Containing the Problem

This October has started out badly here in Los Angeles, with two successive heat waves that have broken all records – day after day of ninety-nine by noon, and rising, with the blazing sun and all that. The air is full of alkali dust blowing in off the Mojave and the hills will burn soon. Mad dogs and Englishmen, and tourists here in Hollywood, go out in the midday sun – no one else does. The only pleasant time of day is just after dawn, when the sun is just edging up over Griffith Observatory out east. The air is light. There’s black coffee and the morning paper. The Los Angeles Times is thinner and shallower than ever – too many new owners, one after the other, trying to make it profitable, somehow, by getting rid of expensive reporters and photographers. But it is still a morning newspaper. Traditionalists like to start the morning the old-fashioned way. Plow through it all, even the stupid letters to the editor. Find out what’s what. Get a fix on the day. Being perpetually surprised by stuff you never heard of is no way to live. No one wants to be a rube, and in the quiet cool morning you can make sure you won’t be out of the loop, or many loops of all sorts. It’s not tedious. It’s kind of pleasant.

Then someone comes along and ruins this, usually someone on the op-ed pages. The Los Angeles Times doesn’t have a stable of opinion columnists of their own any longer – too expensive – let the New York Times and Washington Post do such things – so they rely on guest columnists, plugging a book or hammering away at an issue that bugs them, because no one agrees with them, and everyone should, damn it. This isn’t a bad way to run a major newspaper on the cheap, and reading a variety of opiniond is always useful, but there are cranks, and those whose views have been chewed up and spit out by actual events, those who should just shut up. An op-ed from one of them can ruin an early morning,

Tuesday, October 7, it was the return of the neoconservatives. Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, and his wife, Kimberly Kagan, is the president of the Institute for the Study of War – and both organizations are successors to the Project for the New American Century – where they were both founding members, along with Dick Cheney and William Kristol and others. That odd project gave us the Iraq War – George Bush was rather clueless and thus quite useful to them – and they still think that war was brilliant and heroic and just the right thing to do. Dick Cheney still thinks so, and says so, each time he resurfaces, growling and snarling.

Few listen to Dick Cheney anymore – he’s become America’s comic Darth Vader – but the Kagan couple is sufficiently obscure. They can say the same sort of things and get away with it. They didn’t shoot someone in the face. They didn’t make bold predictions that proved to be nonsense. They didn’t sneer at all of America when challenged. They’re safe, at least the Los Angeles Times thought so. They ran their op-ed that turned a good morning bad.

Their argument was simple. We need to send American troops into Iraq and Syria right now:

Air operations in Iraq and Syria have not stopped the advance of Islamic State. Despite the bombing, the Al Qaeda splinter group has launched a series of offensives in Iraq, gaining new ground in Anbar Province, and it has continued its offensive in Syria.

The desultory bombing mission – far too limited to merit being called an air campaign – has no chance of enabling local allies to eliminate Islamic State sanctuaries. It may not even be enough to keep Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from expanding. After 50 days of obvious failure, it’s time to consider an approach that might work: Get American Special Forces on the ground with the Sunni Arabs themselves.

We need to fight alongside them, to show them how it’s done, and we need to do so now:

The situation in Iraq is very bad, and in Syria it is dire. There is no guarantee that sending American Special Forces in will turn the tide, while it is certain that they will take casualties. The Obama administration is making an argument for patience that is superficially appealing: Let’s give the air campaign time to work, the Iraqi security forces time to improve and the Syrian opposition time to develop.

The trouble is that the trend lines aren’t going in the right direction. The air campaign is not working, and U.S. efforts to help the Iraqi security forces and train Syrian oppositionists are moving at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to work with local Sunni populations against Islamic State grows more likely to close as it continues its campaign of terror and assassination. And U.S. air operations that seem to support Assad’s troops and Iraq’s Shiite militias are already feeding a narrative that America is backing the Iranians and the Shiites against the Arabs and the Sunnis. Allowing that narrative to take deep root could alienate the very people we most need as allies.

Ah, we need to fight with the Sunnis this time, even if we got rid of the Sunni fellow in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and helped Iraq set up a wholly Shiite government, because… Iran. That’s an odd argument, and switching sides now is unlikely to impress any of the parties involved, but they say we should do this. Send in the troops. American Special Forces will certainly take casualties, but that’s a sacrifice the Kagan couple is willing to make. Dick Cheney couldn’t have said it better. Something must be done:

Above all, it’s time to recognize that some preferred approaches to the Islamic State problem have been tried and have failed. We tried ignoring the region and counting on the Iraqis and the Syrians to sort things out for themselves. We tried brokering political settlements. We tried targeted strikes to degrade and disrupt terrorist organizations around the world. And now we’ve tried an extremely limited bombing effort for more than 50 days during which the situation has gotten worse. It’s time to try something else.

There is only one answer. There has always been only one answer. Send in our troops. That’s the only thing that has ever worked to solve the world’s problems.

Yeah, yeah – heard it before – heard it the first time. We sent in troops. What did we get? That op-ed ruined a perfectly good morning out here, but there was the other big story of the day too:

In the third high-profile book this year to detail behind-the-scenes conversations inside the White House, another former member of Obama’s administration has opened up with criticisms of the president’s embattled foreign policy.

President Barack Obama “needs to jump in the ring” and fight the problems facing the United States for the entirety of the next two years of his term, former CIA Director Leon Panetta said this week.

“Too often in my view the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader,” he writes in his new 512-page memoir, “Worthy Fights.” Panetta’s critical account is similar to those of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

In the book, released Tuesday, Panetta has harsh words for the president’s handling of the current situation in Syria and Iraq. He writes that Obama’s past decisions in the two countries strengthened the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which consequently made the battle against the terror group more difficult. Panetta was the former secretary of defense who led the CIA and later the Pentagon as a team of U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

It does come down to troops on the ground:

While serving at the White House, Panetta previously urged Obama to leave behind a residual force of combat troops in Iraq. He warned that Iraq again could eventually become a safe haven for terror groups. Obama attempted to persuade Nouri al-Maliki, then-prime minister of Iraq, to allow a continued presence of 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops and intelligence. But al-Maliki put up resistance. In his book, Panetta questions whether or not Obama pushed hard enough against the prime minister.

“I think [Obama’s] hope was that somehow this thing would all go in the right direction. But the fact was, unless we had that presence there, we would lose the leverage on Maliki to keep them in the right place,” Panetta said Tuesday on the Today Show. Keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq, he added, would have put pressure on Maliki and hindered the rise of ISIS.

It’s hard to prove a counterfactual hypothetical, and Joe Biden pounced:

Vice President Joe Biden and officials at the U.S. Department of State criticized Panetta’s memoir before its release on Tuesday. Speaking to students at Harvard University last week, Biden blasted former members of the Obama administration who have written “inappropriate” books about the White House.

“The fact of the matter is, the ability to identify a moderate middle in Syria was – there was no moderate middle, because the moderate middle is made up of shopkeepers, not soldiers,” Biden said last week.

And then there was the interview Panetta gave to Susan Page of USA Today:

By not pressing the Iraqi government to leave more U.S. troops in the country, he “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed,” Panetta told USA Today, referring to the group also known as the Islamic State. …

The USA Today interview was the first of what inevitably will be a series as he promotes his book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” which is sharply critical of Obama’s handling of the troop withdrawal from Iraq, Syria and the advance of the Islamic State. “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war” that will also sweep in conflicts in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, he told the paper.

Kevin Drum is not impressed:

My first thought when I read this was puzzlement: Just what does Panetta think those US troops would have accomplished if they’d stayed in Iraq? Nobody ever seems to have a very concrete idea on that score. There’s always just a bit of vague hand waving about how of course they would have done… something… something… something… and stopped the spread of ISIS. But what?

My second thought was the same as Joe Biden’s: would it kill guys like Panetta to at least wait until Obama is out of office before airing all their complaints? Do they have even a smidgen of loyalty to their ex-boss? But I suppose that ship sailed long ago, so there’s not much point in griping about it.

So be it, but what really got to Kevin Drum was Panetta talking about Obama’s foreign policy legacy:

“We are at a point where I think the jury is still out,” Panetta says. “For the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. … But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way. You know, it’s been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about.”

“He may have found himself again with regards to this ISIS crisis. I hope that’s the case. And if he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with Congress in taking on some of these other issues, as I said I think he can establish a very strong legacy as president. I think these next 2 1/2 years will tell us an awful lot about what history has to say about the Obama administration.”

Drum smells Cheney here:

Think about this. Panetta isn’t even a super hawkish Democrat – just moderately hawkish. But his basic worldview is simple: as long as Obama is launching lots of drone attacks and surging lots of troops and bombing plenty of Middle Eastern countries – then he’s a “strong leader on security issues.” But when Obama starts to think that maybe reflexive military action hasn’t acquitted itself too well over the past few years – in that case he’s “kind of lost his way.”

That’s the default view of practically everyone in Washington: Using military force shows strong leadership. Declining to use military force shows weakness. But most folks inside the Beltway don’t even seem to realize they feel this way. It’s just part of the air they breathe: never really noticed, always taken for granted, and invariably the difficult but sadly necessary answer for whichever new and supposedly unique problem we’re addressing right now. This is what Obama is up against.

He’s also up against the big guy:

Bill O’Reilly put former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on the hot seat tonight, and repeatedly grilled him on whether President Obama’s foreign policy has been effective or a failure. Panetta insisted to O’Reilly that he doesn’t doubt Obama’s commitment to fighting America’s enemies, there’s just a question of whether he’s made the right decisions in carrying out that fight.

For example, Panetta says Obama did support providing a troop presence of thousands in Iraq, as he and others recommended, but the issue was “how hard did he fight to make it happen.”

O’Reilly asked Panetta why it feels like the Obama administration is taken by surprise in almost everything. Panetta said that since he’s left the White House, Obama has learned the importance of fighting ISIS, to which O’Reilly responded, “Oh, bull.”

Panetta went on Fox News to hammer Obama, or just to sell books, and O’Reilly dared him to go all the way – join us at Fox News, where we know the truth – but O’Reilly only got this:

When O’Reilly pressed Panetta for a straight answer on whether Obama’s foreign policy is an effective one, Panetta hesitated. He preferred to blame “mixed messages” from the White House as opposed to strong leadership from the previous few years.

Hillary Clinton wouldn’t hesitate. The remaining neoconservatives are quite comfortable with her – she’ll invade wherever – they know she’s one of them – but Panetta was right about mixed messages. Obama says we will degrade and then destroy ISIS – but everyone knows his policy is one of containment, containment of the George Kennan sort:

Political realism formed the basis of Kennan’s work as a diplomat and diplomatic historian and remains relevant to the debate over American foreign policy, which since the 19th century has been characterized by a shift from the Founding Fathers’ realist school to the idealistic or Wilsonian school of international relations. In the realist tradition, security is based on the principle of a balance of power, whereas the Wilsonian view (considered impractical by realists) relies on morality as the sole determining factor in statecraft. According to the Wilsonian approach the spread of democracy abroad as a foreign policy is key and morals are universally valid. …

In his historical writings and memoirs, Kennan laments in great detail the failings of democratic foreign policy makers and those of the United States in particular. According to Kennan, when American policymakers suddenly confronted the Cold War, they had inherited little more than rationale and rhetoric “utopian in expectations, legalistic in concept, moralistic in [the] demand it seemed to place on others, and self-righteous in the degree of high-mindedness and rectitude … to ourselves”. The source of the problem is the force of public opinion, a force that is inevitably unstable, unserious, subjective, emotional, and simplistic. Kennan has insisted that the U.S. public can only be united behind a foreign policy goal on the “primitive level of slogans and jingoistic ideological inspiration”.

Utopian, legalistic, moralistic, self-righteous – but what if we just want to make ISIS go away? Andrew Sullivan has been thinking about this:

It was Kennan’s careful and conservative case for containment that ultimately won the Cold War without the near-Armageddon that the predecessors of today’s chronic interventionists (Kennedy especially) nearly brought us to. …

I favor US military action and leadership in cases where we carefully assess what we can do, have a clear strategy, a clear definition of victory and an exit plan. I favored the bombing in the Balkans to end genocide; I favored the Gulf War to get Saddam out of Kuwait; I favored getting the Falklands back. I opposed the intervention in Lebanon under Reagan; I opposed the Somalia intervention under the first Bush; I opposed the Libya intervention under Obama. And then, of course, in the wake of 9/11, I supported the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. And I have to say that living through all those events has only helped me better understand the wisdom of Kennan.

So call him an isolationist if you wish, but you’d be wrong:

Of the two kinds of “isolationists” I guess I’m around 30 percent who thinks the world is far too fucked up or irrelevant to try to intervene and 70 percent fully aware that the US simply does not have the ability to do anything but make so much so much worse. Almost every intervention in the Middle East – save the Gulf War – has made things worse. And the Gulf War, of course, gave us al Qaeda, in response to bases in Saudi Arabia. Just as the intervention against the Soviets in Afghanistan empowered Islamist terror in the long run as well.

And then there was Iran, 1953:

As for the CIA deposing Mossadegh, well … look what nightmares came from that. My contention is that the CIA has done more damage to the interests of the United States over the years than any other institution.

So it comes down to this:

We have no reason to believe ISIS can overrun Kurdistan or Baghdad without one hell of a fight. But if the ISIS-led Sunnis could do that – and ISIS is really a product of Sunni disempowerment – then it merely proves that the Shiites cannot really run Iraq, have no experience in doing so, and our propping them up in power will simply mean greater and greater strength for ISIS. We gave the Shiites, a vast, well-trained hugely expensive military and even then, they cannot beat back this insurgency. Hell, the US couldn’t really beat it back over ten years – until we bribed the Anbar tribes. What chance the hapless, militias of the Shiites? Propping up an inherently unstable power structure is not a recipe for pacifying Iraq; it’s a recipe for permanent warfare.

And this:

There are terror enclaves all over the world. To name one: Saudi Arabia, a state that beheaded more people in the last few months than ISIS, a state that has funded this kind of extremism for a very long time, a state with enormous wealth it has poured into Islamist terrorism and from which the 9/11 attackers hailed. To name another: Pakistan. How many countries do we have to invade to prevent havens for potential Islamist terror? We are now doing this in Yemen and Somalia – and Obama actually called them a success! And in the end, these enclaves can only be defeated by the Arabs and Persians. The moment we take responsibility, the odds of any success collapse.

And this:

No, we haven’t invaded with a full army. But in the first weeks, we have more than a thousand boots on the ground – and the neocons want more, and under a Republican president, will doubtless ramp it up still further. And as ISIS fails to lose territory – and gains credibility because they are now fighting the Crusader forces – they may well gain even more support. We have already elevated their status in the crazy Jihadist world; we have already won them at least 6,000 more recruits; we have already turned the Syrian “moderates” against us. And we are told this “mowing the lawn” will continue way past this presidency – and if we get a Clinton or a Cruz in power, it will only intensify. You know what “mowing the lawn” really means? It means the mass killing of civilians – as already seems to be taking place once the easy targets have been hit. ISIS is adapting. They will do to us what Hamas did to the Israelis. And do you really think the Israelis have a winning strategy? “Mowing the lawn” is the real nihilism.

And this:

I would be far less depressed if we had not just spent a decade fighting the very same insurgency, based on the very same fantasies of a multi-sectarian democratic Iraq, and failed so spectacularly. Indeed, every single time a foreign power has attempted to somehow keep Iraq together, it has failed. …

I would also be far less depressed if this president hadn’t already done exactly the same thing in Libya – to prevent an alleged impending humanitarian disaster – and created far more deaths, far more chaos and far more disorder than existed before. To repeat this catastrophic error with the same bland notions that this is America’s indispensable role is just madness. In the Middle East, our role has long been to generate chaos and conflict and mayhem. At what point will Americans not realize that they are just not capable of solving problems in places we do not understand, beset by forces more powerful than even the mightiest military in the world can counter?

This calls for some Kennan-style containment, which worked just fine, which the public actually hated, because it wasn’t heroic, and which each president since Truman found to be a political loser, because the public hated just “containing” the bad guys until they ran out of steam and the world turned against their nonsense. That doesn’t feel right, or righteous, but there’s what Kennan said in 2002 – “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

He was right. And Obama may be right here. Tell the people you’re going to degrade and defeat the enemy. That’ll make them feel good. Just don’t tell them you’re going to do that through careful and tedious and rather boring containment over many years. They’ll hate that, but they sense that’s what’s really happening here already. Maybe they’ll get over it, even if Kennan said they never do.


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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One Response to Containing the Problem

  1. BabaO says:

    To a neo-neo-con: What’s all this “we” shit? You got another Bush in your pocket?

    These armchair quarterback – chickenhawk pundits are always ready to play the game with other people’s money. Hasn’t Bill-o got his mercenary army ginned up yet? Well, let’s just go get America’s newest inexhaustble resource – the unemployed young.

    God, I hate those bastards. If there was any justice in this country, the young (of both sexes) of every member of congress, and every big-mouth “pundit” would be automatically given the lowest draft numbers. and no deferments at all, no matter what “other priorities” they may claim. Sorry – it’s part of the price of being who you are. No Academy – no OCS. To the infantry . . . every damn one of them.
    A decrease in interventionism would be the first most predictable and salutary result.

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