The terrorism threat against the United States is increasing and Americans are not as safe as they were a year or two ago, the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, said.
Feinstein: “There are more terrorist groups than ever, with more sophisticated and hard-to-detect bombs. There is huge malevolence out there.”
Rogers: “The job is getting more difficult because al-Qaeda is changing, with more affiliates around the world — groups that once operated independently but have now joined with al-Qaeda.”
Now, to be clear, both Feinstein and Rogers were attempting to make the case that the U.S. needs more NSA spying to combat these threats. Rogers was blunt: “We’re fighting amongst ourselves here in this country about the role of our intelligence community… And so we’ve got to shake ourselves out of this pretty soon and understand that our intelligence services are not the bad guys.”
Despite the lawmakers’ intention, the truth is more obvious. 9/11 happened twelve years ago. In between that day and this today, we have seen the dismantling of our Constitution via the Patriot Act and its secret interpretations by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, the turning of companies like Google into tools of the national security state, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, torture, rendition, secret prisons, global drone and special ops wars, indefinite imprisonment at Guantanamo, military intervention in Libya, bin Laden and a endless string of al Qaeda “leaders” killed, the failure to support the Arab Spring, creation of a stasis of grinding death in Syria and the rest of the horrors and abominations committed by these United States. Add in the incalculable deaths and costs, the domestic army of disabled veterans, the gutting of our economy and the entrenchment of the military-industrial monster, the elevation of security theatre at our airports, the irradiation of the mail, militarization of our police and the thousand daily cuts of a metastasized bureaucracy, all in the name of “fighting terror.”
And none of that is enough.
In fact, as stated by Feinstein and Rogers, somehow despite all that, things are actually worse. Al Qaeda, once a regional player, now is a global franchise. The fuel of terrorism– hatred, fear and opposition to the U.S. and its policies abroad– creates more terrorists. Indeed, as the two intelligence committee chairs are clear in pointing out, we are less safe now than then.
We are a stupid, violent people. America is indeed an exceptional nation, exceptional in that it exists in a bubble, emerging only to lash out at others. Inside the bubble, rational thought and reasoned discussion have ceased, the air sucked out of them. Any attempt at such actions is met either by deflection (“oh, let’s not talk politics here at the office/party/election debates”) or polemics. Finger pointing– it’s the Republicans! No, it’s the Democrats at fault! is both a convenient way to tamp down debate and to create the appearance of debate while having none. We have simply stopped thinking.
Having stopped thinking, we fall into the comfort zone of repeating things like a mentally disabled child happy to spend hours walking in circles. Not quite for comfort, not quite for safety, just simply because it is what we were doing and so we keep doing it. We convince ourselves that the answer to failed policy is to keep repeating that policy. We ignore the empirical evidence of our failure– there it is people, the things done to make us safer have not made us safer– to twist logic into meaning we must keep doing what has already failed.
Does that make sense? If it does, forget about a career in Washington.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
You people all hate them Muslims and want to see them go to hell, amiright? Well, maybe some do, and American can-do companies are filling that market niche. May God, Allah, Buddha and whoever else is out there have mercy on our blackened souls.
First up, you need some Muslim-hating ammo. Sure, a regular round can kill your average Terrorist, no problem, but then he is off to those virgins awaiting him in Paradise. Can’t have that, so you need to use Jihawg Ammo, made by South Fork Industries in Idaho. This speciality ammunition is actually coated with pork in the idiotic belief that if it penetrates a Muslim body said Muslim will die and go to hell as he is impure. This is based on the only-in-Idaho interpretation of the Koran that the dead guy is now spiritually unclean and thus unworthy. Guys, really, I remember my first beer, too, but just shut up.
Here is what the company actually says about itself:
In the fall of 2010, patriots from Idaho County, Idaho sat around a campfire enjoying an adult beverage. The discussion turned to concern and disgust that a mosque was being built at ground zero. Everyone in attendance agreed that freedom of religion is paramount for all peoples of Earth but this showed poor taste and had a sense of “rubbing our noses” into 9/11 tragedy. The discussion turned toward possible solutions to stop such a great insult.
With Jihawg Ammo, you don’t just kill an Islamist terrorist, you also send him to hell. That should give would-be martyrs something to think about before they launch an attack. If it ever becomes necessary to defend yourself and those around you our ammo works on two levels.
These bullets are “Peace Through Pork” and a “peaceful and natural deterrent to radical Islam” so a Christian shooter “Put Some Ham in MoHAMed.” “The nullifying principle of our product is only effective if you are attacked by an Islamist in Jihad.”
Yes, they have a Facebook page. Good news: since the pork ammo is still ammo, you can also use it to kill your Christian girlfriend after you get drunk and start yelling at her for wearin’ those cheap outfits like some Jezebel.
Bible Verse Military Rifle Sites
Bringing the wrath of the Christian God against Muslims cannot be done solely with the eyes God gave to the shooter. No, righteous killing requires a good scope to put steel on flesh properly.
Luckily, the Trijicon company has a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army, all inscribed with references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ. The sights were used by our brave crusaders in Iraq and continue to bring Jesus’ message of love thy neighbor to Afghanistan.
Trijicon confirmed to ABCNews.com that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon said the inscriptions “have always been there” and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them. Munson said the issue was being raised by a group that is “not Christian.” The company has said the practice began under its founder, Glyn Bindon, a devout Christian from South Africa, where in the past Jesus’ message of love was enshrined in the Apartheid system.
Good news: the same sights with the same Bible references are exported for use by the Israeli military to also slap down Muslims in their way toward God’s vision of heaven on earth.
But it doesn’t really matter all that much, because as one Christian commentator remarked, it is unlikely any actual Muslim cares, because to do so they’d have to:
– have access to an expensive US military rifle sight by this specific manufacturer
– can read (Afghanistan’s literacy rate is 28%, according to the CIA)
– can read English
– know enough about the English-language Bible to recognize an abbreviated reference at the end of a string of letters and numbers
– either have the reference memorized or have access to a Bible or Torah; and
– are offended by the presence of that reference.
Luckily for us, there are no Muslims in the U.S. military, no one on the bad guys’ side can use Google Translate and our literacy programs in Afghanistan have been a failure. God is truly on our side!
Hate-Based Coloring Books for Kids
But guns don’t shoot themselves. All that cool bullet and sight tech means nothing if you don’t have a righteous human Christian killer behind it, and what better way to achieve that than to indoctrinate them young.
Into the breach is coloringbook.com, a frightful pus-filled sore of a web site that sells coloring books to kids with titles such as The Tea Party Coloring Book Why America Loves You, Global Terrorism True Faces of Evil Never Forget and We Shall Never Forget 9/11, The Kids Book of Freedom.
The Tea Party book promises “many activities including how to start a tea party in your town, a tea party debate club at school and learn about freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to be who you are! The genius of America is how The Tea Party truly reflects, represents and respects its homeland.”
The 9/11 books are super-keen. They are about:
Good vs. Evil. To a terrorist, this is a way of life and they do not consider themselves to be radicals, they consider themselves as soldiers. Current examples of modern evil are the Radical Islamic Muslim Tsarnaev brothers,Tamerlan and Dzhokhar one of which became a US Citizen on 9/11/2012. Designed as a consumer friendly, family publication for use with children and adults, this excellent graphic coloring novel helps expand understanding of the factual details and meanings in the War on Terror. Included are detachable printed show case cards with “Faces of Global Terrorism” very similar to the FBI’s ads featuring photos of murderous terrorists and suspects.
Also included are “terrorist trading cards, inspired by real people, real life and reflecting the truth. Vol. II also includes a government labeled cyber terrorist named Assange and modern day weather underground founder/leader Bill Ayers, a current educator in Chicago Illinois.”
And here’s some inspiring text from the coloring book, designed of course for children:
Terrorist Trading Cards clearly identifies the evil that may sit next to you on an airplane, or it could be an avowed Atheist in the lot of your local grocer on a sunny morning.The world should look at them, make fun of them, name them – shame them, recognize who the terrorists are and rid the earth of them.
Onward Christian soldiers!
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class. Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?
In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?
If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.
Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!
We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia
Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.
Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.
All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…
… in the Middle East
If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.
The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.
Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty. He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”
Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.
State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.
Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…
… Everywhere Else
Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.
Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.
After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.
Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…
… Entering Syrian Airspace
The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)
Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)
Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.
His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”
As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)
In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.
Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.
Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.
Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.
Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.
The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.
Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.
The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
This is horrific, what appears to be a video of Afghan military beating and torturing a bound captive while persons who appear to be American soldiers stand by and watch. One of the Americans has on surgical gloves and is holding something that indicates he is there as a combat medic. When Americans conduct torture, medical personnel are typically available to ensure the torture is done to inflict maximum pain without typically killing the victim.
Rolling Stone, which obtained the video, dates the incident as post-2012.
Like the scenes of torture from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, this video is widely circulating on Afghan websites, ensuring the continued decline in American credibility.
A final warning. We’ve all seen horrible stuff on the web, but this is a new step beyond. The audio is chilling. It inhuman. If those people are Americans, they have no right to call themselves soldiers, nor men.
The oft-repeated pop psychology definition of mental illness– doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results– pretty much sums up America’s limp efforts at reconstruction, nation building, hearts and minds, counterinsurgency, whatever tag you choose.
Efforts failed spectacularly and expensively in Iraq and (ongoing) in Afghanistan, and just as significantly, though more quietly, in Libya. With Obama having morphing into McCain like an old werewolf movie scene and calling for more wrath in Syria or wherever, it is obvious that the U.S. intends to stay in the nation building business.
The Return of the Jedi
One guy with some experience in the trade thinks he has a better idea of how to do this. Stuart Bowen was the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and produced a series of reports that year-by-year carefully documented America’s failure in Iraq to reconstruct much of anything. Whereas in my own book, We Meant WellI sought to document such failures on the local scale, Bowen’s assessments were Jedi-like, sweeping and Iraq-wide. Through the seemingly endless years of that war, Bowen shouted into the darkness about the waste, fraud and corruption in Iraq. His organization actively sought criminal prosecutions of those doing the wasting and the corrupting. This guy was born with both fists up, and good for him about that.
In a working document Bowen’s office shared with me, the story is this:
Who should be accountable for planning, managing, and executing stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs)? The U.S. government’s existing approach provides no clear answer. Responsibilities for SROs are divided among several agencies, chiefly the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development. As a result, lines of responsibility and accountability are not well-defined.
The lack of an established SRO management system forced the U.S. government to respond to challenges in Iraq through a series of ad hoc agencies that oversaw stabilization and reconstruction activities with—unsurprisingly—generally unsatisfactory outcomes.
A New Hope
Bowen suggest a new solution, comprising a collection of targeted operational reforms and the creation of an integrated management office— the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO)— that would be accountable for planning and executing SROs. You can read more details about his proposed new agency.
As almost an air-tight endorsement of the idea, both State and Defense oppose it. Bowen explained that both agencies believe that the existing management structure, which diffuses duties between and among varying agencies, is preferable to implementing a new, consolidated system. State believes that SRO problems chiefly arise from insufficient resources and not management weaknesses (Note: A lack of money, and not management problems, is State’s default answer to nearly everything from failure in Iraq to failure in Benghazi).
The Empire Strikes Out
While the reality is that just about nobody in Congress will support creation of a new government entity in the current political climate, the Obama Administration remains hell-bent to do some more nation building. If nothing new is tried (that mental illness definition again!) nothing new will happen. Failure is assured. Again. Bowen’s idea is worth looking into as a possible way to break the loop.
At the same time, a new organization sitting around the table with no purpose other than to tuck into reconstruction may be more dangerous that you think. The bureaucratic rules of evolution that govern Washington say any organization, once spun up, will seek more resources and more reasons to continue to exist. Would having a new office for SRO work simply create another strong voice inside government in favor of more SRO operations?
The jury is still out on how best to proceed. The best way to win at Fight Club is not to get into it in the first place. Is it too much to dream that maybe the U.S. will just stop invading and intervening abroad, and perhaps create an office designated to reconstructing America instead?
While naysayers belittle a U.S. government unable to even pay itself to not work, other dedicated federal employees are out there winning the war in Afghanistan. Now thirteen years after the conflict began, a way forward has emerged: franchises.
We all know about these things, right? McDonald’s, Burger King and others sell you the right to open one of their stores. You can buy a franchise for a UPS Store, a Jiffy Lube and just about anything else you can think of. You pay a fee and get the name, all the branded stuff, benefits of national advertising, whatever. A business in a box.
And so to Afghanistan
Your U.S. Commerce Department, after clearly having resolved all unemployment and economic issues in America, has “taken over” Afghanistan. The group held a franchise trade event for seven major international franchise brands and more than 100 Afghan businessmen. Now, the event was held in Dubai of course, because what American businessperson would dare travel into Kabul, but OK, they had those Afghans flown over and the Commerce people got some R&R time in Dubai at the same time. Despite the irony of not holding the event in the actual country it concerned, The It’s Always Sunny in Kabul U.S. Embassy press office bleated that the trade show demonstrated a “belief in the prosperous future of Afghanistan.” The embassy folks also believe that there is a “high demand for American franchise brands in Afghanistan.” Good for them, good for them. Optimism is important thirteen years into a war.
Now, who will buy all the American stuff remains in question. Afghanistan has a $20 billion economy, but a whopping 90 percent of that comes from international assistance.
Talk is cheap. Afghanistan is a place for action, and so it goes with franchising. In fact, two signature American franchises are already in Afghanistan sort of.
Ace is the Place
Ace Hardware is the first. Afghanistan’s Safi Group (see their used car sales page where you can pick up a clean Ford for only US$4000) handed over $1 million dollars for the franchise. They even now have a Facebook page for their ace investment, though the page reeks of State Department social media handlers. Unfortunately, the last posting on the page is a press conference from May, with no clear sign that the Ace Hardware store is actually open. The store as it stands is pictured above, and does look nice. Smart move, not spending too much money on photography. It’s almost as if they built a big shed, painted the Ace Hardware logo on the roof, and called it a day.
The other franchise touted, Cherry Berry yogurt, opened just a convenient few days before the Dubai trade event. It too has a Facebook page in English, with the faint smell of USG social media on it as well. From the Facebook page, the shop looks to be crammed into a small basement of a nondescript building that is so exclusive it doesn’t even feature a Cherry Berry sign out front. Actually, it is probably safer that way, given the Taliban’s predilection for bombing western targets. One happy yogurt patron on the page seemed remarkably not Afghani. A little internet spelunking revealed she works for a social media promotion company run by Americans. One does wonder if that company has any financial or other connection to the U.S. government. Maybe just a coincidence she dropped by for a frozen treat.
So of course this is all a sham, smoke and mirrors so transparent and thin that for the most part this “news” of the American franchise beachhead in Afghanistan exists only in self-serving press releases. I mean, how lame can you be so that even the sad mainstream media thinks you’re too cheesy to report on?
None of this is new, by the way. As a former State Department officer, I remember sitting in meetings during the Iraq Reconstruction hearing how there would be hundreds of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises opening all over the country, and how tourism would soon outpace oil as a source of foreign revenues in Iraq. The U.S. Embassy arranged and then paid for what was then the Bank of Iraq’s only international ATM, conveniently installed on embassy grounds deep inside the Green Zone (FYI: As an experiment I tried to withdraw money from that ATM only to have my credit card shut down as possible fraud by my U.S. bank.) This too was primped and posted as a sure sign of progress in that tortured nation.
Well, we’ve had our fun here today. The youngest U.S. soldiers were ten years old when we invaded Afghanistan right after 9/11 and most likely only have the vaguest idea what all has preceded their arrival in-country. Meanwhile, the real war in Afghanistan drags on. Americans and Afghans die every day. Enjoy your yogurt social media people.
Today, our guest is long-time friend of this blog, Charlie Sherpa. Sherpa runs his own blog at Red Bull Rising. It’s one of the best milblogs out there, and always worth your time. This guest piece tells of how we can help save some of the Iraqis and Afghans who served as interpreters (‘Terps to the trade) during our adventures in their countries. These folks saved regular Americans’ lives in many cases, and helped us make the best of the crappy situation our national leaders flung us into. Many of them did this at great personal risk, and they were promised in return that they would get visas to the U.S. for themselves and their immediate families. This would save their lives from the revenge and retribution that is even now sweeping through their countries as the U.S. once again grows tired of another quagmire and abandons it.
Not such a surprise as much as an expectation, America’s promise to give them visas had as much validity as what drunk men say to drunk women they pick up from a bar. The next morning it all seems embarrassing and awkward to even bring up those promises, at least to the man. The woman’s opinion is usually not given much air time.
I’ve written myself on this topic in the past. A core problem is that this program was set up to do one thing, circumstances changed, and the program became unattractive to the government but was never canceled. State has always given out Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), typically to foreign nationals who had worked in our embassies, and typically at retirement. The SIV program for Terps was intended the same way, a thank you for what was expected to have been years of service. This of course presumed the U.S. had won quickly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and service to the U.S. there was similar to what it was in London, Kenya or Bonn. When the wars went a different way, the SIV program morphed into a way to save the lives of Terps, which a) flooded what was supposed to be a limited pool of older, well-vetted applicants with many young less-known people and b) was an embarrassment to the USG, a daily reminder of all the good we failed to accomplish. Congress was afraid to just do away with or radically change the program and generate bad PR while the wars still dragged on, and State had no bureaucratic interest in sticking its neck out to approve what it saw as risky cases. Now, with Iraq a distant memory and Afghanistan about to be, the plan in Washington seems to be to just allow the program to fade away, sorry to the Terps. Hence, a human quagmire.
Not leaving a comrade behind does not just apply to fellow soldiers. According to Charlie Sherpa, here’s how to help.
In the days before the Internet, I pulled a few short stints in the offices of a couple of U.S. senators. A couple of times as an “intern,” one time as a “Congressional fellow.” In such capacities, not only did I get opportunities to open the daily mail and prepare internal media summaries, I regularly answered letters from constituents. I even learned to use the machine that signed the senator’s name—before some idiot co-worker started writing and signing his own job references.
Through those experiences, I learned that a letter “written by a senator” on behalf of a constituent was often like applying the Penetrating Oil of Helpfulness to the Stuck Machine Bolt of Bureaucracy. I helped get retirees their Social Security checks, veterans their missing medals, and school kids their answers to social studies tests. Small and concrete victories. Democracy in action. Your tax dollar at work.
To this day, I still write business letters like a certain senator from Iowa:
Dear CONSTITUENT NAME:
Thank you for contacting me regarding PROBLEM X. I am glad to be of help. [...]
I have a sent a letter to AGENCY Y regarding this matter. I will contact you again when I receive a response. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to let me or my staff know if I may be of additional assistance. Keep in touch!
Later, after I’d joined the Army, I was on the receiving end of a few of these Congressional inquiries. Troops would write their representatives about pay concerns, food quality, or other matters. No matter how seemingly silly some of the questions were, the military put an emphasis on quickly investigating and responding to each query. Whether because of the legislative power of the purse or the War Powers Act, when Congress calls, soldiers listen.
On Capitol Hill, constituent letters also factored into senators’ legislative calculations. So-called “legislative correspondents,” specialized research staffers who kept up-to-date on where their senators stood on matters of policies and politics, were more likely to respond to such letters. The whole office would see the weekly contact summaries, however—that was our feel for the pulse of opinions back home.
Usually, responses to individual constituents were kept non-committal. A letter about a hot-button issue like gun control, for example, would likely receive a boilerplate response, blandly marking out the senator’s current positions. The response to a “pro” letter would often be very similar to the one for a “con” letter. In one senator’s office, we called such letters “robo-letters.” I preferred the more-punny term “Frankenmail,” a nod to Congressional members’ power to send official mail without paying postage.
Staffers would tally letters and telephone calls they the senator’s office had received on given topics. Letters from constituents mattered more than letters from out of state. It didn’t matter whether a constituent identified themselves as Republican, Democrat, or Independent: A constituent was a constituent. We were all in this together. We called it “representative democracy.”
Letters that were obviously written by individuals, citing specific examples and requesting specific actions, were valued more than fill-in-the-blank form-letters. The latter were considered more as evidence of Astroturf by special interests than actual grassroots support. Bottom line: Constituent contacts were like straw polls. People who write letters are people who are motivated to vote. A senator might not vote your way every time, the thinking went, but he or she was bound to listen.
Despite the gridlock and partisan gameplay that generate so much of today’s headlines, I’d like to think that Congress, fundamentally, still operates that way. Our legislative branch has to listen, right?
If it doesn’t, what values are we fighting for?
Write an Email Today
I was recently inspired to dust-off my letter-writing skills (developed at taxpayer expense!) regarding the plight of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who are seeking to immigrate to the United States. These are men and women who have risked their families and their futures to help U.S. forces. Troops call them “terps” for short.
I’ve posted my letter below, as an example. I am sending similar letters to other U.S. senators and representatives—and note that many Iowa and Minnesota members (“Red Bull” country) of Congress are involved in immigration policy.
Check out who’s on the senate House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, for example, or the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.
I hope that you might be similarly motivated to voice your own opinions to Congress, whether about this or other topics.
Dear Senator Grassley:
I am retired Iowa Army National Guard soldier who deployed under Operation Enduring Freedom orders in 2003. In 2011, I also traveled to Afghanistan as civilian media, during the largest deployment of Iowa National Guard soldiers since World War II. I am writing to you regarding the need to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to granting special visas to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who have fought alongside U.S. soldiers, and who have placed themselves and their families at great risk on our behalf.
It is my understanding that an extension of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 and Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2013. Without extension, these programs will soon expire. In your response to this correspondence, I would appreciate an update regarding the status of this and other efforts to deliver upon America’s promise to our allies.
According to recent news reports, including those in the Washington Post and National Public Radio, the U.S. State Department has failed to effectively or efficiently implement the special immigrant visa program authorized by Congress. According to the above-cited news reports, as of late 2012, only 32 visas had been issued. As of June 2013, only 1,120 visas of the 8,750 authorized had been issued.
I am not going to suggest that all interpreters are saints. To be honest, some seemed suspect in their actions, attitudes, and interactions with U.S. soldiers. Others, however, were shining examples of Afghan bravery and American ideals. All are worthy of consideration, and safety after we leave Afghanistan. We owe them that.
Please help our citizen-soldiers—past, present, and future—deliver on our country’s promises.
Thank you for your attention. Keep in touch!
I recently joined a panel discussion at the Library of Congress on the topic “Freedom, Security, and America’s Role in the World.” In light of the ongoing clusterfutz in Syria, the sub-theme for the evening was really a debate on whether or not America should keep intervening abroad and if so, when and how.
Panelists tried to present both sides, but as you’ll see in the video, I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the argument. I was really looking forward to getting into it, but the pro-intervention arguments were just weak cliches (maybe they don’t have anything else?) with a criminal disregard for facts and history.
The Lady in Red (from Fox; her website features her standing next to a Kissinger who looks like the Cryptkeeper) for example claimed Saint Reagan never intervened abroad, leaving out Central America, our hissy fit in Grenada, Lebanon and the gift that keeps on giving, arming bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The other “pro” kept setting up weak strawman arguments (“If we disbanded our military…”) His capper statement after I pointed out the selectivity of our intervening (Syria dead kids bad, North Korean dead kids no matter) was “Just because we don’t intervene everywhere is no reason not to intervene somewhere” might be better turned around as “Just because we can intervene somewhere doesn’t mean we should.”
The economist to my left in the video wicked schooling the interventionists over and over is Chris Coyne. He is one of the smartest people I know at explaining, coolly and rationally (unlike my approach), why scattered intervention is so wrong. I reviewed his book Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails.
Here’s the video. The thing begins with a commercial, then twenty some minutes of Rand Paul announcing War Bad, Debate Good. Mom and Dad: My parts starts at about 27 minutes in, and yes, I know my tie went askew.)
BONUS: Some have made a thing about the fact that the discussion was sponsored by the Koch brothers, and that I should not have “lent my name” to their event. I welcome the chance to speak out, and especially welcome the chance to talk to over 300 people perhaps not predisposed to agree with me. Changing minds is my goal. To do that I have to talk with people from a variety of points of view. This is very different from having any organization put their name on a publication that is mine or paying me to write something; it is more akin to having some organization distribute my work, like a bookstore does. I guess everyone has their price for selling out, but mine’s high enough that even the Koch brothers don’t have the cash. I was not paid for my participation.
My politics are not left or right anymore, but concerned about up and down. But enough theory; watch the video and you can judge for yourself.
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones. Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.
At every significant moment in those years, our presidents opted for more, not less, violence, and our Congress agreed — or simply sat on its hands — as ever more moral isolation took the place of ever less diplomacy. Now, those same questions loom over Syria. Facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama appears to be grasping — without any sense of irony — at the straw Russian President Vladimir Putin (backed by China and Iran) has held out in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff proposal that put the White House into a corner. After claiming days ago that the U.N. was not an option, the White House now seems to be throwing its problem to that body to resolve. Gone, literally in the course of an afternoon, were the administration demands for immediate action, the shots across the Syrian bow, and all that. Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief that it may not be forced to take a stand. The Senate has put off voting; perhaps a vote in the House will be delayed indefinitely, or maybe this will all blow over somehow and Congress can return to its usual partisan differences over health care and debt ceilings.
And yet a non-vote by Congress would be as wrong as the yes vote that seems no longer in the cards. What happens, in fact, if Congress doesn’t say no?
A History Lesson
The “Global War on Terror” was upon us in an instant. Acting out of a sense that 9/11 threw open the doors to every neocon fantasy of a future Middle Eastern and global Pax Americana, the White House quickly sought an arena to lash out in. Congress, acting out of fear and anger, gave the executive what was essentially a blank check to do anything it cared to do. Though the perpetrators of 9/11 were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda itself sought refuge in largely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. So be it. The first shots of the War on Terror were fired there.
George W. Bush’s top officials, sure that this was their moment of opportunity, quickly slid destroying al-Qaeda as an organization into a secondary slot, invaded Afghanistan, and turned the campaign into a crusade to replace the Taliban and control the Greater Middle East. Largely through passivity, Congress said yes as, even in its earliest stages, the imperial nature of America’s global strategy revealed itself plain as day. The escape of Osama bin-Laden and much of al-Qaeda into Pakistan became little more than an afterthought as Washington set up what was essentially a puppet government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, occupied the country, and began to build permanent military bases there as staging grounds for more of the same.
Some two years later, a series of administration fantasies and lies that, in retrospect, seem at best tragicomic ushered the United States into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its autocratic leader and our former staunch ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, ruled a country that would have been geopolitically meaningless had it not sat on what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called “a sea of oil” — and next to that future target of neocon dreams of conquest, Iran. Once again, Congress set off on a frenzied rush to yes, and a second war commenced out of the ashes of 9/11.
With the mighty American military now on their eastern and western borders and evidently not planning on leaving any time soon, Iranian officials desperately sought out American diplomats looking for some kind of rapprochement. They offered to assist in Afghanistan and, it was believed, to ensure that any American pilots shot down by accident over Iranian territory would be repatriated quickly. Channels to do so were reportedly established by the State Department and it was rumored that broader talks had begun. However, expecting a triumph in Iraq and feeling that the Iranians wouldn’t stand a chance against the “greatest force for liberation the world has ever known” (aka the U.S. military), a deeply overconfident White House snubbed them, dismissing them as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Congress, well briefed on the administration’s futuristic fantasies of domination, sat by quietly, offering another passive yes.
Congress also turned a blind eye to the setting up of a global network of “black sites” for the incarceration, abuse, and torture of “terror suspects,” listened to torture briefings, read about CIA rendition (i.e., kidnapping) operations, continued to fund Guantanamo, and did not challenge the devolving wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Its members sat quietly by while a new weapon, armed drones, at the personal command of the president alone, crisscrossed the world assassinating people, including American citizens, within previously sovereign national boundaries. As a new president came into office and expanded the war in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone attacks, made war against Libya, did nothing to aid the Arab Spring, and allowed Guantanamo to fester, Congress said yes. Or, at least, not no, never no.
The World Today
Twelve years later, the dreams of global domination are in ruins and the world America changed for the worse is a very rough place. This country has remarkably few friends and only a handful of largely silent semi-allies. Even the once gung-ho president of France has been backing off his pledges of military cooperation in Syria in the face of growing popular opposition and is now calling for U.N. action. No longer does anyone cite the United States as a moral beacon in the world. If you want a measure of this, consider that Vladimir Putin seemed to win the Syria debate at the recent G20 summit as easily as he now has captured the moral high ground on Syria by calling for peace and a deal on Assad’s chemical weapons.
The most likely American a majority of global citizens will encounter is a soldier. Large swaths of the planet are now off-limits to American tourists and businesspeople, far too dangerous for all but the most foolhardy to venture into. The State Department even warns tourists to Western Europe that they might fall victim to al-Qaeda. In the coming years, few Americans will see the pyramids or the ruins of ancient Babylon in person, nor will they sunbathe, among other places, on the pristine beaches of the southern Philippines. Forget about large portions of Africa or most of the rest of the Middle East. Americans now fall victim to pirates on the high seas, as if it were the nineteenth century all over again.
After 12 disastrous years in the Greater Middle East, during which the missiles flew, the bombs dropped, doors were repeatedly kicked in, and IEDs went off, our lives, even at home, have changed. Terrorism, real and imagined, has turned our airports into giant human traffic jams and sites of humiliation, with lines that resemble a Stasi version of Disney World. Our freedoms, not to speak of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, have been systematically stripped away in the name of American “safety,” “security,” and fear. Congress said yes to all of that, too, even naming the crucial initial piece of legislation that began the process the PATRIOT Act without the slightest sense of irony.
When I spoke with Special Forces personnel in Iraq, I was told that nearly every “bad guy” they killed or captured carried images of American torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib on his cellphone — as inspiration. As the victims of America’s violence grew, so did the armies of kin, those inheritors of “collateral damage,” seeking revenge. The acts of the past 12 years have even, in a few cases, inspired American citizens to commit acts of homegrown terrorism.
Until this week, Washington had abandoned the far-from-perfect-but-better-than-the-alternatives United Nations. Missiles and bombs have sufficed for our “credibility,” or so Washington continues to believe. While pursuing the most aggressive stance abroad in its history, intervening everywhere from Libya and Yemen to the Philippines, seeking out monsters to destroy and, when not enough could be found, creating them, the United States has become ever more isolated globally.
The horror show of the last 12 years wasn’t happenstance. Each instance of war was a choice by Washington, not thrust upon us by a series of Pearl Harbors. Our Congress always said yes (or least avoided ever saying no). Many who should have known better went on to join the yes men. In regard to Iran and George W. Bush, then-candidate for president Senator Joe Biden, for instance, said in 2007, “I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years. I teach separation of powers in constitutional law. This is something I know. So I brought a group of constitutional scholars together to write a piece that I’m going to deliver to the whole United States Senate pointing out that the president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war against a country of 70 million people unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him. The House obviously has to do that, but I would lead an effort to impeach him.”
Only a year ago, Biden criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being too anxious to go to war with Syria. That country, Biden said, “is five times as large geographically [as Libya], it has one-fifth the population… It’s in a part of the world where they’re not going to see whatever would come from that war. It’ll seep into a regional war… If in fact it blows up and the wrong people gain control, it’s going to have impact on the entire region causing potentially regional wars.”
Biden has been missing from the public eye this week. His last public statement on Syria was in late August. Monday, while Susan Rice begged for war and Obama taped multiple TV interviews, the vice president was in Baltimore handing out federal grant money to improve the port. Silence in the face of a car wreck isn’t golden, it’s deadly. Good God, man, hit the brakes before we kill someone!
What If Congress Says Yes?
Some in Congress now are talking about a new resolution that would pre-authorize the administration to launch “fallback airstrikes” — that is, its desired attack on Syria — after some sort of deadline passed for U.N. action, Syrian action, or perhaps just another mythical red line was crossed. Should Congress say yes yet again to such a scheme or anything like it, nothing will change for the better, and much is likely to change for the worse.
An attack on Syria will demand a response; war works that way, no matter how “surgical” the strikes may be. Other countries, and even terrorists, also tend to imagine that, in such situations, their “credibility” is at stake. Fearing reprisals, the U.S. has already preemptively withdrawn its diplomats from a consulate in Turkey near the Syrian border, and from Lebanon. Security has increased in Iraq, with the already fortress-like U.S. embassy there bracing for attacks, allegedly already being planned by Iranian-sponsored sappers.
Be assured of one thing: bombs and missiles falling in Syria will cause “collateral damage,” newspeak for images splashed across the globe of Muslim women and children killed by American weaponry. History has ensured that borders in the Middle East are arbitrary and easily enough ignored. As the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq sparked a metastasizing regional Sunni-Shia civil war, so a new intervention in the latest version of that war will lead to further, possibly devastating, and certainly divisive consequences in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. Think of this as a grim domino theory for the new century.
Should a desperate Assad regime in Syria, or an Iranian proxy from Lebanon, retaliate against Israel, the U.S. could wake up to find itself in the middle of a far larger war. Who knows then what a Russia already moving naval forces into the Mediterranean and with a naval base in Syria itself might do, perhaps citing the need to maintain Putin’s “credibility”?
Even the most optimistic pundits do not believe a single set of strikes over a limited number of days will have much strategic effect. And what if, after giving up some or all of his chemical weapons, Assad just makes or buys more? The famous comment of General David Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq — “Tell me how this ends” — would need answering again. We didn’t like the answer the last time and we won’t like it this time.
Of course, something like half of the anti-Assad rebels fight for Islamic fundamentalist outfits. If, however unmeant, the U.S. essentially becomes the air force over Syria for al-Qaeda-branded and other jihadist outfits, unleashing them to take further territory, that would undoubtedly create even more unsettled and unsettling conditions across the region. A rebel victory, aided by U.S. strikes, would certainly give al-Qaeda the sort of sovereign sanctuary the U.S. has been fighting to eliminate globally since the Clinton administration. No serious scenario has been offered in which the civil war in Syria would begin to abate thanks to U.S. bombs and missiles.
With or without an attack, some things will remain constant. Israel destroyed Syria’s nascent attempts to build nuclear weapons and would do so again if needed. Iran has played a clever game in the regional proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere — they won in Iraq — and will continue to do so. Since the 1970s, Syria has had stocks of chemical weapons that the Assad regime manufactured itself and has never used them against the United States or any other country, nor have they in 40 years transferred those weapons to any terrorists. There is no reason to believe that will change now, not even as a way to strike back should the U.S. attack first (though the fate of those weapons, should Assad fall under U.S. attacks, no one can possibly know.)
With a U.S. president willing, for the first time in decades, to hand over some part of his decision-making powers to Congress (though he dubiously maintains that it would still be constitutional for him to launch strikes against Syria on his own), the Senate and House of Representatives have a chance to courageously re-insert themselves in war policy. Alternatively, they can once again assure themselves of a comfortable irrelevance. On one thing Obama is certainly right: the world is indeed watching the unfolding spectacle.
What If Congress Says No?
If Congress says no to an attack on Syria, the U.S. may for the first time in 12 years have the chance to change the world for the better. Though this is not an overly dramatic statement, it’s also true, as every diplomat knows, that it’s easier to break things than fix them.
The world would at least have seen Washington step back after its citizenry told their government that enough is enough. The world would see an America which, in a modest but significant way, was beginning to genuinely absorb the real lessons to be drawn from our post-9/11 actions: that endless war only fuels more war, that living in a world where foreigners are seen mainly as targets brings no peace, that lashing out everywhere means no safety anywhere.
In the wake of a non-attack on Syria, parts of the world might be more open to the possibility that the United States could help open new paths, beginning with a tacit acknowledgement that we were wrong. Nothing can erase the deeds of the past years or those long memories common not just in the Middle East, but to humanity more generally. Certainly, what we did is likely to haunt us for generations. But when in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging. Via Congress, the U.S. can take a small first step toward becoming an “indispensable nation” in more than our own minds.
If Congress says no on Syria, it will, just as the president warns, also be sending a message to Iran — not, however, that the United States lacks the resolve to fight. It seems unlikely, given the past 12 years, that anyone doubts this country’s willingness to use force. A clear no from Congress would, in fact, send a message of hope to Iran.
It was only in June that Obama claimed Iran’s election of a moderate as president showed that Iranians want to move in a different direction. “As long as there’s an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t proceed,” Obama said. “The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything anytime anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Diplomacy is often a series of little gateway-like tests that, when passed, lead two parties forward. A no on Syria would be such a step, allowing Iran and the United States a possible path toward negotiations that could someday change the face of the Middle East. Only three months ago, Obama himself endorsed such a plan. If Congress says no, it won’t destroy credibility with the Iranians; it’s likely, in fact, to enhance it. This decision by Congress could empower both parties to proceed to the negotiating table in a more hopeful way. A yes from Congress, on the other hand, could sideline Iranian moderates and slam the door shut on discussions for a long time.
It is clear that partisan politics will play a significant role in Congress’s decision. That body is fundamentally a political animal, and the House, of course, faces midterm elections in little more than a year. Still, that’s not a terrible thing. After all, for the first time in a long while, when it comes to foreign policy, House members are openly speaking about the influence that a wave of constituent opposition to a Syrian intervention is having on them. They appear to be hearing us speak, even if the impulse isn’t just to do the right thing, but to garner votes in 2014.
Should Congress say no, it seems unlikely that a president, isolated at home and abroad, will go to war. Some of Obama’s top aides have already been signaling that reality. Despite macho talk in the upper echelons of his administration on his right to ignore Congress, as a constitutional scholar and a savvy politician he would be unlikely to risk the demands for his impeachment and the spectacle of a Constitutional crisis by launching Syrian strikes in the wake of a no vote. All the noise about not backing down and his credibility suffering a catastrophic blow should be taken as so much pre-vote political saber rattling. The president may make foolish decisions, but he certainly is no fool.
By saying no, not again, not this time, the current group of gray men and women who largely make up our Congress have the chance to join some of the giants who have thundered in those chambers in the past. At this moment, that body has the opportunity to choose a new meaning for future anniversaries of 9/11. It could be the day that life went on just as disastrously as previously — or it could be the day that changed everything, and this time for the better.
(Follow me on Twitter as @wemeantwell or I’ll just keep repeating myself here)
US isn’t the world’s policeman Obama says. No, we’re the world’s George Zimmerman.
The question no journalist will ask Obama: Mr. President, if you use the military again, tell me how this ends?
And by the way, what wars had Obama ended? Even the end of the Iraq war was negotiated by Bush. (Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, AFRICOM)
Our US military pinpricks are really BIG.
The policy on Syria is in such disarray that it’s obvious Kerry is just making things up as he goes along.
No truth to the rumor that Colin Powell will speak alongside Obama to make the case for war.
Scary White House videos from Syria were on YouTube, but now “significant” as intel community gives stamp of “authenticity”
How’d that last Middle East thingie work out for ya? Marines moved closer to Libya as 9/11 anniversaries approach.
Iran warned the U.S. twice in 2012 that Syrian rebels the U.S. supports have chemical weapons of their own.
Russia proposes Syria turn over chem weapons to avoid war. Predicting U.S. will claim Syria can’t be trusted in 5, 4, 3, 2…
Pathetic: Susan Rice citing Bush officials who sold the WMD scam to Americans on Iraq as supporters of Syria strikes.
When Obama said “There is no NSA spying on Americans,” he lied. But it’s cooool if you trust him on #Syria …
When Obama talks about the dead children in Syria, do ask him why Syria is a crisis but North Korean labor camps are not even mentioned.
日本の歴史の本で発見：”パールハーバー：。ただ空爆、地上の歩兵を持つ” (Found in the Japanese archives: “Pearl Harbor: Just an airstrike, with no boots on the ground.”)
WaPo (slogan: Obama’s Stenographer) fans flames quoting unnamed source (Israel) about new threat– Syria bioweapons!
Because it’s the morally right thing to do: France says it won’t act alone on Syria, waits for the UN.
Obama: the world cannot remain silent on Syria. Meanwhile, the world disagrees and remains silently unconvinced.
The world has set a red line, he says, but somehow he’s the only one in the world talking about it.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, nor a policy. We do not need another war in the Middle East.
Happened to be reading the chem weapons treaty. Says disputes settled by the UN. Nowhere does it say US’ obligation.
Hagel either lied or was stirring up propaganda: Russia does not supply Syria with chemical weapons.
Other popular international norms: don’t torture, don’t render, don’t violate sovereignty by drone, don’t indefinitely imprison people without trial.
Obama in Egypt: OK to kill your own people. Obama in Syria: Killing your own people means war.
Assad helped the U.S. torture rendered CIA prisoners.
Some brown-skinned dude called me a sissy in the bar, so I beat him to ensure my credibility. Not related to Syria in any way.
If I hear anyone, ever, say “boots on the ground” again, I will puke. Deal with it: It’s US infantry dying on another MidEast battlefield.
Watching Kerry make things up on the spot today, one can’t help but wonder at what point those pharmaceutical grade hallucinogens kicked in.
Kerry says multiple Arab nations support US attack on Syria, says can’t name countries in unclassified setting because “It’s complicated.”
Party Outta Bounds in Pyongyang Ya’all: Kerry says failure to bomb #Syria will cause celebration in North Korea.
Kerry gives weasel answer on “boots on the ground” ’cause a) special forces likely already on ground and b) more troops may go in to seize chemical weapons.
Just called my Congressional reps’ offices to tell them vote no on Syrian attack. Call your reps today.
Syria, thank you for calling. Your attack is important to us. Please stay on the line, and our cruise missiles will be with you shortly.
What is wrong with these people– Kerry says Syria is now a “Munich moment.”
I took a nap and now the war with Syria isn’t about sending a message to Assad anymore? It’s now about sending a message to Iran?
Legal basis for attacking Syria? If the president does it of course it is legal.
Kucinich: “Syria Strike Would Make U.S. Al Qaeda’s Air Force.” Well, there’s something we can all get behind.
Once-great BBC ran Syrian-rebel supplied propaganda photo– actually taken years ago in Iraq– to stir up war fever.
UN says will take weeks to analyze Syria samples for evidence of chem weapons; Kerry says US already has proof.
Mix n’ Match: Obama’s strategy stands in contrast to 2011, when he sought UN authorization for Libya but not approval of Congress.
Kerry: “Assad regime’s chem attack is a crime against conscience, humanity, the norm of int’l community.” AS ARE DRONES AND GITMO.
If the US is sincere about a humanitarian response, send doctors to the refugee camps and nerve gas antidote and gas masks to Syria.
Don’t you wish Nobel Peace prizes came with an expiration date after which they self-destruct?
Mr. President, we’re going to have to convince the American people about this war with Syria. Our polling shows more support for nuking Miley Cyrus the next time she twerks on TV than for your policy.
She does have a sweet little–
We have the Congressional midterms coming up, and Boehner is up my ass about defunding my healthcare legacy. I need this vote, or Hillary’s gonna kill me.
Right, right, sir.
(Licking of chops heard)
Kill them! Kill them all!
Easy Susan, I promise you’ll see the post-attack color close up photos first, then you pass them to McCain like always.
Yes, It likes the Precious Photos, It likes them.
Somebody get her some water or something?
So what’s our reason for Syria?
Hey, do we still have to put five bucks in the tip jar if we say ‘Slam Dunk’?
Seriously now people, we are committing American lives at risk here.
(General laughter in room)
OK, OK. We go to war in Iran–
OK, war in Syria because of a red line.
Is that the same as a line in the sand?
No, ours is red. Very different.
Good one, sir.
Well, Americans have not been hooked tight enough by the red line. We need another reason.
OK, evil dictator, killing his own people, yadda yadda.
That has some traction, but roughly half of the dead in Syria were killed by ‘our own’ rebels, and those were their own people too. What else?
(General laughter in room)
I think U.S. credibility went down the freaking toilet when you promised to close Gitmo and didn’t.
Shut up Chuck. Nobody asked you.
Goddammit, I served in Vietnam.
Yeah, so did John Kerry and Colin Powell, and you don’t see them whining.
So why don’t we just go old-school and say the Syrians attacked us in the Gulf of Tonkin?
Would that work?
Dammit, I had friends killed in Vietnam because of that lie.
I think one of my frat brothers’ dad got greased in Laos. Is that over there too?
Also, I read somewhere that we used napalm, white phosphorus and Agent Orange over there. Are those chemical weapons?
Yeah, but that’s history.
Not to the victims and their malformed children still alive, nor to the loved ones still mourning their dead at America’s hand.
O.K., back on track, how about, um, violation of international law?
(General laughter in room)
Maybe with our drones, ongoing indefinite imprisonment at Gitmo, torture, renditions, black sites, NSA spying on foreign heads of state, bringing down a sovereign leader’s plane because we thought that son-of-a-bitch Snowden was on board, pushing international law too hard might not be the best thing.
Yeah, especially since until around 2006 we were rendering prisoners into Assad’s Syria for out-sourced torture.
OK, back to Iran. We bomb the hell out of Syria to send a message to Iran.
That they can’t support evil regimes.
But the Iranians have been supporting bad guys in Lebanon forever, these days the Taliban in Afghanistan, and basically control our allies in free Iraq. Hell, they even sent Qods force guys into Iraq to kill our own troops. Not sure here why Syria, now, is the place for a message.
So what do we have left?
I’d say we just keep saying ‘WMD, WMD’ over and over again until Americans beg Congress for a military strike on Syria.
I like that a lot. Any opposition? No? OK then, we go with WMD scare tactics.
Might as well.
Agreed. It worked last time.
O.K., thanks everyone. And thank you gentlemen for coming back to Washington to help see this through. John, would you be kind enough to walk W., Dick and Condi out please?
This article also appeared on the Huffington Post
Hah! You just crossed my red line with your chemical weapon eyes, clearing the way to me cruise missile you!
But enough about me. Like me, I am sure that you are overjoyed at the prospect of the U.S. inserting itself even deeper into another MidEast civil war (I think it is still Syria at present but the U.S. could have invaded another place between the time this was written and when you are reading it.)
The United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the U.K. has not supported U.S. military action. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?
Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect women and children? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.
Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.
So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:
The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.
The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.
Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.
The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:
Is it Iraq again? That went well.
Does it have oil?
Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)? Even John Boehner made sense on this question.
Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators?
Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?
Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda, won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?
What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?
Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
BONUS: The U.S.’ use of white phosphorus and tear gas against civilian areas in Fallujah during the liberation of Iraq, and the use of depleted uranium munitions during the Iraq and Afghan crusades clearly do not in any way constitute the use of chemical weapons. Nor did Agent Orange and napalm in Vietnam.
My recent article/post on post-Constitutional America brought in more mail than usual. With the permission of the writer, I’d like to share a particularly poignant comment. In my list of signs that we have devolved into a post-Constitutional America, I left out one very important milestone: The Destruction of New Orleans in 2005.
Here’s what one person had to say:
Your article was better than any I’ve read that connect the dots between the collapse of rule by law and the Constitution domestically and our imperial exploits since the invasion of Afghanistan. It is a topic rarely discussed and one which few citizens have even the most remote understanding of.
There is also a brief story I would like to relate. In late August – early September I was among a group of veterans (in my case, from the American War in Viet Nam) that had traveled to the New Orleans area in the wake of Katrina to try and lend a hand. We were encamped on the grounds of an elementary school in Covington, LA which is located a few miles north of Lake Pontchartrain. By the time I arrived, the three-layer deep armed perimeter around New Orleans was fully in place and few were allowed to penetrate to the city or Algiers, across the river. One of our number, however, was certified as an EMT and so he and a few helpers were still being allowed through. He was therefore able to report on developments others had seen only the beginnings of – like the “drowning victims” still laying in the streets with entry wounds in the back and gaping exit wounds in front.
The talk turned to the mercenary forces brought to the city to guard private property by CACI, Titan, and the then-named Blackwater, among others. The EMT-qualified activist made an observation I had never considered but which the developments your article catalogs proves to have been prescient.
He observed that it has always true that empires test new tactics and weapons in the colonies before deploying them for use at home.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com. In light of the Bradley Manning verdict, this seemed worth re-reading.
On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”
Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”
Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.
The Weapons of War Come Home
Even before the Manning trial began, the emerging look of that new America was coming into view. In recent years, weapons, tactics, and techniques developed in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the war on terror have begun arriving in “the homeland.”
Consider, for instance, the rise of the warrior cop, of increasingly up-armored police departments across the country often filled with former military personnel encouraged to use the sort of rough tactics they once wielded in combat zones. Supporting them are the kinds of weaponry that once would have been inconceivable in police departments, including armored vehicles, typically bought with Department of Homeland Security grants. Recently, the director of the FBI informed a Senate committee that the Bureau was deploying its first drones over the United States. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security and already flying an expanding fleet of Predator drones, the very ones used in America’s war zones, is eager to arm them with “non-lethal” weaponry to “immobilize targets of interest.”
Above all, surveillance technology has been coming home from our distant war zones. The National Security Agency (NSA), for instance, pioneered the use of cell phones to track potential enemy movements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NSA did this in one of several ways. With the aim of remotely turning on cell phones as audio monitoring or GPS devices, rogue signals could be sent out through an existing network, or NSA software could be implanted on phones disguised as downloads of porn or games.
Using fake cell phone towers that actually intercept phone signals en route to real towers, the U.S. could harvest hardware information in Iraq and Afghanistan that would forever label a phone and allow the NSA to always uniquely identify it, even if the SIM card was changed. The fake cell towers also allowed the NSA to gather precise location data for the phone, vacuum up metadata, and monitor what was being said.
At one point, more than 100 NSA teams had been scouring Iraq for snippets of electronic data that might be useful to military planners. The agency’s director, General Keith Alexander, changed that: he devised a strategy called Real Time Regional Gateway to grab every Iraqi text, phone call, email, and social media interaction. “Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’â€Š” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official. “Collect it all, tag it, store it, and whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”
Sound familiar, Mr. Snowden?
Welcome Home, Soldier (Part I)
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the “collect it all” technique employed by the NSA in Iraq would soon enough be used to collect American metadata and other electronically available information, including credit card transactions, air ticket purchases, and financial records. At the vast new $2 billion data center it is building in Bluffdale, Utah, and at other locations, the NSA is following its Iraq script of saving everything, so that once an American became a target, his or her whole history can be combed through. Such searches do not require approval by a court, or even an NSA supervisor. As it happened, however, the job was easier to accomplish in the U.S. than in Iraq, as internet companies and telephone service providers are required by secret law to hand over the required data, neatly formatted, with no messy spying required.
When the U.S. wanted something in Iraq or Afghanistan, they sent guys to kick down doors and take it. This, too, may be beginning to happen here at home. Recently, despite other valuable and easily portable objects lying nearby, computers, and only computers, were stolen from the law offices representing State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn. Similarly, a Washington law firm representing NSA whistleblower Tom Drake had computers, and only computers, stolen from its office.
In these years, the FBI has brought two other NSA wartime tools home. The Bureau now uses a device called Stingray to recreate those battlefield fake cell phone towers and track people in the U.S. without their knowledge. Stingray offers some unique advantages: it bypasses the phone company entirely, which is, of course, handy in a war zone in which a phone company may be controlled by less than cooperative types, or if phone companies no longer cooperate with the government, or simply if you don’t want the phone company or anyone else to know you’re snooping. American phone companies seem to have been quite cooperative. Verizon, for instance, admits hacking its own cellular modems (“air cards”) to facilitate FBI intrusion.
The FBI is also following NSA’s lead implanting spyware and other hacker software developed for our war zones secretly and remotely in American computers and cell phones. The Bureau can then remotely turn on phone and laptop microphones, even webcams, to monitor citizens, while files can be pulled from a computer or implanted onto a computer.
Among the latest examples of war technology making the trip back to the homeland is the aerostat, a tethered medium-sized blimp. Anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize the thing, as one or more of them flew over nearly every military base of any size or importance. The Army recently announced plans to operate two such blimps over Washington, D.C., starting in 2014. Allegedly they are only to serve as anti-missile defenses, though in our war zones they were used as massive surveillance platforms. As a taste of the sorts of surveillance systems the aerostats were equipped with abroad but the Army says they won’t have here at home, consider Gorgon Stare, a system that can transmit live images of an entire town. And unlike drones, an aerostat never needs to land. Ever.
Welcome Home, Soldier (Part II)
And so to Bradley Manning.
As the weaponry and technology of war came home, so did a new, increasingly Guantanamo-ized definition of justice. This is one thing the Manning case has made clear.
As a start, Manning was treated no differently than America’s war-on-terror prisoners at Guantanamo and the black sites that the Bush administration set up around the world. Picked up on the “battlefield,” Manning was first kept incommunicado in a cage in Kuwait for two months with no access to a lawyer. Then, despite being an active duty member of the Army, he was handed over to the Marines, who also guard Guantanamo, to be held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia.
What followed were three years of cruel detainment, where, as might well have happened at Gitmo, Manning, kept in isolation, was deprived of clothing, communications, legal advice, and sleep. The sleep deprivation regime imposed on him certainly met any standard, other than Washington’s and possibly Pyongyang’s, for torture. In return for such abuse, even after a judge had formally ruled that he was subjected to excessively harsh treatment, Manning will only get a 112-day reduction in his eventual sentence.
Eventually the Obama administration decided Manning was to be tried as a soldier before a military court. In the courtroom, itself inside a military facility that also houses NSA headquarters, there was a strikingly gulag-like atmosphere. His trial was built around secret witnesses and secret evidence; severe restrictions were put on the press — the Army denied press passes to 270 of the 350 media organizations that applied; and there was a clear appearance of injustice. Among other things, the judge ruled against nearly every defense motion.
During the months of the trial, the U.S. military refused to release official transcripts of the proceedings. Even a private courtroom sketch artist was barred from the room. Independent journalist and activist Alexa O’Brien then took it upon herself to attend the trial daily, defy the Army, and make an unofficial record of the proceedings by hand. Later in the trial, armed military police were stationed behind reporters listening to testimony. Above all, the feeling that Manning’s fate was predetermined could hardly be avoided. After all, President Obama, the former Constitutional law professor, essentially proclaimed him guilty back in 2011 and the Department of Defense didn’t hesitate to state more generally that “leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.”
As at Guantanamo, rules of evidence reaching back to early English common law were turned upside down. In Manning’s case, he was convicted of espionage, even though the prosecution did not have to prove either his intent to help another government or that harm was caused; a civilian court had already paved the way for such a ruling in another whistleblower case. In addition, the government was allowed to label Manning a “traitor” and an “anarchist” in open court, though he was on trial for neither treason nor anarchy. His Army supervisor in the U.S. and Iraq was allowed to testify against him despite having made biased and homophobic statements about him in a movie built around portraying Manning as a sad, sexually-confused, attention-seeking young man mesmerized by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Finally, the same judge who essentially harassed the press throughout Manning’s trial issued a 24-hour advance notice of her verdict to ensure maximum coverage only of the denouement, not the process.
Given all this, it is small comfort to know that Manning, nailed on the Espionage Act after multiple failures in other cases by the Obama administration, was not convicted of the extreme charge of “aiding the enemy.”
Not Manning Alone
Someday, Manning’s case may be seen as a bitter landmark on the road to a post-Constitutional America, but it won’t be seen as the first case in the development of the post-Constitutional system. Immediately following 9/11, top officials in the Bush administration decided to “take the gloves off.” Soon after, a wounded John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was captured on an Afghan battlefield, held in a windowless shipping container, refused access to a lawyer even after he demanded one as an American citizen, and interrogated against his will by the FBI. Access to medical care was used as a bribe to solicit information from him. “Evidence” obtained by such means was then used to convict him in court.
Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who clumsily plotted to detonate a nonexistent “dirty bomb,” was held incommunicado for more three years, over a year of which was in a South Carolina military jail. He was arrested only as a material witness and was not formally charged with a crime until years later. He was given no means to challenge his detention under habeas corpus, as President Bush designated him an “enemy combatant.” Pictures of Padilla being moved wearing sound-proof and light-proof gear strongly suggest he was subjected to the same psychosis-inducing sensory deprivation used as “white torture” against America’s foreign enemies in Guantanamo.
Certainly, the most egregious case of pre-Manning post-Constitutional justice was the execution of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by drone in Yemen, without due process or trial, for being an al-Qaeda propagandist. In this, President Obama and his top counterterrorism advisors quite literally took on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. In a similar fashion, again in Yemen, the U.S. killed al-Awlaki’s American teenage son, a boy no one claimed was connected to terrorism. Obama administration lawyers went on to claim the legal right to execute U.S. citizens without trial or due process and have admitted to killing four Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.”
Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, asked in a Congressional hearing if the FBI could assassinate an American citizen in the United States, replied that he simply did not know. “I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not.” He added, “I’m going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.” As if competing for an Orwellian prize, an unnamed Obama administration official told the Washington Post, “What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war.”
So welcome to post-Constitutional America. Its shape is, ominously enough, beginning to come into view.
Orwell’s famed dystopian novel 1984 was not intended as an instruction manual, but just days before the Manning verdict, the Obama administration essentially buried its now-ironic-campaign promise to protect whistleblowers, sending it down Washington’s version of the memory hole. Post-9/11, torture famously stopped being torture if an American did it, and its users were not prosecutable by the Justice Department.
Similarly, full-spectrum spying is not considered to violate the Fourth Amendment and does not even require probable cause. Low-level NSA analysts have desktop access to the private emails and phone calls of Americans. The Post Office photographs the envelopes of every one of the 160 billion pieces of mail it handles, collecting the metadata of “to:” and “from:” addresses. An Obama administration Insider Threat Program requires federal employees (including the Peace Corps) to report on the suspicious behavior of coworkers.
Government officials concerned over possible wrongdoing in their departments or agencies who “go through proper channels” are fired or prosecuted. Government whistleblowers are commanded to return to face justice, while law-breakers in the service of the government are allowed to flee justice. CIA officers who destroy evidence of torture go free, while a CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture is locked up.
Secret laws and secret courts can create secret law you can’t know about for “crimes” you don’t even know exist. You can nonetheless be arrested for committing them. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act, citizens, even librarians, can be served by the FBI with a National Security Letter (not requiring a court order) demanding records and other information, and gagging them from revealing to anyone that such information has been demanded or such a letter delivered. Citizens may be held without trial, and denied their Constitutional rights as soon as they are designated “terrorists.” Lawyers and habeas corpus are available only when the government allows.
In the last decade, 10 times as many employers turned to FBI criminal databases to screen job applicants. The press is restricted when it comes to covering “open trials.” The war on whistleblowers is metastasizing into a war on the First Amendment. People may now be convicted based on secret testimony by unnamed persons. Military courts and jails can replace civilian ones. Justice can be twisted and tangled into an almost unrecognizable form and then used to send a young man to prison for decades. Claiming its actions lawful while shielding the “legal” opinions cited, often even from Congress, the government can send its drones to assassinate its own citizens.
One by one, the tools and attitudes of the war on terror, of a world in which the “gloves” are eternally off, have come home. The comic strip character Pogo’s classic warning — “We have met the enemy and he is us” — seems ever less like a metaphor. According to the government, increasingly we are now indeed their enemy.
This article also appeared on:
The Nation http://www.thenation.com/article/175589/welcome-post-constitution-america
Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-van-buren/bradley-manning-trial_b_3707109.html
Michael Moore: http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/welcome-post-constitution-america-what-if-your-country-begins-change-and-no-one-notices
Asia Times: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-01-060813.html
Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/08/bradley-manning-constitutional-rights
Le Monde Diplomatique (English): http://mondediplo.com/openpage/welcome-to-post-constitution-america
Information Clearing House: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35760.htm
Nation of Change: http://www.nationofchange.org/welcome-post-constitution-america-1375712052
Middle East online: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60564
al-Arab online: http://www.alarabonline.org/english/display.asp?fname=\2013\08\08-05\zopinionz\970.htm&dismode=x&ts=8/5/2013%2011:15:21%20AM
Democratic Underground: http://www.democraticunderground.com/10023408050
Outlook India: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?287286
Smirking Chimp: http://smirkingchimp.com/thread/tom-engelhardt/50975/tomgram-peter-van-buren-the-manning-trial-began-on-9-11
Though indeed “You just can’t make these things up,” every once in a while something so ridiculous comes along that it refines stupid. Of all the critical issues that need attention in Afghanistan– poverty, corruption, the drug trade, cross-border war with Pakistan, the impending U.S. troop pullout/retreat/giving up because we’re tired thing, most informed people will agree that what has been missing from the conversation is that we need more car shows in Afghanistan. While there are no quick solutions to complex problems, clearly the missing piece after twelve years and a trillion dollars is a car show.
Thus into the breach comes the brave lads and lasses of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul’s Public Affairs staff. In a very neatly-typed press release (the event was not covered by the main stream media, ‘natch), the Embassy congratulated itself heartily on the one-day event.
Chargé d’Affaires Ambassador Tina Kaidanow said, “What you see here today is more than a car show; it is an example of how far Afghanistan has come in economic terms, and it highlights the promise of an even brighter and more prosperous future for Afghanistan if this country can continue on the road of economic reform and commercial development.”
Because she works for the State Department, even when boldly fibbing about the idiocy of holding a car show in an active war zone, Ms. Kaidanow had to throw in the final conditional “if” clause. Well played!
Now of course since Afghanistan is indeed still a dangerous, chaotic war zone mostly in the hands of thugs and terrorizers, the car show was actually held deep inside the walled grounds of the U.S. Embassy itself. One does wonder under such circumstances how many “Afghans,” as we call the still living local fauna, were able to attend.
Sorry this is such a short blog post. Despite both extensive searching and an unanswered email to Embassy Kabul, I have found no notice or coverage of this historic event anywhere except the Embassy’s own press release. I was able to locate numerous reports and gory videos of the almost-daily car bombings that take place in Afghanistan, though sadly few seem to involve U.S. vehicles. It would certainly help sales if Afghans bought U.S. cars and then immediately blew them up and needed a quick replacement.
Perhaps the Embassy will look into that marketing angle.
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.
One (of thousands) of examples of how we lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was our shoddy management of the things we built. To be fair, the lack of oversight was often due to our own limited personnel (in numbers and in intellect) and the ever-worsening security situation that made getting out into the field difficult. That said, the problem was often just our own laziness and plain not caring; our bosses were satisfied with trumped-up reports of success and cared not a zot for the truth.
Reconstruction, the Iraq Edition
The milk plant was a good example. Leaving aside our plan to disrupt an indigenous milk production and distribution system that had worked for the Iraqis for say, 2000 years, in favor of a neo-Stalinist centralized way of handling things, our refrigerated storage facility was a bust. After dropping $500,000 of your tax money on a local contractor who assured us everything was A-OK, we then sent out an Iraqi engineer in our employ to verify things. He sent back a message that everything was A-OK before disappearing. Finally, after a couple of months, I got a chance to see the A-OK stuff myself. Instead of delicious refrigerated milk, I walked into a room with crooked plumbing stitched together, rusted “stainless” steel and holes in the storage tanks big enough to accommodate my chubby fingers. The contractor ripped us off, the engineer took a bribe to tell us everything was fine and the Iraqis we were supposed to be helping thought we were insane, stupid, corrupt or all of the above. No hearts and minds were won.
Reconstruction, The Afghan Edition
With such examples fresh in their minds, you’d figure the State, DoD and USAID reconstructors in Afghanistan would be doing better. If you do, you’re as dumb as they are.
Our good friends at the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; motto: We Have the Worse Jobs Ever, Please Kill Us Now) recently sent letters to the usual suspects pointing out that two schools built by the U.S. to win over hearts and minds are in danger of instead killing Afghans.
Case One is the Bathkhak School addition in the Bagrami district, Kabul province, Afghanistan. Here’s what SIGAR said:
Our inspection of the Bathkhak School addition found that it has not been constructed in accordance with contract requirements. The contractor substituted building materials without prior U.S. government approval or knowledge. Furthermore, the school addition appears to have design and construction flaws. Specifically, the school’s interior and exterior walls appear to be insufficiently constructed to hold the weight of the concrete ceiling. As a result, the building’s structural integrity could be compromised.
Because the first U.S. government oversight visit did not take place until six months after construction started, there may be other deficiencies that cannot be seen. Our concerns are heightened by the fact that Bathkhak School is located in an area of high seismic activity. In light of these construction flaws and the distinct possibility that an earthquake resistant design was not used, we have serious concerns for the safety of the hundreds of faculty and children that will be using the classrooms at any given time.
A-OK, let’s move on to Case Two:
Our inspection of the Sheberghan teacher training facility in Jawzjan province, Afghanistan found problems with the electrical, water, and sewage systems that could pose potentially serious health and safety hazards for its occupants. SIGAR inspectors found that the facility’s electrical wiring does not meet the U.S. National Electrical Code–as required by the contract– and other problems that create potential electrocution risks and fire hazards for its occupants.
Although the facility currently does not receive power from the electrical generator provided under the contract, serious risk for its occupants are present due to improper entry into the electrical system–known as a “tap”–and by the improper connection to an alternative electrical power supply. In addition to the electrocution hazard, the facility currently lacks operational water and sewage systems, raising potential health issues for the building occupants.
Despite the fact that the building is still under construction, our inspectors found that the Afghans have already begun using the building. As you know, the U.S. government is still responsible for the facility’s operations and maintenance and any occupational health and safety issues because the U.S. Agency for International Development has not yet transferred the facility to the Afghan government.
God, after twelve years in Afghanistan, this is so depressing.
(This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post)
While poets and psychologists talk about soldiers bringing the battlefield home with them, in fact, the U.S. is doing just that. More and more, weapons, tactics, techniques and procedures that have been used abroad in war are coming home, this time employed against American Citizens.
Armor, Drones and Armed Drones
Others have written about the rise of warrior cops. Armored military-style vehicles are now part of most big-city police forces, as are military-style weapons. The FBI has admitted to using drones over America. In a 2010 Department of Homeland Security report, the Customs and Border Protection agency suggests arming their fleet of drones to “immobilize TOIs,” or targets of interest.
Stingray Knows Where You Are
Much of the technology and methodology the NSA and others have been shown to be using against American Citizens was developed on and for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular the advanced use of cell phones to track people’s movements.
A technique now at use here at home is employing a fake cell phone tower under a program called Stingray. Stingrays spoof a legitimate cell phone tower in order to trick nearby cellphones and other wireless devices into connecting to the fake tower instead of a nearby real one. When devices connect, stingrays can harvest MAC addresses and other unique identifiers and data, as well as location information. To prevent detection, the stingray relays the call itself to a real tower so the pickup is transparent to the caller. By gathering the wireless device’s signal strength from various locations, the Feds can pinpoint where the device is being used with much more precision than they can get through data obtained from the mobile network provider’s fixed tower location.
Better yet, stingray bypasses the phone company entirely. Handy when the phone company is controlled by the enemy, handy when laws change and the phone companies no longer cooperate with the government, handy when you simply don’t want the phone company to know you’re snooping on its network.
Also refined in Iraq, Afghanistan and the greater archipelago of the war of terror was the use of metadata and data-mining, essentially amassing everything, however minor or unimportant, and then using increasingly powerful computers to pull out of that large pile actionable information, i.e., specific information to feed back to combat commanders and special forces to allow them to kill specific people. Knowing, for example, the name of a guy’s girlfriend leads to knowing what car she drives which leads to knowing when she left home which leads to listening to her make a date via cell phone which leads a credit card charge for a room which leads to a strike on a particular location at a specific time, high-tech flagrante delicto.
The FBI has followed the NSA’s wartime lead in creating its Investigative Data Warehouse, a collection of more than a billion documents on Americans including intelligence reports, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and private financial information including credit card data. All accessible to 13,000 analysts making a million queries monthly. One of them called it the “uber-Google.”
Welcome Home Aerostat
The latest (known) example of war technology coming home is the aerostat, a medium-sized blimp tethered high above its target area. Anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize the thing, as one or more flew over nearly every military base of any size or importance (You can see photos online).
What did those blimps do in war? Even drones have to land sometime, but a blimp can stay aloft 24/7/forever. Blimps are cheaper and do not require skilled pilots. Blimps can carry tons of equipment, significantly more than a drone. The blimps can carry any sensor or technology the U.S. has available, suspending it at altitude to soak up whatever that sensor is aimed at– cell calls, radio waves, electronic whatevers. The aerostats also carried high-powered cameras, with heat and night vision of course. While in Iraq, I had the aerostat video feed on my desktop. Soldiers being soldiers, occasional diversions were found when a camera operator spotted almost anything of vague interest, including two dogs mating, an Iraqi relieving himself outdoors or on really dull days, even a person hanging out laundry. The device obviously also had much less benign tasks assigned to it.
The war has come home again, as the Army announced this week that by 2014 at least two of these aerostats will be permanently over Washington DC. They will be run by the Army, using operators who likely learned their trade at war. The aerostats are brought to you by the Raytheon company, who also makes some of America’s favorite weapons and surveillence gear.
It’s All Good
No need to worry Citizens, as the aerostats will only be used for your own good. In fact, their sensors will scan for incoming cruise missiles, mine-laying ships, armed drones, or anything incoming from hundreds of miles away, because of course Washington is constantly being attacked by those sorts of things (I love the idea of protecting the city from mine-laying ships sneaking up the Potomac River).
Those DC-based aerostats will certainly not have employed the Gorgon Stare system, now in use in Afghanistan to rave reviews. Gorgon Stare, made up of nine video cameras, can transmit live images of physical movement across an entire town (four km radius), much wider in scope than any drone. Might be handy for VIP visits and presidential stuff, however, right?
And of course the temptation to mount a stingray device where it can ping thousands of cell phones would be ignored.
But I could be wrong about all the 1984-stuff, in which case the multi-million dollar aerostat program to protect against mines in the Potomac would be noteworthy only as another waste of taxpayer money. Remember when that was what made us the maddest about the government?
I usually don’t just re-sling press releases back at ya’ without too much comment or additional information, but the sleaze squirting out of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) office is almost impossible to otherwise keep track of in both volume and awfulness.
To save you some time, I totaled up the expected costs mentioned below: $771.8 for aircraft purchase, $553 million to the Russians and, at $109 million a year for ten years for ongoing logistics support, over $1 billion. Total = over $2.3 billion dollars in blatant waste. Ka-ching!!!!!!!!
So, without further introduction, here is another snapshot of how your tax money is being spent in America’s 51st state, Afghanistan.
SIGAR’s audit of the Afghan Special Mission Air Wing (SMW) found that the Department of Defense is moving forward with a $771.8 million purchase of aircraft even though the Afghans lack the capacity to operate and maintain them. Furthermore, DOD awarded $553 million to Rosoboronexport, a Russian government agency, even after receiving SIGAR’s recommendations that moving forward was imprudent.
Among the report’s findings:
–NATO and DOD do not have a plan with milestones and dates for achieving full strength for the SMW to justify the fleet size.
–DOD performs 50% of maintenance and repair, and 70% of critical maintenance & logistics management for SMW and does not have a plan for transferring these functions to the Afghans.
–SMW had less than one-quarter of the 806 personnel needed to reach full strength and during the length of the audit made no tangible growth.
–Only seven Afghan pilots are qualified to fly with night vision goggles, which is necessary for most counter-terrorism missions.
–Difficulty finding recruits who are literate and do not have associations with criminal/insurgent activity has slowed the growth of the SMW.
–Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior do not have an agreement on the SMW command and control structure, impacting growth and capacity.
–DOD task orders to provide maintenance, logistics, and supply services lack performance metrics and oversight has been inadequate.
–DOD intends to provide an additional $109 million per year for oversight, maintenance, training, and logistics support for the next several years.
–Training commander and U.S. contractors acknowledge the Afghan government will not be able to independently perform maintenance & logistics for the SMW for at least 10 years.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) website is always an interesting, if depressing, read. Current headlines include “$5 million spent on unused incinerators; burn pit used instead despite potential health risks” and “Poor project management by U.S. agencies hinders efforts to commercialize Afghanistan’s national power utility.” The purpose of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The U.S. strategy has always been clear, hold and build, the latter the most important in the long run for establishing a stable society somewhat friendly to U.S. aims.
Reading the SIGAR site, however, it is almost as if the goal was to reproduce all of the failures of Iraq reconstruction, only on a larger, more expensive and more foolish scale. If that is the goal, the U.S. is succeeding.
SIGAR’s most recent report is in the form of an alert letter warning State, DoD and USAID of serious problems involving failure of prime contractors to pay subcontractors in Afghanistan. SIGAR reports that evidence has come from multiple credible sources, and adds that the issue puts at risk numerous multimillion-dollar projects intended to promote stability in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:
– SIGAR has 52 ongoing investigations based on $62 million in claimed monies owed;
– Losses from non-payment have the collateral effect of eroding support for U.S. and coalition forces and costing the US time and money;
– Failure of prime contractors to pay their subcontractors has resulted in projects promoting the stability of Afghanistan being delayed or not completed;
– Prime contractors’ failure to pay is often viewed by Afghan subcontractors as a failure on the part of the U.S. government;
– A subcontractor threatened to set himself on fire in front of the U.S. embassy in protest of nonpayment;
– A prime contractor told SIGAR that a subcontractor threatened to blow up a compound of U.S. contractors and government agencies over non-payment.
In short, contractors for the U.S. government, clearly seen by the Afghans as one in the same as the U.S. government, are stiffing their Afghan partners. Whether through bureaucracy or as outright theft, and with the dullard-like lack of oversight by State, DoD and USAID, the very programs designed to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people are having just the opposite effect. Indeed, when people threaten to set themselves on fire in protest, you can assume things are not going well.
BONUS: One group of Afghans is however doing well with the reconstruction: Karzai’s government. SIGAR tells us that the Afghan government has levied nearly a billion dollars in “taxes” on contractors supporting U.S. Government efforts in Afghanistan. Because the SIGAR folks are polite men and women, they do not refer to these “taxes” as what they really are, bribes, kickbacks and protection money. Better yet, SIGAR also found that State and DoD contracting officers do not fully understand Afghanistan’s tax laws and, as a result, they have improperly reimbursed contractors for taxes paid to the Afghan government (with your tax money!).
I enjoyed a recent interview with the blog Random Thoughts. A sample:
Teri: In light of new reports on the wasted money we spent on Iraq’s reconstruction, I suspect you got an apology from the State Department. Did you?
Van Buren: You’re a funny person. My apology may have been lost in the mail.
Teri: You’ve worked for the State Department under a number of Secretaries. Who was the most effective of these, in your opinion?
Van Buren: Ironically, the first half of the Colin Powell tenure. Powell, likely because of his military background where caring for the troops is an essential requirement for any leader, was the only Secretary to make positive changes to the life and work of the rank and file. Powell, for example, overruled Diplomatic Security’s ban on the internet inside of the State Department. Security claimed it was dangerous to info security while Powell said the reality of our modern world demanded access. Without him State employees would still be getting their news a day late in paper form. The irony, of course, is that it was Powell who plunged State into Iraq and thus helped to destroy the rank and file by wasting their time, energy and lives inside that failed war.
Have a look at the whole discussion on Random Thoughts.
Jokes aside, here’s a serious interview on the reconstruction failures in Iraq, still relevant as we repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan and prepare to repeat them in Syria? Yemen? and wherever. Have a listen.
More on the series, Conversations with Great Minds. The interview with Eyal Press, author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Timesis particularly good.
This Memorial Day, in addition to our own dead, we remember the 4,700 people (estimated; the actual body count is classified and/or unknown) killed by American drones. While some were terrible people, many were collateral damage, innocents murdered by accident and simply tossed into the ever-growing pile of horrors the United States has created through its fear and paranoia (some, such as Nobel Peace Prize recipient Obama, still insist on calling it self-defense.)
The drone death toll is subject to debate; the 4,700 number is from Senator Lindsey Graham, a happy proponent of drone killings. Other have placed the count as low as 1,700. Some use a higher number than Graham, including in the math military strikes in combat. We now know that whatever the total number, at least four of the dead were American Citizens murdered by their own government without due process in clear violation of the Constitution.
So here they are. Pick an X below and imagine a person. Then kill him. It is your right as an American.
Happy Memorial Day.
(As a secular act of Kaddish, a meditation, I typed the X’s one by one, all 4,700 of them. Amen)
I had the pleasure of speaking yesterday at George Mason University alongside Christopher Coyne.
Chris is the author of an excellent new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond. I’ll have a full review online soon.
My thanks to the students, faculty and staff at George Mason!
My mom always forwards me the worst email crap, multi-megabyte Powerpoints of cats, or babies doing something odd, or homilies to life last century and the like. I usually thus delete most FWD’ed messages, but this one caught my eye. It’s making its way around the world so you might have already deleted it. If not, enjoy a cheap laugh. And be nice to your mother this Sunday, Mothers Day.
How to Be an Afghanistan Expert
1. Cite your most recent trip to the region where you saw – with your own eyes, absent the media’s blinders – irrefutable progress. Add points if you spoke with some cigar store Afghan who confirmed this for you. Add double points if you attended an actual jirga. (Subtract points if you were actually at a shura and mistook it for a jirga).
2. Imply that if only the clearance-less masses were privileged enough to see the same “high side” intelligence that you do, they would know the truth. Add points if you have an actual clearance and didn’t just look it up on Wikileaks.
3. Visit a bazaar. Chat with friendly merchants. Lots of salaams, lots of right-hand-over-your-heart greetings. Buy a (warm) orange Fanta. Note – often and loudly – that this bazaar was closed until ISAF forces arrived. Add points if you can drive to this bazaar, versus flying. Add double points if you can wear armor and helmet without looking like some parody of an obese war tourist.
4. Play down the fact that you are paid roughly $1,000 a day to “advise” the military and deny that there is any subsequent conflict-of-interest when you come home and write flattering things about progress in Afghanistan.
5. Whatever you do, avoid spending too much time in Afghanistan. In addition to acquiring language skills and some measure of cultural understanding, you risk becoming cynical and perhaps even despairing of our odds of success.
6. Adopt a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach to the region. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and amid the protests of others who have spent years on the ground, imply that through sheer force of will and maybe a Jedi mind trick or two, we shall overcome. Add points if you can beat the other experts in latching onto some insignificant scrap of “evidence” supporting “progress.” Add double points if you are the first to tweet about it.
7. If pressed on the deteriorating security situation, offer some babble about “the night being darkest before the dawn” and tie it into a tortured thesis about how escalating violence is actually a sign of counterinsurgency success. Add points of you can maintain a straight face making this point while citing vastly improved “kill ratios.” Subtract points if your “analysis” is eventually compared to an ISAF version of the 5 O’Clock Follies.
8. Write numerous “analytical reports” with phrases such as “The Way Forward” or “How to Win” in the title. No one, not even your colleagues in the think tank world, will actually read these, but they will be cited widely as a substitute for reading something substantive, that might offer actual insight into Afghanistan. Add points if you can deride previous scholarship on Afghanistan as “Orientalist.”
9. ‘The Grand Slam’ – authorship of a COIN pamphlet that gainsays the holy trinity: Petraeus, Nagl and Kilcullen. If pressed on the apparent failure of COIN in Afghanistan, cite some obscure insurgency – The Malayan Emergency is a good choice – and note how long success took to occur.
10. In case you ever write a book and need a jacket photo, make sure to get a photo of yourself rocking a full beard, a pakool, and a dastmaal. Subtract points if you insist on maintaining this appearance once you return to DC.
By now we have all heard that the Foreign Service Officer killed recently in Afghanistan was there in part to help Afghan women be “free” (she “gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future”). Indeed, women’s empowerment has become a sub-meme for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, replacing the now less-politically correct freedom and democracy thing.
Not sure? Have a look at what Yale University is saying:
NGOs and diplomats, often working alongside troops, have transformed lives by setting up programs on education, health and more. Many, like Project Artemis of Thunderbird School of Global Management, strive to lift women through education and trade: Entrepreneurs attend an intensive program at the Arizona campus, then connect with mentors in the US, Canada and Europe and remain in touch online. Project Artemis graduates have gone on to train and employ more than 15,000 other Afghan men and women, presenting an alternative future for Afghanistan other than war and ignorance.
Zip over to your Department of State and search “afghan women” and you’ll see things like this:
The President’s strategy for Afghanistan includes the provision of assistance to women to build their capacity to participate fully in Afghan society thereby building their country’s future. Secretary Clinton has long been committed to improving the rights of Afghan women, both in her work as Senator and as Secretary of State. When Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer traveled to Afghanistan in June 2009, she noted that “the women in Afghanistan are critical to progress and stability…it is only by men and women working together can Afghanistan move forward.”
O.K., fair enough. The U.S. has been engaged in Afghanistan for some twelve years now and must have had a pretty significant effect on the state of women there given the time, money and effort expended.
The Associated Press tells us they toured:
…the Badam Bagh prison, built by the Italian government six years ago to house female inmates from the Kabul area.
More than two-thirds of the 202 inmates are serving sentences of up to seven years for leaving their husbands, refusing to accept an arranged marriage, or leaving their parents’ home with a man of their choice, according to the prison’s director.
Some of the women were jailed while pregnant, others with their small children. 62 children are living with their imprisoned mothers, sharing the same gray, steel bunk beds and napping in the afternoon behind a sheet draped from the upper bunk, oblivious to the chatter and the crackling noises from the small TV sets shoved off to one side of the rooms.
But all the efforts by Yale to empower women and deceased FSOs to help must have done some good?
“I haven’t gone to court. I am just waiting,” Mariam told the AP, hugging a ratty brown sweater to protect her from the damp cold of the prison.
While it might not be against the law to run away or escape a forced marriage, the courts routinely convict women fleeing abusive homes with “the intent to commit adultery,” which are most often simply referred to as “moral crimes,” says a United Nations report released last month. It also said most cases of abuse go unreported.
The director-general of prisoners, Gen. Amer Mohammad Jamsheed, said about 650 women are jailed nationwide, and “most are in jail for moral crimes.”
O.K., good thing those imprisoned women don’t have the Taliban after them.
Hey nation builders, here’s a practice tip: take a break from the deadly feel-good book drops (yeah, too soon and too harsh, but people are dying over this stuff) and the endless string of women as entrepreneurs-a-paloozas and see if you can’t at least do something for the women held in a NATO-built prison that did not even exist under the Taliban, ‘kay?
The initial reports about FSO Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan stated she was in an armored vehicle, which was hit by either an IED and/or a suicide bomber. She was enroute to a book give away at a local school. Smedinghoff’s father told journalists in the United States that he’d been told she was in a vehicle and the bomber either rammed it or detonated his explosives nearby.
New reports suggest a different picture. According to McClatchy News, Smedinghoff was accompanying a group of perhaps a dozen Afghan journalists, perhaps in the company of a minor U.S. Ambassador, and that the group was walking, not in vehicles. The report stated that:
…on the 200-yard walk from the local headquarters of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team to what they thought was the school. A man at the gate said they had the wrong place, though, that this was the provincial agriculture institute.
The group retraced its steps to the American base to figure out what to do next, Abed said. The entrance to the base is just a few feet from the street, he said, and just as they reached it, walking more or less in single file, something slammed into his back and he staggered forward. Disoriented, he saw a car wheel roll past him.
“At first I thought that a car had left the road and struck me,” he said. “But then I turned around and saw it had been a bomb.”
That narrative differs significantly from the initial State Department version. Instead of a gallant young do-gooder snatched by fate, we see a group of diplomats who did not know what they were doing, physically lost, circling back to their camp to try again. If that is true, how did it happen? If that is true, why did State report a different version of events?
My own Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) service was embedded with a U.S. Army unit and in Iraq, so procedures may vary, but we did our share of media events and book donations. Here is how things went and why it is hard to accept that the new discrepancies about Afghanistan are merely fog of war.
Any movement outside the wire was planned meticulously. Excellent photographic maps were consulted, and a numerical grid location of our destination was established accurate down to (deleted) meters. Routes in and out were noted, with secondary routes established. Using maps and photos, we would decide where we would disembark our vehicles and how security would be kept. Medevac procedures would be reviewed, available air assets identified and so forth. Movement inside a war zone was a clear military operation. It was not free-lanced or improvised. Records were kept.
If we did get off track, the unit went into defensive posture and nobody left the vehicles until we sorted that out. Lots of radio calls were made, and the Army’s electronic mapping and reporting system Blue Force Tracker was used. Our own headquarters always knew where we were and what we were doing. Log entries were made and records exist (some of what Bradley Manning leaked to Wikileaks consisted of such sitreps and Blue Force Tracker updates).
If Smedinghoff and her compatriots got lost, it suggests they were not moving as just described. This calls up serious questions of competence and leadership. How did they get lost? What happened and who is responsible, because people died here.
(Another opinion disclaims the idea that the group was “lost”)
State’s mistakes in reporting what actually happened on the ground all seem to be mistakes in favor of State’s narrative– gallant young life taken even as she worked to help local Afghans– instead of incompetently lead public affairs hack engaged in another failed feel-good media event where they did not even know the location of the school being helped. How could this have happened? Fog of war?
My former job with State for 20 some years was as a Consular Officer and entailed, in part, dealing with the deaths of American Citizens abroad. I know how hard it can be to figure out what happened. Many of the deaths I assisted in sorting out happened in combat-like confusion following earthquakes, plane crashes and the like. There is chaos, but you are trained to work past that. Our training was very simple: you’re speaking officially on behalf of the USG to grieving next of kin. Tell them what you know and how you know it. Be very clear when things are unsure, uncertain or subject to change. Don’t fill in gaps, don’t make things up, be respectful but don’t try and “help” by covering up tough things (died autoerotically, was found with a weapon, was in a hotel room with a prostitute, etc.). If you don’t know something, say you do not know. Credibility is key and trust is earned and most of the real story will come out somehow.
It is hard to imagine that the death of an FSO with multiple witnesses was not reported fully back to Foggy Bottom. This was the first “real” FSO killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan and post-Benghazi everyone knew it would be major news. Yes, others sadly were also killed but the death of a young woman with social media presence was obviously a greedy media’s lead. Nobody at State was going to just jot down a few notes on what may have happened and flash out a press release. There were multiple witnesses, and indeed the death occurred literally at the PRT’s doorstep. It would be very, very surprising if that front door was not covered by video surveillance. The source cited by McClatchy was treated by U.S. personnel and flown back to Kabul by the U.S., so was not hard to find.
Conspiracy theorists, have at it. Or maybe it was all just journalistic fudges and fog of war.
Instead, I will propose something baser and cruder: to the State Department, especially post-Benghazi, what mattered in the death of Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan was literal damage control of the already-failed narrative that the Department was accomplishing great things in Afghanistan under a policy of competent, calculated risk. The lives were lost of course no matter what the point or purpose, but it is typically owed to the dead the respect of not exploiting them even into the grave.
Update: Diplopundit reports an email recieved from a Foreign Service Officer which reads “I knew Anne well. I am sending you this as the Department has been actively recruiting her friends and coworkers to talk to the press or to write about her even while no Department memorial service will be held.” Stay classy State.
The People’s Republic of Snarkistan has a thorough write-up on what may have happened to Smedinghoff and her group well-worth reading. He also informs us that the school in question was built by the U.S. in October 2009, only to enjoy a $135,000 “rennovation” a few months later that included “foundation work, installation of new windows and doors, interior and exterior paint, electricity and a garden.” Yeah, looks like the original contractor ripped off the PRT. The U.S. Army noted at the time that “The many smiles on the faces of both men and women showed all were filled with joy and excitement during this special occasion.”
In my own Iraq PRT experience, the record for the U.S. (re)building the same school was three times in four years.
While Smedinghoff’s death is tragic, what’s more tragic is why she was in Qalat at all. She died on a mission meant to prop up the American people in the eyes of a country that doesn’t want us here anymore. Or at least prove to the American people that we are still doing G. W.’s good work, since the Afghan people aren’t buying it. From Karzai down to the “average” Afghan (who, not being as rich as a Karzai, only has the one name), the Afghan people have grown disillusioned as the early years of hope gave way to the understanding that the Americans were here to back a rogue’s gallery of war criminals and thugs, because, well, freedom. We were supposed to be different. To be better. But instead, we’ve replaced the old meritocracy with a new one, one that’s full of a lot of bad men.
Smedinghoff was yet another casualty in the perception war, part of the “messaging” process, her role to ensure that the Afghans got the story that U.S. Embassy Public Affairs needed them to get. That’s not cynicism, but a gross acknowledgment of the pragmatism that drives these kinds of photo ops.
Rather than ensuring that education officials in Zabul had the tools they needed to succeed, what happened instead was boilerplate Public Affairs/Public Diplomacy: get the press to the event, get the right pictures of the right kids and maybe get them saying the right things, then get the message out. In this case, the message is that the American people care deeply about the future of education for the Afghan people. It’s 2013: if we’re still having to hand out books for the photo op, we’re doing it wrong.
It’s 2013: America’s legacy here post-2001 has already been written. There’s nothing a book drop can do to change that. Nothing we can do to rewrite the painful story the American involvement in Afghanistan. And now, there’s nothing we can do to bring Anne Smedinghoff back.
If a more succinct version of America’s failure in nation building has been written, please send me a link.
Anne Smedinghoff was also involved in the propaganda show that brought several young Afghan musicians to the U.S. this year to ensure Americans that the nation was well-loved.
And on the same day Anne died, a NATO air strike in Afghanistan killed ten children.
I mourn Anne’s death along with you, but mourn it doubly; not just for Anne’s own life so early taken, but for what she represented. I too do not doubt her good intentions and desire to do well in Afghanistan, but am angry that such a person ended up having her life taken from her for such an ignoble cause– U.S. failure in Afghanistan.
By her death, she is thrust into the role of symbolism, and our job is to determine what she is indeed a symbol of and try to learn from that. I in no way suggest disengagement or isolationism, just the contrary. But America must do so with true intentions, not just as a series of photo ops and wasted lives.
Diplomacy, yes, always. Propaganda at such a price no more.
So now, in 2013, as the American Empire rolls over the top of the hill and begins its descent, this is what we sacrifice our young, bright and energetic for. It has reached the point for our nation where killing off young people in the cause of photo ops that are hollow and false makes some wicked sense. In that calculus, we are forever lost.
Mr. Secretary, I mourn the death of Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan. She was only 25 years old. She was one of three American civilians and three soldiers killed in the deadliest day this year for Americans in Afghanistan.
Anne was killed traveling to a school to donate books, twelve years into America’s longest war.
It will be easy to dismiss this letter as “playing politics” with a young woman’s death, and you and others might just stop reading here to do so. But if you will read one sentence more, read this: Anne’s presence in Afghanistan was about politics, her death delivering books was a political act (if not propaganda) and your own statement that “She tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future” was politics as pure as can be. So if this letter is a political statement, it is in good company.
Mr. Secretary, as a young man back from Vietnam in 1971 you bravely addressed Congress and said:
Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake.
We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Mr. Secretary, are you the same brave man you were in 1971? And if so, will you not demand that American lives stop being wasted in Afghanistan and elsewhere on politics and bring them home?
Because of this blog, I occasionally receive emails from people who also participated in the reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most writers are civilians, a few military. With the writer’s permission, I publish some of the letters here.
Today’s I publish to call attention to the very real issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All of us suffer from it, some more than others, some more aware of it than others. For me, I benefited from good care (which I had to pay for myself but it was worth it). I have also found most veterans’ groups I’ve run across welcoming– it takes all of 30 seconds to establish that we civilians experienced most of what they did and have more in common than we have apart. To be frank, writing the book and blog are also part of my catharsis. To anyone out there suffering, get help. It makes things better. Anyway, here’s the letter.
I’ve been reading your blog since its inception and ordered your book while serving with a PRT in Afghanistan. While devouring your book in my “hooch”, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Everything you reported on in Iraq was happening AGAIN in Afghanistan. You actually saved me the time of writing my own book “How I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people”. I felt as if I had found the Holy Grail and ran around my PRT encouraging others to read We Meant Well. My State Department colleague was less than thrilled and was busy bidding on her next assignment while my PRT military colleagues were so burned out (due to multiple deployments) that they either didn’t care or knew that in true military tradition they were there to follow orders and helpless to do anything about the hellhole we found ourselves in. I was stunned that no one appreciated what I had found. They wanted me to quit talking and just do my time (i.e..stop being a trouble maker). Some members of the PRT were in denial and believed COIN was working while others knew that we were failing and didn’t need your experience to remind them.
It has taken me more than a year to write to you as I’ve been dealing with a great deal of anger and feared I would send you a 10 page rant outlining the insanity of wasted lives and resources that I witnessed during my 12 month deployment. I was offered additional time in Afghanistan but declined. I was afraid my already mild PTSD would be completely unmanageable after another deployment. Our well-deserving veterans are fortunate to have the VA to access once they come home (although I’m told the waiting list for mental health services is horrendous) and find other vets to talk to. These wars have now created yet another fine mess. There are now well over 200,000 people (from various nations) which include former diplomats, civilians who worked directly for the USG, contractors, NGO aid workers and even journalists that come home to no support whatsoever. I can only imagine the broken marriages, broken homes, alcoholism, isolation and other social ills that plague those with full blown PTSD and TBI. To my knowledge, no one is writing about that or even acknowledging it exists outside the military.
Unlike your “no experience necessary” chapter, I did have years of international development experience. But, I saw plenty that fell into the “no experience necessary” category and it was frightening. Not to mention the out of shape and the overweight (of all ages) who could not get in and out of an MRAP without assistance. No wonder civ-mil had its problems. This is all so terribly sad. I’m still trying to figure out a way to move forward after becoming so disillusioned with my government and the military. It’s now taken me three months to send this.
In addition to expressing gratitude for your book, I’m also writing to you in memory of the USAID officer, serving in Kunar Province, who was killed in August 2012 (link added). I find it appalling that his death and those of his three military colleagues got about 10 seconds of TV news coverage in the states. If anyone tells me that they died for my freedom, I may seriously lose it. From what I can conclude, they died for the profits of defense contractors, the careers of some high ranking military officials, the pockets of crooked Afghans, and most of all for self serving politicians and diplomats. My freedom had nothing to do with it. You tried to tell them but they didn’t listen. Instead, they tried to kill the messenger. Without knowing it, you’ve been a good friend these past 21 months and I apologize for taking so long to say thank you. Best of luck as you continue to fight for justice.
I meant well,
Name Withheld by Request
The sequester and overall budget mess in Washington is expected to impact all Americans. Money will get tighter, and government services will slow or stop– we’ve been told to expect longer lines at airport security, fewer park rangers, less money for schools and more.
But wait… There’s more!
Luckily, your State Department does not seem to be affected. Here are a few ways that your tax money is still being spent as Rome burns:
UPDATE: Passport Day in the USA 2013: Due to the budget sequestration, Department of State Passport Agencies will not be participating and will be CLOSED. But…
Secretary of State John Kerry announced the U.S. will provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt after Egypt’s president promised to move ahead with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over economic reforms. Whew, close call on that one but no matter what happens here in Der Homeland, for only a $250 million bribe Egypt will “move ahead” on negotiation. And American struggling small business owners, $60 million of the cash to Egypt is for the creation of a fund to support small businesses– over there.
Movie buffs all know that the “Afghan” film Buzkashi Boys almost won an Oscar this year, losing in the Short Film (Live Action) category to Curfew. But did you know that it was your State Department that funded the film, some $220,000? That small amount, was “funded almost entirely out of a $150 million State Department campaign to combat extremism, support Afghan media and burnish the U.S. image in Afghanistan.”
It may be that fund that your State Department will draw from to support the “Afghanistan Is Getting Better, Website and Story Corps” grant of $250,000 of sequester-proof tax dollars to someone who can “create and design a stand-alone website or dedicated channel on YouTube.com that allows individuals from within Afghanistan and across the globe to upload short personally recorded videos describing why and how the individual is contributing to the betterment of Afghanistan and/or the ways in which the Afghanistan of today has provided opportunities that didn’t exist before, and offering messages of hope for the country’s future.”
Though the sequester will impact American education funding, it will not stop our important educational relationships with Pakistan. We reported earlier on a $1 million of tax money State Department grant to any four-year college or university in the U. S. willing to establish a cooperative agreement with the University of Karachi in Public Policy and Public Administration. Good news! In addition to that grant, State is also offering another $1 million bucks to anyone interested in setting up a cooperative agreement to establish a University Partnership with Karachi’s Kinnaird College for Women in English Literature.
Keep in mind that the items above are just a sample, drawn from a few random trolls around the web. Sleep tight, America, knowing that more of your money is being spent while you are napping.
BONUS: Play a fun drinking game; re-order the list above by either “importance to America” or “biggest waste of money.” Then, drink.
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