It’s a fine thing to be young and idealistic and certain, and it’s even better if you’re right. On April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war – he spoke for nearly two hours to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presenting the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation – a good number of our guys had been doing some very bad things over there – and then discussing the larger policy issues. He had his three Purple Hearts and his other medals, but now he had long hair and told the senators that this war was stupid. There was no point in continuing, although ending the thing would be difficult – but we couldn’t go on like this. How do you ask someone to be that last man to die for a mistake?
That was his question, and then he did the unthinkable. The day after this testimony he was part of that demonstration with thousands of other veterans – they threw their medals and ribbons over a fence at the front steps of the Capitol building. It was dramatic. Each veteran gave his name, hometown, branch of service and a statement – no one was hiding anything. Kerry’s statement was this – “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all.”
That would come back to haunt him. When he ran for president against George Bush, in 2004, he was branded a coward and a crybaby. Yeah, he was a decorated war hero, but those well-financed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a devastating PR campaign, all innuendo and hints, hints that he was a weak sister. George Bush, who avoided Vietnam as a fighter pilot stateside, and who pretty much just didn’t even show up for duty for two years, ignoring the war and certainly with no opinion about it, was the real war hero, somehow. This was puzzling but it worked. George Bush clearly loved war – he ended up starting a few after all – but John Kerry once again felt that there were better ways to work things out. That didn’t fly. After 9/11 the nation was itching for war after war. Kerry was doomed.
The irony came on January 24, 2013, with John Kerry once again testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but this time sailing through his confirmation hearings – Obama has nominated him to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Everyone loved him now, even the Republicans – all was forgiven. Everyone seemed to know he was right all along, or they knew that now – there are better ways to work things out. And now he’s a statesman, not a long-haired hippie punk – and George Bush is silent in Texas, an irrelevant embarrassment. The passage of time really does cause the oddest things to happen.
And now he’s in Baghdad, dealing with another mistake:
Winding up a day of crisis talks with Iraqi leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Sunni militants seizing territory in Iraq had become such a threat that the United States might not wait for Iraqi politicians to form a new government before taking military action.
“They do pose a threat,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to the fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “They cannot be given safe haven anywhere.”
“That’s why, again, I reiterate the president will not be hampered if he deems it necessary if the formation is not complete,” he added, referring to the Iraqi efforts to establish a new multi-sectarian government that bridges the deep divisions among the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, Kurds and other smaller groups.
We do not want to be seen as taking sides in a sectarian conflict – we are pushing the Iraqis to finally do what we wanted them to do all along, or said we wanted them to do, establish a cross-sectarian Iraqi government. We could support such a government, even if it’s not the secular Jeffersonian democracy we decided that they should have. We’d be okay if the Sunnis and Shiites just stopped blowing each other up with all those car bombs. That’d be a start.
That will also take time:
Iraqi leaders, Mr. Kerry noted, had affirmed the need to convene Parliament by July to begin the constitutional process of forming the new government as required from the April parliamentary elections. The process is supposed to begin with the selection of parliament speaker, a post that has traditionally gone to a Sunni, and will then move to picking a new president, a position that has traditionally gone to a Kurd. Then a prime minister will be picked… either Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, or one of his Shiite rivals.
Cool – and that could take three or four months, but there may not be three or four months:
While the political consultations continue behind closed doors, ISIS has become a growing regional danger. Its fighters have basically erased Iraq’s western border with Syria, which is expected to strengthen their position there. They have also taken the town of Rutba in western Iraq, which sits astride the road to Jordan and could head south from there to Saudi Arabia.
Within Iraq, American officials say, ISIS has set its sights on destroying the Shiite shrine in Samarra, which would likely lead to an explosion of sectarian violence in Iraq. An attack on the shrine in early 2006 escalated a wave of sectarian killings that was not reduced until the United States troop surge in 2007 and 2008.
Oh crap – we have to do something:
So great are the concerns that Mr. Kerry stressed on Monday that if American action is taken soon – President Obama has said that he is considering airstrikes – it should not be interpreted as a gesture of political support for Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, but rather as a strike against the ISIS militants. Such a decision by Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry said, should not be considered to be an act of “support for the existing prime minister or for one sect or another.”
Good luck with that, but this is a mess – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surprised everyone. They are very angry Sunnis who have been fighting Assad in Syria, and because half of them are former Iraqi military, they’re fighting Maliki in Iraq now, and have taken over the north of the country and are moving on Baghdad – and they’re so nasty that even al-Qaeda, who once had the corner on Sunni terrorism, has renounced them, but if we fight them we’re propping up our Maliki guy, a Shiite who hates Sunnis and wishes they were all gone, as does Assad in Syria and as do the Shiite theocrats who run Iran, a nation that is our sworn enemy. Except that defeating ISIS is what our enemies want too, so Shiites can rule the Middle East and maybe even get rid of our long-time ally there, Saudi Arabia, which is wholly Sunni, and also where Osama bin Laden is from, and run by folks who have funded al-Qaeda off and on over the years and may be funding the ISIS crowd now.
Things are that simple now, and Andrew Sullivan does his version of a 1971 John Kerry:
So we’ve gone from 300 military advisers and a new government before any military action … to a threat of potential airstrikes regardless in less than a week. When you think how long it took to ramp up the Vietnam disaster, that’s pretty damn quick. And check out what Kerry just said about ISIS: “they cannot be given safe haven anywhere.” That presumably means that their advance must not just be checked but reversed, a massive undertaking which is about as likely as a multi-sectarian democratic government in Baghdad.
From where I’m sitting, I see no way to achieve the ends John Kerry just outlined without a new war. And who will fight it? That shoe is the one that is yet to drop. My view: not a single American soldier, not a single cent, to build an Iraq that never existed and, at this point, never can. If Obama tries to do it, there has to be an insurrection from his supporters and from all sane Americans. If the Saudis and the Sunni states cannot rein in ISIS, then let the Iranians fight them.
Maybe some of our guys should throw their Iraq combat medals over a fence somewhere. How do you ask someone to be that last man to die for a mistake? Here we go again:
If the Saudis and the Sunni states cannot rein in ISIS, then let the Iranians fight them… Either we weather that threat, keep close tabs on it, maintain our intelligence advantage, and stay out of that hell-hole, or we decide we can’t risk anything and get sucked back into it. If Obama wants to find a middle ground, he’ll be the first Westerner ever to discover it in Iraq.
Starting in the west and moving east – in Libya, having destroyed the Qaddafi regime, we unleashed forces that have virtually torn Libya apart and have spilled over into Central Africa, opening a new area of instability. In Egypt, the “non-coup-coup” of General Sisi has produced no ideas on what to do to help the Egyptian people except to execute large numbers of their religious leaders; he has also made clear his suspicion of and opposition to us. In occupied Palestine, the Israeli state is reducing the population to misery and driving it to rage while, in Washington, its extreme right-wing government is thumbing its nose at its benefactor, America.
Our relations have never been worse. In Syria, we are engaged in arming, training and funding essentially the same people whom the new Egyptian regime is about to hang and whom we are considering bombing in Iraq. In Iraq, we are about to become engaged in supporting the regime we installed and which is the close ally of the Syrian and Iranian regimes that we have been trying for years to destroy; yet in Iran, we appear to be on the point of reversing our policy of destroying its government and seeking its help to defeat the insurgents in Iraq.
And do it goes, for the usual reasons:
For centuries after infantry soldier were given the rifle, they were ordered not to take the time to aim; rather, they were instructed just to point in the general direction of the enemy and fire. Their commanders believed that it was the mass impact, the “broadside,” that won the day.
Our leaders still believe it. They think that our “shock and awe,” our marvelous technology measured in stealth bombers, drones, all-knowing intelligence, our massed and highly mobile troops and our money constitute a devastating broadside. All we have to do is to point in the right direction and shoot.
So we shoot and then shoot again and again. We win each battle, but the battles keep happening. And to our chagrin, we don’t seem to be winning the wars. By almost any criterion, we are less “victorious” today than half a century ago.
Professionally, I find it disturbing to keep repeating such simple observations. Like some of my colleagues, I had hoped that the “lesson” of Vietnam would be learned. It was not.
Actually, John Kerry had to unlearn what he once learned, and Polk sees where this has led us:
Admittedly, in my day in planning American policy in the Middle East, we never had to find our ways out of such a disarray. My tasks were comparatively easy. So, perhaps, our actions are aspects of a shrewd, nimble and skillful policy that I am simply not clever enough to understand. I certainly hope so.
But, even if they are, what is the “bottom line,” as businessmen like to say, in terms of our objective of being “secure?”
Allow me a personal answer. When I first traveled through the deserts, farm lands, villages and cities of Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, unfailingly, I was welcomed, invited into homes, fed and cared for. Today, I would risk being shot in any of the areas most affected by American policy.
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson has another way to put that:
Iraq is shattered and 300 U.S. military advisers can’t put the pieces back together. So now what? An old saying about the Middle East comes to mind: Things can always get worse.
The aim of U.S. policy at this point should be minimizing the calamity, not chasing rainbows of a unified, democratic, pluralistic Iraq – which, sadly, is something the power brokers in Iraq do not want.
They have never really wanted it. In 1922, Winston Churchill, then Britain’s colonial secretary, said this about Iraq – “At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.”
That about sums it up, and yes, things can get worse:
The hawks that got us into Iraq in the first place are back, urging U.S. action. But I find it hard to see what could produce a unitary, pacified Iraq at this point short of the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops. And what would they do – position themselves in the middle to be shot at by Sunnis and Shiites alike? Fight for the Baghdad government alongside the Mahdi warriors and the Iranians?
Regarding those neoconservative hawks, in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt has a few things to say about those guys:
One reason neoconservatism survives is that its members don’t care how wrong they’ve been, or even about right and wrong itself. True to their Trotskyite and Straussian roots, neoconservatives have always been willing to play fast and loose with the truth in order to advance political goals.
We know that they were willing to cook the books on intelligence and make outrageously false claims in order to sell the Iraq war, for example, and today they construct equally false narratives that deny their own responsibility for the current mess in Iraq and portray their war as a great success that was squandered by Obama. And the entire movement seems congenitally incapable of admitting error, or apologizing to the thousands of people whose lives they have squandered or damaged irreparably.
Like Richard Nixon or Silvio Berlusconi, in short, the neoconservatives keep staging comebacks because they simply don’t care how often they have been wrong, and because they remain willing to do or say anything to stay in the public eye. They also appear utterly indifferent to the tragic human consequences of their repeated policy failures. Being a neoconservative, it seems, means never having to say you’re sorry.
Sullivan says they will never ever take responsibility for the consequences of their actions:
They are the post-modern nihilists they accuse the left of being – only much more shameless. But it’s worth repeating that they only appear on cable news because the brain-dead producers and editors decide they will. The blame for treating these congenital fantasists, hysterics and war-mongers as experts lies, in part, with the sheer laziness and cynicism of cable news bookers.
Yes, but John McCain was on every political talk show, here on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, claiming that we’d won this thing:
“We had it won,” McCain said in the interview, referring to the U.S. troop surge in 2007. “Gen. David Petraeus had the conflict won, thanks to the surge. And if we had left a residual force behind, we would not be facing the crisis we are today. Those are facts. Those are fundamental facts.”
McCain added that all the U.S. had to do was leave a residual force behind, as the country has done in Bosnia, Korea, Germany and Japan; after the surge, he said, there was a stable government in Baghdad and the country was pacified.
“But President Obama wanted out, and now, we are paying a very heavy price,” he said, adding that he predicted in 2011 leaving Iraq was a mistake. “You can go back and look at the quotes.”
Sullivan is having none of that:
Did the surge resolve this?
A thousand times no! As this blog repeatedly insisted – see the entire thread Iraq Surge Fail Update – it brought about a temporary calm, as the Sunni tribes were persuaded and/or bribed to take on the Islamist forces they are now – surprise! – allying with again, and as the forms of democratic processes took place. But it never resolved the structural sectarian division or hatred – both of which had obviously grown more intense after wave after wave of sectarian mass murder and the cycle of revenge. The surge never resolved the core political question it was designed to solve. This is not really Petraeus’ fault. An American commander is not an Iraqi political leader. But from the beginning, Maliki acted – understandably – as a Shiite first and as an Iraqi second (just like Saddam but in reverse). And if you see Saddam as a product of Iraq, Maliki’s resort to clumsy and sectarian brute force can be seen as exactly the same thing.
In the Guardian, Toby Dodge elaborates on that:
Maliki has done nothing to drive back a tide of corruption that swept across Iraq’s new political elite after 2003. Instead, unfair access to state largesse has become a tool for securing loyalty. Dissatisfaction with state failure, corruption and government incoherence came to a head in the March 2010 elections, when Maliki’s State of Law coalition was out-polled by Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya. It was during this election campaign and ever since that Maliki has deployed a divisive sectarian rhetoric to draw attention away from the failings of the state in an attempt to rally the Shia population to his rule. By damning his political opponents first as closet Ba’athists and then simply as terrorists he has sought to demonize Sunni politicians as complicit in the crimes of Saddam and supportive of the shadowy groups that have terrorized Iraq.
And so it goes, and so it also goes for John Kerry. It’s a fine thing to be young and idealistic and certain, and it’s even better if you’re right – but then you grew up. There are other people’s mistakes to clean up, and they always leave you with no good options at all. Idealism dies. All you can do is do your best, even if you end up doing what you swore you’d never do. There will be a last man to die for this mistake, eventually, unless this never ends – and it seems it never will.