The Empty Toolbox

So here we go – the president wants his jobs bill passed and the House is saying no way – the only way to create jobs is to cut spending, shutting down as much of the government as possible, throwing millions of government workers and those who work supplying the government with goods and services out of work – and to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy and raise taxes on the poor and middle-class, as they just haven’t been paying their fair share. Austerity is the way to go. If no one but the very rich has the money to buy even the necessities the economy will thrive, you see.

To many, this makes no sense. But these guys are Republicans and they think that way. And they control the House. So it will be deadlock, and nothing will get passed. And they’ll be the heroes, as they see it, as everyone hates the very concept of government. And on it goes, as this seems as if it has been going on forever.

And now they do want to shut down the government again:

Two separate but related Republican efforts are increasing the odds that the government will shut down at the end of September, despite repeated assurances from both GOP and Democratic leaders that neither party has an appetite for another round of brinksmanship.

In a Thursday letter, over 50 House Republicans, led by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), pushed Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to make steep cuts to discretionary spending in the next fiscal year, reneging on the agreement the parties struck to resolve the debt limit standoff.

And all the details follow that, but they really don’t matter very much. We’ve been here before. The only twist this time is disaster relief. Congress finally voted seven billion dollars to help folks deal with that massive hurricane that messed up everything from North Carolina to Vermont, and the threat this time is that unless that seven billion is offset by spending cuts, right now, then all government operations will get shut down. These guys want offsets. They’d like all funding for technology and science research ended – particularly hybrid-battery research for those silly little cars everyone hates – but they’d be even happier if the FAA and EPA were shut down permanently. Disaster relief funding has never been offset by program-cuts ever before, but they do want to be the heroes here. At least they can make Obama look like a fool for allowing a shutdown to happen, by not abandoning the previous agreements made by both parties to end that mess with the debt limit, and now doing what they say is good for the country.

The left, as before, will call this blackmail, or even terrorism, but the right will tell you that it’s just smart politics. If you have the power to bring the government, and maybe the economy, to a grinding halt, then you have leverage. Why not use it? Why not take that baby out for a spin?

Is this too audacious? The bet is that people love audacity and boldness, and are in awe of those who take big risks for big rewards – and that they hate weak losers who always fold, just to keep things running sort of smoothly. And maybe they’re right. Everyone loves an outlaw, as they say. Who wouldn’t want to be Tony Soprano?

But this is a replay. A few of the details are different, but the dynamics have not changed, nor the general principles. And everyone knows where each side stands. And everyone has picked which side they stand with. So it will play out again. And maybe this time Obama will find a new way to fold and say America won, or Boehner and Cantor will find a new way to keep the country running that they’ll say is uncompromising and gave them absolutely everything they wanted and made Obama look like a fool. It’s tiresome, and why most people don’t follow politics. What’s the point?

But this keeps people fussing and fighting with each other, and it keeps the media as busy as they can be. But in the background, as some of us with military in the family know, there’s still a war or two going on, and there things are getting even more complicated:

The Obama administration’s legal team is split over how much latitude the United States has to kill Islamist militants in Yemen and Somalia, a question that could define the limits of the war against Al Qaeda and its allies, according to administration and Congressional officials.

The debate, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, centers on whether the United States may take aim at a handful of high-level leaders of militant groups who are personally linked to plots to attack the United States or whether it may also attack the thousands of low-level foot soldiers focused on parochial concerns: controlling the essentially ungoverned lands near the Gulf of Aden, which separates the countries.

So just how wide is this war, and what are we supposed to be doing?

The dispute over limits on the use of lethal force in the region – whether from drone strikes, cruise missiles, or commando raids – has divided the State Department and the Pentagon for months, although to date it remains a merely theoretical disagreement. Current administration policy is to focus on only “high-value individuals” in the region, as it has tried to do about a dozen times.

But should we do more? Should we bring the pain to rank-and-file members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, even if they’re based in Yemen, and to the bad guys in Somalia? Should we go after the small-fry, even if they’re fighting for purely local concerns, at least at the moment?

This seems to be an inflection point:

The answer could lay the groundwork for a shift in the fight against terrorists as the original Al Qaeda, operating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, grows weaker. That organization has been crippled by the killing of Osama bin Laden and by a fierce campaign of drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where the legal authority to attack militants who are battling United States forces in adjoining Afghanistan is not disputed inside the administration.

One senior official played down the disagreement on Thursday, characterizing it as a difference in policy emphasis, not legal views. Defense Department lawyers are trying to maintain maximum theoretical flexibility, while State Department lawyers are trying to reach out to European allies who think that there is no armed conflict, for legal purposes, outside of Afghanistan, and that the United States has a right to take action elsewhere only in self-defense, the official said.

But other officials insisted that the administration lawyers disagreed on the underlying legal authority of the United States to carry out such strikes.

So, what the heck are we doing, and why, and under what authority? This is far from arguing about tax cuts for the rich and making the country pay dearly if we decide disaster relief is a good thing. This is a disagreement about “how to apply rules written for traditional wars to a conflict against a splintered network of terrorists” – and whether we want to get ourselves into an unending and unconstrained global war. Or are we there already? No one knows. They’re working on it.

And there are all sorts of details:

The fate of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, hangs heavily over the targeting debate, officials said. In several habeas corpus lawsuits, judges have approved the detention of Qaeda suspects who were captured far from the Afghan battlefield, as well as detainees who were deemed members of a force that was merely “associated” with Al Qaeda. One part of the dispute is the extent to which rulings about detention are relevant to the targeting law.

Congress, too, may influence the outcome of the debate. It is considering, as part of a pending defense bill, a new authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda and its associates. A version of the provision proposed by the House Armed Forces Committee would establish an expansive standard for the categories of groups that the United States may single out for military action, potentially making it easier for the United States to kill large numbers of low-level militants in places like Somalia.

And there’s Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican on the Armed Services Committee, saying he wants to go all out – “Restricting the definition of the battlefield and restricting the definition of the enemy allows the enemy to regenerate and doesn’t deter people who are on the fence.” So it’s war everywhere, forever. And that will get your mind off the jobs bill.

Just what are we doing? Well you could ask Daveed Gartenstein-Ross – the brilliant terrorism expert who grew up in a non-practicing Jewish family and was once a fundamentalist Muslim and now is a Christian, who now is sought out by the FBI and military and State Department to explain what he knows. And that he’s an attorney doesn’t hurt either. And there’s his new book, Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror – and that is the issue here.

And Andrew Exum has a long, wide-ranging interview with him where Gartenstein-Ross makes some obvious points:

My thesis is that the United States has done a poor job of understanding al-Qaeda during the past decade, and as a result America’s offensive and defensive measures in the fight against the jihadi group have often played into its hands. Al-Qaeda had, in my view, two overarching strategic objectives on September 11, 2001. One was to diminish the powerful U.S. economy. The other was to make the conflict with the United States as broad as possible, expanding it into multiple regions and thus fueling the perception that America was at war with Islam, not just a small group of Islamic militants.

And we fell for it:

I think understanding the mistakes involved in our decision to go to war in Iraq is important because it was a major strategic blunder (and let’s be frank: the enormous human costs of the war make it so much more than that). A lot of our shortcomings in fighting jihadi militancy over the past decade have been strategic, and a failure to appreciate the consequences of the Iraq war means we haven’t grasped an absolutely vital strategic lesson.

Now, it’s well known that the justifications for the Iraq war haven’t held up: Saddam Hussein’s regime didn’t have an active WMD program, nor did it have significant connections to al-Qaeda (though some connections did in fact exist). And we can see many of the costs of that conflict clearly. In addition to the aforementioned human costs, our invasion of Iraq damaged the war effort in Afghanistan (which quickly became an economy-of-force mission as resources were diverted to the Iraq theater), allowed the regeneration of al-Qaeda’s core leadership as pressure was removed from it, angered our allies while empowering the Iranian regime, and served as a potent tool for jihadi recruitment.

These costs, though not totally unforeseeable, have become clearer after the fact. But one point I make in the book is that a better appreciation of al-Qaeda’s strategy would have made the dangers of invading Iraq quite apparent in advance. As I said, al-Qaeda had two overarching strategic ideas about defeating America: bleeding its superpower adversary’s economy, and making the battlefield on which the fight against the United States occurred as broad as possible. The Iraq war plainly advanced both of our adversary’s goals. Despite the best-case scenarios concerning the war’s costs trumpeted by the Bush administration, it was extremely expensive – something that people like army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki foresaw. And the Iraq invasion helped the other major element of al Qaeda’s strategy, broadening the battlefield and feeding the group’s narrative that Islam itself was under attack by the United States.

And now we want to make this war even wider, we want to make it truly global? Shouldn’t we be talking about that?

No, we are arguing over whether there should be a jobs bill, and whether it would be cool to shut down the government unless Obama gives in on everything. And curiously, when Gartenstein-Ross drifts into talk of how he deals with all those who disagree with him, he offers some salient advice there:

I’ve come to see civility as important for a variety of reasons, but honestly, practical reasons loom rather large. First of all, it’s generally hard to win a name-calling contest. If I call someone an America-hating pinko they can fire back that I’m a right-wing tool of the military industrial complex. Those two insults seem essentially to cancel each other out: why give someone an area that can end up a draw if I believe that I can prove all of my other arguments to be correct? Second, I find that if I’m civil, I can actually (sometimes) persuade people I’m arguing against that they’re wrong about an issue. In contrast, if I begin a debate by insulting someone, it only further entrenches him in his initial position, thus making it more difficult to talk sense into him. …

Being polite isn’t the same as being a pushover, nor is it the same as false collegiality that needlessly avoids confrontation.

Ah, there are ways to get things done. If you have the power to bring the government, and maybe the economy, to a grinding halt, then you have leverage. And you use it. But civility is also leverage. And being polite is a clever and useful strategy – if you want to change someone’s mind and actually get things done. That’s a curious way of looking at things.

But of course we’re always looking at the wrong things. The jobs crisis is an important issue of course, an immediate issue, and the national debt is too, a long-term issue, as is what we think we’re doing in our never-ending wars everywhere, if we’ve thought that through at all. But maybe the thing to think about is the way in which we address these issues. Just when did we abandon all discourse but name-calling and clever procedural blackmail? Yes, it’s tiresome, and the reason why most people don’t follow politics.

And maybe we ought to look at that. You cannot solve problems without the tools necessary to solve problems. Without the necessary tools all you do is stand around the worksite talking about the work, not doing it, because you cannot do the work, or even start the work. And when most people look at Washington….

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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