Maybe you had to be there, but 1968 was an amazing year. People write books about that year – and there still are television specials – because that was the year of the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite telling America it was time to pack it in, and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and there were those riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There was the Prague Spring and the student revolt in Paris about the same time and at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos won big for the United States, and then gave that fist-in-the air Black Power salute on the podium. Do we cheer, or not? And then, on a new episode of Star Trek, on November 22, the crew aboard the Starship Enterprise became enslaved by those nasty humanoid Platonians, who possessed a telekinetic ability to force them to do anything they wanted them to do, and Captain Kirk, played by the scenery-chewing Canadian white guy, William Shatner, was forced to kiss Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, a stunning black woman who once sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It was American television’s first interracial kiss. The world as we knew it was falling apart and Lyndon Johnson had already given up. At the end of an Oval Office address, at the end of March, he departed from the prepared text and looked right in the camera – he would not seek and he would not accept his party’s nomination for another term as president. Screw it. No one could make any sense of any of this. He was tired of trying to.
That set the stage for the epic showdown between Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy, a stunning contrast and a bit of a rematch of 1960 when Nixon lost to Bobby Kennedy’s older brother, but in June, Bobby Kennedy was shot dead out here in Los Angeles – just down the hill from here, actually – and then, in Chicago, the best the Democrats could come up was was Hubert Humphrey, the Happy Warrior who looked a bit like Elmer Fudd. All bets were off, and complicating matters there was a third-party candidate, the states-rights segregationist George Wallace. Wallace wasn’t going to get far but he could steal votes from Nixon, because his version of Nixon’s law-and-order thing was far more brutal and direct – kill all the bastards – and while Nixon had his “secret plan” to end the War over in Vietnam – peace with honor – Wallace chose a running mate who wondered why we hadn’t used nuclear weapons over there, reducing North Vietnam to glowing rubble.
That would be General Curtis LeMay – Old Iron Pants – the guy who had thought up and then directed the massive firebombing campaign that wiped out most of Japan’s major cities back in the day. He said that had we lost that war he fully expected to be tried for war crimes. Half a million dead Japanese civilians and five million homeless will do that, but we didn’t lose the war and he rose to become the man who built the Strategic Air Command into its full Doctor Strangelove awesomeness. Stanley Kubrick was thinking of him. Then LeMay moved up. In 1961 he was made the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, where he was always going head-to-head with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who he thought was a wimp. George Wallace loved this guy, Old Iron Pants, as long as he toned down the stuff about nuking everyone in sight. Even George Wallace wasn’t that crazy.
Then there’s this:
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, LeMay clashed again with President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade and, after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis – whereby Kennedy secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey and Italy – “the greatest defeat in our history.”
You can also listen to this – “In a secretly recorded meeting on October 19, 1962, President John F. Kennedy discusses the Cuban missile crisis with his military advisors. After criticizing Kennedy’s call to blockade the island as too weak a response, Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief of staff, tells the president that his refusal to invade Cuba would encourage the Soviets to move on Berlin.”
The audio isn’t very good but it’s good enough. Be brutal. Take care of the problem once and for all. Anything else is defeat, or worse – it will encourage the bad guys to do even worse things. That’s what Old Iron Pants says. Kennedy politely and respectfully ignored him. Later, George Wallace didn’t.
All that may seem like ancient history now, but history has a way of repeating itself:
Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship.
Even as the administration has received congressional backing for its strategy, with the Senate voting Thursday to approve a plan to arm and train Syrian rebels, a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who served under Obama until last year, became the latest high-profile skeptic on Thursday, telling the House Intelligence Committee that a blanket prohibition on ground combat was tying the military’s hands. “Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility,” he said. “We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.”
Old Iron Pants wanted to invade Cuba even if the Soviets sent every one of their nuclear missiles back home. Send troops. Anything else is defeat, and this time the disagreement about that is in the open:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tried to reassure the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon were in “full alignment” and in “complete agreement with every component of the president’s strategy.”
Some lawmakers were skeptical. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, suggested that Obama should listen more closely to his commanders. “I think it’s very important that he does follow the advice and counsel that he receives – the professional advice of the military. They are the ones best suited to do that.”
“I realize he’s commander in chief, he has the final say and the final obligation and responsibility,” McKeon added. “I would also request that he not take options off the table.”
There are geopolitical reasons to take certain options off the table, given our curious allies in this effort, not military reasons, but this sort of thing is nothing new:
In 2009, shortly after Obama took office, Pentagon leaders pressured the new president – who had run on a platform of ending the war in Iraq – to deploy a surge of troops to Afghanistan to rescue the faltering fight against the Taliban.
After a lengthy and tense internal debate, Obama did send more troops, but not as many as some commanders wanted. At the White House, Obama’s top aides privately expressed frustration that the Pentagon had tried to restrict his choices to get the result the military preferred.
At the Pentagon, military commanders expressed their own frustration last year as Obama weighed whether to take action in Syria following the determination that President Bashar al-Assad had employed chemical weapons against civilians. Although the Pentagon had internal disagreements about whether military action was warranted, there were widespread concerns that Obama was on the verge of ordering strikes without articulating goals or a clear strategy.
And so it goes, but one of those “wise men” on the right, Charles Krauthammer, tries to straighten it all out:
As for the short run, the Islamic State knows it will be pounded from the air. But it deems that price worth paying, given its gains in propaganda and prestige – translated into renown and recruiting – from these public executions … We tend to forget that at this stage in its career, the Islamic State’s principal fight is intramural. It seeks to supersede and supplant its jihadi rivals – from al-Qaeda in Pakistan, to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, to the various franchises throughout North Africa – to emerge as champion of the one true jihad.
The strategy is simple: Draw in the world’s great superpower, create the ultimate foil and thus instantly achieve supreme stature in radical Islam as America’s nemesis.
Ah, don’t send in troops. That’s just what they want us to do. ISIS was deliberately baiting us, and the rest of the West, with beheading videos, hoping to drag us back into an unwinnable war, sort of the same unwinnable war, and to be that top dog, the successor to al-Qaeda. That’s the idea, and the now antiwar Andrew Sullivan is fine with that:
My inference from this is that we should not take the bait. I fully understand how hard that is, given the Jacksonian impulse in American culture, given the PTSD of 9/11, given the horrifying depravity of these Jihadist lunatics. Krauthammer’s reaction, in contrast, is to talk smack – “When the enemy deliberately draws you into combat, it is all the more imperative to show the world that he made a big mistake.”
And so we are supposed to send ground troops back into Iraq in order to win back urban centers from a deeply marginalized and radicalized Sunni minority, and turn this entire thing into a US vs Jihad battle. You can see why Krauthammer admires Netanyahu so much. He doesn’t just support a permanent war, he seems to relish it. You could summarize this column with a classic Bushism: “Bring It On.”
You could, but this is not a Bush thing. This predates the clueless cowboy. Old Iron Pants has returned. This time his name is Krauthammer, and Sullivan is not impressed with the guy:
He seems to believe that ISIS can be defeated by US forces, and the gist of the latest neoconservative gambit is that half-measures won’t do. Once you’ve committed to “ultimately destroying” ISIS, you have to commit to it. Don’t rule out ground troops; rally the country with Manichean rhetoric; score cheap points at home by declaring yourself more manly than the president; and react to any further ISIS grandstanding by ratcheting up the rhetoric – and thereby disappearing down yet another Mesopotamian rabbit-hole.
It is as if the lesson of the Iraq war was that we didn’t use enough firepower.
Hey, that’s what Old Iron Pants said about Vietnam, although Krauthammer adds this:
A common mantra is that American cruelty – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “torture,” the Iraq war itself – is the great jihadist recruiting tool. But leaving Iraq, closing Abu Ghraib and prohibiting “enhanced interrogation” had zero effect on recruiting. In fact, jihadi cadres from Mali to Mosul have only swelled during Obama’s outstretched-hand presidency.
Turns out the Islamic State’s best recruiting tool is indeed savagery – its own. Deliberate, defiant, triumphant. The beheadings are not just a magnet for psychopaths around the world. They are choreographed demonstrations of its unbounded determination and of American helplessness. In Osama bin Laden’s famous formulation who is the “strong horse” now?
So we’re back on bin Laden’s horse again, are we? Of course, the implosion of American decency and horror in the last decade did not create Jihadism. But it sure didn’t help.
Bombing the crap out of a country, breaking it apart, unleashing its sectarian demons, occupying it for a decade, and then up-ending its long-standing dynamic of Sunni minority rule: that has something to do with it. More to the point: those very tactics proved that military force cannot do what Krauthammer wants it to do. The Iraq war revealed the limits of American power more dramatically than any of Obama’s more minimalist policies.
That last sentence is critical. The Iraq war was what actually revealed the limits of American power, and if so, that leads Sullivan to say what some find unthinkable, even if we should know better now:
We cannot end Jihadism ourselves or by military force alone; it has to be defeated within the Arab and Muslim world. This is not merely an abstract argument: we have a decade of experience now that proves it. What the neocons are proposing is a Likudnik strategy of brutal warfare to allegedly wipe out the enemy. It hasn’t worked in Israel – and they have far more at stake than we do. It has deepened bitterness, drawn atavism to the surface like pus, altered Israel’s democracy in profound and troubling ways, violated core Western values, and won … well, a constant low-level war which can be relied upon to flare again and again indefinitely.
Sullivan suggests this:
America is bigger and better than that. When fanatics use brutal performance art to bait us into a trap from which we have few escapes, our task is to ignore them. That may be a very hard sell in the current climate. But if we cannot see it clearly after the last decade, we are truly careening toward the rapids.
Our task is to ignore them? Are we allowed to do that, or even think that?
It doesn’t matter. We are not ignoring them. We’re bombing them, and now the French have joined us in that, and we’re arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels, if we can find any, even if, when that was being debated, the CIA let it be known that they thought that idea was a fool’s errand:
One Democratic member of Congress said that the CIA has made it clear that it doubts the possibility that the administration’s strategy could succeed. “I have heard it expressed, outside of classified contexts, that what you heard from your intelligence sources is correct, because the CIA regards the effort as doomed to failure,” the congressman said in an email. “Specifically (again without referring to classified information), the CIA thinks that it is impossible to train and equip a force of pro-Western Syrian nationals that can fight and defeat Assad, al-Nusra and ISIS, regardless of whatever air support that force may receive.”
He added that, as the CIA sees it, the ramped-up backing of rebels is an expansion of a strategy that is already not working. “The CIA also believes that its previous assignment to accomplish this was basically a fool’s errand, and they are well aware of the fact that many of the arms that they provided ended up in the wrong hands,” the congressman said, echoing intelligence sources.
In Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko suggests it’s all a fool’s errand:
Given that two administrations have failed to achieve their end states of defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, we should be extremely doubtful of the Obama administration’s strategic objective of destroying ISIS or its ability to threaten the United States or any of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Furthermore, it is difficult to ascertain what the Obama administration has learned from the total failure to eliminate the Taliban and al Qaeda and all affiliates. Based upon White House statements, it appears that its sole lesson from the post-9/11 era is to avoid massive ground invasions, and to emulate the policies from Yemen and Somalia, which again, according to U.S. government data, have not worked.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby was asked how ISIS would be destroyed, beyond airstrikes and supporting partners on the ground. He replied: “It also is going to take the ultimate destruction of their ideology.” If this is truly the ultimate pathway for ISIS destruction, then it was strange that it did not appear anywhere in President Obama’s strategy speech. Furthermore, altering the interpretation that others hold of a religious ideology is something that governments are really bad at.
Old Iron Pants never tried that. He just leveled whole cities in Japan. It’s just not the same sort of thing, and the blogger Allahpundit adds this:
Increasingly, I think this whole arm-the-rebels plan is just a perfunctory mad-libs answer to an obvious question about O’s ISIS strategy.
Everyone understands that we can put a hurt on them from the air; we can probably also pull together a force in Iraq between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga to push ISIS back into Syria. But what happens then? If the plan is to destroy them, how do we get them once they’re back inside their home base and hunkered down in Syrian cities? We don’t. In reality, we’re practicing a containment strategy, the first step of which is to shove ISIS out of Iraq and the second step of which is to drone their key leaders and terror camps once they’ve returned to Syria. Destroying ISIS will be left to the Shiites who are really motivated to do it, be it Assad, Iran, Hezbollah or, most likely, Shiite militias from Syria and Iraq. This pipe dream is less an actual plan than a rhetorical one, so that O has an out-of-the-box answer handy when someone asks him “Who’s going to fight our battle in Syria?” What’s he supposed to say, “Shiite death squads”? That may be the correct answer but it’s not a politic one.
There are no politic answers anymore:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran has a role to play in an international coalition to take on Islamic State extremists.
“The coalition required to eliminate ISIL is not only, or even primarily, military in nature,” Kerry said yesterday at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Iraq, referring to the group by an acronym for its former name. “It must be comprehensive and include close collaboration across multiple lines of effort.”
“There is a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran,” he said.
Curtis LeMay thought that Kennedy secretly agreeing to remove our missiles from Turkey and Italy was the greatest defeat in our history, but this could top that. These are the bad guys. We’re saying that they could be helpful, but we could just bomb them all, you know. We could send in the troops. That’s what Old Iron Pants whispered in Kennedy’s ear back in 1963, although he wasn’t exactly whispering. Had Kennedy listened to him we’d all be dead now. Then in 1968, the year when everything fell apart, he was on the ballot, whispering the same thing to us all. Now guys like Charles Krauthammer are doing that whispering, and in Washington there seems to be an Old Iron Pants in every office in the Pentagon. Now it’s Obama’s turn. We’re caught in a loop here.