearly a dim bulb with a nasty streak and a way of invoking God to avoid having to think anything through. No good would come of this.

But that’s not what the old fellow was getting at. He wanted to know just what it was Americans did. He liked the going-to-the-moon thing, and the gaudy junk movies, and rock and jazz – but American cars were crap, and everything we’d invented was now made better and cheaper elsewhere, like the electronics, and Airbus was well on its way to eating Boeing alive, and so on and so forth.

What is it that we did, really, that was so cool? As far as he could tell we were a nation of consumers, producing nothing really fine – just sitting around watching television. France had the extraordinary cheese and wine, and then he pointed up to the television on the wall – the Simpsons, dubbed in French, was on. He said if we were in Germany it would be Bay Watch. And then he muttered a few things about empires in decline.

The only thing to say in response was something like wait – you’ll see. Amazing things will happen. And he smiled and bought another round of beer.

Posted in American Exceptionalism | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Family Dynamics

There may be a third President Bush, but he has to live with the decisions of the second one. He can praise those decisions or say he’s his own man and distance himself from them, but this is family – he has to say something. Americans want to know what they’re getting if they vote for him.

What’s done is done. In response to those September 11 attacks we invaded and pretty much took over Afghanistan, to rid that place of the Taliban and that guy they’d hosted, Osama bin Laden, who had said he had been the one behind what happened, or at least approved it. We took care of the Taliban, more or less, and nurtured a new if somewhat flaky government that would not let the Taliban run things again, hosting al-Qaeda again, but we didn’t get Osama bin Laden. He’d slipped away, but by then we were off to Iraq anyway, because of those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had – which he didn’t have – and because Iraq was a state sponsor of terrorism – even if that was a matter of their support for the PLO and other enemies of Israel. Al-Qaeda had long despised Saddam Hussein for being too damned secular. There was no connection there, and George Bush was finally forced to admit that Saddam Hussein didn’t have anything at all to do with the September 11 attacks, but terrorism is terrorism, right?

That wasn’t going to fly – we’d lost years there by then, and far too many lives, and spent far too much money – so we shifted to talk about how the point had always been to build a Jeffersonian secular democracy in Iraq, as an example to the region, to show everyone over there the virtues of the American Way in that New American Century that the neoconservatives had said was well underway. It had been a demonstration project all along. Now we knew, and all we had to do was tamp down the Sunni-Shiite civil war that had exploded once we had settled in, and George Bush’s “surge” would take care of that – thirty thousand additional troops to stop the internecine violence, to give both sides “breathing room” to work out their differences and form a sensible inclusive government.

That didn’t work. The Bush administration finally just set a firm date for us to leave, and carefully negotiated a status of forces agreement, to keep enough of our troops in Iraq to keep al-Qaeda types from setting up shop there, until 2011 – but no longer. Malaki would be hounded out of office if he agreed to Americans in Iraq pretty much forever. He told Obama they he really couldn’t sign any extension to the Bush agreement – his own parliament would never ratify it – and we left.

We really had no choice, because we had said that Iraq really was now a sovereign nation after all – we had made it so – and that left Iraq as a sovereign nation run by a Shiite strongman, Malaki, as opposed to a Sunni strongman, Saddam Hussein, and closely aligned with their two Shiite neighbors, Iran and Syria, our current nemesis-twins in the region. The major Sunni power in the region, Saudi Arabia, was infuriated, and the internal Sunni-Shiite civil war still rages on in Iraq, and with ISIS trying to take back what they can from the Shiites in Iraq and Syria, and with the Saudis fighting the Shiite rebels who have taken over Yemen. We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but the new guy, Haider al-Abadi, is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. He isn’t. And we are long gone from Iraq.

At least Osama bin Laden is dead. We got him, far too late, and curiously, without a major war and occupation. A small team slipped into Pakistan and shot him dead, not that it mattered that Obama did what George Bush had vowed that he, George Bush, would do. By then Osama bin Laden didn’t matter. Al-Qaeda had become a loose affiliation of independently owned and operated franchises, or really, a trademark appropriated by all sorts of terrorists organizations calling themselves Al-Qaeda in This or Al-Qaeda in That. Osama bin Laden wasn’t even a figurehead by then. The thing had metastasized. Now al-Qaeda is almost a memory – ISIS took its place.

That’s the legacy, and in February, 2014, Slate’s Fred Kaplan insisted on setting the record straight:

It’s maddening to have to repeat this fact over and over, but George W. Bush – not Barack Obama – negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which required the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011. One clause allowed the deadline to be extended by the vote of both countries’ parliaments, but the Iraqi parliament wasn’t about to do any such thing. Obama dispatched emissaries, including one who’d also worked in the Bush White House, to see if some deal could be arranged. It couldn’t.

At the time, Kaplan added this:

Maliki has his own agenda. It doesn’t align much with ours; it never did, a fact that some smart colonels and generals realized at the time. He sees our past alliance as one of convenience and has now moved on to other allies, including Iran – except, of course, when he needs arms and consulting advisers to stave off his old enemies, in which case he turns to us again, and we supply him with what we can. This is fine, when it’s also in our interests to resupply him, but there should be no illusions; there’s no point going back in deeper, even if the treaty allowed it, because, like the last time, we won’t be able to settle the war on our terms.

That’s the reality of the thing. Obama actually understood Maliki:

He too has an unsentimental outlook on the world. His views have been tempered by Iraq and scorched by Afghanistan. He’s not shy about using military force, but insists, when possible, to grip it tightly. “Escalation” is a suspect term; “uncontrolled escalation,” is an unacceptable one.

Those, however, are not suspect terms to Republicans, and Robert Costa explains a new shift in Republican strategy:

After more than a decade bearing the political burden of Iraq, Republicans are making a dogged effort to shed it by arguing that the Islamic State’s gruesome ascent is a symptom of Obama’s foreign policy, rather than a byproduct of the 2003 invasion they once championed… At the least, it is an attempt to have Iraq seen as a shared failure, begun by a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress but inherited and fumbled by Democrats…

The political endgame for Republicans is a general election where Clinton can be portrayed as someone who initially backed the U.S. mission but did not see it through. In that sense, foisting blame on Obama is only the first step in the GOP’s aims. Knowing their ownership of the invasion in the eyes of voters has not faded, they would like to distance themselves from the messy debate over weapons of mass destruction and make the Islamic State – how it rose and how to stop it – the central political battleground on foreign policy.

Jeb Bush is already testing out this new strategy:

Bush said that Obama “abandoned” Iraq and lamented the fall of Ramadi to Islamic State terrorists, saying that “ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president” and that Al Qaeda was decimated under his brother. “You think about the family members who lost – our blood and treasure’s in Ramadi, and they won, they won that battle,” he said. “It was hard-fought and that stability has been lost.”

Asked about Bush’s Iraq comments on Thursday, White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said reporters were “missing the point.”

“We know that ISIL was an outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq that did not exist prior to the fateful decision by the previous administration to launch an invasion in Iraq,” Earnest said.

The former Florida governor also reiterated that he loves his family, but that he is a different man than his brother and father, the 43rd and 41st presidents, respectively.

“I love my mom and dad, I love my brother, and people are going to have just get over that,” he said to applause.

That’s an interesting dynamic, and Greg Sargent adds this:

It’s hard to say whether it will work: While blaming Obama is a sure-fire winner among GOP primary voters, the middle of the country may still have firm memories of Iraq as Bush’s war. The strategy also risks putting more pressure on Republicans to detail what they would do in Iraq instead. Of course, with the situation in Iraq deteriorating, and with Obama’s numbers on foreign policy ailing, perhaps many Americans will be open to spreading the blame around.

It’s also worth noting, though, that the current sanitizing of the history of the Iraq War could help in this effort. The “knowing what you know now” question simplifies the genesis of the Iraq War by blaming it all on a supposed intelligence failure. That alone whitewashes away the fact that many critics warned at the time that the intelligence might not actually indicate what Bush and company claimed it did, and that Bush might be cherry-picking intelligence to help build the case for an invasion. Worse… this narrative also obscures the fact that invading was a bad idea regardless of whether Saddam had WMDs – because it risked creating all kind of unintended consequences.

But it might work:

The story now becomes: Hey, we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq based on what we know now, and it was a mistake, given the intelligence failure. But since we did, what really matters is how we prosecute the current conflict. This is now all about Obama’s strategy – Bush’s “mistake” is old news – and Obama’s weakness is really to blame for the current mess.

Simon Maloy notes the other factor:

Establishment Republicans and neocons pleaded with Jeb to stop being so bad at politics and start defending his brother’s war. Randy Scheunemann, a neoconservative activist and lobbyist, told BuzzFeed that Jeb should immediately pivot to blaming Obama for the chaos in Iraq. “Gov. Bush could easily say to Obama, ‘The surge was working. You were handed a three-run lead at the bottom of the ninth, all you had to do was come in and close, and you blew the game.'”

That was actually the message Jeb laid out back in February in his big national security speech that everyone’s already forgotten. And he’s coming back to it now, attacking Obama for not leaving behind a large residual force of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. “The focus should be ‘Knowing what we know now, Mr. President, should you have kept 10,000 troops in Iraq?'” he said in New Hampshire yesterday. Instead, Jeb argues, Obama “abandoned” Iraq for political reasons.

Okay, one more time:

This is a bogus argument that assumes that the only factor preventing the U.S. from leaving a massive troop presence behind in Iraq was Obama’s political agenda. It was actually the Iraqis who made the residual force an impossibility. George W. Bush had negotiated a timetable for withdrawal that required all U.S. troops to be out of the country by the end of 2011, and the Iraqis (after many years of military occupation) were eager to adhere to it. Obama, despite his campaign promises to withdraw American forces from Iraq, tried to negotiate with the Iraqi government to leave behind a residual force of 3,500 soldiers, but Iraq would not agree to necessary legal protections for the American troops. There were powerful factions within the Iraqi government that would not support any troop presence of any size, and “followers of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were threatening renewed violence if any American troops stayed past the end of the year.” Unable to achieve any sort of agreement, the negotiations fell apart and the U.S. troops pulled out.

Maloy is not impressed:

The argument coming from Bush and Scheunemann and other critics who blame the rise of ISIS entirely on the failure to leave behind U.S. troops is that Obama should have forced the Iraqi government to ignore or overcome its political divisions and accept a continued American military force. And the assumption they make is that the presence of those American forces would have encouraged the corrupt and authoritarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to stop alienating and repressing rival Sunni factions, which helped create the toxic political conditions in which ISIS has thrived. The Bush administration wasn’t able to accomplish that task with over a hundred thousand troops on the ground, but Obama could have done it with 10,000 because… well, just because.

The neocons say we invaded Iraq so we could bring freedom and democracy to the region. And after setting up a democratically elected Iraqi government, they’re attacking Barack Obama for not trying hard enough to undermine that government’s sovereignty and strong-arm it into accepting American military forces.

The illogic of all this is inescapable, so Jeb will have to rely on Americans’ profound and persistent disregard for logic. Iraq is a mess. The whole Middle East is a mess. My brother is a fine fellow. It’s all Obama’s fault. That might work, but there’s a backup plan:

Jeb Bush on Thursday put a bit more space between himself and his brother, part of a slow-motion and seemingly reluctant distancing effort as he moves toward a White House bid.

After being asked by a questioner at a sports bar here whether there is any “space” between the Bush brothers on issues, Jeb Bush pointed to the scale of government spending during the George W. Bush presidency.

“I think that in Washington, during my brother’s time, Republicans spent too much money,” Jeb Bush said. “I think he could have used the veto power – he didn’t have line-item veto power, but he could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C.”

Well, he did face the facts:

Total federal spending grew from $1.86 trillion in 2001 to nearly $3 trillion in 2008, an annual growth rate of 7 percent. Spending in President Obama’s first six years has had an annual growth rate of about 4 percent.

There’s no getting around that, but Jeb is not exactly cutting ties:

“I don’t feel compelled to go out of my way to criticize Republican presidents. Just call me a team player here,” he told voters at the sports bar Thursday morning. “It just so happens that the last two Republican presidents happened to be my dad and my brother.”

Later, Bush was asked during a radio interview whether he is ever bothered by attacks on his family. He said he will be ­”successful” if he can “show what kind of person I am.”

“If it’s all about the past, if it’s all about whether the Bushes are going to break the Adams family [record] in terms of the number of people who are president, that’s a loser… I totally get that – and I think people have a right to question me, and I’ll have every opportunity to convince them of who I am.”

That might be difficult. Jeb has issues, and this calls for an expert like Peter Wolson – a Training and Supervising Analyst on the faculty of the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies and their former President and Director of Training, and a Resident Faculty member of the Wright Institute Los Angeles. He has a private practice here in Beverly Hills, but he often writes about politics, from a psychoanalytic perspective, and he finds Jeb interesting:

There is convincing evidence of Jeb’s internal conflict between his desire to become “his own man” and his fear of separating from and antagonizing his family, especially the brother he idealized as a child. This dynamic may be even more conflicted because Jeb’s personal history demonstrates that he has already strongly differentiated himself from his family to become his own man.

He married a Mexican woman whose father had been a waiter and migrant worker, for example, not a society debutant. He became fluent in Spanish and converted to Catholicism. His policies as Florida governor were far closer to conservative than moderate. He also made Florida his home rather than the family favorites, Maine and Texas.

Put that in perspective:

Separating from your family is part of growing up. You go from extreme dependency as a baby and throughout childhood to the independence of adulthood. Teenage acts of rebellion, when adolescents can disagree with virtually everything parents say and stand for – is part of this transition. The turbulence of adolescence reflects the internal conflict between a teen’s desire to remain a child and the desire to separate and become his or her own person. It culminates in a break that enables teenagers to form separate identities.

As teenagers reject their parents and their values, they create the internal space to develop their own opinions, tastes, ideals and goals. Though they may retain many aspects of their parents’ views and values, they develop their own distinctive framework for them. They create who they are in the world.

Mark Twain described this transition. “When I was a boy of 14,” he wrote, “my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

But it could be that, in striving to step into the presidential shoes of his long-idealized older brother and his even more idealized father, Jeb somehow regressed and lost confidence in himself.

That may be what’s going on here:

Children with powerful family members are frequently filled with self-doubt. They can feel like failures when comparing themselves to older siblings and parental figures. They might experience normal manifestations of separation or individuation – including adolescent rebellion or just the act of forming their own opinions – as if they are attacking or even killing their family members. Understandably, this causes them not just guilt but a growing fear of alienating their family.

Clinging to family love through idealization is a defensive reaction against aggressive feelings from separation and individuation. Most adolescents resolve this conflict as they realize they are merely killing off their family’s controlling influence over them – not their actual family members.

If these are the psychodynamics that caused Jeb to flounder this past week, his major challenge is if and how quickly he can work through them. He has to fully recover a mind of his own – and convince the American public that he is not George W. Bush II.

And first he has to convince himself, or something, and Digby (Heather Parton) has what seems to be an appropriate reaction:

Reading that almost makes me feel sorry for Jeb. Not because of the armchair psychological profile of his family dynamic – which is cheap speculation – I feel sorry for him because he’s being discussed this way at all.

I guess it’s inevitable but I hate it. Yes, he’s shackled to his family’s political legacy and is having to pay a price for his father and brother’s failures. But this stuff is junk. Who knows what his motivations are and whether or now he’s gone through the normal processes of “separation and individuation”? And who cares? What matters is how he deals with the reality that his brother’s presidency was an epic failure and how or if he would do things differently.

That’s what people want to know. People are waiting, or maybe not:

On the heels of uninspired reactions from an Iowa focus group, “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough sounded the lack-of-enthusiasm alarm Thursday for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among potential Republican primary voters.

Scarborough, along with Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin, remarked that voters they’ve come in contact with at GOP events, unlike other candidates, are not coming to events to see Bush. The MSNBC host said that voters are simply not “talking about him,” adding further that excitement surrounding the potential candidate is “non-existent.”

“Nobody’s running around with their hair on fire going ‘I just hate Jeb Bush’ – it’s worse than that,” Scarborough said. “Nobody’s talking about him. I have yet to find the first person in all the Republican events I’ve been to come up to me and go ‘I’m here for Jeb.’ It’s non-existent.”

“Have you ever had anybody come up to you in any of these Republican events saying, ‘I came here, I drove here specifically for Jeb?'” Scarborough asked Halperin. “You hear that for everybody else. Have you ever heard that for Jeb?”

He hadn’t, and Scarborough added this:

“I do think that he would be the strongest general election candidate. And I think he would be a great president. That’s me personally,” Scarborough admitted. “But, boy, I don’t see how gets through a primary process where people – again, it’s not anger or rage. They just don’t connect to him.”

That means that Peter Wolson may be right. Jeb first has to work out those family dynamics. Then he’ll have something to say. But no one has time to wait for that, although everyone wishes him well. We all know our own families.

Posted in Jeb Bush, The Bush Legacy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Search of a Doctrine

We lost Ramadi. We may have lost Iraq, if there ever was such a place. Maybe we imagined a real country where folks got along just fine. All we had to do is remove Saddam Hussein and there it would be. What were we thinking? As each of the Republican candidates tries to say that our Iraq war was sort of a mistake – if we knew now what we didn’t know then, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, we wouldn’t have gone in, but we didn’t know that then, so it wasn’t exactly a mistake, really – each misses the point. We went in. Now what?

There are no good choices. See What We Have Done – We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but the new guy, Haider al-Abadi, is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. But ISIS is the old Sunni opposition, left over from the days of Hussein, and the rest of the Sunnis, in Anbar and Ramadi, want their country back. They want Abadi gone, and he knows it. They’ll also tolerate ISIS – so when Haider al-Abadi sends his hapless army out to fight ISIS and his army runs away, he calls in the Shiite militias to get the job done. They are freelancers and are mostly aligned with Iran, our bitter enemy who wants to rid the region of the Sunni bad guys as much as we do. Some Iranian generals show up to help out now and then too. We pretend they’re not there.

That, however, is all we have to fight ISIS at the moment. Unfortunately, those Shiite militias are likely to slaughter every Sunni in sight, including women and children, and that isn’t going to move Iraq any closer to being a unified country where everyone gets along. Do we arm the Sunni tribes now? They have their own militias. If we did that everyone would be fighting ISIS together, but the Sunni folks would try to overthrow Abadi sooner or later, and Iraq, as the secular Jeffersonian democracy that we thought it should be, would be gone. The point of the whole exercise was to restore the nation of Iraq as it was meant to be. Everyone would get along just fine after we removed the Sunni tyrant Saddam Hussein. There’d be free and open elections and everyone would have a say.

We arranged those elections, and then discovered that none of the locals believed in the notion of Iraq. The Sunni Arabs in the west and the Shiite Arabs in the south and east and the Kurds up north – Sunnis but ethnically not Arabs – wanted nothing to do with each other. They never had. The Shiites took over. Baghdad is in their sector. The Sunnis took their sector in the west, and they took over eastern Syria too. The Kurds would have nothing to do with those two groups of fools down south. They acted as if they had their own country all along, and that’s worked out pretty well for them. We were the only ones that believed there was such a place as Iraq.

That was naïve, but forgivable. This all started in 1916 with that Sykes–Picot Agreement that created Iraq and most of these countries over there out of thin air, or hot sand. See The War to Start All Wars – decisions made at the end of the First World War seem to have generated almost all of the wars that followed, and certainly generated every current war in the Middle East. The division of what was left of the Ottoman Empire in that region into discrete brand-new nations, once the Kaiser was gone, was a bit arbitrary.

The locals are trying to fix that. ISIS has often displayed big “End of Sykes-Picot” banners when they have taken over a town or city. We’re the ones who still support the decisions of Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the British and French diplomats who redrew the map of the region. We went over there to insure the integrity of their new somewhat imaginary nations. Those nations aren’t new now, and stability is a good thing. No one would attack us here if things were stable there. That was the general idea.

That turned out to be a fool’s errand, but there’s no need to name the specific fools. It’s enough to know that they’re all working for Jeb Bush now – his new team of foreign policy advisors. We WILL have order over there!

That’s a tall order, but what might be called the pro-Sykes–Picot Republicans insist on it:

Three Senate Republicans are calling on President Obama to change his strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the wake of the terrorist group’s capture of Ramadi.

“If you don’t change your strategy… then this country is very likely to get attacked in another 9/11 fashion,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Obama from the Senate floor.

Graham, who is considering a presidential run, warned Obama to take action now to avoid a “huge mistake.”

Obama, however, tries to avoid mistakes:

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the president will speed up training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters in an effort to erase gains made by ISIS, also referred to ISIL. But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters later Wednesday that there is currently “no formal strategy review that is underway,” according to a White House pool report.

Obama is being careful. He seems to know that the work of those two long-dead British and French diplomats has caused no end of trouble. Others don’t know that:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also criticized the administration’s strategy, saying it has become bogged down in a “paralysis by analysis.”

“I hope this is a wake-up call to the Obama administration and that they will provide the Congress and the American people and our troops a clear path forward to defeat ISIL and to rid the world of this terror army,” he added.

Then it got worse:

The senators’ comments came as Obama spoke Wednesday about the threat climate change poses to national security.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, slammed the president’s focus on climate change, asking if the administration gives “a damn about what’s happening in the streets of Ramadi?”

“Ramadi should lead our nation’s leaders to reconsider an indecisive and a total lack of strategy that has done little to roll back ISIL,” McCain said.

What strategy would they propose? Slate’s Fred Kaplan calls them out:

Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.

For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect – the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?

Kaplan says options are limited:

Logistics, intelligence, airstrikes to help local anti-ISIS forces on the ground – this is what the United States can best offer. Officers and analysts on the ground say that airstrikes terrify many ISIS fighters, who tend to attack in swarms, which provide concentrated targets for a bomb. These sources confirm a report in the New York Times that ISIS launched its crucial attack on Ramadi during a major sandstorm, when pilots (of airplanes or drones) could not have seen its movements on the ground below.

But even in clear weather, airstrikes alone aren’t sufficient. ISIS mingles with the locals (in some cases, they are the locals), making it hard for pilots to distinguish friends (or neutral innocents) from foes. Ground assaults are needed, too – by other locals, who are more likely to speak the language, understand the situation, and wrest away the allegiance of those in the ISIS’s grip or sway.

There may be no role for us in that. If we want stability there, so they don’t attack us here, we may have to let them draw new borders for themselves. We drew precise borders for them long ago. They didn’t like those borders, and now they hate them. Let them work this out this time. That may be the only thing that assures stability over there.

Actually, Joe Biden got it right in 2007:

Biden, then a senator, championed a more federal system explicitly allowed by the Iraqi constitution (at the insistence of the Kurds), devolving power from the central government in Baghdad to the provinces. Although Biden denied it at the time, his proposal would almost certainly have led to the de facto soft partition of Iraq into three autonomous regions dominated by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. A similar approach in the 1990s patched together Bosnia out of the detritus of the Balkans civil war between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. In a 2007 op-ed, Biden warned, “If the United States can’t put this federalism idea on track, we will have no chance for a political settlement in Iraq and, without that, no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind.”

He was ahead of his time. “Biden got it dead right, and I still think transitioning to a federal power-sharing arrangement is the only way to stop the killing and hold Iraq together,” says Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote the op-ed with Biden.

At the time, Biden was arguing that Bush’s “surge” wasn’t going to work. It didn’t. If it had, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The only possible “Iraq” might be three nations with one name and maybe a common currency. Our doctrine could have been “Stability Abroad and Security at Home through stepping back and Letting Others Decide What They Want” – but of course we don’t think that way. Obama catches enough flak for his “leading from behind” on this and that, even it works just fine. Americans don’t step back.

That’s because stepping back is scary, and the New Republic’s Jeet Heer explains here that Marco Rubio wants to scare Americans into voting for him:

Monday, Marco Rubio announced the new theme of his campaign: “The fundamental problem we have in America is that nothing matters if we aren’t safe.” According to Rubio, “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today,” which means “the economic stuff” has to take a backseat to national security. …

This black-and-white language negates the possibility that security is one value among others, that it needs to be balanced against competing values such as liberty or peace. It’s hard to imagine cruder appeals to fear.

Steve Benen takes it from there:

Part of the challenge for Rubio is overcoming his general distaste for policy depth, especially in areas of national security. The Florida Republican has a great affinity for catchphrases and over-simplified principles, which frequently generate applause from far-right audiences feasting on red meat, but which often makes it seem as if the senator has no idea what he’s talking about.

Last week, for example, Rubio declared “our strategy” on national security should mirror Liam Neeson’s catchphrase in the film “Taken”: “We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you.”

Soon after, the candidate’s team unveiled the “Rubio Doctrine” – described by Charles Pierce as “three banalities strung together in such a way as to sound profound and to say nothing.”

Jon Chait called the arguments that Rubio was making insanely wrong:

Rubio’s claim that the world “has never been more dangerous than it is today” is not just wrong but insanely wrong. How about when a massive communist empire threatened us with nuclear annihilation? Or when Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan launched a war of extermination? Or when the Mongols amassed the largest land conquest in human history and left behind smoking ruins and pyramids of skulls?

As Stephen Pinker has argued, the world has in fact grown comprehensively safer in nearly every respect. This is true whether safety is defined in humanitarian or geopolitical terms. Disease and starvation, the main killers of humanity, are in retreat. Far more people live in democratic states, and fewer in autocratic ones. Armed conflict has declined precipitously…

Of course, most Americans, who are quite safe, have little awareness of aggregate measures of safety. There are still frightening figures committing barbaric acts on their television screens, in Iraq and elsewhere. Rubio’s argument – to the extent he has any analytic basis for his platform, which is questionable – is that Americans must regard these threats with a terror so comprehensive it blots out all other considerations. You may not be thrilled with a candidate who promises to repeal the security of Obamacare and eliminate all taxes on amassed wealth, but you have no choice, because “nothing matters.” He is the candidate who will ask over and over again, “Is it safe?”

Benen agrees:

At its core, Rubio’s message is as vacuous as anything we’ve seen in a while. “Nothing matters if we aren’t safe”? That’s a pretty radical proposition on its own, but just as important is the fact the far-right senator hasn’t presented any kind of meaningful strategy that would improve our security, aside from shallow rhetoric about “toughness” and “strength.”

Indeed, Rubio seems to operate from the assumption that wars and military offensives will, practically by definition, generate “safety” – a posture most of us already know to be wrong.

As a doctrine it is absurd, and Peter Beinart takes us through our history of doctrines:

Presidential “doctrines” have a long history in American foreign policy. The earliest, and most famous, was James Monroe’s insistence that the United States would prevent European powers from gaining a beachhead in the Americas. More than 80 years later, Theodore Roosevelt added the “corollary” that in order to prevent the kind of instability that might invite foreign meddling in the region, the United States could intervene to topple Latin American governments. In 1947, in an effort to justify aid to anti-communist regimes in Greece and Turkey, Harry Truman outlined the doctrine of containment, by which the U.S. would “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Jimmy Carter refocused that doctrine on the Persian Gulf, where he vowed that the U.S. would use military force to repel Soviet domination. Ronald Reagan turned containment on its head by insisting that the U.S. would not merely prevent Soviet expansion but aid anti-communist rebels seeking to roll back pro-Soviet regimes. Finally, in response to the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush took this aggression a step further by arguing that rather than deterring or containing hostile regimes seeking weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. would launch preventive wars to overthrow them.

Not all these doctrines served America well. And not all of them were even announced as presidential doctrines. Reagan, for instance, simply began arming Nicaragua’s Contras, Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen, and Angola’s UNITA rebels in their fights against communist regimes – which prompted columnist Charles Krauthammer, seeing a pattern, to call such aid the “Reagan doctrine.” The phrase stuck.

But what all these doctrines had in common was that they constituted an effort to define, and answer, the specific challenge of a given time. For Monroe, it was hemispheric independence. For Truman, it was communist expansion. For Carter, it was threats to America’s oil supply.

Rubio “doctrine” as he explained it in a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations does not do that:

The Rubio doctrine, which the Florida senator announced on Wednesday, “consists of three pillars.” Pillar number one is “American strength”: America must “adequately fund our military.” Pillar number two is “the protection of the American economy”: America must pursue “free trade.” Pillar number three is “clarity regarding America’s core values”: America must “support the spread of economic and political freedom by reinforcing our alliances, resisting efforts by large powers to subjugate their smaller neighbors” and “advancing the rights of the vulnerable.”

These, Rubio told moderator Charlie Rose, “are timeless truths.” But that’s precisely the problem. Historically, foreign-policy doctrines have been the opposite of “timeless.” They represent efforts to further American interests and ideals by offering a specific response to a specific geopolitical reality. Every president wants the United States to be strong, prosperous, and moral. Doctrines are supposed to outline a strategy for achieving those goals. They are not the goals themselves.

Rubio, then, wasn’t saying what his amazing new doctrine would actually do:

In his speech, Rubio did discuss certain policy preferences. He supports giving the president fast-track authority for trade agreements. He wants to boost military spending. He opposes President Obama’s negotiations with Iran. What he didn’t do was explain what sets this age apart from past ones, and outline the precise strategy America needs right now.

There’s a reason for that:

Rubio and most of the other GOP candidates want the United States to go on offense overseas after the perceived retrenchment of the Obama years. But Americans have little appetite for additional wars, and the threat that Republicans focus on most – “radical Islam” – lumps together states and organizations that are not only disparate, but bitterly hostile to each other. Truman’s “containment” doctrine and Reagan’s doctrine of “rollback” each had problems. But at least they were aimed at a specific enemy. Rubio can’t lay out a doctrine like that today because the two enemies he and other Republicans talk about most – Iran and ISIS – are only linked in the conservative imagination. On the ground, they’re at war.

That is a problem, but this was inevitable:

When you’re running against candidates like Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee, appearing serious on foreign policy isn’t hard. But the closer you look at the “doctrine” that supposedly guides Rubio’s approach to the world, the less serious it looks. Anyone can enunciate “timeless truths.” Serious candidates explain novel ways to pursue them given the particular circumstances of their time. At the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, Rubio barely tried.

Obama is more practical. He has an informal doctrine, often invoked in White House strategy sessions – “Don’t do stupid shit” – and there was a lot of controversy about that when folks found out. Hillary Clinton said that she hated that ad hoc approach to the world and its challenges – but she and Obama later met and smoothed things over. She came to like that doctrine. It may also be the appropriate doctrine for the Middle East at the moment. We lost Ramadi. We may have lost Iraq, if there ever was such a place. So step back. Don’t do anything stupid. We’ve had a dozen or more years of that – and doctrines should be useful. We’re still waiting for one of those from the Republicans.

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A Few Underlying Issues

Even political junkies are bored. The next presidential election is a year and a half away and Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. She has no serious competition. Elizabeth Warren won’t run and Bernie Sanders is a socialist – a bad word even if he has always insisted that he’s sort of one of those European-style democratic socialists. He doesn’t really want the government to take over all means of production. He only wants a lot more fairness and a government that helps everyone, not just the one-percent who got ninety-nine percent of all the economic gains as the economy recovered from its 2008 collapse. Free college for everyone would be nice too – just like in most of Europe. He’s provocative. He’s tremendously popular. And he cannot win the White House. There are far too many Americans who think that they finally got theirs, meager though it might be, and now absolutely no one else has any dibs on their stuff. They’re keeping it – all of it. Sanders will never win them over. Democrats know this.

Hillary Clinton might win them over. She’s carefully ambiguous about fairness – it’s complicated – and Wall Street loves her. She’ll say a few populist things, but she’ll protect them. The trick is to get those who feel that the system has screwed them over, and continues to screw them over, to see that she’s on their side too – and she could pull that off. Her husband was brilliant at that sort of thing. He’ll show her the ropes. And she is on their side, sort of.

Actually, at this point, she’s not saying much of anything. She isn’t taking questions. Why should she? She’s still figuring out how to present herself, for maximum effect, at the right time – and this isn’t the right time.

That leaves political junkies high and dry. Hillary Clinton is being strategically boring – but on the other side there’s chaos. The nineteen or twenty Republicans who are running or thinking of running can’t shut up. They’re all saying shrill and foolish things, to differentiate themselves from all the others, and often saying that they really didn’t mean what they just said – but they might.

Was the Iraq war a mistake? The answers to that question have been bewildering in their variety and inventiveness, often from the same eager hopeful. Jeb Bush had four successive answers to that question, and may have a fifth or sixth soon, and Marco Rubio isn’t far behind – but it’s the same with immigration reform, and abortion and contraception, and gay marriage. They’re against those three things, but they need the Hispanic vote, and the women’s vote, since they’ll be running against one of those, and it’d be nice if a few gay folks voted for them too – as long as the angry old white folks vote for them too, again.

Everyone knows what comes next. Much will be said, by many, to thread that odd needle, and much of it will be nonsense. Political junkies may see no point in wading through it all. It’ll wait. These sorts of things work themselves out. Someone will emerge from it all, and the others will then be no more than curiosities. Why was anyone talking about Herman Cain in the first place? Why was anyone ever talking about Donald Trump? Political junkies took Newt Gingrich seriously the last time around. Now they know better. It’s time to step back – the Democrats may end up running Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama, and the Republicans may end up running Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent. All sorts of things could happen in the next year. There’s little point in following just who is saying just what now. Most of them will be gone soon enough.

That means it’s time to look at underlying issues – political junkies still need their fix – and that’s why Daniel McGraw argues in Politico that the Republican Party is dying, and he means that quite literally:

There’s been much written about how millennials are becoming a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, but there’s been much less attention paid to one of the biggest get-out-the-vote challenges for the Republican Party heading into the next presidential election: Hundreds of thousands of their traditional core supporters won’t be able to turn out to vote at all.

The party’s core is dying off by the day.

Since the average Republican is significantly older than the average Democrat, far more Republicans than Democrats have died since the 2012 elections. To make matters worse, the GOP is attracting fewer first-time voters. Unless the party is able to make inroads with new voters, or discover a fountain of youth, the GOP’s slow demographic slide will continue election to election.

Then he discusses actuarial tables:

By combining presidential election exit polls with mortality rates per age group from the U.S. Census Bureau, I calculated that, of the 61 million who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, about 2.75 million will be dead by the 2016 election. President Barack Obama’s voters, of course, will have died too – about 2.3 million of the 66 million who voted for the president won’t make it to 2016 either. That leaves a big gap in between, a difference of roughly 453,000 in favor of the Democrats. …

Since Republicans are getting whiter and older, replacing the voters that leave this earth with young ones is essential for them to be competitive in presidential elections. But the key question is whether these election death rates will make any real difference.

The Republicans can focus on economic issues and stay away from social issues like gay marriage, if they want young voters to vote for them, and if they can grit their teeth and do that, they may be able to do a bit better with millennials. But if they choose not to drop all that talk about icky gay folks, they’ll be in trouble:

In 2012, there were about 13 million in the 15-to-17 year-old demo who will be eligible to vote in 2016. The previous few presidential election cycles indicate that about 45 percent of these youngsters will actually vote, meaning that there will about 6 million new voters total. Exit polling indicates that age bracket has split about 65-35 in favor of the Dems in the past two elections. If that split holds true in 2016, Democrats will have picked up a two million vote advantage among first-time voters. These numbers combined with the voter death data puts Republicans at an almost 2.5 million voter disadvantage going into 2016.

Political junkies love this sort of thing. When there’s no point in talking about the specific candidates at the moment, talk about underlying issues, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie sees these implications:

Right now, the GOP is a mass vehicle for ideological, small-government conservatism, which Republicans pursue across all branches of government across the entire country. Gov. Rick Scott’s agenda in Florida looks a lot like Gov. Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin, which in turn will influence any Republican who becomes president in 2016. And this conservatism is fueled by the older, white base of the Republican Party which disdains liberal priorities and liberal voters – from union members to immigration activists – with terrible ferocity.

What happens when those voters disappear from national electorates, as they will over the next decade? And what happens if the next cohort of Republican voters, their children and grandchildren, have more liberal views on social issues and the economy? Does movement conservatism survive as the dominant ideological force in the Republican coalition? Or will new Republican voters – from young white transplants to states like Arizona to upwardly mobile Latino immigrants in Georgia – adopt and change conservatism to meet their needs?

Expect the latter:

Any Republican Party that drives in 2024 or 2028 is one that looks substantially different from the one that exists today. No, that doesn’t mean it’s a diet version of the Democrats, but that it’s responding to a different set of voters than it has now. In all likelihood, it’s reconciled itself to the reality of the welfare state and works to alter its shape and incentives. It’s more permissive on public morality – tolerant of same-sex marriage, for instance – but still a home for more traditional voters who oppose abortion and are uncomfortable with rapid social change.

Demographic trends and social movements can fracture coalitions and create new ones. But – barring catastrophe – the parties survive. The future will have a Republican Party, and it will be conservative. It just won’t be the same kind of Republican Party with the same kind of conservatism.

The other view is in a new analysis by Sean Trende and David Byler which John Cassidy describes this way:

Trende and Byler conclude that the Republican Party is already stronger than it has been for many decades. With a good result in 2016, including a takeover of the White House, it could virtually sweep the board. Indeed, Trende and Byler say, the Republicans could end up in their strongest position since 1920, the year women got the vote.

If the specter of today’s Republican Party monopolizing most of the levers of power at the federal, congressional, and state levels isn’t enough to get people exercised about 2016, I don’t know what is. From tax and spending policy to health insurance, foreign policy, and social issues like gun control and gay marriage, the country would be subjected to a concerted effort to roll back time. While the Senate filibuster and the courts might exercise some restraint on the GOP victors, many members of the Party would be determined to use their position of dominance to set the country on a regressive, rightward path.

Trende and Byler constructed a gauge of the political influence of each party – presidential performance, House of Representatives performance, Senate performance, gubernatorial performance, and state legislative performance – who wins what. Republicans win most of it all. No one is dying here, although it’s a close call:

At this stage, Democratic control of the White House is about the only thing holding the Republicans back, but the Party is far from invulnerable. Thanks to the big gains they made in the midterms of 2010 and 2014 they will be defending a lot of seats at the national and state level that are potentially up for grabs. Indeed, Trende and Byler note that, “a bad Republican year could place the party ‘in the red,’ with its share of the presidential vote, Senate, House and state legislatures falling precipitously.” In short, the 2016 election could bring a quick end to Republican gains, or it could assign them a position of dominance. It matters; it matters enormously.

No matter who is running, there are always underlying trends, and then there is Fox News – but here James Fallows argues that Fox News is actually hurting Republicans. No, really – he points to a detailed study by Bruce Bartlett called “How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics” – only available in PDF format from the Social Science Research Network but rather interesting:

The idea that Fox News operates with different aims and by different norms from those of say, the BBC, is familiar. But this presentation is notable for two reasons.

The first is its source – for those who don’t know, Bartlett is a veteran of the Reagan and Bush-41 administrations and was an influential early proponent of supply-side / tax-cut economics. He also worked for Ron Paul. Since then he’s harshly criticized the Bush-43 administration, but in no sense does he come at this as a Democratic Party operative.

The second and more important reason is Bartlett’s accumulation of detail showing (a) that Fox’s core viewers are factually worse-informed than people who follow other sources, and even those who don’t follow news at all, and (b) that the mode of perpetual outrage that is Fox’s goal and effect has become a serious problem for the Republican party, in that it pushes its candidates to sound always-outraged themselves.

Bartlett does cite an academic study:

People who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all (after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors). Fox News watchers are also 6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government than those who watch no news.

“Because of the controls for partisanship, we know these results are not just driven by Republicans or other groups being more likely to watch Fox News,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and an analyst for the Public Mind Poll. “Rather, the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.”

And there’s this:

Another problem is that Republican voters get so much of their news from Fox – which cheerleads whatever their candidates are doing or saying – that they suffer from wishful thinking and fail to see that they may not be doing as well as they imagine, or that their ideas are not connecting outside the narrow party base. As a recent academic study found:

Exposure to programs featured on Fox News, such as those hosted by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, resulted in a greater wishful thinking effect by Romney supporters. In other words, while Romney supporters were substantially more likely to predict their candidate would win the 2012 presidential election, watching Fox News programming exacerbated this effect.

It may be that some Republican Fox viewers became complacent and didn’t work as hard as they might if they had been more aware of how badly Romney was doing in the final days of the campaign.

Bartlett also tosses in this quote after the 2012 election, from Lincoln Mitchell, a political scientist at Columbia:

Fox has now become a problem for the Republican Party because it keeps a far right base mobilized and angry, making it hard for the party to move to the center or increase its appeal, as it must do to remain electorally competitive… One of the reasons Mitt Romney was so unable to pivot back to the center was due to the drumbeat at Fox, which contributed to forcing him to the right during the primary season.


None of this is “news” to people who have followed the evolution of the media. But it is put together in a lucid and cumulatively effective manner that gives the arguments new heft. …

This paper also refreshes the question many people discussed after the Karl Rove / Megyn Kelly dustup on election night 2012 (when Kelly was operating in atypical “let’s stop fooling ourselves” mode). When will Republicans, who care about winning national elections, or actually governing, stop thinking of Fox as a help and start viewing it as a hindrance? And what will happen when they do?

Fox News hurts these folks more than it helps them? Who knew? Fox News, in 1996, found themselves an untapped market for one single conservative news source, after years of FCC regulations that required equal time for political debate – that “fairness doctrine” ended in 1987 under President Reagan – and the Bartlett piece discusses how the “Fox Effect” changed Americans’ political behavior – boosting turnout for the Republicans and pushing both Republicans and Democrats rightward in Congress. And now it’s doing more harm than good? No matter who is running for which office, there are always underlying trends. The Republicans need to rethink Fox News.

Josh Voorhees suggests that won’t be easy:

The Republican National Committee has backed itself into a corner with no easy way out. Never before have more than 10 candidates squared off on stage for a televised GOP presidential debate – but by the time the first party-sanctioned event kicks off in less than three months’ time there could be more than twice that number of officially declared candidates.

That reality has left the GOP in a pickle. Party officials want enough candidates on stage to avoid having it look like they’re playing favorites, but they will also need to winnow the field considerably or risk having the candidates’ opening statements followed immediately by their closing ones. How they decide to strike that balance could effectively end the dreams of as many as a dozen GOP-hopefuls months before the first nominating contest even happens.

There was no easy answer:

Late last week, the RNC official who chairs the debate committee suggested there could be an automatic 9-to-12-candidate cap for each debate. That plan, though, was met by near-immediate pushback from a host of GOP contenders and pretenders, and has since been ruled out completely by backtracking party officials. Other options that appear to remain on the table include using a national polling threshold for invitations (something networks have done in the past), relying on some combination of state polling, fundraising, and infrastructure factors, or even breaking each official debate into two separate heats. Either way, it’s safe to expect plenty of second-guessing from pundits and hurt feelings from politicians.

Some candidates are fretting more than others. There are eight men that currently appear destined to be standing behind a podium later this year: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Chris Christie are all polling above five-percent in RealClearPolitics’ rolling average of national polls. After that, however, things start to get a little dicey. There’s only about one point currently separating the next six candidates, all of which have averages south of 2.5 percent: Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham.

The situation has grown so fraught that the RNC has begun scrambling to publicly foist much of the responsibility for who gets invited – and who doesn’t – onto the network that will televise each debate. “Ultimately, it’s the networks’ decision,” RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said over the weekend. “There’s an obligation for the party to make sure the standard is fair. But it’s not our decision.” Translation: If you don’t like what you see on stage, blame the media!

Ah, but they have their media arm, Fox News:

While it’s true that the networks are traditionally the ones to decide which candidates get an invite, no one expects the Republican Party to cede complete control over the guest list. The party simply has too much at stake. The debates will represent a rare chance to impose order on what promises to be a chaotic field, and the RNC can’t risk staying on the sidelines entirely.

Making matters more interesting still is the fact that party officials chose Fox News to host the first RNC-sanctioned debate, set for August 6 in Cleveland. While there’s nothing preventing CNN – which will host the second debate the following month – from inviting a candidate that Fox News excluded, anyone who doesn’t make it on stage in Cleveland is likely to lose ground to the bevy of candidates who do, making their case for standing on the CNN stage or the ones that follow that much weaker.

GOP officials, then, may not be the ones choosing debate season kings – but they may have already chosen their kingmaker.

They will let Fox News decide. That’s asking for trouble. The network for angry old white folks, dedicated to keeping them angry, no matter how much that hurts the Republican Party, and even if those angry old white folks are dropping like flies, dying of old age day after day, will decide which Republican candidates are worthy. What could go wrong? The question answers itself – but these are the underlying issues that matter right now. We’ll discover who we get to vote for later.

Posted in Fox News Hurts Republicans, Republicans Dying Off | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What We Have Done

We did create a monster. We got rid of the Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, claiming he was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, even if al-Qaeda had been saying for years that they hated Saddam Hussein. Sure, he was a Sunni like them, but he was a secular Sunni. He wore western suits. He lived a lavish lifestyle. He never seemed to mention Allah. He wasn’t seventh-century austere. He wasn’t serious. They had no problem with America spending its blood and treasure, and ruining its reputation around the world, to get rid of that guy. And they could wait. America got rid of the Sunni fool for them.

They shouldn’t have wished for that. It was inevitable that Iraq would end up with that Maliki fellow – a Shiite strongman who marginalized and humiliated every Sunni in Iraq, just as Saddam Hussein had marginalized and humiliated every Shiite in sight for decades. The Sunnis were in trouble in Iraq this time, not the Shiites, and the sectarian civil war continued – with a new group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The local Sunnis got organized.

Our famous “surge” was supposed to end that sectarian civil war – we bribed the Sunni militias at the time to fight the new al-Qaeda in Iraq, their Sunni brothers, and told them that any new Shiite leader, like Maliki, would promise to be nice to Sunnis, because we’d tell him to. Cool, but that wasn’t going to happen. Iraq would never be a whole nation of equals – there was too much bad blood. It’s no wonder Sunnis in Iraq now seem okay with ISIS at times. The ISIS crowd may be awful, but they’re better than that Shiite crowd in Baghdad, and at least they’re Sunnis. A little hope is better than none.

We set this up. We weren’t thinking. Early on, Paul Bremmer ordered the Iraq Army disbanded, and ordered that every member of Saddam’s Baath Party be purged from government. We took sides, leaving a lot of people out of work, and many of those were people with guns and military expertise. They were angry, with nothing to do but seethe, so it’s no surprise that Sunni generals from the former Iraq Army are now senior ISIS commanders, and many of the Sunni Baathists who lost everything are its foot soldiers. Paul Bremmer didn’t create ISIS, but he helped staff it. These guys want their old country back, or a new country where the old one was, but a Sunni caliphate this time.

There wasn’t much we could do. We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but the new guy, Haider al-Abadi, is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. Now and then he makes the right sounds. That’s about it. When he sends his hapless army out to fight ISIS and they run away, he calls in the Shiite militias to get the job done. They are freelancers and are mostly aligned with Iran, our bitter enemy who wants to rid the region of the Sunni bad guys as much as we do. Some Iranian generals show up to help out now and then too. We pretend they’re not there.

These things happen. We did make a few mistakes in Iraq, but like Iran, we’ve always been fighting those deadly Sunni madmen, first al-Qaeda and then ISIS. They’re out to get us, but then our long-time ally in the region has always been Saudi Arabia. That’s a Sunni nation with Sharia Law and all that – they do behead folks and stone others to death, and that’s where women are not allowed to drive or be seen in public without their husband or a male guardian from the family. Saudi Arabia is an odd place, and then there’s that Wahhabi stuff – and a lot of private Saudi donations have always funded al-Qaeda – and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia – and Osama bin Laden is from a prominent Saudi family.

Is Saudi Arabia out to get us? No, not at all – this is all about the oil. But those Iraqi Shiite militias really hate Sunnis and have been known to kill every one of them on sight – not just those ISIS folks – which pisses off the Saudis and doesn’t move Iraq any closer to being a unified country where everyone gets along. Now were helping Saudi Arabia fight the Iranian-backed rebels who took over Yemen – siding with the Sunnis against the Shiites there – the opposite of what we did in Iraq. That should help, but we’re also negotiating with Shiite Iran on their nuclear program, not bombing them to end that program once and for all, which worries the Saudis a lot. Whose side are we on?

Even that young woman in Reno wanted to know:

“Your brother created ISIS,” the young woman told Jeb Bush. And with that, Ivy Ziedrich, a 19-year-old college student, created the kind of confrontational moment here on Wednesday morning that presidential candidates dread. …

She had heard Mr. Bush argue, a few moments before, that America’s retreat from the Middle East under President Obama had contributed to the growing power of the Islamic State. She told the former governor that he was wrong, and made the case that blame lay with the decision by the administration of his brother George W. Bush to disband the Iraqi Army.

“It was when 30,000 individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out – they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons,” Ms. Ziedrich said.

She added: “Your brother created ISIS.”

Jeb was stuck. He decided to say Iraq had been just fine in his brother’s last year in office – no problems at all – but Obama refused to force Malaki and the Iraq government to agree to us keeping ten thousand troops there to keep things perfect. He said that there was an agreement that Obama could have signed that would have kept our folks there, to keep things there just fine – but Obama, the fool, simply wouldn’t sign it. No one had ever heard of this agreement before – his brother had signed the actual formal agreement for our total withdrawal – but before anyone could ask him about this mysterious second agreement, or if he mesnt something else, Jeb was gone. He was having a bad week.

ISIS, however, isn’t gone. They were having a good week:

Thousands of Iraqi paramilitary fighters were mobilizing for a fresh assault on the western province of Anbar on Monday, one day after Islamic State militants overran the provincial capital, Ramadi, dealing a major strategic and symbolic blow to the U.S.-backed central government in Baghdad.

The U.S.-led coalition conducting an air war against Islamic State stepped up bombardment in the Ramadi area, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry said an imminent counteroffensive would eject the militants from the long-embattled city about 60 miles west of Baghdad, the capital.

“I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” Kerry said at a news conference in Seoul, referring to the fall of Ramadi.

The context:

The loss of the city also resonated with many American veterans of the Iraq war and their families, who came to know Anbar province as the perilous hub of the Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. occupying forces. Americans suffered hundreds of casualties fighting in Ramadi and other stretches of the vast desert province, including the nearby city of Fallujah, which has also fallen back into militant hands.

Ramadi has proved to be an awkward setback for Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s government and its U.S. supporters, who have been declaring for months that Islamic State has been on the run. The militant advance in Ramadi seemed to suggest a less upbeat reality.

That’s putting it mildly:

The widely disseminated images of Iraqi forces in rapid retreat from Ramadi in U.S.-made Humvees and of militants celebrating their triumph were reminiscent of images that emerged last year, when Islamic State fighters overran broad parts of northern and western Iraq, stunning the world.

Once again, reports indicated that extremists had seized caches of weapons and ammunition left behind by fleeing Iraqi forces and had begun executions of captured government loyalists. Officials said they feared a bloodbath of retribution had begun.

Abadi then ordered his freelancers, the Iran-backed independent Shiite Iraqi militias, to prepare to go into Anbar. His army, that we had tried to whip into shape for years, just couldn’t cut it, but they won’t be greeted with glee:

After its victory in Ramadi, Islamic State also released pictures of jubilant fighters handing out candy to children. A series of photos distributed on the Web purported to show inmates, presumably jailed militants, being released from a prison in Ramadi. The images show the liberated captives embracing fighters after the gunmen shot the locks off the prison doors.

We’re back where we started:

Many Iraqi Sunnis continue to chafe under the rule of a Shiite-dominated government, viewing Sunni militants as a preferable alternative despite Islamic State’s harsh rule.

“It is only the Sunnis who can truly defeat ISIS, and there needs to be a strategy that puts them as the center of gravity in the fight,” said Emma Sky, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, using a common acronym for the extremist group.

“They will turn against ISIS when they see it cannot win, that there are better alternatives,” said Sky, the author of “The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.”

Forget that:

The Iraqi government has attempted to recruit Sunni fighters to its ranks, boasting of the participation of Sunni tribal volunteers in the campaign against Islamic State. But, as Baghdad prepares a counteroffensive in Anbar, the government is again turning to Shiite militias, many backed by Shiite Iran.

The local Sunnis are simply out of luck:

The fighting in Ramadi has displaced thousands of residents, according to Anbar officials, who said that many are barred from entering Baghdad as well as the Shiite-dominated provinces to the south because they are suspected of collaborating with Islamic State.

Sunnis are not welcome in the rest of Iraq – they’re probably all in cahoots with ISIS – or might be – so we’re left with this:

The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement Monday that it conducted eight strikes on Ramadi early Sunday against Islamic State positions. Nevertheless, video released later by the pro-Islamic State Aamaq News Agency depicted militants leisurely making their way among the charred hulks of destroyed armor in an abandoned thoroughfare of Ramadi before unfurling the group’s black-and-white flag and hanging it on a street sign.

We lost Ramadi. We may have lost Iraq, if there ever was such a place. Maybe we imagined a real country where folks got along just fine. All we had to do is remove Saddam Hussein and there it would be. What were we thinking? As each of the Republican candidates tries to say that our Iraq war was a mistake – if we knew now what we didn’t know then, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, we wouldn’t have gone in, but we didn’t know that then – each misses the point. We went in. Now what?

That would be this:

The United States signaled no intent to shift its strategy in Iraq’s war on Monday, even as the fall of the city of Ramadi to Islamic State called into question the relative strength of Iraq’s army after months of U.S.-led advising and air strikes. … The U.S. government expressed confidence that Iraqi forces, with U.S.-led coalition support, would eventually retake Ramadi, and that the American strategy in Iraq that keeps U.S. forces off the battlefield was still sound.

“There’s no denying that this is indeed a setback, but there’s also no denying that we’ll help the Iraqis take back Ramadi,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters who were traveling with President Barack Obama.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren urged reporters to not “read too much” into the setback in Ramadi.

“We will retake it in the same way that we are slowly but surely retaking other parts of Iraq, and that is with Iraqi ground forces and coalition air power,” Warren said.

But it won’t be war:

Whether President Barack Obama might be considering further steps to confront Islamic State militants remained unclear. Last week, the White House said it was rushing weapons and ammunition to Baghdad to help it confront the militants. But U.S. officials said Iraq had to “own” the fight, not the U.S. military.

The Obama administration was not reexamining its prohibition on deploying American ground combat forces in Iraq, something many of Obama’s supporters would see as a return to the war he promised to end in his 2008 election, officials said.

This is no longer our problem:

A civilian U.S. official told Reuters: “What we need is for everybody who is in Iraq to defend Iraq, and in the end, it’s got to be Iraqis.”

“Remember whose country it is and who’s got to take responsibility for it. It’s not the United States, in this case. It’s the Iraqis,” the official also said.

But they’d better behave:

The Pentagon said there was room for the Shi’ite paramilitaries in the fight, “as long as the militias are controlled by the central Iraqi government.”

David Lynch adds more detail:

“Our strategy is working,” said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, who denied that Iraqi forces fled their positions as they did last year in the face of an Islamic State blitzkrieg in northern Iraq. The Islamic State “forces simply had the upper hand, and it was time for Iraqi forces to reposition,” he said.

That may not be so:

Continued administration assertions of strategic success risk the return of the Vietnam War-era “credibility gap,” according to some analysts.

“The administration is now trying, again and again, to spin its way to victory,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It isn’t working.”

The lack of combat success is reflected in perceptions among the U.S. public. In a New York Times-CBS News poll, 64 percent of respondents said the fight against Islamic State is going “somewhat” or “very” badly. The survey of 1,027 adults was conducted from April 30 to May 3.

“This is a major setback, both for the Iraqi government and the U.S.,” retired Army General David Barno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said of Ramadi’s capture. “It calls into question whether the Iraqi security forces can fight effectively.”

In Washington, retired military officers and other analysts said the U.S. needs to reconsider its approach to the conflict. …

“Show me some success,” said Michael Barbero, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who led the training of Iraqi forces during one of his three combat tours in Iraq. “None of it is working. It should be a wake-up call.”

And there’s this:

“There is a political agenda behind the prime minister’s decision to send the militias,” said Ahmed al-Misari, a Sunni lawmaker who spoke from Baghdad by phone, adding that he feared a repeat of sectarian killings seen in other areas where the militias have fought.

At stake could be Iraq’s integrity as a single state. As militant attacks mounted in recent weeks, representatives of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities complained that the Shiite-dominated central government has been slow to provide them with arms and ammunition.

“The Anbar officials and tribal leaders have been begging the defense minister to send the Iraqi government forces to Anbar and to the tribal fighters weapons and ammunition so they can resist the aggressive attacks carried out” by Islamic State, Nahida al-Dayni, a Sunni lawmaker, said by phone. “The response was always weak.”

Hey, they’re only Sunnis, but here this was a big deal:

Republicans were quick to assail the president’s approach. Arizona Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Ramadi’s loss “huge” and said more American ground troops would be needed to turn the tide.

On the campaign trail in New Hampshire on Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an expected Republican presidential candidate, complained that “right now our piecemeal strategy to deal with ISIS doesn’t inspire confidence.”

Frida Ghitis adds this:

Ramadi lies only 70 miles west of Baghdad, putting ISIS ever closer to the capital. Simply put, if Baghdad falls, we can say goodbye to Iraq as we know it – the country will break into a Sunni state, controlled by ISIS, at least initially, a Shiite state, loyal to Iran, and a Kurdish state in the north.

So, what to do? Unfortunately, the 2016 candidates have little to say on this issue right now.

In February, Hillary Clinton described what is essentially Obama’s strategy: using U.S. air power to complement soldiers from the region, particularly Iraq, to attack ISIS.

Republicans, meanwhile, mostly vow to be “decisive.” Jeb Bush vows “Greater global engagement…” and a strategy that would downplay diplomacy and aim to “take them out.” Scott Walker embarrassed himself with his analogy that he was able to crush Wisconsin’s unions, so therefore he can handle challenges like ISIS.

And while Marco Rubio did offer a somewhat more nuanced approach, saying the United States should provide air support for a military ground force made up of Sunni fighters from regional governments, he has also come in for criticism for his response to the question of whether the U.S. invasion was a mistake.

That makes this obvious:

The candidates will have to do better than this, because if President Obama’s current strategy does not start producing results soon, the ISIS challenge will take center stage in foreign policy debates, and candidates will have to put together much more detailed and coherent proposals for tackling the issue. It will not be enough for Hillary Clinton, for example, to suggest we might not be in this place if the President had listened to her proposals as secretary of state to lend more muscular support to Syrian rebels.

But an effective, comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and save Iraq will not be easy to put together. For a start, it will require tackling the group in both Syria and Iraq. It will also require daring to upset the Iranians, whose allied militias have become a major arm against ISIS on Iraqi soil. In addition, it will mean pressuring the Iraqi government to empower Sunni tribal fighters, as the Sunni Awakening groups did. And finally, it will require working much faster to create a viable alternative to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, because today the only options there right now are the vicious dictatorship that is in place, or bloodthirsty Islamist militias – terrible choices all.

How the hell did we get into this? The question posed in a New York Time forum is this:

Was Iraq a unique foreign policy disaster caused by bad intelligence or is it a warning about aggressive military action and “muscular” foreign policy that’s still being advocated in places like Iran?

The responses so far:

Stephen M. Walt, Harvard University – Preventive War Worsens Problems Diplomacy Can Solve – “Military attacks do not bring about stable nations. They engender hatred and unintended consequences like ISIS.”

Danielle Pletka, American Enterprise Institute – Intervention Requires Knowing How to Finish the Job – “The American military’s job is to deter, and when that fails, to defeat an enemy, plain and simple. And where we fail, it is because we have no post-military plan.”

Emma Sky, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale – “Tactics Without Strategy Is the Noise Before Defeat” – “The U.S. needs to be more realistic in its goals and assumptions, rather than seeing ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.'”

Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution – Not Intervening Can Be as Great a Risk as Intervening – “It is possible to learn the wrong lessons from the wrong war.”

Haleh Esfandiari, Woodrow Wilson International Center – No Simple Answers to Questions about U.S. Leadership – “American ability to impose its will even on small states is limited. With tight budgets, the means for interventionism are lacking.”

Those are worth a read, but Matt Taibbi has a unique response:

It was obvious even back then, to anyone who made the faintest effort to look at the situation honestly, that the invasion was doomed, wrong, and a joke.

Do people not remember this stuff? George Bush got on television on October 7th, 2002 and told the entire country that Saddam Hussein was thinking of using “unmanned aerial vehicles” for “missions targeting the United States.”

Only a handful of news outlets at the time, most of them tiny Internet sites, bothered to point out that such “UAVs” had a range of about 300 miles, while Iraq was 6,000 miles from New York.

What was the plan – Iraqi frogmen swimming poison-filled drones onto Block Island?

And this:

The Iraq invasion was always an insane exercise in brainless jingoism that could only be intellectually justified after accepting a series of ludicrous suppositions.

First you had to accept a fictional implied connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Then you had to buy that this heavily-sanctioned secular dictator (and confirmed enemy of Islamic radicals) would be a likely sponsor of radical Islamic terror. Then after that you had to accept that Saddam even had the capability of supplying terrorists with weapons that could hurt us (the Bush administration’s analysts famously squinted so hard their faces turned inside out trying to see that one).

And then, after all that, you still had to buy that all of these factors together added up to a threat so imminent that it justified the immediate mass sacrifice of American and Iraqi lives.

It was absurd, a whole bunch of maybes piled on top of a perhaps and a theoretically possible or two.

And that got us to where we are now. And where are we? Who knows anymore?

Posted in Fall of Ramadi, Iraq War a Mistake, ISIS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The War to Start All Wars

No major wars were ever fought in Iowa, or any minor ones for that matter, but that was the talk in Iowa this weekend. More than thirteen-hundred of the Republican faithful showed up for their Iowa state party’s annual Lincoln Dinner to hear what the current group 2016 presidential hopefuls had to say for themselves – even if it was only eleven of the nineteen or twenty who are running or thinking of running. Each was given ten minutes to make their case, and they were blunt:

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky highlighted former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s stumbles this week over whether he would have gone to war in Iraq had he known the intelligence was wrong about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. Bush initially said yes and then offered a series of shifting answers before saying on Friday that he would not have.

“It’s a valid question, not because we’re talking about history; we’re talking about the Middle East, where history repeats itself,” Paul said, before asking whether the instability in the nation allowed Islamic State to become a greater threat.

Bush – who spoke before Paul – did not directly address his own remarks about Iraq, but did mention his brother, former President George W. Bush, who launched the war.

“Some of you may know W’s my brother,” Bush said. “I’m proud of that too. Whether people don’t like that or not, they’re just going to have to get used to it.”

Food fight! The crowd loved it, although no one threw any food, but they really loved this:

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a hawk, castigated Paul’s concerns about Americans’ privacy rights being trampled in the search for terrorists, such as the NSA telephone surveillance of Americans.

“If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining Al Qaeda… I’m not going to call a judge” to get a warrant, Graham said. “I’m going to call a drone and we will kill you.”

As president, if he found out what you might be thinking of doing, he’d have you killed immediately for thinking about doing something very bad – one Hellfire missile and you’d be gone – which is odd, considering his background:

Graham was commissioned as an officer and Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force in 1982. He was placed on active duty and in 1984, he was sent to Europe as a military prosecutor and defense attorney, serving at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1984, as he was defending an air force pilot accused of using marijuana, he was featured in an episode of 60 Minutes that exposed the Air Force’s defective drug-testing procedures. After four years in Europe, he returned to South Carolina and then left active duty in 1989. He subsequently entered private practice as a lawyer.

Now he says he’d kill American citizens for what they might be thinking of doing, before they get a chance to do it – to keep us all safe. The crowd loved that too. They have pure thoughts, but someone’s thoughts were even purer:

Rick Santorum’s speech was heavy on foreign policy as he assailed President Obama over his negotiations with Iran and asserted that as a former senator from Pennsylvania he has the international experience to be a strong commander in chief. At one point, he distilled his foreign policy views into four short words: “Iran, enemy. Israel, friend. It’s real simple.”

It is? The crowd thought so, but things got even stranger when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker showed up the next morning on CBS’ Face the Nation:

Walker said he believes, if he were to run, he’d have strong foreign policy experience, given his work on trade issues in his state, as well as his travel to China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain. On defense issues, Walker said, his leadership experience would be a strong asset. …

“I gotta tell you, one of the areas people talk to me the most about is the safety and security of this country,” he said. “If I choose to get into this race, I’m going to lay out a very clear plan.”

Richard Barry comments on that:

I recognize that Scott Walker wouldn’t be the first presidential contender without much real foreign policy experience. I also realize that a candidate has got to make the best of what they have to offer. But no, dealing with a few trade issues in Wisconsin, some trips abroad, and “leadership experience” focused on staring down public sector unions doesn’t cut it.

It’s particularly pathetic considering he would likely be running against a well-respected former Secretary of State (and he can say Benghazi all he wants).

If Republicans do intend to make 2016 a foreign policy election by arguing that Clinton’s tenure at State was problematic, they might want to offer up a candidate who is actually in position to say something intelligent about foreign affairs.

At least he didn’t say he could see Russia from his house, but Josh Marshall notes that things were even stranger over on Fox News:

There are so many things going on here: one is the deep, unresolved specter of the Iraq War looming over the Republican Party, notwithstanding what seemed like a rapid-fire consensus last week that it was a bad idea; another is the fact that Marco Rubio just doesn’t seem like the most cognitively dexterous contender for the Republican nomination. Whatever it is, after seeming to come down on the side of ‘knowing what we know now, it was a mistake’ side of the equation, Rubio went back to the other side of the debate and then stumbled and then got miffed when Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace grilled him on his flip-flop and then apparent re-flip live on this morning’s show.

The video of the exchange is at the link, but Marshall is curious about the venue:

One side note to observe in this unfolding debacle about the debacle is that basically every interview that propels this story forward is happening on Fox News, the media arm of the Republican Party, where Republicans go to get safe haven from challenging interviews. Even on Fox, this is happening.

I think we can also see that Brendan James and Daniel Strauss were prescient in pointing out that in his first ‘yes, it was a mistake’ answer Rubio tried to use the cover of President Bush now saying he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq – knowing what we know now – even though Bush definitely has never said that.

Remember that Rubio, more than any other current Republican presidential contender is vying to be the candidate of the neoconservative foreign policy wing of the party. So completely jettisoning the Iraq War and President Bush is a dicey proposition.

Only Rand Paul said something sensible. We’re talking about history. We’re talking about the Middle East, where history repeats itself. What he didn’t mention is that we’re actually talking about World War I – the War to End All Wars. This all started in 1916 with the Sykes–Picot Agreement that created Iraq and most of these countries over there, out of thin air, or hot sand. George Friedman, the Chairman of Stratfor Global Intelligence, sees the original problem:

Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot were British and French diplomats who redrew the map of the region between the Mediterranean Sea and Persia after World War I. They invented countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Some of these nation-states are in turmoil. The events in Syria and Iraq resemble the events in Lebanon a generation ago: The central government collapses, and warlords representing various groups take control of fragments of the countries, with conflicts flowing across international boundaries. Thus the Iraqi crisis and the Syrian crisis have become hard to distinguish, and all of this is affecting internal Lebanese factions.

This is important in itself. The question is how far the collapse of the post-World War I system will go. Will the national governments reassert themselves in a decisive way, or will the fragmentation continue? Will this process of disintegration spread to other heirs of Sykes and Picot?

This is a big deal:

This question is more important than the emergence of the Islamic State. Radical Islamism is a factor in the region, and it will assert itself in various organizational forms. What is significant is that while a force, the Islamic State is in no position to overwhelm other factions, just as they cannot overwhelm it. Thus it is not the Islamic State but the fragmentation and the crippling of national governments that matters. Syrian President Bashar al Assad is just a warlord now, and the government in Baghdad is struggling to be more than just another faction.

And so is every other “government” over there. We made up those countries out of thin air, and that’s why there was this last summer:

On June 29, the Sunni extremist group ISIS released an Arabic-laced but mostly English-language video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot,” in which an ISIS spokesman identified as “Abu Safiya from Chile” declared a caliphate annulling the border between Iraq and Syria. The group had previously proclaimed “the beginning of the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement” after it had captured Mosul in northern Iraq.

They displayed a big End of Sykes-Picot banner and everything. The War to End All Wars didn’t do that. It seems to have generated our current wars, but there’s more to it than that Sykes–Picot thing. The premise of the Iraq war seems to have been that we would barge in and set up a secular Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq and humiliate the Islamic Jihadists, with our awesome might, and they’d just slink away, because everyone in the region would see that our way of arranging life was far superior to anything those fools could come up with. And the key was to humiliate them, so they’d never make trouble again.

We should have known better. We tried that before, at the end of that same war long ago. It didn’t work out.

The Treaty of Versailles proved that. The First World War was over. Britain and France, with our considerable help, had won it all, and Germany had lost it all. All that was left was negotiating the terms of surrender, but the winners had already worked out the terms of surrender among themselves. There was no negotiating. Exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – that minor incident in Sarajevo that started the whole thing – Germany was told they were going to accept full responsibility “for causing all the loss and damage” from the war. There’d be no whining. There’d be no bargaining. That was laid out in Article 231 – the War Guilt clause. Germany would disarm, completely, and make humiliating territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries. Germany lost. They had no say now – shut up and sign on the dotted line – and they did.

They weren’t happy about that. They hadn’t been the only ones at fault, and after their inevitable economic collapse, and then political collapse, a leader arose who reminded all Germans of the humiliation of that treaty, who vowed Germany would never be humiliated again – and then rearmed Germany in violation of that treaty and started grabbing back territory that should have been Germany’s, really – the Sudetenland in 1938 for example. There was also the matter of German-speaking Prussia, by then part of Poland. The Second World War started on September 1, 1939, with Germany’s awesome new and innovative blitzkrieg that made all of Poland part of Germany in a day or two – and then they got really serious, heading west. It could be argued there’d have been no Hitler but for that Treaty of Versailles. That treaty gave Hitler his lever to move the world, and thus the winners of the first war caused the second one. Winners should never humiliate the losers, as tempting as that might be, even if it’s so damned satisfying. The reason is obvious. Smug people eventually get punched in the face.

We learned that lesson. The second time around we rebuilt Germany – the Marshall Plan applied to them too, or especially to them – and then we bought their little VW Beetles, and every hippie in the sixties had that VW van, and every American male going through his inevitable mid-life crisis still wants that Porsche. Their beer’s not bad either. Japan got to keep their emperor and MacArthur ran our occupation humanely. A wave of their transistor radios followed in the late fifties, then a Honda this and a Toyota that, and now it’s those expert baseball players – pitchers mostly – and sushi for everyone. There’s really no point in humiliating losers. It just pisses them off, for generations. It’s better to show some respect, even if you can’t quite manage to feel that, even if you don’t care for sushi.

We unlearned all that after the attacks of September 11, 2001 – and our anger and our self-pitying sense of victimhood still makes it impossible to even think any Muslim has any justification for being upset with what we’ve done geopolitically. George Bush said they hate us for our freedoms, and everyone decided George must be right about that, even if he was wrong about everything else almost all the time. There couldn’t be any other reason, and that meant that the only option, to keep us safe, was to humiliate these folks, to rub their noses in the obvious awesomeness of our military power.

Dick Cheney led the charge there, but he was not an outlier. There was Thomas Freidman’s famous suck on this comment on why we had to go to war with Iraq, even if they had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, or maybe because they had nothing to do with any of it. Freidman simply put it terms of sexual humiliation, and the concept stuck. They’d be our bitches. That’s what the talk in Iowa this week was about, and the American right is still outraged by Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech – all about mutual interests and mutual respect, the normal stuff of geopolitics. Obama thought we ought to try that for a change. Obama called that “a new beginning” but that didn’t go over well. Obama didn’t want to humiliate the bad guys! This was outrageous! This was un-American!

Mitt Romney made much of this, saying again and again that he’d never apologize for America. His team popped out a book that they said he wrote (maybe he did) – No Apology: Believe in America – but of course Obama hadn’t apologized for anything. Obama had demanded mutual respect – and he explicitly demanded that the Muslim world recognize our view of things too – not that it mattered. America seemed to think it was June 28, 1918, in Versailles, because that had worked out so well. Winning is never enough. Humiliating your opponent seals the deal, and Romney’s team knew that polled well. It was his forty-seven percent comments that sunk him, not that. Having the charisma of a sheet of drywall didn’t help much either – but at least he was big on humiliating others. He did say he liked to fire people. Doesn’t everyone?

Not much has changed since he lost the last election. Now the Republicans want to humiliate Iran, so they won’t even think of developing nuclear weapons. Obama want to negotiate them, developing a bit of mutual respect, so they’ll see that they can do without those things. Do we humiliate ISIS militarily so they’ll slink away and be gone forever, as our only strategy, or do we win over Sunnis in the region so that ISIS will have no appeal to them, while we slowly but surely “degrade” ISIS with pinpoint bombing and Special Forces raids that take out their key leaders? The talk in Iowa was only of humiliation.

We should know better. After the First World War the victors decided humiliation was just the ticket. After the Second World War the victors opted for healing. There’s much to be said for healing. There’s also much to be said for remembering a bit of history. Versailles is a fine place – very pretty – but bad things happened there.

Actually bad things happened at Potsdam. J. P. O’Malley sets the scene:

Up until the second decade of the 20th century, Europe had been home to magnificent feats of cultural brilliance, architecture splendor, and a central hub of cosmopolitan ideas. By May 1945, however, following the surrender of Nazi Germany, most of the continent lay in ruins. Food and fuel were extremely scarce. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. Germany, meanwhile, had been reduced to a giant pile of rubble.

Millions of refugees roamed the continent in search of a future that looked extremely bleak: They were often hungry, homeless, and stateless. For some, there wasn’t even a single relative left alive to try and pick up the pieces with. The greatest war mankind had ever witnessed threatened to wipe out western civilization, and replace it instead with a utopian barbarism that had no time for human empathy.

In July 1945, three of the world’s leading statesmen from the Allied side – Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin – all met up in a quiet Berlin suburb: The aim of the Potsdam Conference was to negotiate a lasting global peace to a conflict that had essentially begun in 1914. If Europe was to have any sort of lasting stability – economically, politically, and militarily – it needed an immediate solution. All the delegates arrived determined to learn from the mistakes their predecessors had made when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris in 1919.

That’s the opening to his interview with the historian Michael Neiberg, whose new book is In Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe – all about the effort to move beyond humiliation as policy. Neiberg comments on the difficulties:

It was the First World War that had shaped all of these men. So at Potsdam they were trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Paris 26 years earlier. They were also asking, what were the basic fundamental mistakes that those who had gone before them had made? And they did a pretty good job: they had reset the boarders of Europe so that the political/social/ethnic lines matched up pretty well. They had more or less fixed the problem about what to do with Germany, settling the reparations issue, albeit in a controversial way, by dividing the country up. But fundamentally, they understood this was a problem that stretched back not just to 1939, but to 1914.

There would be no Sykes–Picot nonsense in Europe, and the actual issue was humiliation:

The real problem in 1945 regarding Germany was (a) who is really to blame for this? Is it the German people? That is to say: If you devastate Germany are you in fact punishing the wrong people. And, (b) what is best way going forward to try and re-build a peaceful Europe?

Again you have to go back to Versailles in 1919, where the Allies devastated Germany. However, they also left Germany strong enough to do something about it. And that was a fundamental mistake. So what they did at the end of the Second World War was to apply hard power – they divided Germany, reduced the size of it, occupied it, and kept the army down.

But they also applied liberal solutions too: They tied western Germany into the international economy, and into a wider alliance like NATO, which allowed it to have a military force. But at the same time they didn’t allow Germany to operate that military force independently.

That was quite deliberate:

They thought that if you give Germany enough time, hopefully enough Germans can come to the fore who won’t believe the Nazi ideology that their parents and grandparents believed. And that worked. Germany may be the most dominant power in Europe today; but most Europeans – outside of Athens of course – aren’t particularly worried about Germany as they might have been in, say, the 1930s.

That might even work with Iran. That might work with all the Sunnis across the Middle East. There all alternatives to humiliation. Don’t tell the Republicans, but there are.

But then the Manhattan Project came up at Potsdam:

It appears Truman tried to present the subject of the atomic bomb very casually.

He was saying: We have this new weapon and we are going to use it on Japan. But it seems quite clear that the knowledge of the atomic bomb scared the Soviet leaders the most. They knew despite their victory, and all of their sacrifice, the atomic bomb could negate everything. It was the American use of two nuclear weapons, though, rather than anything that happened at Potsdam, that really reinforced Soviet paranoia about their own security. This began a cycle of real mistrust during the Cold War. And of course it forced Stalin to increase the speed and tempo of Soviet research also.

And now we have Vladimir Putin, as angry and panicked as Stalin ever was. Russia is an economic basket case, with nukes, and our sanctions are making things worse there by the day. Putin is reacting to that humiliation in the only way he can, with belligerence, his only option now. We made this so, long ago actually, in Potsdam. The effort to avoid the mistakes of the War to End All Wars was only partially successful.

As for all the chest-thumping war talk in Iowa, well, that’s how Republicans talk, and how Hillary Clinton talks at times. The crowds cheer. Those with long memories don’t. This will not end well. It seems history never ends.

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