Selling Another War

Timing is everything, especially when it comes to war:

White House officials said today that the administration was following a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.

The rollout of the strategy this week, they said, was planned long before President Bush’s vacation in Texas last month. It was not hastily concocted, they insisted, after some prominent Republicans began to raise doubts about moving against Mr. Hussein and administration officials made contradictory statements about the need for weapons inspectors in Iraq.

The White House decided, they said, that even with the appearance of disarray, it was still more advantageous to wait until after Labor Day to kick off their plan.

”From a marketing point of view,” said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff who is coordinating the effort, ”you don’t introduce new products in August.”

That was the summer of 2002 – when the Bush crew knew no one wanted to hear about Saddam building nuclear weapons, or amassing a fleet of those small drones filled with anthrax, or something or other, that would soon be flying over Miami, spraying death. Americans were at the beach. The product they wanted to sell – fear and panic, and anger – wouldn’t sell in the sunny summer. Everyone would be going back to work in September, which would make them sullen and resentful, and you could work with that, with a new product that would offer relief, of sorts. Bomb the bad guy and get rid of him. That would be satisfying. Everyone’s grumpy in September.

Andrew Card caught a lot of crap for that – what he said was crass and cynical – but he was right about marketing war. Choose the right moment. Catch people – that is the right verb – when they’re not relaxed and distracted. It’s hard to induce fear and panic and anger when folks are having fun. The summer won’t do. Neither will Oscar weekend, when who wore what on the red carpet is all anyone wants to talk about, but no one told the current bad guys:

A video purported to be by Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebel group al-Shabaab urged Muslims to attack shopping malls in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other Western countries.

U.S. authorities said there was “no credible” evidence suggesting a U.S. mall attack was in the works.

The threat by the al-Qaida affiliate came in the final minutes of a more than hour-long video released Saturday in which the extremists also warned Kenya of more attacks like the September 2013 assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in which 67 people were killed.

They caught the news cycle all wrong, but even if they were specific, this seemed an idle threat:

The masked narrator concluded by calling on Muslims to attack shopping malls, specifically naming the Mall of America in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, as well as the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Westfield mall in Stratford, England. The authenticity of the video could not be immediately verified by The Associated Press.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security provided local law enforcement agencies and private sector partners with “relevant information regarding the recent al-Shabab propaganda video,” DHS press secretary Marsha Catron said in a statement.

“However, we are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center,” Catron said.

This sounded like bullshit, which the Bush folks knew was a hard product to sell, at least at the wrong moment, and Peter Bergen, the CNN National Security Analyst, was quick to tamp this down:

The reality is that Al-Shabaab has shown scant abilities to conduct operations outside of Somalia or neighboring countries such as Kenya. Indeed, the only operation anyone associated with the group has attempted in the West is when a Somali man armed with an ax in 2010 forced himself into the home of Kurt Westergaard – a Danish cartoonist who had depicted the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban – and tried unsuccessfully to break into the fortified safe room where Westergaard was hiding.

Danish intelligence officials said the suspect had links with Al-Shabaab.

That said, the group has succeeded in recruiting a number of Americans to fight in Somalia, most of who are from Minnesota.

That may be the problem:

In 2003, a British citizen had conducted a suicide bombing at a jazz club frequented by Americans in Tel Aviv, Israel. This turned out to be something of a curtain-raiser for future terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. Two years after the terrorist attack in Israel, four British citizens committed suicide in bombings on London’s transportation system on July 7, 2005. It was the most deadly terrorist attack ever on British soil, claiming 52 lives.

Alarmed by Al-Shabaab’s campaign of suicide attacks across Somalia and its recruitment of Americans, the State Department designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization in March 2008, making it illegal for a person in the United States to knowingly provide Al-Shabaab with money, communications equipment, weapons or explosives or to join the group.

By 2008, the Somali-Americans traveling to their homeland to join the al Qaeda aligned Al-Shabaab seemed like a particularly threatening cohort. Codenamed Operation Rhino, the FBI started a serious effort to crack down on anyone traveling to Somalia to support Al-Shabaab.

Adding to the alarm at the FBI, in early June 2011, the agency announced that Farah Mohamed Beledi, from Minneapolis, had detonated a bomb, becoming one of two suicide attackers responsible for killing two African Union soldiers in Somalia.

The third American to conduct a suicide attack was Abdisalan Hussein Ali, a 22-year-old from Minneapolis who took part in a strike on African Union troops in Mogadishu on October 29, 2011.

But that was over there, not here, and these guys who go there don’t seem to come back here:

Despite these developments, for the Americans who traveled to Somalia to fight for Al-Shabaab, it has typically been a one-way ticket. More than a dozen Americans have died while fighting for Al-Shabaab, according to a U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security report, while none of the Americans recruited by Al-Shabaab is known to have subsequently planned or conducted a terrorist attack inside the United States, according to a survey of more than 250 jihadist terrorism cases since the 9/11 attacks conducted by New America.

The possibility remains, of course, that Al-Shabaab’s calls for attack on malls in the West might inspire a lone wolf attack. But there is no sign so far that Al-Shabaab’s recruits have actually plotted to launch an attack in the United States.

For now, at least, the group has also not shown that it is capable of carrying out attacks in the West.

This news did not preempt the Oscars, but it did give Republicans something to talk about the morning before the big show here in Hollywood:

“There is no doubt in my mind militarily that we cannot succeed in our endeavors to degrade and destroy ISIL without having an American component,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said Sunday in an interview with ABC, referring to an alternate acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “The regional forces in the Mideast do not have the capacity, in my view, to do the job without some American help.”

Lindsey Graham was selling another war, but others knew this was not the time:

The hardline military position is in line with the former Air Force officer’s hawkish conservative credentials. But it’s not clear that the Republican Party is ready to unify behind Graham’s war drums. In fact, it may already be splintering along military lines.

“We have to be engaged. And that doesn’t necessarily mean boots on the ground in every occurrence,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush recently said in Detroit.

Though Bush promises to be his “own man” on foreign policy, his newly amassed team of advisers might prove to be his undoing. Among them are veteran policy-makers that featured prominently in the administrations of both his brother and father.

That is a problem. He’s asked Paul Wolfowitz to advise him on such matters – the guy who said the Iraq War would be short and would pay for itself, because there was a lot of oil over there, and there were those weapons of mass destruction, after all. Jeb may not want any boots on the ground, but Paul Wolfowitz will be whispering in his ear – and he was on CNN on Oscar morning calling Obama foolish. Jeb may have a change of heart, as the tide is turning:

“One thing we’re going to have to embrace as Republicans, it’s not just enough to criticize President Obama. What would we do differently?” Graham asked.

“I want the Republican Party to talk openly about the hard things,” Graham said. “Like having boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, American boots on the ground, as part of an international regional force.”

Others in the conservative wing have also expressed the need for more military force.

“At some point it will require boots on the ground from the world to be able to deal with this problem,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Sunday in an interview with CNN.

Another prominent Republican, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, reiterated a similar stance.

“The commander in chief ought to be articulating a robust strategy for not only retaking the territory of Iraq, but also driving this ISIL army out of existence,” Pence said Sunday in an interview on Fox News.

The Republican Party will return to being the interventionist party:

Graham said the threat should represent a stronger call to action. “I’ve never seen more terrorist organizations with more safe havens, with more money, with more capability to strike the homeland than I do today. And that’s a direct result of a failed foreign policy by President Obama,” Graham said.

Maybe so, but consider Kevin Drum’s scorecard for American military interventions since 2000:

Afghanistan: A disaster. It’s arguable that Afghanistan is no worse off than it was in 2001, but after losing thousands of American lives and spending a trillion American dollars, it’s no better off either.

Iraq: An even bigger disaster. Saddam Hussein was a uniquely vicious dictator, but even at that there’s not much question that Iraq is worse off than it was in 2003. We got rid of Saddam, but got a dysfunctional sectarian government and ISIS in return.

Libya: Another disaster. We got rid of Muammar Qaddafi, but got a Somalia-level failed state in return.

Yemen: Yet another disaster. After years of drone warfare, Houthi rebels have taken over the government. This appears to be simultaneously a win for Iran, which backs the rebels, and al-Qaeda, which may benefit from the resulting chaos. That’s quite a twofer.

Drum is not impressed:

Blame all this on whoever you want. George Bush for starting two wars with no real plan to prosecute either one properly. Or Barack Obama for withdrawing from Iraq too soon and failing to have any kind of postwar plan for Libya. Whatever. The question for hawks at this point is: what makes you think American military force has even the slightest chance of improving things in the Middle East? It’s been nothing but disasters since 9/11, and there’s no reason at all to think we’ve learned how to do things better in the intervening years. Bush started big wars, and Obama has started small ones, but the result has been the same.

Now is not the time to intervene, if there ever was a time:

If you’re a liberal, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. If you’re a conservative, I’m being dangerously simplistic. But tell me: From the viewpoint of military action in the Middle East, what have we gotten better at over the past 14 years? What reason is there to believe that ever more military action will work out any better than it has before? In the past 50 years, has there been any case of the U.S. successfully training local troops to prosecute a war against insurgents?

Salon’s Robert Hennelly sees the same thing:

All the Beltway reporting about the prospects of new war powers for the president focus on the parlor politics of whether he can get it through Congress, not on the efficacy of his strategy. Funny, how we insist on results-based assessments on everything else but lose all reason when we hear the battle bugles blare.

Are we living in a safer world with a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya? Isn’t there, as some experts have posited, a possible causal link between the way we prosecuted the war on terror so far, and the proliferation of violence so much of the world is still living with today? Did the U.S.’s last 13 years of our “shoot-’em-up” unilateralism with fuzzy justifications, because we were afraid, make it easier for Putin to flex his muscles because he’s feeling insecure?

So just what did several thousand dead Americans, and at least tens of thousands of civilian casualties, plus a couple of trillion dollars get us?

Not much:

Even as the president says we are heading “home” from Iraq and Afghanistan records are being set for the numbers of killed and wounded civilians caught in these seething pits of sectarian violence we’ve left behind. The U.N. reported last month that for 2014 in Iraq more than 12,000 civilians were killed in the deadliest year for noncombatants since 2008. In Afghanistan the U.N. Assistance Mission there said close to 3,200 civilians were killed and more than 6,400 wounded, the deadliest year since the conflict started.

In the president’s 29-page National Security Strategy there is no mention of the fact that after thousands of lost American and Iraqi lives, and hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, the Iraqi state we stood up came close to collapsing after a near-death experience at the hands of ISIL, a threat the U.S. did not see coming. Now, ever so quietly, the Obama administration is sending U.S. troops back in to Iraq.

That should upset folks, but the odd thing is that the Republicans might be onto something:

Amid more executions by the militant group ISIS, Americans increasingly see the group as a threat to the U.S. Now, 65 percent of Americans view ISIS as a major threat – up from 58 percent in October – while another 18 percent view it as a minor threat. Majorities of Republicans (86 percent), Democrats (61 percent) and independents (57 percent) view ISIS as a major threat.

With concern about ISIS growing, support for the use of U.S. ground troops in the fight against ISIS has risen. For the first time, a majority of Americans (57 percent) favor the U.S. sending ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. In October, Americans were divided (47 percent favored and 46 percent opposed), and in September these numbers were reversed (39 percent favored and 55 percent opposed).

This is also not partisan:

Support for sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS has risen among all partisans, but particularly among Democrats and independents. Back in October, 56 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of independents disapproved of using ground troops – now 50 percent of Democrats approve and 53 percent of independents favor using ground troops.

Additionally, there is public consensus for passing the military authorization bill President Obama has requested from Congress, which would allow the U.S. to use ground troops for limited operations for three years without any geographical limitations, but would preclude the use of ground troops for long term offensive operations.

Kevin Drum says that may change:

We’re only a few public beheadings away from two-thirds approval margins among all groups, which is something of a magic number. If we reach that point, President Obama and congressional Democrats might decide – reluctantly or otherwise – that they have to change course and send in a substantial ground force.

This would probably be a disaster.

Or it might work for the first time in history. One never knows, and these guys are going to blow up the Mall of America any day now. After everyone gets over the Oscars they might realize that. Only the timing was wrong, but then there’s what everyone was talking about before the Oscars, Graeme Wood’s ten-thousand-word article in the Atlantic on the origins and true beliefs of ISIS:

Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

And these folks are just as strange:

Much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse… They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not – cannot – waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Drum summarizes the rest:

Wood says that we benefit in two ways from ISIS holding such sincerely medieval and millenarian views. The first is obvious: it severely limits their potential audience for converts. The second benefit is more recondite: one of those medieval views is that the Koran demands the establishment of a new caliphate. And this is not some wimpy, aspirational caliphate that exists only in the indefinite future. That’s for milksops like Al-Qaeda. This is a right-here-and-now caliphate. But it turns out that a caliphate requires control over actual physical territory.

Wood says that’s harder than it seems:

Al Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.


This means, for starters, that ISIS is not a big threat to the United States. Unlike Al-Qaeda, it has no particular interest in attacking the West. Its goal – in fact, its religious duty – is to establish control over territory in the Middle East. And that also represents a major weakness.


Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it – through air strikes and proxy warfare – appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq – they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

That would mean no one is going to blow up the Mall of America any day now, and the Republican Party, once again the interventionist party, will have to find some other way to drum up fear and panic and anger, so this sort of thing was inevitable:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) said on Saturday he isn’t sure if President Barack Obama is a Christian.

“I don’t know,” Walker said when asked about it by The Washington Post at a DC hotel where the National Governors Association was holding a meeting.

Walker’s comment came a day after he gave a similar answer to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about whether he believes Obama loves America. Both questions stem from a reception for the governor that was held on Wednesday night in Manhattan, an event in which former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) told the crowd he doubts Obama loves America.

The Post reminded Walker that Obama has frequently discussed his Christian faith in light of fringe claims that he’s a secret Muslim.

“I’ve never actually talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” Walker said, according to the paper. “I’ve never asked him that.”

We could make this a holy war, but Walker walked that back:

Walker said questions like this were why Americans despise the news media. …

After the interview with the Post, Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster called the newspaper to say the governor was not trying to cast doubt about Obama’s religion. Rather, he was trying to make a point about the press.

But out here there was this:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on Sunday defended former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (R) comments questioning President Obama’s patriotism.

“The reality is that Rudy has taken our debate – and I think we should thank him for this part of it – back to national security, to the key element that the president should be focusing on,” Issa said on CNN’s State of the Union. “He needs to call it Islamic terrorism. He can’t be looking at everything through the vision that somehow that if you treat people better or more democratic, you’re not going to have terrorism.”

At least the other guy was more subtle:

Potential Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham has “no doubt” that President Obama loves his country, refuting comments made by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani earlier this week.

“Well, I love Rudy, but I don’t want to go there. The nation’s very divided. President Obama has divided us more than he’s brought us together and I don’t want to add to that division,” Graham initially said on ABC’s This Week today, before adding, “I have no doubt that he loves his country. I have no doubt that he’s a patriot. But his primary job as president of the United States is to defend this country and he’s failing miserably.”

But what if the threat to the United States is bullshit? Back in 2002 these guys wanted to introduce a new product, a new war, but back then they knew how to time these things. That’s trickier now – and the Sunday morning news shows on Oscar weekend really are the wrong time to insist we go to war. Maybe Andrew Card was right. Wait until September, when everyone is grumpy.

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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1 Response to Selling Another War

  1. Rick says:

    Republicans are ready to go to war, if only with each other, as so often happens:

    The hardline military position is in line with the former Air Force officer’s hawkish conservative credentials. But it’s not clear that the Republican Party is ready to unify behind [Lindsey] Graham’s war drums. In fact, it may already be splintering along military lines.

    “We have to be engaged. And that doesn’t necessarily mean boots on the ground in every occurrence,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush recently said in Detroit.

    And there’s the rub.

    There’s that innate conservative belief that we need to defend ourselves from foreigners, which is in conflict with that other conservative doctrine, that we shouldn’t be running around looking for things for our government to stick its nose into, especially if it costs us money. To put that another way, it’s that classic divide between, on the one hand, a long rich history of Republican isolationists, and on the other, all those other Republicans always looking for some fight to get into.

    It’s only when they keep this dispute from going public — maybe by not coming up with a specific alternative foreign policy of their own — that Republicans have a chance at all of winning elections, and I suppose if the Democrats were smart, they’d find a way of constantly poking that hornet’s nest with a stick.

    But concerning all that looking-for-fights-to-get-into, there’s Kevin Drum’s brilliant and insightful summary:

    But tell me: From the viewpoint of military action in the Middle East, what have we gotten better at over the past 14 years? What reason is there to believe that ever more military action will work out any better than it has before? In the past 50 years, has there been any case of the U.S. successfully training local troops to prosecute a war against insurgents?

    That stops me in my tracks, or at least the part of me that keeps thinking every time a war opportunity presents itself to us, “Oh, what the hell, let’s just go do it and get it over with.” After all, wasn’t the Great War Part One supposed to be the “War to End All Wars”? And did it succeed? Of course not.

    But the big unanswered question (maybe because it’s mostly unasked) is, what happens if we just ignore all these temptations, and go the isolationist route? In fact, have we ever even really tried that?

    Yes, in fact, we did. In both WWI and WWII, we held back for a few years before finally joining up — and in the latter case, only after we received a special invitation from one of the participants.

    But in an exercise of “What If” history, it’s interesting to speculate how different the world would be had we just stayed out, at least of the second one. I think there’s an argument to be made that the Allies would have beat Germany anyway, since (despite what we Americans think) it was actually the Soviets who did most of the fighting there anyway, and that since nobody really did much to save the Jews from the gas chambers, the ones that died would have died anyway. On the other hand, without us doing so much of the fighting in the Pacific, maybe much of Asia would be Japanese now, and Japan probably wouldn’t be as nice as it now is. And yes, I do realize all of this speculation is way the hell oversimplified.

    But even if Drum is right, and all our good intentions have gotten us absolutely nowhere, does that mean, by default, we should just sit on our hands and let those ISIS and al Qaeda people do whatever they can get away with? What difference will it make?

    One difference has to do with that old saw about, “And then, when they came for the Jews, I did nothing, since I wasn’t a Jew.” If, say, all of Europe comes under attack, and we could just sit it out — decline to stand by our allies and refuse to defend what we think is right and, like the neutral Swiss in the 1940s, probably make lots of money off the misery that others chose to get themselves involved in — and maybe regret it. I’m pretty sure that I would, anyway. It’s like asking yourself, after a lifetime of eating and drinking and breathing, just to keep yourself alive — what’s the point, since you’ll probably just die anyway? Maybe you just keep eating and drinking and breathing anyway, since you can’t think of a good reason to stop.

    But no, I’m not saying we should just shut down our brains and go to war, just because that’s what the polls say most Americans want to do anyway. I’m just saying this whole question is not really a choice between going to war or not going to war.

    So the real question is, what do you do if (a) going all-in just makes things worse, while (b) staying completely out also just makes things worse? And I guess the answer is, something in between, which is sort of what we’re doing now.


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