The Poison at Work

“Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavor, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.” ~ Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Gertrude Stein, born in Pittsburgh, grew up out here in Oakland but didn’t like it much – she said there was no there, there – and ended up in Paris, mentoring Hemingway and Fitzgerald and that crowd, and chatting with Picasso and Braque, at 27 rue de Fleurus. But she knew who she was. She said “America is my country and Paris is my hometown” – because there was no separating the two. Those of us born in Pittsburgh, in the same hospital actually, and stuck out here on the West Coast, know what she meant. The yearly trips to Paris, for two weeks of kicking around solo, in the December rain, were a surprise and not a surprise –- it was like coming home, to a place that felt more like home than home ever did. This is how it was supposed to be, where you were supposed to be in the first place. Let the tourists do their thing. To sit quietly and sip cognac and smoke a pipe or two, and chat with that old woman about her cat, was enough. Paris really is America’s hometown. The place just felt right.

Of course there’s the history too. Early on they sent us Lafayette to help us in our revolution, and Cornwallis would not have finally surrendered to Washington had not the French fleet been sitting out there in the Chesapeake Bay that afternoon. We go a long way back. Sure, Charles de Gaulle was a pain in the ass, but all our allies thought he was jerk too – early on Churchill found him insufferable – so that wasn’t specific to us. And yes, France told us, publically, at the United Nations, that they thought going to war in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was a spectacularly bad idea – we might want to wait and see if there really were those weapons of mass destruction, and even if there were, consider alternatives to all-out war. They’d have no part of our war – and we found that deeply insulting and what’s more, a cowardly betrayal by a key ally – but we eventually forgave them for being right. These things happen. They’re family, and for many of us, Paris really is our hometown.

That may be why the terrorist attacks in Paris seemed so horrific, although the first response was measured, because that was basic police work:

On both sides of the Atlantic, the fast-moving investigation into the deadly Paris terrorist attacks steadily accumulated clues on Sunday: a car discovered in the Parisian suburbs with a cache of weapons. Mounting proof of links between the Islamic State in Syria and the attackers. And intense scrutiny on three brothers, living in Belgium, as crucial suspects in the elaborate plot.

With investigators moving on multiple fronts and a manhunt underway for a suspect described as dangerous, with much still unknown, increasing evidence suggested that at least one of the eight attackers had visited Syria, where the Islamic State has its main stronghold.

Others had been communicating with known members of the group before the horrific assault on Paris, investigators said. Officials were also investigating the possibility that a Syrian citizen may have been sent to join the attackers, slipping into Europe along with thousands of refugees.

French officials said American security services had alerted them in September to vague but credible information that French jihadists in Syria were planning some type of attack.

Answer the questions. Who did what and how did they pull it off? This should not have happened:

The carnage from the attacks in Paris, which so far have claimed 129 lives and left hundreds wounded, has presented France with its second major security breakdown in less than a year, after the terrorist assault in January against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store.

But the complexity and coordination of the latest attacks suggest a growing and ominous sophistication among terrorist networks…

This is a practical problem, a life-and-death problem to be sure, but this has nothing to with geopolitics and the clash of civilizations. Screw their motives – just stop them – but horrified and outraged people are never satisfied with the merely practical. They want to get to the root cause of what happened, to address those motives, and they want justice, or vengeance, or revenge. The three are hard to separate, but that lead to the second response:

France bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa on Sunday night, its most aggressive strike against the Islamic State group it blames for killing 129 people in a string of terrorist attacks across Paris only two days before.

President François Hollande, who vowed to be “unforgiving with the barbarians” of the Islamic State after the carnage in Paris, decided on the airstrikes in a meeting with his national security team on Saturday, officials said.

Hollande did say this was “war” now, but this was more symbolic than effective:

Warplanes continued to hover over the city close to midnight, according to residents and activist groups. Residents have seen the city bombed by Syrian, American and Russian warplanes. They have been terrorized by public executions by the Islamic State. Now they are wary of yet another power arriving to pummel the city.

Khaled al-Homsi, an antigovernment activist from Palmyra, who uses a nom de guerre for his safety and is the nephew of an archaeologist who was beheaded by Islamic State fighters, issued a plea on Twitter to France, saying not all of the city’s residents were Islamic State members and urging caution for the safety of civilians.

And so it begins. François Hollande is leading France the way George Bush led America after the attacks of September 11, 2001 – someone is going to pay for what happened – and in each case each nation is fine with a bit of justice or vengeance or revenge or whatever this is. It doesn’t fix the problem, the targets may be wrong, but it feels good. As Charlotte Brontë would say, it is an aromatic wine, warm and racy, and then there’s the aftertaste, metallic and corroding. It’s poison.

That poison spreads easily. The night after that Paris attacks, the Democrats had another presidential debate. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza runs down who seems to won and lost that one – not that it matters now – but the poison was spreading:

When asked during the Democratic presidential debate whether she believes that the U.S. is at war with “radical Islam,” Hillary Clinton emphasized that America is not fighting all Muslims, citing former president George W. Bush.

“I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists,” Clinton said.

Republicans are always ragging on President Obama for never using the term “radical Islam” – as if he’s afraid to insult all Muslims, the real bad guys, as they see it. The CBS moderator John Dickerson seems to have wanted to see if she’d pick a fight with the Republicans on this, but she turned that around:

Clinton then said it was important not to demonize the Muslim faith, citing former President George W. Bush’s belief that the U.S. was not at war with Islam.

“We’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries,” she said. “If they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam …”

“That was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11, when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, ‘We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression,'” Clinton continued. “And yes, we are at war with those people. But I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”

In short, there’s no need to inject more poison into this mess. Even George Bush knew better, but the Tweets poured in:

Rick Santorum – @HillaryClinton we are at war with radical Islam! You are not qualified to serve if you cannot even define our enemy!

Mike Huckabee – You’re all grown up now. You can do it. Three words. Ten syllables. Say it with me: “Radical Islamic terrorism.”

Carly Fiorina – We need a President who will see and speak and act on the truth… Hillary Clinton will not call this Islamic terrorism. I will.

John Kasich – @HillaryClinton has consistently failed to understand the depth of the ISIS threat. We need @JohnKasich’s leadership.

And of course there was Donald Trump – “When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can’t say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!”

It’s unclear how that will solve the problem, but it must feel good to say that. Trump was, however, spreading all sorts of poison. He recycled one of his Tweets from the Charlie Hebdo business in January – “Isn’t it interesting that the tragedy in Paris took place in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world?” French ambassador Gérard Araud noticed that and shot back – “This message is repugnant in its lack of any human decency. Vulture.” And then he deleted that – no point in getting down in the mud with this guy, and domestic American politics are none of his business – but lots of Tweets from others followed. “Not every tragedy is an excuse to show the world how truly ignorant you are – but please proceed.” That was a good one.

But things are getting hot. Michael Goodwin in New York Post says it’s time for Obama to make a choice: lead us or resign and Jeb Bush has called for a United States declaration of war against ISIL – as if Congress could agree on anything – and Ted Cruz says Obama ‘”does not wish to defend this country” and so on. The atmosphere is poisonous, as they say.

Against that there was this:

The White House vowed no major shift in U.S. strategy in the fight against the Islamic State on Sunday in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris, despite clamors for change from key Republicans.

Making the rounds on the major Sunday morning news shows, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said there would be an “intensification” of U.S. war efforts against the Islamic State, but no major shift in U.S. strategy, such as sending large numbers of combat troops to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIL.

“We do not believe that there is a solution to the challenge in Syria or Iraq that involves significant numbers of U.S. combat troops going in,” Rhodes said on “Fox News Sunday.”

That wasn’t good enough:

Asked on ABC what he’d do if he were president, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called for stepping up support for the Kurds, whom he called “the best fighters on the ground.” He also said he favored an “increased number of special operations attacks,” targeting leaders of the Islamic State.

Jeb Bush, meanwhile, laid out a detailed set of steps on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he said Obama should take quickly.

“Declare a no-fly zone over Syria,” the former governor of Florida said. “Directly arm the Peshmerga forces in Iraq. Reengage with the Sunni tribal leaders. Embed with the Iraqi military. Be able to create safe zones in Syria. Garner the support of our European allies and the traditional Arab states. Lead. That’s what I want him to do. I want him to lead.”

Bush struck a more aggressive posture than some other Republicans, saying he “absolutely” supporting putting more U.S. combat forces on the ground in Syria.

Does that mean he’d shoot down any Russian plane that popped up over there?. There is an appetite for that sort of thing among that crowd, and that puzzles Andrew Bacevich – the expert of foreign policy and military history at Boston University, who used to teach at West Point – the formal Army Colonel (armored) whose son, also a career Army officer, was killed in action in Iraq. Bacevich knows a thing or two, and he knows poison when he sees it:

President François Hollande’s response to Friday’s vicious terrorist attacks in France, now attributed to the Islamic State, was immediate and uncompromising. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” he vowed.

Whether France itself possesses the will or the capacity to undertake such a war is another matter. So too is the question of whether further war can provide a remedy to the problem at hand: widespread disorder roiling much of the Greater Middle East and periodically spilling into the outside world.

And we tried this already:

The Soviet Union spent all of the 1980s attempting to pacify Afghanistan and succeeded only in killing a million or so Afghans while creating an incubator for Islamic radicalism. Beginning in 2003, the United States attempted something similar in Iraq and ended up producing similarly destabilizing results. By the time US troops withdrew in 2011, something like 200,000 Iraqis had died, most of them civilians. Today Iraq teeters on the brink of disintegration.

We know better now:

Perhaps if the Russians had tried harder or the Americans had stayed longer, they might have achieved a more favorable outcome. Yet that qualifies as a theoretical possibility at best. Years of fighting in Afghanistan exhausted the Soviet Union and contributed directly to its subsequent collapse. Years of fighting in Iraq used up whatever “Let’s roll!” combativeness Americans may have entertained following 9/11.

Today, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s continuing appetite for military piddling – airstrikes, commando raids, and advisory missions – few Americans retain any appetite for undertaking further large-scale hostilities in the Islamic world. Fewer still will sign up to follow Hollande in undertaking any new crusade. Their reluctance to do so is understandable and appropriate.

That may be because, really, we cannot win over there:

The fact is that United States and its European allies face a perplexing strategic conundrum. Collectively they find themselves locked in a protracted conflict with Islamic radicalism, with ISIS but one manifestation of a much larger phenomenon. Prospects for negotiating an end to that conflict anytime soon appear to be nil. Alas, so too do prospects of winning it.

In this conflict, the West generally appears to enjoy the advantage of clear-cut military superiority. By almost any measure, we are stronger than our adversaries. Our arsenals are bigger, our weapons more sophisticated, our generals better educated in the art of war, our fighters better trained at waging it.

Yet most of this has proven to be irrelevant. Time and again the actual employment of that ostensibly superior military might has produced results other than those intended or anticipated. Even where armed intervention has achieved a semblance of tactical success – the ousting of some unsavory dictator, for example – it has yielded neither reconciliation nor willing submission nor even sullen compliance. Instead, intervention typically serves to aggravate, inciting further resistance. Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism, we end up feeding them.

In proposing to pour yet more fuel on that fire, Hollande demonstrates a crippling absence of imagination, one that has characterized recent Western statesmanship more generally when it comes to the Islamic world. There, simply trying harder will not suffice as a basis of policy.

It won’t? Don’t tell the Republicans. That’s all they’ve got, but Bacevich has this:

Rather than assuming an offensive posture, the West should revert to a defensive one. Instead of attempting to impose its will on the Greater Middle East, it should erect barriers to protect itself from the violence emanating from that quarter. Such barriers will necessarily be imperfect, but they will produce greater security at a more affordable cost than is gained by engaging in futile, open-ended armed conflicts. Rather than vainly attempting to police or control, this revised strategy should seek to contain.

Such an approach posits that, confronted with the responsibility to do so, the peoples of the Greater Middle East will prove better equipped to solve their problems than are policy makers back in Washington, London, or Paris. It rejects as presumptuous any claim that the West can untangle problems of vast historical and religious complexity to which Western folly contributed. It rests on this core principle: Do no (further) harm.

In short, don’t drink the poison:

Hollande views the tragedy that has befallen Paris as a summons to yet more war. The rest of us would do well to see it as a moment to reexamine the assumptions that have enmeshed the West in a war that it cannot win and should not perpetuate.

But what about justice or vengeance or revenge and all that – where will we turn for emotional satisfaction? Maybe we’ll have to do without. That seems to be what Bacevich was saying in July when Patrick Smith interviewed him:

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 that seems unlikely:

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.

The righteous, or self-righteous, use of military power is heady stuff. That’s the aromatic wine, warm and racy – and French wine this time – but then there’s the aftertaste, metallic and corroding. You’ve been drinking poison – and as for Paris, it will never be safe. No place ever is, but we can make it a bit safer, and that may have to do. After all, it’s kind of our hometown.


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 Poison at Work

  1. Rick says:

    So it seems we’re now passing through Phase 2 of this story (“Bomb the shit out of them”) and headed directly into Phase 3 (“Wait! We’re never going to win this! Maybe we should reconsider.”)

    Here’s what foreign policy and military history expert, of Boston University and previously West Point, Andrew Bacevich sees:

    Hollande views the tragedy that has befallen Paris as a summons to yet more war. The rest of us would do well to see it as a moment to reexamine the assumptions that have enmeshed the West in a war that it cannot win and should not perpetuate.

    I’m not saying France can’t bomb anybody they want to in Syria, but since they all knew this was coming for weeks ahead of time, I imagine everybody who had been there probably cleared out before the planes got there. In any event, the action of France was probably more symbolic than real, just to shut up all those who would have complained if it hadn’t been done.

    And it’s not that I think Bacevich is wrong, it’s just that I’m still confused as to what he would have us do.

    So what do I think France should do instead of doubling down in a war they can’t win? I think maybe they should attack and take over Belgium. Since it’s right next door, it’d probably be a cake walk, and would likely do more toward stopping these attacks on Paris than dropping bombs on every single damned country in the Levant.

    At least it’d buy France a little time to think about what to do that doesn’t do exactly what ISIS is trying to get them to do — which is exactly what France did — while the rest of the world, including ISIS, tries to figure out why the hell they just invaded Belgium.


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