That Learning Curve

It was good to be walking the cold streets of Paris in the rain on that December morning long ago, after staying up all night watching CNN-International in the hotel room. Somewhere in the middle of the night there was Al Gore on the screen, conceding the presidential election to George Bush. The rest of that day was unsettling – there was no way to explain what we Americans had just done. The guy who had fewer votes was finally pretty much appointed by the Supreme Court, the court with all those justices his father had appointed, which was bad enough, but the guy was clearly a dim bulb with a nasty streak and a way of invoking God to avoid having to think anything through.

No good would come of this. We should have seen what was coming, given that fall’s campaign – starting with that Campaign speech in Florence, South Carolina, that January – “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

The irony was delicious, but it was just a slip. Later that month, however, in New Hampshire, it was this – “If you’re a single mother with two children – which is the toughest job in America, as far as I’m concerned – you’re working hard to put food on your family.” And the next month in the South Carolina Republican primary debate it was this – “What we Republicans should stand for is growth in the economy. We ought to make the pie higher.”

What? There wasn’t even the slightest hint that George Bush was being slyly playful with language, to make a deeper point. He was stringing likely-sounding words together and hoping for the best. He was an empty vessel, and then in October, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, there was this – “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”

Eight years later Sarah Palin made more sense – but we elected this guy anyway, more or less – the guy who strung likely-sounding words together hoping they made sense to someone out there, because he didn’t seem to know if they did, and he didn’t really seem to care, one way or the other. He just said things, and we got a war in Afghanistan to rid that place of the Taliban and grab that Osama fellow. That made sense, but keeping the Taliban from returning would mean building a functioning Afghanistan, which is still a work in progress after all those years. As for Osama bin Laden, we let him slip away. We had other things to do. We were going to Iraq. We’d fix that place.

We didn’t. We made things worse. And then the economy collapsed. It took an initial seven hundred billion dollars, which we didn’t have, to save what we could, and we’ve not really recovered yet. George Bush had strung together all sorts of likely-sounding words about how ridding the financial sector of pesky regulations would assure prosperity and good times for all. If there was a problem, the private sector would fix that problem – it was self-regulating, after all. They didn’t want economic collapse – and the government always messes up when it tries to straighten out what it doesn’t understand.

That sounded likely, and then large banks collapsed. General Motors went bankrupt. Businesses that had been around forever closed for good. Millions lost their jobs. Millions lost their homes. Millions couldn’t put food on their family. Oops.

We should have seen this coming. Bush just said things. He didn’t even know what the words meant. He didn’t have time for such nonsense – he trusted his gut – and he trusted Jesus too. That’s probably why, in 2008, we elected someone who preferred to use his brain, not his gut, and who also knew what all the words meant, agree with him or not. Government by random instinct, by the let’s-see-what-happens hunch, didn’t work out. We learned our lesson.

That may not be true:

Americans now have a more favorable view of former President George W. Bush than they do of President Barack Obama.

It is the first time in more than a decade that Americans have expressed a favorable view of Bush, at least according to a new CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday.

Bush is seen in a favorable light by 52 percent of those surveyed, compared with 43 percent who still view the 43rd president unfavorably. Americans are split on Obama, with 49 percent responding favorably and unfavorably.

The last time Bush polled in positive territory was in early April 2005, close to three months into his second term.

We unlearned our lesson, as the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips explains here:

In 2008, Barack Obama ran as the presidential candidate opposed to the war in Iraq. In 2011, he said troops would be gone from Iraq by Christmas. In 2012, he was elected to a second term. In 2015, amid more beheadings and destroyed ancient Iraqi and Syrian cities, an increasing number of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the Middle East’s most pressing terrorism threat, the Islamic State – a fact that threatens to cast a shadow over Obama’s legacy.

According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 55 percent of Americans disapprove of how the president is handling the increasingly violent terrorist group that’s occupying large swaths of Iraq and Syria, while just 31 percent approve. The number of Americans who strongly disapprove of the president’s handling of the situation has risen 12 percentage points since The Post and ABC first asked in September.

Their supplementary poll gets to the heart of the matter:

The new survey shows that Americans blame his military policy about as much as they blame the Iraqi army (40 percent to 38 percent) for the problems, and a new CNN/ORC poll finds that Americans blame Obama (44 percent) about as much as George W. Bush (43 percent) for Iraq’s problems.

Those numbers break down mostly along partisan line, but not overwhelmingly: 56 percent of Republicans blame Obama’s military policy over the Iraqi army, while 58 percent of Democrats put the fault on the Iraqi military. About one-quarter of Democrats blame Obama, and about one-quarter of Republicans blame in the Iraqi army.

The Bush/Obama split is more partisan – 79 percent of Democrats say Bush is to blame, while 75 percent of Republicans place the fault on Obama. But independents in both polls fault the current president more: 43-34 for those who blame Obama over the Iraqi military, and 48-37 for those who blame Obama over Bush.

That puts Obama in a tight spot:

He pulled the United States out of Iraq – arguably the issue that won him the Democratic nomination in 2008 – only to be blamed for the chaos that ensued afterward. And more than any other, the Islamic State’s rise risks becoming a defining issue of the Obama foreign policy and the focal point of U.S. foreign policy efforts in the final 18 months of his tenure and beyond.

And this may be a problem he cannot fix:

In September 2014, Obama stood before the nation and promised to wage a campaign “to degrade and eventually defeat” the Islamic State. Since then, the U.S. military has been leading a coalition of countries to conduct limited airstrikes in the region and to arm and train Iraqi soldiers to fight the Islamic State.

“It is going to take some time,” Obama told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in February, “because part of our goal has to be to build up capacity inside Iraq, so that it is not American troops on the ground.”

He saw no other choice:

After the Iraq war, Obama has made clear that he has no plans to send American combat troops back there. He submitted a resolution for war powers to Congress in February that explicitly would prevent American troops from deploying to Iraq. Congress still has yet to vote on it. Yet the Islamic State has increased its territorial gains – a major way the group measures success – most recently felling the ancient city of Ramadi. The group now controls about one-third of Iraq and Syria.

An overwhelming majority of voters (64 percent) think the United States and its allies are losing the fight, according to another poll this week, from Quinnipiac University.

That may mean we should go back to government-by-hunch again, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie covers that new movement:

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, pollsters asked where Americans stood on the outgoing president and his deputy, Dick Cheney.

With an approval rating of 22 percent, Bush was the least popular president in Gallup’s seven-decade history of presidential polling. Americans no longer liked him. Yet he was still ahead of Cheney. The public loathed the vice president, who helped engineer the war in Iraq as well as the torture programs at U.S.-controlled prisons for captured enemies. At 13 percent approval, Cheney was the most unpopular politician in the country and a virtual pariah in public life.

But time heals unpopularity, and six years later, both Bush and Cheney are back on the national stage. But where the former president is low-key – at most, Bush is giving private speeches and advising his brother’s bid for the Republican nomination – the former vice president is unrestrained. Working with his daughter Liz Cheney through their political action committee, Keep America Safe, Cheney aims for influence. His “overarching message,” notes the Wall Street Journal, “is that the U.S. needs to assert itself more on the world stage. ‘We thought, looking forward to 2016, it was very important to make sure those issues were front and center in the campaign,’ he said.”

The curious thing is that the most unpopular politician in the country has his party on his side:

Far from marginal, Bush and Cheney’s ideas and language are part of the Republican bloodstream, embraced by presidential candidates, pushed by elected officials, and on the agenda if Republicans win in 2016.

To that point, the former vice president’s influence is most evident in the rhetoric of the Republican field. Cheney never spoke with caveats. His language was clear, direct, and meant to scare the public into action. “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” he declared during the run-up to the Iraq war. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, against us.” Likewise, during the 2004 presidential campaign, he warned that Sen. John Kerry’s election would lead to more terrorist attacks. “It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2nd, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again,” he said, “that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we’ll fall back into the pre–9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war.”

Today’s Republicans sound the same. “I want to be president to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in his campaign announcement on Monday. “Nothing matters if we aren’t safe,” declares Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on his website. “You can’t enjoy your civil liberties if you’re in a coffin,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a speech criticizing civil libertarians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. “On behalf of your children and mine,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to the audience at the South Carolina Freedom Summit, “I want a leader that is willing to take a fight to them before they take the fight to us.” Even Jeb Bush, the moderate of the group, has adopted this language. “ISIS … wants to destroy Western civilization,” he said in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation.

If this were just rhetoric, it would be less jarring. But like Cheney, these candidates have plans for an aggressive, more confrontational United States. “As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space,” said Rubio in a speech on foreign policy last month. “Russia, China, Iran, or any other nation that attempts to block global commerce will know to expect a response from my administration.” Walker wants to abandon any deal with Iran, and Bush has inched toward his brother’s belligerence.

Jamelle Bouie wonders what the hell they’re thinking:

The centerpiece of the Bush/Cheney foreign policy agenda – the Iraq war – was a substantive disaster and an electoral catastrophe. Without Iraq, there is no Democratic majority in 2007, no Barack Obama in 2008, and potentially no Democratic presidency in 2009.

Maybe the picture has changed and voters are ready for a more hawkish administration. But before going that route, I’d think hard about the risk.

The Republicans simply have a different narrative, and Jeb Bush sums it up:

Bush said that Obama “abandoned” Iraq and lamented the fall of Ramadi to Islamic State terrorists, saying that “ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president” and that Al Qaeda was decimated under his brother. “You think about the family members who lost – our blood and treasure’s in Ramadi, and they won, they won that battle,” he said. “It was hard-fought and that stability has been lost.”

Obama somehow created ISIS in this telling – all the Republican candidates say this – but the Bush administration finally did set a firm date for us to leave, and carefully negotiated a status of forces agreement, to keep enough of our troops in Iraq to keep al-Qaeda types from setting up shop there, until 2011 – but no longer. Prime Minister Malaki would have been hounded out of office if he agreed to Americans in Iraq pretty much forever. He told Obama they he really couldn’t sign any extension to the Bush agreement – his own parliament would never ratify it – and so we left.

We really had no choice, because we had said that Iraq really was now a sovereign nation after all – we had made it so – and that left Iraq as a sovereign nation run by a Shiite strongman, Malaki, as opposed to a Sunni strongman, Saddam Hussein, and now closely aligned with their two Shiite neighbors, Iran and Syria, our current nemesis-twins in the region. The major Sunni power in the region, Saudi Arabia, was infuriated, and the internal Sunni-Shiite civil war still rages on in Iraq – with ISIS trying to take back what they can from the Shiites in Iraq and Syria, and with the Saudis fighting the Shiite rebels who have taken over Yemen. We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but the new guy, Haider al-Abadi, is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. He isn’t. And we are long gone from Iraq.

Sure, all we had to do was tamp down the Sunni-Shiite civil war that had exploded once we had settled in, and George Bush’s “surge” would take care of that – thirty thousand additional troops to stop the internecine violence, to give both sides “breathing room” to work out their differences and form a sensible inclusive government. That didn’t work.

ISIS is proof of that, as Malcom Nance explains here:

The fall of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, to the Islamic State last month has frayed nerves in Washington, but what few appear to grasp is that ISIS’s May offensive has given Ramadi back to its former owners – the ex-Baathist Sunni terrorists known as the Former Regime Loyalists. The FRLs, as they’re called, were Saddam Hussein’s most ardent followers, the same fighters whom the United States fought non-stop for eight years. Their resurgence has implications not just for the United States but for ISIS itself – for while these forces may fly the ISIS flag today, their ultimate plans for Iraq are quite different than those of the “caliphate.”

This is Bush’s unfinished business:

ISIS’s roots in Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party are deep – many of the group’s most devoted commanders, advisers and fighters started out as Baathists. The ex-Baathists essentially run ISIS, and their past is evident in the tactics they are using now.

After the 1963 coup that first gave the Baathists a share of power in Iraq’s government, Saddam became head of the secret Jehaz Al-Khass, or Special Branch, and collected meticulous dossiers on friends and enemies alike. Saddam used these dossiers to carry out a political putsch in the mid-sixties, as well as the bloodless 1968 coup that brought his party to full control of Iraq. From 1968 until 2003, Baathists controlled every aspect of Iraqi life and generalized the surveillance techniques that Saddam had used so effectively in his rise to power.

The Baath government amassed millions of personal records and forced its citizens to spy on family and friends for Saddam’s intelligence agencies. Those agencies, staffed almost exclusively by Sunnis, were masters at collecting and using the most intimate details of the lives of individual Iraqis. Stasi-level minutiae about family structure, births, deaths, relations and the aspirations of everyone who lived under the regime were documented and filed. The regime then used all its information to compel compliance, the alternative to which was death. After the invasion, the Baathists held the key to the human terrain of Iraq.

It’s payback time:

All of these Saddamist traditions have been carried on by his disciples in ISIS.

One of these is Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, usually known as Haji Bakr, a former spy for Saddam who became chief of military operations for ISIS.

From as early as 2004, al Qaeda in Iraq gradually sought to transfer control of the Iraqi jihad from foreign fighters like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri to local Iraqi commanders like Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, just as many local captives were being released from U.S. military prisons such as Camp Bucca. One of them was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the future caliph of ISIS. As an Iraqi, he had been held not with the high-value al Qaeda terrorists, but with low-level FRL and Iraqi religious extremist insurgents. At Bucca, al-Baghdadi formed bonds and apparently conceived the model that would eventually become ISIS, a consolidated force of Iraqi Sunni FRLs – joined with al Qaeda’s foreign fighters – that would take back their traditional tribal lands and then form a caliphate. That’s where he connected with Haji Bakr.

Der Spiegel magazine recently obtained Haji Bakr’s handwritten notes and organizational diagrams for creating an ISIS spy agency based on Saddam’s own intelligence agencies. The notes, the magazine reported, confirmed what American intelligence agencies had assumed for well over a decade, the ex-Baathists ran almost everything in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Since 2003 these ex-Baathists have been ruthlessly pulling the strings of the jihadists in Iraq. First they facilitated al Qaeda’s entry into the insurgency. Then they built them hundreds of car bombs and provided intelligence on American operations.

And the rest is history. Early on, Paul Bremmer ordered the Iraq Army disbanded, and ordered that every member of Saddam’s Baath Party be purged from government. Sunni generals from the former Iraq Army are now senior ISIS commanders, and many of the Sunni Baathists who lost everything are its foot soldiers. Paul Bremmer didn’t create ISIS, but he helped staff it.

Who told him to do that? See this bit of investigation:

Abstract: In May 2003 Paul Bremer issued CPA Orders to exclude from the new Iraq government members of the Baath Party (CPA Order 1) and to disband the Iraqi Army (CPA Order 2). These two orders severely undermined the capacity of the occupying forces to maintain security and continue the ordinary functioning of the Iraq government. The decisions reversed previous National Security Council judgments and were made over the objections of high ranking military and intelligence officers.

The article concludes that the most likely decision maker was the Vice President.

Yeah, that would be Dick Cheney, who wants us to go back in and fix the mess Obama created – ISIS – which he actually created. Go figure.

We may have learned nothing, and Jon Stewart’s ten-minute rant sums it up:

Jon Stewart got back to his roots on Tuesday night, embarking on a 10-minute rant against the seemingly never-ending American intervention in Iraq, or as he called it, our “cluster-quagmire-catastroph-fuck.”

Asking his audience to join him in the chant, “learning curves are for pussies,” the host of “The Daily Show” responded to conservative critics blaming the rise of the Islamic State on President Obama.

“We spent the 80s giving Saddam Hussein’s Baathists weapons to fight against the Iranians; the 90s helping Kuwait fight against Saddam’s Baathists that we armed; the 2000s heading a coalition to destroy Saddam’s Baathists, and the 2010s fighting against those very same unemployed Baathists now going by the name ISIS that we originally armed in the 80s to fight Iran,” he said breathlessly.

“But to really ensure we have not skated even a micrometer up the learning curve, guess who our new designated good guy, with a gun, in the region is?” he asked.

Yeah, that would be Iran. They want to defeat ISIS too, and maybe learning curves are for pussies – and late in the afternoon, on December 14, 2000, the rain was letting up in Paris, and it was warm and quiet in the Flore, and the cognac was good. Outside the window, all along Boulevard St-Germain, the Christmas shoppers hurried by in the quick dark. Maybe there was no good reason to catch the Air France non-stop over the pole back to Los Angeles on Saturday morning – but we all have problems with learning curves.

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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