That Deadly Background Noise

Forget Donald Trump for a moment. He won’t like it, but it is possible. There are other things going on in the world. We’re still at war in the Middle East – Iraq isn’t fixed. Nothing much is fixed, and Jackson Diehl explains the current arguments about that:

Monday is the 100th anniversary of something called the Sykes-Picot agreement, an occasion that has touched off a small frenzy of Washington think-tank conferences and journal articles – not to mention Islamic State manifestos. Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot were diplomats from Britain and France, respectively, who agreed on a secret plan to partition the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The result, after a few more years of imperialist machinations, was the creation of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon – the heart of what is now the bloody chaos of the modern Middle East.

The anniversary has become an occasion for debate about what could or should be made of that mess, once the Islamic State – for which Sykes-Picot has become an unlikely rhetorical touchstone – is militarily defeated. Should Iraq and Syria retain their current borders and centralized political systems, which have the effect of lumping together Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and smaller ethnic groups that have been at war with each other off and on for centuries? What about Lebanon, whose elaborate power-sharing arrangements have produced a seemingly in­trac­table political gridlock?

This is somewhat of an academic question, but academics like such questions:

One broad current of opinion says Iraq and Syria must be preserved as nation-states. The two countries, it is said, were distinct and often competing entities long before Sykes-Picot; their people have developed national allegiances over the past century that transcend sect; and anyway, attempting to redraw the borders would create more problems than it would solve. “There is no way to divide borders and create homogenous states,” writes American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin. “To even try is to conduct ethnic and sectarian cleansing.”

Another school says it’s folly to suppose that either country can be patched back together. The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan appear determined to push toward independence, though they differ on whether to do it slowly or quickly. “Iraq is a conceptual failure, compelling peoples with little in common to share an uncertain future,” wrote the head of Kurdistan’s Security Council, Masrour Barzani, in a recent op-ed in The Post. For its part, the Islamic State has made the erasure of the border between Syria and Iraq – which divides two majority-Sunni regions – one of its central ideological tenets.

And there are the locals:

Some Arab leaders and thinkers say the West should stay out of this debate – Mr. Sykes and Mr. Picot and their colonializing descendants, up to and including George W. Bush, have done more than enough damage, they say. Others contend the region can be stabilized only by a foreign intervention – not another Western invasion, but maybe a U.N. trusteeship, like those that managed several pieces of postwar Yugoslavia. “The traditional solutions for this region will not work,” argues the Egyptian human rights activist Bahey eldin Hassan. “Some states are not qualified for now for their own people to run the country.”

Iraq may have been a conceptual failure, as a separate and unique nation, but now it’s actually falling apart, and that leaves us stuck:

The Obama administration, for its part, has embraced the “keep out” imperative. Its mind-set is “to define our interests very narrowly and focus very aggressively on achieving those interests,” Obama’s envoy to the region, Brett McGurk, recently told Robin Wright of the New Yorker. In Iraq that has meant investing heavily in the survival of the central government and its weak prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. The hope is that Abadi will provide just enough political cover for the U.S.-led reconstruction of just enough of the Iraqi army to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, with the help of the Kurds.

And then what? Who knows? But don’t ask Donald Trump about any of this. He is blissfully unaware of any of this. He wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States for now, with the possible exception of the new mayor of London, until “we figure out what’s going on” – but no one has figured out any of this yet, and the new mayor of London called him a fool.

That may be so. Some say that’s certainly so, but Obama has been made a fool by this too. Well, maybe not a fool, but this week the New York Times’ Mark Landler explained how Obama became what he never wanted to become:

President Obama came into office seven years ago pledging to end the wars of his predecessor, George W. Bush. On May 6, with eight months left before he vacates the White House, Mr. Obama passed a somber, little-noticed milestone: He has now been at war longer than Mr. Bush, or any other American president.

That’s just a fact:

If the United States remains in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria until the end of Mr. Obama’s term – a near-certainty given the president’s recent announcement that he will send 250 additional Special Operations forces to Syria – he will leave behind an improbable legacy as the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.

Mr. Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and spent his years in the White House trying to fulfill the promises he made as an antiwar candidate, would have a longer tour of duty as a wartime president than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon or his hero Abraham Lincoln.

Granted, Mr. Obama is leaving far fewer soldiers in harm’s way – at least 4,087 in Iraq and 9,800 in Afghanistan – than the 200,000 troops he inherited from Mr. Bush in the two countries. But Mr. Obama has also approved strikes against terrorist groups in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, for a total of seven countries where his administration has taken military action.

“No president wants to be a war president,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a military historian at Johns Hopkins University who backed the war in Iraq and whose son served there twice. “Obama thinks of war as an instrument he has to use very reluctantly. But we’re waging these long, rather strange wars. We’re killing lots of people. We’re taking casualties.”

So the guy who said he didn’t like “dumb” wars found out that it’s hard to decide what’s dumb or not, so he wages “cautious” wars:

His closest advisers say he has relied so heavily on limited covert operations and drone strikes because he is mindful of the dangers of escalation and has long been skeptical that American military interventions work.

Fine, but that’s hard to explain:

When he accepted the Nobel in December 2009, he declared that humanity needed to reconcile “two seemingly irreconcilable truths – that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”

The president has tried to reconcile these truths by approaching his wars in narrow terms, as a chronic but manageable security challenge rather than as an all-consuming national campaign, in the tradition of World War II or, to a lesser degree, Vietnam.

That, in turn, changes the definition of war:

“It’s the difference between being a war president and a president at war,” said Derek Chollet, who served in the State Department and the White House during Mr. Obama’s first term and as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015.

“Being a war president means that all elements of American power and foreign policy are subservient to fighting the war,” Mr. Chollet said. “What Obama has tried to do, which is why he’s careful about ratcheting up the number of forces, is not to have it overwhelm other priorities.”

But Iraq is still a mess and we’re still there:

A furious firefight this month between Islamic State fighters and Navy SEALs in northern Iraq, in which Special Warfare Operator First Class Charles Keating IV became the third American to die since the campaign against the Islamic State began, harked back to the bloodiest days of the Iraq war. It also made the administration’s argument that the Americans were only advising and assisting Iraqi forces seem ever less plausible.

“As the Middle East coordinator, I certainly felt like it was a wartime pace,” said Philip H. Gordon, who worked in the White House from 2013 to 2015.

Still, Mr. Gordon and other former officials drew a distinction between the wars of the 21st century and those of the 20th century. For one, Congress has not specifically authorized any of Mr. Obama’s military campaigns, let alone issued a declaration of war – something that it has not done since World War II.

“War doesn’t exist anymore, in our official vocabulary,” Mr. Gordon said.

If so, we have a vocabulary problem:

“Neither Clinton nor Obama identified themselves as war presidents, but Bush did,” said Richard H. Kohn, professor emeritus of history and peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“War goes back in human experience thousands of years,” he said. “We know that it has an enormous variation of definitions.”

Gene Healy, a vice president at the fiercely libertarian Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency, sees where this is heading:

Seven years in, it’s clear that Obama has forged a legacy of enormous consequence. But the most transformational aspect of his presidency is something liberals never hoped for: as president, Barack Obama’s most far-reaching achievement has been to strip out any remaining legal limits on the president’s power to wage war.

Obama’s predecessor insisted that he didn’t need approval from Congress to launch a war; yet in the two major wars he fought, George W. Bush secured congressional authorization anyway. By the time Obama hit the dais at Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our 44th president had already launched more drone strikes than “43” carried out during two full terms. Since then, he’s launched two undeclared wars, and – as Obama bragged in a speech last year defending the Iran deal – bombed no fewer than seven countries.

In 2011, what officials called “kinetic military action” in Libya completed the evisceration of the War Powers Resolution by successfully advancing the theory that if the U.S. bombs a country that can’t hit back, we’re not engaged in “hostilities” against them. In the drone campaign and the current war with ISIS, Obama has turned a 14-year-old congressional resolution targeting al-Qaeda and the Taliban into a blank check for endless war, anywhere in the world. Last year, the army chief of staff affirmed that finishing the fight against ISIS will take another “10 to 20 years.”

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way:

The issue that first animated Obama as an undergraduate was “the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country,” as he wrote in an article for the Columbia University Sundial as a college senior in 1983. In Breaking the War Mentality, Obama worried that the public’s distance from the costs of war made resisting it “a difficult task,” but a vital one of “shifting America off the dead-end track” and undoing “the twisted logic of which we are today a part.”

“It was his first expression of his views on any foreign policy subject,” James Mann writes in The Obamians, his 2012 account of national security decision-making in the Obama administration. “And years later, his aides felt it was deeply felt and lasting.”

Yet, as president, instead of “breaking the war mentality,” Obama has institutionalized it.

Healy isn’t happy with that, but this may not be Obama’s fault. There’s Andrew Bacevich’s new book America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History:

From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere else. What caused this shift? Andrew J. Bacevich, one of the country’s most respected voices on foreign affairs, offers an incisive critical history of this ongoing military enterprise – now more than thirty years old and with no end in sight.

During the 1980s, Bacevich argues, a great transition occurred. As the Cold War wound down, the United States initiated a new conflict – a War for the Greater Middle East – that continues to the present day. The long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union had involved only occasional and sporadic fighting. But as this new war unfolded, hostilities became persistent. From the Balkans and East Africa to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, U.S. forces embarked upon a seemingly endless series of campaigns across the Islamic world. Few achieved anything remotely like conclusive success. Instead, actions undertaken with expectations of promoting peace and stability produced just the opposite. As a consequence, phrases like “permanent war” and “open-ended war” have become part of everyday discourse.

Connecting the dots in a way no other historian has done before, Bacevich weaves a compelling narrative out of episodes as varied as the Beirut bombing of 1983, the Mogadishu firefight of 1993, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the rise of ISIS in the present decade. Understanding what America’s costly military exertions have wrought requires seeing these seemingly discrete events as parts of a single war. It also requires identifying the errors of judgment made by political leaders in both parties and by senior military officers who share responsibility for what has become a monumental march to folly. This Bacevich unflinchingly does.

That’s the blurb and this is the guy – “a retired career officer in the Armor Branch of the United States Army, retiring with the rank of Colonel, and a former director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations” – and he lost his son in Iraq, a first lieutenant assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division – and he has a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins too. Assume that he knows a thing or two.

What does he know? Steve Donoghue reviewed the new book:

At the starting point of 1980, Bacevich locates a crucial incident and a crucial political stance. The incident is Operation Eagle Claw, a clandestine mission in which eight US Army helicopters were dispatched in April 1980 to a barren patch of Iranian outback as a station from which to rescue the American hostages then being held in Tehran. A series of technical accidents turned Eagle Claw into a near-immediate debacle. And the political stance, arguably no less a debacle, was struck four months earlier in President Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union address, when he first announced what became known as the Carter Doctrine: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Bacevich is the latest in a long line of historians to characterize Carter as “the least bellicose of recent US presidents,” but it’s worth pointing out that the Carter Doctrine, in which the leader of one country peremptorily laid claim to the natural resources of a sprawling region on the other side of the world, was a breathtaking act of imperial belligerence. As a response, among other things, to America’s over-dependence on supplies of cheap oil from the Middle East, it opened the door to decades of mistrust and anger.

So, Jimmy Carter started this, but it was more than him:

“Generalship in wartime requires foresight, equanimity, and a supple intelligence,” he writes about Desert Storm General Norman Schwarzkopf. “Whatever his other talents, Schwarzkopf was not especially graced with these qualities.” And about the budgetary restrictions that plagued the 1992 US intervention in Somalia, the backdrop for the infamous firefight in Mogadishu in October of that year, he acidly observes: “Senior US military leaders had never pressed for an answer to the question of how much bringing order to Somalia was actually ‘worth.’ The firefight of October 3-4 revealed the answer: not much.” In these and all other sections of the book, the note of precisely controlled anger is nothing short of mesmerizing.

“Beginning in 1980,” Bacevich writes, “US forces ventured into the Greater Middle East to reassure, warn, intimidate, suppress, pacify, rescue, liberate, eliminate, transform, and overawe. They bombed, raided, invaded, occupied, and worked through proxies of various stripes.” And at virtually every turn, in virtually every case, he argues, the results have been abysmal failure, with the sledgehammer of American military might almost invariably doing more harm than good. The problem, as Bacevich sees it, is a “deeply pernicious collective naiveté” on the part of Washington policy-makers, who continually seem to hope that failed strategies will somehow eventually yield successful outcomes…

To the “collective naiveté” he adds a list of problems endemic to the greater Middle East, including “pervasive underdevelopment and the challenge of reconciling faith with modernity in a region where religion pervades every aspect of daily life.” All of which is true, although throughout America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich tends to ascribe too little importance to one of the proximate prompts of the Carter Doctrine, the 1979 Iranian Revolution which went on to flood the entire Middle East and beyond with an Islamic fundamentalism intractably opposed not just to Western values but to Western civilization itself. Even in an otherwise perfect scenario, the Iranian Revolution looks like a guarantee of unending war.

And Obama wasn’t going to end that, but David Rohde reads this differently:

First, Carter called on Americans to stop worshiping “self-indulgence and consumption” and join a nationwide effort to conserve energy. Self-sacrifice, he argued in what is now widely derided as Carter’s “malaise speech,” would free Americans from their dependence on foreign oil and “help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country.”

The president came across as more hectoring pastor than visionary leader, Bacevich argues… His guileless approach squandered an opportunity to persuade Americans reeling from high foreign oil prices to trade “dependence for autonomy.”

Carter’s second mistake was authorizing American support to guerrillas fighting a Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan, a move that eventually helped fuel the spread of radical Islam. Finally, in a misguided effort to counter views that he was “too soft,” Carter declared that the United States would respond with military force to any outside effort to seize Persian Gulf oil fields. “This statement, subsequently enshrined as the Carter Doctrine, inaugurated America’s war for the greater Middle East,” Bacevich writes.

Damn that Jimmy Carter fellow! No, wait, maybe it was us:

The ultimate responsibility for the United States’ actions lies with an “oblivious” American public engrossed in “shallow digital enthusiasms and the worship of celebrity,” Bacevich writes. Americans support freedom, democracy and prosperity in other nations, he tells us, as long as they get the lion’s share of it. “Ensuring that Americans enjoy their rightful quota (which is to say, more than their fair share) of freedom, abundance and security comes first,” Bacevich says. “Everything else figures as an afterthought.”

Bacevich’s argument is heavy-handed at times, but when he writes about military strategy, he is genuinely incisive. Citing numerous examples, he convincingly argues that destructive myths about the efficacy of American military power blind policy makers, generals and voters. The use of overwhelming lethal force does not immediately cause dictators or terrorists to turn tail and run, even if that’s what politicians in Washington want to believe. Rather, it often leads to resentment, chaos and resistance.

A presumption that using military power signified to friends and foes that Washington was getting serious about a problem diminished the role of diplomats and diplomacy.

Who thinks about diplomats and diplomacy these days? For all the wars he wages, Obama does – there was the Iran deal – but the diffuse wide war he now wages is the real issue here:

“In the war for the greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between,” Bacevich writes. “Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination.” The historical forces at work in the Middle East are different from the dynamics that led to American victories in World War II and the Cold War. American officials have failed to understand that. What’s more, a deluded Washington foreign policy establishment believes that an American way of life based on “consumption and choice” will be accepted over time in the “Islamic world.”

If that’s the premise we’re in deep trouble, and that is the premise – Obama says no different – but Patrick Smith, Salon’s foreign affairs columnist, just interviewed Bacevich, who actually had a few kind words for Obama:

When he became president he knew next to nothing about foreign policy. We routinely elect people to the presidency who know next to nothing about statecraft, but I think he’s learned a lot, and I found that to be very impressive.

That said, you would say, “Well if he’s learned so much then why don’t we see greater change than we see?” I think his presidency is a reminder to some degree as to the constraints under which presidents operate.

There’s this fiction in our public discussion of politics that seems to imply that whoever is president is the dictator or the messiah, and that’s simply not true. They are constrained by the fact that there’re two other branches of the federal government. They’re constrained by the permanent national security apparatus. They’re constrained by history. They’re constrained by the fact that they inherit situations that they’re not able to wave their hand and make go away. They’re constrained by the actions and interests of other nations, some which profess to be allies, some of which are obviously not allies.

So I think we’re condemned to being disappointed by our presidents. Even if they come into office as people of good will, we’re condemned to be disappointed because we don’t appreciate the limits of their authority, and the limits of their freedom of action.

Bacevich then explains how that works:

Obama becomes president in 2009, doesn’t know squat about the military, doesn’t know squat about war. Although he ran for the presidency promising to close down Iraq and to de-escalate in Afghanistan, he becomes president and announces an increase of 30,000 troops [in the latter theater]. He fires General David McKiernan, the Afghanistan commander – actually Gates does the firing – replaces McKiernan with General Stanley McChrystal, who at that moment is seen to be kind of a clone of David Petraeus – this at a moment when Petraeus’s stock is at its absolute height.

So Gates sends McChrystal to Afghanistan and says, “Give me a plan for how we should conduct this war.” And McChrystal comes up with a campaign plan that is leaked to the Washington Post before the president has ruled on it. McChrystal appears on “60 Minutes” touting his plan before the president has approved it. McChrystal gives a speech in London to some high muckety-mucks touting his plan. Petraeus, who has now been elevated to CentCom commander, gives an interview with Michael Gerson, formerly a speechwriter for George W. Bush, in which he, Petraeus, says, “The answer to the war in Afghanistan is counter-insurgency with more resources.”

So this set of actions basically boxes in the president before the president has made a decision. The president makes a decision and the decision is to give McChrystal virtually everything McChrystal wants. My point there is, at that moment early in 2009, that see-saw had shifted so that within the national security apparatus, the military is in a position, not entirely but to a very considerable extent, to call the shots regardless of what the president wants.

That’s depressing. Obama has now been at war longer than any other American president. It seems he had no other choice, given choices made by others long ago, and more recently, and given what Bacevich calls the naiveté of both the public and the “foreign policy establishment” – and given the structure of our government too.

Okay, Donald Trump becomes president in early 2017, and doesn’t know squat about the military, and doesn’t know squat about war. Does he do any better? Or it’s Hillary Clinton, who loves what we did in Libya and told Obama, early on, that we really needed to intervene in Syria, before he slapped her down. Does she do any better? Is that even possible? Perhaps this deadly background noise lasts forever. Of course the election isn’t about that.

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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 Deadly Background Noise

  1. Rick says:

    I’m not convinced this Colonel Andrew Bacevich, author of “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History”, who comes very highly recommended as an expert in military affairs, knows what he’s talking about in the area of international relations — although maybe the real problem was not with Bacevich but instead with Steve Donoghue, who reviewed his book.

    For one thing, about that description given of what the Carter Doctrine did:

    “… in which the leader of one country peremptorily laid claim to the natural resources of a sprawling region on the other side of the world, was a breathtaking act of imperial belligerence.”

    Whoever it was who said this seems to have totally misstated what it was that Carter actually said, which was this:

    “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

    To me, this sounds like Carter was just extending the Monroe Doctrine to the Persian Gulf, rather than avariciously “laying claim to natural resources” that didn’t belong to us, a harsh criticism of Jimmy Carter that is rarely, if ever, heard anywhere. But what do I know?

    Also, that statement, that “the military is in a position, not entirely but to a very considerable extent, to call the shots regardless of what the president wants”, seems to overlook the fact that Obama, for different reasons, later found himself firing both generals McChrystal and Petreus.

    I still think Obama did fairly well these last eight years, especially under the circumstances of having to keep the country open for business and out of default, and with very little assistance from the opposition party, but just try telling that to anybody who doesn’t like the guy.

    Although it’s odd enough to see history itself drastically changing direction right before our eyes — as has been happening with Donald Trump and the Republican Party — but what we’re seeing here is not so much history in transition, but instead, something much more disconcerting: historiography in revision.

    To put that another way, in this age of ubiquitous shenanigans, history is no longer what actually happened, it tends to be what Republicans say actually happened.

    Rick

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