That Background Noise

Perhaps the Republicans will figure out what to do about Donald Trump – or perhaps there’ll be a final showdown where Trump demands that Jeb Bush divorce his Mexican wife and disown his half-breed children or get out of the race and Trump wins the nomination as the base of the party vows to never eat guacamole ever again – or not. That will work itself out. Perhaps the Confederate flag will come down all across America and everyone will finally agree that the Civil War is actually over and the South isn’t going to rise again – or not. Perhaps the current ninth Republican-led congressional committee investigating Benghazi will throw in the towel and admit that Hillary Clinton didn’t gleefully call for our folks to die, because she’s on the side of the terrorists – or not. Perhaps, now that the Supreme Court has ruled that gay marriage is quite legal, those who hate the whole idea will shrug and move on – or not. It’s the same with Obamacare. The Supreme Court ruled that the subsidies are quite legal. That was the final court challenge. Those who hate Obamacare could shrug and move on – or not. Perhaps Bill Cosby could go to jail, or Hillary Clinton might stop being cautious and calculating and actually say something even vaguely interesting – or not. Perhaps Europe could figure out that letting Greece fall apart and die does no one any good at all – or not. There are lots of possibilities. They are discussed endlessly.

That’s odd, because we’re at war. We’re at war with those ISIS folks. Well, technically we’re not at war with them. There’s been no declaration of war. In fact, President Obama is conducting operations with no Authorization for the Use of Military Force. He asked for one. He outlined what he wanted – but the Republicans said it was too limited. It wasn’t open-ended and he didn’t ask for the authority to conduct military operations in every nation on earth, as the need arose. They tabled it – so whatever Obama is doing, he’s doing it with no authorization at all. Whatever he does is quite illegal – but Congress still wants him to keep doing this and that. And the hawks in Congress want him to do even more of that stuff – but they offer no guidelines. They’d rather not. They don’t want to be put on the spot if something goes wrong. Obama is out there on his own now. That’s how they like it. Their hands will always be clean.

This is an odd situation, but we’ve been at war in the Middle East since October 2001, when we charged into Afghanistan to take care of the Taliban and grab that Osama guy. That’s fourteen years. War in the Middle East is background noise now and far too complicated for anyone to unravel. We’re still in Afghanistan. We turned Iraq into a pro-Iranian Shiite mess, where the Sunnis hate their government and the Kurds have walked away from it. The disaffected Sunnis turned into ISIS and took over big chunks of Iraq and Syria, and they intend to take back all of Iraq, unless we can stop them – and Iran is on our side in that. We have the same aims as our sworn enemy. ISIS also wants to take out Assad in Syria, and we hate Assad, so ISIS is sort of on our side on that. At the same time we’re supporting Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation, as it tries to drive the Shiites out of Yemen, where they took over – but the Saudis are also offering a bit of help in our effort to rid Iraq and Syria of the crazy Sunni fanatics there – the ISIS folks. Go figure.

There are reasons all of this has become background noise. It’s easier to talk about Donald Trump and the Confederate flag. That’s also why the current angry back-and-fourth about our “war” with ISIS has gotten little coverage, but the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers a lively take on what has been going on in the background:

In the beginning there was Operation Overlord. Then came Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. Now the fight against the Islamic State has introduced a new concept into modern warfare. Call it Operation Whack-a-Mole.

“If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole,” the president said Monday afternoon at the end of a Pentagon news conference at which he gave an overview of developments in Syria and Iraq.

That may be the problem:

As a military matter, what Obama said was true: The United States can’t possibly fight terrorists by swinging a mallet at them wherever they show their heads. And yet that has, essentially, been the U.S. strategy in Syria and Iraq – fighting Islamic State militants with 5,000 targeted airstrikes but doing very little to solve the overall threat. Technically, the Islamic State fight is called Operation Inherent Resolve – but Whack-a-Mole gets closer to reality.

Obama did little to punish the Syrian regime when it crossed his “red line” and used chemical weapons. He made things worse for himself last month when, after a meeting in Europe with world leaders, he admitted that “we don’t yet have a complete strategy” to defeat the Islamic State. In fairness, Obama was talking specifically about the lack of commitments from the Iraqi army, but the nuance was lost, particularly because he had already confided nine months earlier that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for the Islamic State.

To be fair, Obama doesn’t have authority to do anything at all, with or without a strategy, so what he offered had to be a bit vague:

Obama did provide the outlines of a comprehensive strategy. He acknowledged that there can be no solution without a new government in Syria, minus President Bashar al-Assad. He spoke of more support for anti-Islamic State forces. He spoke about the group’s threat metastasizing beyond the region.

But he said little about what he’ll do specifically. Re-engage with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others to negotiate a solution to the Syrian civil war? Boost the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army? Establish safe zones in Syria along its borders with Jordan and Turkey?

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain fired off a statement saying that Obama’s comments “reveal the disturbing degree of self-delusion that characterizes the administration’s campaign against ISIL” and that “none of the so-called progress that the president cited suggests that we are on a path to success.”

And what would that be? McCain doesn’t have to say. He’s just pissed off, and then, while everyone was talking about Donald Trump, this happened:

Defense Secretary Ash Carter caused a stir Tuesday when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the $500 million program to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels to take on the Islamic State had so far yielded just 60 vetted candidates.

Republicans quickly pounced on the number – far short of a goal for at least 5,400 fighters in the first year – as evidence that President Barack Obama’s strategy for defeating the terrorist group isn’t working a day after the president defended the plan at a rare Pentagon press briefing. And Democrats quickly went into damage-control mode, noting there are valid reasons the number is so small. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) let Carter know during the Senate hearing that his remark had caused a ruckus on cable news, saying he’d just stepped out of the hearing for an appearance on CNN, and all that the interviewer wanted to talk about, Nelson said, was Carter’s statement.

The Pentagon chief acknowledged he’d caused a firestorm, saying he wasn’t surprised by all the attention his statement was getting but noting that Congress deserved “to know where things stand.”

It wasn’t exactly the headline the White House was looking for the day after Obama reaffirmed at the Pentagon that his strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was working, especially with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain blasting the president’s commitment to the strategy as delusional.

But these things are difficult:

Among the problems: stringent vetting standards, the U.S. requirement that rebels be willing to fight ISIL but not Syrian President Bashar Assad and the lack of a U.S. commitment to defend these troops from Assad’s advanced weapons. …

That last bit is tricky:

U.S. officials say the “ISIL-first” strategy is essential because without a political structure in place to replace Assad if he died or left power, chaos in Syria would worsen and the state would fail, like in Libya. But many Syrians who have been brutalized in the civil war bear more animus toward Assad than toward ISIL, which is one reason why the “ISIL-first” commitment has winnowed out so many people who came forward. Still, Pentagon officials say they’re optimistic about increasing the throughput at the four sites that have been created for the train-and-equip effort in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“As training progresses, we are learning more about the opposition groups and building important relationships, which increases our ability to attract recruits and provides valuable intelligence for counter-ISIL operations,” Carter said.

McCain is not that patient:

“It is not that we are doing nothing,” the Arizona senator said. “It is that there is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to achieve the president’s stated goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL – either in the short term or the long term.”

McCain wants things fixed now. Screw the detail:

McCain, who has been Obama’s foremost foreign-policy critic, had several other heated exchanges with Carter during Tuesday’s hearing. The Pentagon chief sought to provide some cover for the president by offering examples of progress in the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the terrorist group that has declared its own state.

Carter said the more than 5,000 airstrikes carried out by the United States and its coalition partners have “produced some clear tactical results,” putting ISIL “on the defensive,” with “its stronghold in Raqqah under pressure.”

But the defense secretary also acknowledged setbacks, making clear the administration was not even close to where it had hoped to be in its efforts to train Iraqi and Syrian forces.

As of June 30, he said, “we’ve only received enough trainees to be able to train” about 10,800 Iraqi troops, with an additional 4,600 in training. “I’ve told Iraqi leaders that while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government,” Carter said.

And in Syria, he explained, the administration’s efforts to train and equip a force to take on ISIL were still in the “early stages.”

That’s when McCain called Obama delusional. No one paid much attention because all the talk was about the clearly delusional Donald Trump, but the question is just who is delusional in these geopolitical matters.

There are people who think about such things, and Patrick Smith interviews one of them:

Andrew Bacevich has been a singular critic of American foreign policy since he began publishing on the topic 13 years ago. His second book, “American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy,” came out in 2002 and defined his turf: He is a critic of the policy cliques who knows them from within. After “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War” (2005) came “The Long War” (2007), “The Limits of Power (2008) and “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010) – titles that speak for themselves. Two years ago Bacevich published “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.” By then he had lost a son to an explosive device in Iraq – an event that seemed to inform the book with the dignified stoicism that marks Bacevich’s character.

Now 68, Bacevich is a West Point graduate who served a tour in Vietnam before taking a doctorate in diplomatic history at Princeton. He subsequently taught international relations at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the IR faculty at Boston University in 1998. Bacevich is now emeritus and devotes his time to getting the books out.

And that led to this interview:

He spent the evening outlining the book now in his desk, which rests on 10 Theses, as he calls them, after the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to a church door (supposedly) in Wittenberg in 1517. They are a detailed critique of what Bacevich considers our 35-year War for the Greater Middle East. He dates this to 1980, when President Carter declared the Persian Gulf a strategic interest warranting military defense. With the Carter Doctrine, Bacevich said that evening in Providence, “Carter lit a fuse without knowing where it led.”

There were consequences:

To clarify a little bit, until roughly 1990 the hierarchy of interests that shaped U.S. foreign policy privileged Europe and East Asia. Those were the two most important theaters in U.S. foreign policy. And notwithstanding horrific mistakes made along the way, Vietnam being the most important but by no means the only one, if you look at the period from the late 1940s to the 1990s, in the main U.S. policy in these two pivotal regions qualifies as realistic. There was a certain cohesion to U.S. policy. Indeed, one could say there was a strategy. If you wanted to reduce that strategy to a single word, the word would be “containment.” At least until 1980, the Middle East – I prefer the term the Greater Middle East – tended to be viewed as peripheral in the hierarchy. My argument is that this began to change in 1980, when Jimmy Carter, in response to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, promulgated the Carter Doctrine.

Now, it didn’t overnight vault the Greater Middle East to the top rank of U.S. foreign policy interests, but it began that process. And indeed, the end of the Cold War, which tended at least marginally to diminish the importance attributed to Europe and East Asia, facilitated that. So by the time you get to the 1990s – and certainly by the time you get to 9/11 – there’s been this substantial change, and the change gets expressed above all and most regrettably in the reorientation of the U.S. military. Militarily, the United States doesn’t abandon Europe, and it certainly hasn’t abandoned East Asia, but if you look at where we’ve sent U.S. forces to fight or to occupy, especially since 1990, it’s clear that the focal point now is the Greater Middle East. And, to further the contrast, unlike the period of the Cold War, when you can make an argument that there was a certain cohesion in U.S. policy, there’s been virtually none with regard to the Greater Middle East. What we have is almost a pattern of random military interventionism justified by all kinds of reasons, few of which have produced anything like a positive outcome, and which cumulatively contributed to the destabilization of the Greater Middle East.

And we got ahead of ourselves:

Desert Storm seems to demonstrate – this is not so inaccurate, misleading – that the United States is in possession of military powers such that the world has never seen. We believe by 1991 that we have not only vanquished the last standing ideological opponent, but that we have achieved a military supremacy.

Now you combine that sort of generalized mission to save the world with the end of history and with the belief that we now possess the means to exercise dominance, and you have a very explosive combination that, by the 1990s, makes global hegemony seem possible. Of course, the 1990s is not the decade of the evil neoconservative and the bad Republicans. It’s the decade of Bill Clinton, of the liberal Democrats calling the shots. But if you look at what happens in the 1990s, you find this expansive rhetoric. They don’t use the term “empire,” but it is an imperialistic rhetoric, and you also find, under Clinton, a growing willingness to put that American military power to use. To do what Clinton would argue would be good things in the world. And that takes the form of a far greater willingness to intervene. In Somalia, in Haiti, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, with the expectation that somehow this interventionism is going to produce stability, spread our values, help to bring into existence this new American-dominated order. Problem is, of course, that the results are considerably different. Instead of creating stability we create instability, and, of course, the chickens come home to roost on 9/11, with the attacks on Washington and New York.

What he would like is this:

My thought is hope lies, however faint the hope may be, in the possibility of introducing – reintroducing – into the debate over foreign policy a sense of realism. One of the great obstacles to rethinking U.S. foreign policy is the extent to which both of the major parties buy into, I think for mostly cynical reasons, the premises of American exceptionalism. So here we are, you and I are speaking. We’re in sort of the preliminary stages of the 2016 presidential campaigns, and it is not difficult to predict that from both sides we will hear calls for American leadership. The insistence that there is no alternative to American leadership, the promises of sustaining American strength… And so, the best one can hope for is somehow – not that a critic of foreign policy is going to win a nomination; they’re not – but somehow, someone capable of critical thinking with regard to foreign policy…

But we won’t get that:

The right wants to use military power to spread freedom. The left wants to use military power to protect the innocent, but both on the right and on the left, proponents of intervention lack a prudent understanding of what military power can do, what it can’t do, and the likelihood of unintended secondary consequences that result from the use of military power.

Someone has to fix that:

The pressure’s going to have to come from the American people, and the American people, having been conditioned to see their role as basically a passive one, don’t do that. I mean, here as we sit, we are once more, whether we like it or not, involved in an Iraq war. The very fact that this new Iraq war has begun indicates that the previous Iraq war of 2003 to 2011 was a failure. A costly failure. A many-trillion-dollars failure. And yet, there is astonishingly little public interest in requiring any kind of accounting for that debacle. Here we are in the 14th year – we’re approaching the 14th anniversary of the beginning of the Afghanistan war – which is another failure. The president says he wants us out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves the Oval Office, and that that would be part of his legacy. But is there any serious human being who thinks that when we leave Afghanistan we will be able to claim success?

It’s laughable.

We are going to leave Afghanistan, and the Afghanistan war is going to continue. Well, where is the public outcry for an explanation of how the longest war in American history is on a course to end in failure. Why doesn’t anybody care?

Why doesn’t anybody care? It’s all background noise now. It disappears. And there’s Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby. And so it goes.


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 That Background Noise

  1. Rick says:

    Andrew Bacevich’s interview starts with a number of fair observations, but ends with some interesting questions:

    The very fact that this new Iraq war has begun indicates that the previous Iraq war of 2003 to 2011 was a failure. A costly failure. A many-trillion-dollars failure. And yet, there is astonishingly little public interest in requiring any kind of accounting for that debacle. Here we are in the 14th year – we’re approaching the 14th anniversary of the beginning of the Afghanistan war – which is another failure. The president says he wants us out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves the Oval Office, and that that would be part of his legacy. But is there any serious human being who thinks that when we leave Afghanistan we will be able to claim success?

    It’s laughable.

    We are going to leave Afghanistan, and the Afghanistan war is going to continue. Well, where is the public outcry for an explanation of how the longest war in American history is on a course to end in failure. Why doesn’t anybody care?

    It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that we’ve gotten smarter about all this over the years.

    Yes, we still do refer to our military as, by far, “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known”, but we also know that that and $2.75 will get you a ride on the New York subway. (Of course, some of us remember when that was 15-cents.) How is it that having a military budget larger than the next ten nations doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win every war you fight, or even any war we fought in the last half-century?

    But after years of seeing insurgents everywhere often fight circles around us, I think we Americans may have come to realize that we can only afford to send our troops to fight limited wars, and only for limited goals, if at all. I think that, even back while we were fighting heavily in Afghanistan and Iraq, and actively looking for ways to get out, there was a largely unspoken assumption, mostly because nobody wanted to discuss it, that once our troops left, most issues that had kept us there so long would not have been resolved — that civil war would resume in Iraq, for example — but that this couldn’t be helped.

    So why no huge public outcry for an accounting? It’s possible that we’ve been fatigued by so many investigations having been launched in recent years by someone with an agenda, over issues that most of us are not all that interested in, no matter how engaged “certain” people (i.e., Republicans) are in them. It seems that Bacevich, like John McCain, still thinks in terms of wars being “successes” and “failures”, and maybe even being “won” and “lost”, but I think most Americans may have become more sophisticated over time and don’t get all that bothered by this sort of thing anymore.

    It’s not just that Donald Trump’s candidacy is more interesting, but oddly enough, it may even be more important.


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