The Summer Things Fell Apart

Some prefer to visit Paris in August, because all those pesky French people leave town. They head for the mountains or the beach or the woods, because they not only know nothing much happens in the last month of summer, by law they get six weeks of paid vacation each year, and it’s just easier for everyone to take vacation at the same time. Half the restaurants in Paris are closed – actually half of everything is closed, by general agreement. The tourists can talk to each other. The first week in September, which they call “the reentry” of course, is when it’s back to the old grind. Americans don’t get this – we’re morally opposed to the whole concept of vacation, or afraid our job will be gone when we return – but we do get the idea that not much happens in late summer. Congress does its French thing, taking a six-week recess even if August has only four weeks. They’ve left town. Immigration reform can wait. Any permanent fix for the Highway Trust Fund, finding a way to pay to keep the nation’s roads from disintegrating and the nation’s bridges from falling down, can wait. They passed a bit of stopgap funding and will get to that highway stuff later, maybe. The symbolic House votes to repeal every word in the Affordable Care Act, meant to fire up the Republican base, have been put on hold too. There’s not even any talk about getting rid of Obamacare, to save the nation from socialism and the scourge of birth control that has turned American women into sluts. Let it rest. These are the hazy-lazy days of summer, and that may be a losing battle anyway. Obamacare is in place, and working well enough. There’ll be something else to be outraged about in September, maybe Benghazi again – and this is an election year, the midterms when the Republicans could take back the Senate and really shut down the government, again and again and again, unless Obama does exactly what they want – that’s the plan they’ve just announced – and if not that, they’ll make sure nothing gets passed on anything. But that’s for the fall. Summer is for kicking back. Nothing much happens in summer.

Not this summer – one more unarmed black kid shot dead by the police made sure of that. Black communities have had enough of that, and even white guys like Rand Paul are appalled by the militarization of the police everywhere. The armored vehicles and lines of angry police in full battle-rattle, pointing amazingly powerful combat weapons at protesting unarmed women and children and clergy, looks too much like a bad day in Fallujah. Ted Cruz is upset with the police arresting reporters trying to cover this all – and Paul and Cruz are Republicans. That whole Republican law-and-order thing seems to have run its course, and things in previously obscure Ferguson, in entirely forgettable Missouri, get worse and worse by the day. Yeah, we elected our first black president six years ago, but anyone who thought all racial issues in America had been resolved was a fool. Obama’s election only made things worse. America’s fear and resentment of its black citizens, and their full-well knowing about that fear and resentment and how it marginalized their lives, was something that was only sleeping for six years. This was the summer that all exploded. Everyone woke up at the same time, and they didn’t like what finally saw – but this had to happen sooner or later. This was the summer it did.

This is also the summer Israel rolled into Gaza, gun blazing, to end all the rocket fire from Hamas, and that soon descended into Israel screaming to a horrified world, Look what they’re doing to us! Hamas screamed back – Look what the Israelis have been doing to the Palestinians since they grabbed our land, Gaza and the West Bank, in that 1967 war! They have a point. The UN and everyone else says that’s not Israel’s land, and all the settlements they’ve built in those “disputed territories” over the years are illegal, at least under international law. Israel, however, under that same international law, has a right to self-defense, but then using one of the most advanced militaries in the world to wipe out the nearly powerless defenders of a dirt-poor people, that you’ve cut off from the world for decades, seems a bit much, and the civilian casualties, nearing a thousand now, many of them children, does seem exactly proportional – but that was this summer too. Israel is our ally, but the Obama administration has been catching heat. The Netanyahu government has done everything it can to let the world know that Obama is a fool, and maybe anti-Semitic – which pleases our Republicans no end. They can hammer Obama with that. It’s been that kind of summer.

It’s also been the Summer of Ebola, and the less said about the Ukraine the better. There are still a few bodies out there in the fields, rotting in the late summer sun, from the commercial airliner Putin’s rebels shot down, and he’s still sending them tanks and missiles and whatnot, and massing his troops at the border, ready to roll in there and take back what he can for Mother Russia, just as he did in the Crimea – and he laughs at our puny sanctions, even if they may ruin Russia. What should we do about this? No one knows, but it’s been that sort of summer.

This is also the summer that ISIS (or ISIL if you prefer) took over most of northern Iraq after they’d taken over a lot of Syria, to establish a Sunni caliphate in the region – killing anyone who didn’t agree with their flavor of Islam, with mass executions and the heads of heretics stuck on pikes everywhere, even the heads of children. They scare the crap out of everyone, and the Shiite government in what’s left of Iraq, now with a somewhat less absurd prime minister, has been hopeless. The Iraqi Army, sent to deal with them, ran away, leaving behind all the tanks and artillery and other gear we provided them. ISIS has that stuff now, and they’re using it. Do we go fight them because the Iraqi Army we set up and trained wouldn’t? No one here wants another ground war in Iraq, a third one for us, so we’ve been carefully bombing selective ISIS targets, blowing up what we gave the Iraqis that ISIS now has. At least the Kurds are fighting the good fight, but they want to set up their own country, so the more we support them the more we hasten then breakup of Iraq, which was the whole point of the Iraq War exercise in the first place. There should be an Iraq. There has to be such a country – but there may not be one soon. There probably won’t be one soon. Oh well – it’s been that kind of summer. September can’t come soon enough.

Ah, but things can get worse, and they just did:

A clearly furious President Obama condemned the Islamic militants who claimed responsibility for beheading an American journalist, vowing Wednesday to beat back “this cancer” and showing no sign of constraining the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

As 14 new U.S. airstrikes pounded Islamic State positions, the grisly video and photos of a masked militant killing James Foley ricocheted around the Internet and focused global outrage on the Al Qaeda-inspired army that has swept across much of eastern Syria and western Iraq this year.

The summer just got worse, with a new worry:

In the video, the executioner speaks English with a British accent, and U.S. and British authorities scrambled to identify him. British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that it was “extremely likely” the killer was a British citizen.

The tape thus raised fresh fears about the hundreds of recruits with Western passports, including dozens of Americans, who have rallied to the Sunni insurgents’ side in Syria and Iraq and may return home to wreak havoc, U.S. and European officials say.

The Pentagon had sent in a Special Forces team, with actual air and ground forces, into Syria this summer, to try to rescue Foley and other American hostages there, but that didn’t work out:

The government had “what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens,” Lisa Monaco, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present.”

Obama doesn’t want us going in, so to speak, but we went in. That was a surprise, but enough is enough:

Denouncing “an act of violence that shocks the conscience of the entire world,” Obama accused the extremists of also “killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery.”

The extremists “speak for no religion,” Obama said. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”

As Twitter and other social media tried to block the spread of the video, Obama said the United States would “continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless.”

Perhaps this is the summer everyone should be ruthless, but careful. Obama didn’t mention ISIS’ threat to kill Steven Joel Sotloff, another American journalist they grabbed long ago – but he was in the video too. No need to dare them to do that. Obama just ramped up the airstrikes. We won’t let up. What were these ISIS guys thinking? We immediately blew up six more of their Humvees, which used to be ours.

Does this mean war? Maybe it does:

“America and our allies and partners will only be secure when ISIS is defeated,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two GOP hawks, said in a joint statement. “That means we must get beyond half-measures, tactical responses and defensive actions. We need to develop a comprehensive strategy – political, economic and military – to go on the offensive.”

They didn’t spell out what going on the offensive means. They’ll let Obama take the heat for getting into another ground war in Iraq, which is just what he should do, and not ever do. They’re sitting pretty.

Time’s Michael Crowley sees where this is heading:

The worry is that Obama’s rationale of “protecting Americans in Iraq” can be stretched to justify almost any kind of military action – especially now that he has more than doubled the U.S. presence in Iraq to nearly 2000 personnel since June. (A key stage of mission creep in Vietnam involved sending troops to protect U.S. air bases in that country.) But Obama has given himself even broader license than that. When he announced the dispatch of 300 military advisors to Iraq back on June 19, Obama wrote himself something like a blank check.

“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action,” Obama said, “if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” That language covers even more action that Obama’s protect-Americans vow. ISIS is little too close to Baghdad? Boom. Intel about suicide bombers eyeing Erbil? Boom. Imminent slaughter somewhere? Boom, boom, boom.

And now it is this beheading, and the Cato Institute’s Benjamin Friedman thinks this is madness:

Only the speed of this slide down a slippery slope is surprising. As I recently noted, the humanitarian case for protecting the Yazidi easily becomes a case for continual bombing of ISIL and resumed counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Their danger to civilians was never limited to Sinjar. And as in Syria, the major humanitarian threat in Iraq is civil war. Americans, the president included, need to admit being out of Iraq potentially means letting it burn. The collapse of the fiction that U.S. forces stabilized Iraq before exiting forces us to confront the unpleasant contradictions in U.S. goals there. We want to avoid the tragic costs of U.S. forces trying to suppress Iraq’s violence. We want a stable Iraqi federal government and we want Iraqis to live peacefully. Each of those goals conflicts with the others.

We cannot have it all:

Even if the new Prime Minister is amenable to Sunni demands, U.S. bombing is unlikely to allow Iraqis to destroy ISIL and its allies. Large-scale violence will likely continue. Suppressing insurgency will likely require resumption of U.S. ground operations. And even that, we know, may not help much.

As they say, been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Massive ground operations got us where we are nowd, and the American public is conflicted:

Thirty-one percent said they disapproved of the airstrikes, while 15 percent of the 1,000 randomly selected respondents who took part in the survey, which was carried out between Thursday and Sunday, declined to give an opinion. The poll found major partisan differences, with self-described Republicans markedly more hawkish than Democrats or independents, although a majority of Democratic respondents said they also supported the airstrikes.

However, a majority (57 percent) of Republicans said they were concerned that Obama was not prepared to go “far enough to stop” the Islamic State, while majorities of Democrats (62 percent) and independents (56 percent) said they worried that he may go too far in re-inserting the military into Iraq three years after the last US combat troops were withdrawn. Overall, 51 percent of respondents expressed the latter fear.

Slate’s William Saletan sees that fear might be justified:

In his weekly address on Aug. 9, Obama added a third mission to the military agenda: “We will protect our citizens. We will work with the international community to address this humanitarian crisis. We’ll help prevent these terrorists from having a permanent safe haven from which to attack America.” He repeated that point in a press conference: “We will continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces as they battle these terrorists, so that the terrorists cannot establish a permanent safe haven.” That’s a huge undertaking. Any land controlled by ISIS can be construed as a safe haven. Does Obama plan to drive ISIS out of places such as Fallujah, which it held for months while the United States looked on? Does he plan to push ISIS all the way back to Syria?

Obama hasn’t forgotten all the principles that limited his commitment. He continues to insist that the solution to Iraq’s crisis is political, that Iraqis must achieve that solution themselves, and that putting U.S. troops on the ground creates a dangerous rationale for additional deployments to protect them. But 12 days into the military campaign, he’s showing signs of slippage. He’d better watch himself.

That may be easier said than done. In the American Conservative, Daniel Larison argues that these things take on a life of their own:

Once a president has committed to using force in a foreign conflict, all of the effective political pressure is on the side of escalation.

Having conceded that the U.S. should be involved militarily in a conflict, the president is bombarded with demands for deeper involvement in order to pursue the illusion of victory. If he doesn’t agree to these demands, he will be steadily pilloried in the media until he does, and any adverse development in the affected country will usually be attributed to insufficient American involvement. Since the initial decision to intervene was driven in part by the same sort of pressure, it is more than likely that the president will keep yielding to calls to “do more.”

That’s not just Obama. That’s any president. That’s what happened with Lyndon Johnson long ago. It’s structural, but Slate’s Joshua Keating argues here that what “mission accomplished” will mean in Iraq this time around is as unclear now as it was the first time around:

The cynical answer is that the goal seems to be for Iraq to become just stable enough that we can go back to not paying attention to it. And I suspect that in the end, that may have more to do with how long the U.S. media continues to treat Iraq as a major story than with what’s actually happening there.

Maybe we should let it burn, and then Freddie deBoer considers how we consider such things:

Though the left is often seen as home to only pacifists and those who see the hand of imperialism in all proposed military action, there is also a healthy strain of messianic militarism on our side. I regularly engage with lefties who believe we should be “doing something” for the people of Syria, although what that something entails is not consistent or clear. In this telling, the Syrian uprising is a legitimate revolutionary force, the Islamists among them a small corruption that doesn’t jeopardize a post-Assad future, and the situation such that the United States could deploy military power in a way that increases stability and humanitarian outcomes rather than degrades them. These lefties believe in revolution, and they want the United States to be a revolutionary power.

Freddie deBoer doesn’t want that:

I would simply start by asking: is the United States military in the habit of supporting revolutionaries? What about the history of this country compels you to think that it has the capacity to support revolution, or any interest in doing so? If the United States goes to war, it doesn’t go with some hypothetical benevolent military machine. It goes to war with its actual existing military machine, under the auspices of the same-old warmongering politicians and officials, and with the same old military leadership. We don’t have some spare revolutionary force lying around. So: do you want to break bread with those people? Do you want to give your support to them? Do you want them to do what they do? Because that is a necessary precondition of getting involved. The neocons who want us to get into every war are not suddenly going to throw up their hands and say “we’re sitting this one out, the lefties have got it.” You are free to say that you don’t want to get involved with Bill Kristol and his cronies, but they will most certainly get involved in your war.

And they all said we should have helped out the good guys in Syria long ago, because if we had none of this would have happened, which deBoer thinks is nonsense:

There are more arguments against intervening in Syria than I can count. The first and most salient is the only argument we need against calls for more righteous bloodletting: should implies can. The United States went to war under ostensibly humanitarian pretenses in Iraq. We had over 100,000 troops stationed there, and the result was a humanitarian calamity, limitless slaughter. We sent cruise missiles to liberate the people of Libya, and the country has descended into civil war and chaos. Saying that we should free the Syrian people implies that we can. But for now, I want left-wing advocates of military intervention in Syria to recognize: anything that the United States does, will be done in the way that the United States always does it. This will not suddenly become the country you want it to be. And no matter how much you wish it were different, you will be lying down with the Tony Blairs and the Dick Cheneys and the Weekly Standards… They will be getting involved, and they will exercise more control than you ever can. That’s reality.

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do:

Back in a rare moment of clarity, before quickly rediscovering his cruise missile liberalism, Peter Beinart wrote an apology for his previous support for the war. He explained that he had come to learn “a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war.”

That was true then, and it’s true now. Because the United States is not that country, because everything about our history, recent and distant, teaches you that this country does not rescue. It doesn’t liberate. It supports dictatorships, destroys enemies, secures resources, destabilizes countries, drops ordnance, and generally imposes its will. But it does not liberate, and no amount of wishing will make it the kind of power you want it to be.

In the Guardian, James Foley (not the one who was beheaded) is a bit more blunt about it:

One thing is clear from this latest evil act: the connected nature of a planet in which a possibly British man beheads an American journalist to advance religious insurgency in the Middle East, and the video is posted online. The idiocy of those who claim they have all the answers is equal only to the stupidity of those who think we can ignore global problems.

We can do what we can do:

Western nations should offer sanctuary to many of those devastated refugees and collectively ban for life the return of any young fools joining the jihad. But we cannot solve this explosion of complex economic, social and political issues – let alone heal religious fissures dating back centuries. This is not to advocate isolationism, merely to suggest any fresh interventions are laced with realism.

That’s not very satisfying, given this outrageous act, but that’s the kind of summer it’s been, one outrageous act after another for which there is no good response. Some summers are like that, one damned thing after another. It’s enough to make you wish you were French, heading for a campground north of Aix or something, but this is our August, here, this summer when everything fell apart – but that’s okay. We’re Americans. We don’t do vacations. It seems we can’t.

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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2 Responses to The Summer Things Fell Apart

  1. Rick says:

    Although I take his point, and generally agree with most of what Freddie deBoer says, I still have to take issue with this:

    “…everything about our history, recent and distant, teaches you that this country does not rescue. It doesn’t liberate. It supports dictatorships, destroys enemies, secures resources, destabilizes countries, drops ordnance, and generally imposes its will. But it does not liberate, and no amount of wishing will make it the kind of power you want it to be.”

    Except, in concert with allies, lots of countries during WWII — a list that includes not only France and Belgium, but even the ones we defeated, Germany and Japan. In the postwar years, we helped these countries get back on their feet, and watched as, miraculously, they rejoined the civilized world.

    In fact, I think we keep hoping we can repeat those successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are befuddled by our inability to do so. Maybe the reason we succeeded back then, and yet failed in more recent times, is that, 75 years ago, the world was made up of nation states that, when they went to war, knew the rules of the game and knew what was expected of them when they won or lost. These days, there’s no such thing as winning or losing.

    Modern times seem more barbaric and, in many ways, are a throwback to those murky times before countries existed, when “victory” was not a mere illusion, and meant subjugation of the enemy, if not outright annihilation. These days, whatever lessons we keep hoping to find in history aren’t there, leaving us unable to decide whether to go back and reclaim the mantle of the Roman Empire, brutally conquering and “civilizing” countries that displease us, or withdrawing into our fortress, only fighting when we’re directly attacked, or everything in between.

    And yet, one thing should be clear with this beheading of James Foley: As much as it enrages us, tempting us to drop all the jibber-jabber and just go kill the assholes who are doing this stuff, they are apparently goading us into doing just that.

    So before we do, we need to be fully aware that these Islamists (ISIS or ISIL or IS or whatnot), just as Osama bin Ladin did in 2001, want us to go to war with them, knowing that once we do, millions of otherwise moderate Muslims around the world — ignoring their atrocities and convinced that we are declaring war on Islam itself — will join them.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t do it, only to say that, if we do, we need to realize we’re taking someone’s bait.

    What to do? I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it, and unlike John McCain and Lindsey Graham, I see no obviously right answers popping out at me.

    Rick

  2. BabaO says:

    My country is in the toilet. There are so many reasons there’s hardly the time nor the room here to begin to describe them – but a few deserve mention. The toilet’s “swirly effect” is speeding up and much of what I recognize as foundational parts have already broken off and disappeared. It will never be corrected without citizen participation in solutions, and the chances (and opportunities) for that are rapidly fading away as well.
    A sense of participation and ownership are the life blood and fuel of a democracy, and our country has let the tank run dry. Our history is replete with of examples of corruption in high political places, and it is at a new high – and it’s now, judging from the lack of anything much being done about it – apparently mostly legal. Our judiciary has generally held a higher reputation, but it has now become amazingly politicized – and corrupt in that sense in the highest courts as well.
    Utter fools, public scolds, religious zealots, purveyors of stupid and salacious entertainment, and the worst kind of capitalists have taken over the most active and effective roles of society.
    Empires have huge professional militaries – democracies don’t. We have military providers that make Krupp look like pikers. And they are now providing municipal police with war weapons as well! Our country is becoming just a myth of what it once may have been. And that myth is being told by liars and charlatans.
    It seems perfectly plausible that the one way yet possibly available to the country that might restore citizen participation in their country, town, neighborhood – the one absolute requirement for a democracy – is national service. Bring back the draft – with options to perform other service for 18 or 24 months – like Peace Corps, VISTA, an updated CCC, or other such entities that instill a sense of ownership and participation. Participants would qualify for certain benefits – particularly aid for higher education or skills training. An old idea. And social engineering too. Got a better idea?

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