The War Machine

The past can be pretty creepy, if you live long enough. Los Angeles has one of the best oldies stations in the nation, with a sideband HD service where you can listen to everything from 1965 or so, with no commercials at all, which is fine if you liked that year. The British Invasion was peaking – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and Herman’s Hermits and Petula Clark too, being held off by the Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher. The British were winning, and that was the soundtrack of the summer when high school was over and it was time to move on, to those four years that actually changed America, that Cultural Revolution that still pisses off Republicans. There’s no reason for that. The decade ended with the Beatles gone forever and Richard Nixon in the White House. John and Bobby Kennedy were dead, and so was Martin Luther King. Those riots in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention ended with the Democrats offering up the hapless Hubert Humphrey, as a gift to Richard Nixon. The Summer of Love in San Francisco came to nothing, and there would never be another Woodstock, and all the demonstrations in the world weren’t going to end the war. They had their war, the one Lyndon Johnson had handed to them.

They won, and the summer of 1965 was when the creepiness started. The music was amazing, but that was the year we sent the first combat troops to Vietnam – 3,500 Marines landed near Da Nang in March. We would have 180,000 troops there by the end of the year. The draft was ramping up. On July 29, 1965, in the middle of a fine summer, Lyndon Johnson announced that he had ordered an increase in military forces in Vietnam, from the 75,000 to 125,000, and announced that the monthly draft calls would be raised from 17,000 to 35,000 – because that was what was necessary. That was also the soundtrack of that summer. Sure, there were draft deferments for college students back then – being sent there to die wasn’t an immediate worry – but the world was turning very dark.

That complicates nostalgia. The songs of that summer have an odd context, even now on the car radio here in Los Angeles, blasting away, while stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard. They all turn a bit creepy. That July, the Rolling Stones couldn’t get any sort of satisfaction. Maybe they knew something. There was something in the air.

It’s in the air again. Andrew Sullivan senses it:

Let’s say you wanted to construct a narrative that perfectly fits the definition of mission creep. How could it improve on the following: at first you insist you are not going to be dragged into a new war in Iraq and Syria; then you rush military aid to avoid a humanitarian disaster; then you find that you need to make sure Kobani doesn’t fall; then you commit 1500 troops to “advise” the Iraqi “military”; and then you have the Pentagon announce “that it had received authorization from Obama to send an additional 1,500 U.S. personnel to Iraq over the coming months”, which would double the number of American boots on the ground there – but no worries – nothing to see here.

That was the announcement:

The new troops will be placed under the same noncombat restriction as those already deployed, but they will be moved closer to the front lines. … According to a senior administration official, 630 of the new troops will be performing an advise-and-assist mission – similar to the one being conducted today – primarily in Anbar in the west of the country. The Pentagon plans to establish “two expeditionary advise and assist operations centers, in locations outside of Baghdad and Erbil,” to provide support for the Iraqis at the brigade headquarters level and above. The remaining 870 troops will be doing a more traditional training mission at locations across the country, the senior administration official said. Both missions will move U.S. troops out of Iraq’s major cities and closer to where battles are currently being waged and where a likely counteroffensive would begin.

But these are NOT combat troops, you see. They’re only being sent to combat zones. Sullivan is not impressed:

What if combat comes to them? What if one of them is killed? Are we not to respond and defend ourselves? One US soldier captured by the IS and we have a huge emotional story that could guarantee even more of a commitment. This is exactly how this operation with a few advisers becomes an unstoppable war in an unwinnable desert.

Peter Van Buren remembers that summer long ago:

The latest American war was launched as a humanitarian mission. The goal of its first bombing runs was to save the Yazidis, a group few Americans had heard of until then, from genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (IS). Within weeks, however, a full-scale bombing campaign was underway against IS across Iraq and Syria with its own “coalition of the willing” and 1,600 US military personnel on the ground. Slippery slope? It was Teflon-coated. Think of what transpired as several years of early Vietnam-era escalation compressed into a semester.

He’s not happy:

In that time, what’s gone right? Short answer: Almost nothing. Squint really, really hard and maybe the “good news” is that IS has not yet taken control of much of the rest of Iraq and Syria, and that Baghdad hasn’t been lost. These possibilities, however, were unlikely even without US intervention.

And there might just possibly be one “victory” on the horizon, though the outcome still remains unclear. Washington might “win” in the IS-besieged Kurdish town of Kobani, right on the Turkish border. If so, it will be a faux victory guaranteed to accomplish nothing of substance. After all, amid the bombing and the fighting, the town has nearly been destroyed. What comes to mind is a Vietnam War-era remark by an anonymous American officer about the bombed provincial capital of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Calm down, Peter – our folks aren’t burning down villages there to save them, yet. We’re just arming some folks, and bombing some others, and we’ll be training Iraqis. We’re not in combat there yet. This is 1963, not 1965, for now, although the famous Middle East expert Juan Cole suggests that we are being spun this time too:

That these troops will be sent with Iraqi soldiers to al-Anbar Province belies the administration’s repeated denial that it will put boots on the ground. There will soon be 3000 US troops in Iraq. They will be at the scene of battles, embedded with Iraqi units (apparently in the hope that the Iraqi troops will be too embarrassed to run away en masse again in front of foreign guests). …

If there are US troops on the front lines in al-Anbar, where ISIL has been expanding its reach in recent months, then unfortunately there are likely to be US casualties. These are boots on the ground, even if there are not combat platoons going into battle by themselves.

Obama should cut the crap:

If ISIL really is a dire threat to US security, as administration officials maintain, then they should go to the US public with the news that they are going to have to put thousands of US forces on the ground in Iraq. So far they are trying to spin us, and to pretend that there are just some trainers and advisers. It is far more than that; US special operations forces will be operating in Iraq brigades, likely in part to paint lasers on targets for US warplanes to bomb.

In an age of weasel-words and Orwellian diction, it would be refreshing to hear Mr. Obama call this escalation what it is. It is not as if he will be running for office again or needs to win a popularity contest.

On the other hand, an aide to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reportedly just killed in an airstrike and Baghdadi himself may also have been injured at the same time – or maybe he’s dead now. The Pentagon can’t confirm that – we do these things remotely – but the Iraqi army is making real gains against ISIS in the northern city of Beiji:

Exclusive images obtained by Al Jazeera on Monday showed government forces pushing ahead into the rebel-controlled city, with ISIL flag covered in an Iraqi security forces slogan. Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said clashes continue and the armed rebels are fighting back. He said the oil refinery, located about 50 km from the city centre, is the next big target. ISIL fighters remain in control of parts of the facility. The military advance is seen as a significant victory for the government, as Beiji and its nearby oil refinery were one of the first territories swept by ISIL in June.

This is a good thing. Take back those oil refineries and that will take away their funding, and maybe we won’t have to send in ground troops. German intelligence believes that’s working:

According to German English-language publication The Local, the BND (German equivalent of the CIA) estimate was obtained by several German news agencies. The BND estimate suggests that ISIS may make less than $100 million this year from oil – under $274,000 per day. Obviously, that’s still a lot, but it is way lower than what most public estimates suggest. …

There are two big reasons the BND thinks most estimates are inflated. The first is coalition airstrikes: the United States and its allies have pounded the oil extraction rigs, which are after all right out in the open, and hit ISIS smuggling lines. As such, the BND believes that ISIS has gone from producing its highest oil production of 172,000 barrels per day to 28,000 in October. … The second reason the BND believes ISIS oil revenues are inflated has to do with ISIS governance itself.

They were never that organized. They’re rebels and severe idealists, not bureaucrats, and now they’re running out of funds.

Wait. If this is true, why is Obama sending more troops? Sullivan offers this:

This is never enough. Now, the US has to fight the Iraqis’ fight for them – and somehow regain the territory lost to the IS. The goal will determine the forces. And whatever restraints this president tries to put on this will soon be busted – either by him or his successor.

This is exactly what we elected Obama to prevent, not to enable. But the war machine outlasts any president. And it has too easily co-opted this one already.

Sullivan may be right:

President Barack Obama isn’t ruling out sending additional troops to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) jihadists in Iraq.

“You know, as commander-in-chief I’m never going to say never,” Obama said in a Sunday interview with CBS’ Face the Nation…

That’s a bit creepy, but Obama did explain himself:

Obama also dismissed critics who say the US is misleading the public by insisting these troops are not engaged in an active combat role. On Saturday, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-New York) told Business Insider that such claims are “insulting” to veterans risking their lives for their country. And Kurdish officials have told the Daily Beast they’ve seen US Special Forces fighting on the ground.

“What hasn’t changed is our troops are not engaged in combat,” Obama said. “Essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking four training centers with coalition members that allow us to bring in Iraqi recruits, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting ISIL, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics.”

The president further said US troops could dispatch the Islamic State but militants would simply come back after the US withdraws. The only solution, Obama maintained, is for Iraqi troops to win the fight on the ground.

That’s what we intended in Vietnam too. That seems to be what Kennedy intended, in a halfhearted way, and then he managed to get himself shot. Johnson gave up on that idea. He sent in hundreds of thousands of troops, and then he gave up. He refused to run for president for another term. He’d had enough. Nixon bombed everything in sight, and then invaded Cambodia too, and then he was forced to resign over another matter. Gerald Ford ended that war, or just let it end. The communists finally had all of Vietnam, and we learned to live with that, and then Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, of all people. An effort to get an existing government in shape to fight its own fights, fights we wanted them to fight so we didn’t have to, or we really shouldn’t fight because we weren’t the main player in the region, turned into a decade of disaster for multiple presidents. Obama is at the Kennedy stage now, but Sullivan may be right. The war machine outlasts any president.

Who’s next? On the Republican side, Ross Douthat can’t quite decide between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul:

I admire Paul’s outreach to minority voters, and I was very skeptical of the immigration bill Rubio shepherded through the Senate last year. But I have agreed with practically every domestic policy stance the Florida senator has taken since, and his reform agenda seems more sensible on substance and more plausible as politics than Paul’s more stringent libertarianism.

But then on foreign policy my sympathies reverse. Paul’s ties to his father’s more paranoid worldview are problematic, but the realism and restraint he’s championing seem wiser than the GOP’s frequent interventionist tilt.

Douthat sees how this might play out:

Paul casts himself as the heir to the realist tradition in Republican foreign policy, while Rubio’s record and statements are more in line with the neoconservatism of the Bush era. To use specific Obama-era examples, a Paul-led GOP would presumably oppose Libya-style humanitarian interventions and eschew gambits like our effort to aid Syria’s rebels, while a Rubio-led GOP might be willing to put American boots on the ground in both situations. These are not small differences, and they might be magnified in larger crises.

Conor Friedersdorf argues here that it’s “too risky to put another Iraq hawk in the White House, especially when they’ve given no indication of having learned anything from that historic debacle.” Just imagine:

Rubio would fill his White House with people who still regard the Iraq War as a good idea. Paul will tap people who believe it to have been an ill-conceived mistake. Rubio will ally with people who sing, “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” Paul represents the opposing foreign policy faction in the GOP.

It comes down to the nascent war in question:

Iraq is clarifying. Douthat may believe that a Rubio domestic agenda would serve America better than a Paul domestic agenda. But is the difference so great as to outweigh the risk of a Rubio war that kills 4,489 Americans, wounds tens of thousands, exposes hundreds to chemical agents, and triggers a PTSD epidemic? Is Rubio’s tax plan so good that it’s worth risking another $6 trillion war tab?

The war machine must be fed, after all, and on the other side there’s the pro-war Hillary Clinton, who wanted to arm the Syria rebels in the first place, if we could find any that weren’t al-Qaeda affiliates and vaguely pro-western. There were none, but she is big on resolving these things through brutal force. She wants to seem strong, not some girly-girl bit of fluff.

Sullivan thinks she’s in trouble:

I do think that the mid-terms have hurt Clinton somewhat. Why? Because they were run on classic Clinton lines: don’t really stand for anything controversial, deploy demographic-style campaigning without giving those demographics any positive thing to support, assume a get-out-the-base over a new-agenda strategy will be enough, and, er, hope for the best. The election was a classic Democratic defensive crouch – at which the Clintons are experts. And it didn’t work. It turns out you need real issues and sometimes divisive causes to win an election – and yet those are exactly the kind of themes the Clintons have always been uncomfortable with.

At Politico, Matt Latimer likes her chances:

No longer will she have to worry so much about gaining distance from President Obama – though that’s certainly on her agenda. No longer will she have to defend or explain her position on issues pushed by a Democratic Senate.

No longer will she have to subtly run against her husband and his scandals. Instead, she can run squarely against the circus that will preoccupy Congress and the media with every passing day. The calm voice of wearied experience. The wizened wife and mother – now grandmother – who can keep those rambunctious boys in line.

She’s probably just about the only person in Washington today who’s even happier than Mitch McConnell.

Paul Waldman argues the other way:

Clinton can argue that a Republican president and a Republican Congress would be a terrifying combination, and some of us might believe she’s right. But if the only alternative is four more years of bitterness and gridlock, lots of voters could chose to give the GOP the chance to do its worst. If Clinton doesn’t already have a persuasive description of how she will govern if faced with a legislature controlled by Tea Partiers and Republicans afraid of Tea Partiers, who will fight her on every single thing she wants to do, Clinton sure ought to come up with one soon.


But that would mean taking a political risk. And that is something Clinton has taught herself never to do.

That’s why she likes wars. Or maybe she doesn’t but knows she must be a “tough” lady in this man’s world. That’s a risk assessment, but the world is changing. Ryan Lizza explains:

The 2016 Presidential primaries will be the first fought by Democrats since the Supreme Court opened the door for individuals to spend unlimited sums of money on an election. In 2012, those new rules almost cost Romney the Republican nomination, when nuisance candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who in previous years would have never survived their early losses, were propped up by rich allies. Before 2012, it would have been difficult to find interest groups that might help fund someone like O’Malley, Webb, or Sanders. Now all it takes is a billionaire who cares about gun control, climate change, war, or inequality.

“What if you decided to have a really strong antiwar person run?” one Democratic strategist told me. “Don’t you think four or five crazy rich people from the Democracy Alliance” – a network of wealthy Democratic donors – “would be funding that?”

That’s possible, but unlikely. You’d have what might be called a vanity candidate, who would lose, however well-funded. The war machine seems to be unstoppable. That’s what was playing in the background back in the summer of 1965, so long ago. Listen to that oldies station while stuck in traffic here in Los Angeles and smile at all those old tunes. The smile won’t last. Bad things were happening back then. They’re happening now too.


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 The War Machine

  1. Rick says:

    It sure seems bizarre, watching Ross Douthat struggle to decide between those two guys, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, neither of whom my mind’s eye can see ever becoming president.

    But I also see hazards for Hillary Clinton.

    One main problem for her is her lately being seen as a hawk, which could turn off much of the war-weary Democratic base, sending them on a hunt for a more acceptably leftish candidate to primary her –probably Elizabeth Warren, since you wouldn’t want to piss off that crowd that insists it’s time for a woman president two election cycles in a row. Still, looking around for an alternative to the inevitable Hillary, just as they did successfully in 2008, is exactly what the Democrats don’t need in 2016. (Some Republicans, hearing the possibility of a Warren draft, have been reported to get giddy, saying, “Yeah! Bring her on!”)

    On the other hand, if the Democratic powers-that-be are able to resist the temptation to once again dump Hillary, much of their base might just stay home on election day, surrendering the field to whatever bozo the Republicans finally end up with.

    A system that has Americans settling on the least objectionable chief executive — the governance equivalent of Gresham’s Law in economics, most commonly stated as “bad money drives out good money” — is not, I would think, what our founders originally had in mind.


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