“You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests,” John Kerry said on Meet the Press. “This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.”
Following Kerry’s comment, laughter could be heard from Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Libya, many undisclosed parts of Africa, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and across the Middle East. Faint chortles echoed out of Grenada, Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Snickers in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The Triumph of Syria
Kerry of course had previously brought the joy of laughter to the world in the midst of the last Syrian “crisis.” Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the Obama administration’s urge to launch strikes against al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.”
But like any good comedian, Kerry saved the big joke for last, when, in London enflight to the new, bestest war ever, Kerry famously and offhandedly said conflict could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach, with Vladimir Putin as an unlikely peacemaker. The U.S. did not attack Syria and the show ended with a good belly laugh for all.
Onward to the Ukraine
With Kerry once again taking the show on the road by flying to the Ukraine, all of cable TV has arisen as one demanding options, demanding cards to be played, demanding a catalog of “what the U.S. can do.” As a public service, here is that catalog of U.S. options for the Crimean Crisis:
–Seal Team 6 will infiltrate Russia, ring Putin’s doorbell late at night and run away in Operation DING&DITCH. Ashton Kutcher will lead the Team.
– A senior U.S. Embassy official in Moscow will cluck his tongue and roll his eyes disapprovingly.
– State Department social media rangers will send out Tweets calling Putin a “poopy head.” The Russian translation by State will actually come across as “A green dog’s sandwich” but sure, they’ll get we’re mad.
– The NSA will hack Putin’s web cam sessions, showing him shirtless. Putin himself will turn around and post the video online.
– The NSA will also break into Putin’s NetFlix queue and change everything to romantic comedies and Jack Black movies.
– The U.S. will recruit remaining allies Lichtenstein, Monaco, East Timor and Freedonia to enforce sanctions against Russia.
– The State Department will direct Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to say “F*ck the E.U.,” in a recorded conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.
– Obama will unfriend Putin on Facebook.
Flashman at the Charge
As is obvious, there is little the U.S. can, should or will do. The more the U.S. swaggers hollowly about the Crimea, the sadder it all sounds.
John Kerry, in what he thought was a stinging remark, labeled Russia’s invasion of the Crimean “19th century behavior in the 21st century.” As usual, Kerry was close to being right without actually realizing what he said.
The 19th century player in this Great Gameis actually the U.S. itself. After following the footsteps of the British Empire into Iraq, after plunging deep into the graveyard of the British Empire in Afghanistan, after fumbling in the British swamp of Pakistan, the U.S. now returns to the land of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Crimea. Like the Victorian British, the U.S. imagines the world as a chessboard where it can move pieces around with predictable results, shaping world affairs to its own advantage while placing opponents in check. If that was ever true, the events of the last decade demonstrate it is not true anymore.
As with everyone else who failed to learn the lessons of history and thus will be doomed to repeat them, inevitably next, the U.S. will slip beneath the waves as did the British Empire, over-extended, bankrupt and endlessly tied to foreign policy adventures that mean nothing while the world changes around it. It’s been a good run though, right?
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
You don’t have to know anything, or have any specific background or training, to be the president’s personal representative abroad and conduct foreign policy on behalf of the World’s Most Powerful Nation (c). You do have to donate heavily to the president to buy one of those appointments.
Back during my own 24 years working for the State Department as a diplomatic serf my mother asked what I’d have to do to make ambassador. The answer was simple: dad needed to die young, and mom should donate the entire inheritance to the winner of the next presidential election. I’d get appointed and hobnob with State’s elite!
For so many reasons, I am glad dad is still alive.
What is an Ambassador?
The U.S. ambassador is the head of the embassy in a particular country, and serves as the senior representative for the United States there. S/he interacts personally with important leaders of the host country, negotiates on behalf of the U.S. and serves as America’s public face and mascot, appearing in the media, making public appearances and hosting social events that in some parts of the world are the primary venue for serious business. Some say it’s an important job. Guys like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson did it once.
Embassies are otherwise primarily staffed by foreign service officers, folks from the State Department who are diplomatic professionals. The question here is between those two groups– political hacks or trained professionals– who should be an ambassador?
Is the U.S. Exceptional?
The U.S. is exceptional, because every other major country in the entire known universe answered the question already: being an ambassador is a job for professionals. It makes sense that a person who likely has already served in a country, who probably speaks the language and who is familiar both with U.S. foreign policy and the mechanics of diplomacy might do a better job than a TV soap opera producer who turned over $800,000 to the president’s campaign (true; see below.) Why, in almost any other setting other than U.S. politics, that would be called corruption.
A quick note to people of the internet. Every political party in power doles out ambassadorial appointments as patronage, and has, from the 19th century to the present day. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, the Boston Tea Party and all the rest did it and do it. Obama is slightly ahead of the 30 percent historical average, though many pundits are over-weighing his second term picks because he is filling his First Class (i.e., political posts) before the generally mediocre locations allocated to career jobs. This is true bipartisan sleaze, an issue we can all get into regardless of our views on other issues.
Yet despite the clear record of patronage, the State Department insists that political campaign donations have nothing to do with diplomatic nominations. “Either giving or not giving money doesn’t affect either way. It doesn’t make you more or less qualified,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters this week. Talk about your credibility. You could almost watch it drain out of the spokeswoman as she spoke the words with a straight face.
Why It Matters
Many, many politically appointed ambassadors are frighteningly unqualified. Sure, many don’t have a clue about the country they’ll serve in and very, very few have any language skills or experience in diplomacy. Some haven’t even been abroad, except maybe a bus tour or two. The latest crop, however, are reaching new heights of stupidity:
–The nominee to China admitted he’s no expert on China;
–The nominee to Argentina never set foot there and speaks no Spanish. Same for the nominee to Iceland, who never visited and also does not speak Spanish, though that is less important in Iceland;
–The nominee to Norway insulted their government in his Senate approval hearing (he was approved by the Senate anyway!)
–Then there is Colleen Bell, the nominee for Hungary, whose qualifications include being the producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful” TV soap opera, and of course raising $800,000 for Obama. She stammered her way through testimony to the point where John McCain basically begged her to just shut up as a kind of mercy killing.
Political Appointees in the Wild
What happens to these kinds of boneheads abroad is not hard to imagine. Some wonderfully extreme cases include the American ambassador to Finland, who sent out official Christmas cards with him in “Magic Mike” beefcake poses and whose signature accomplishment is basically renovating his own office. A political appointee ambassador to Kenya paralyzed his embassy with personnel demands, including internet access in his executive toilet. The political appointee ambassador to Belgium was accused of soliciting sexual favors from prostitutes and minor children.
As for many other political appointees, some, like Caroline Kennedy in Japan, understand they are just living photo-ops and stay out of the way of the adults working (which may sum up Kennedy’s entire life.) A few appointees become sentient and actually turn out to be decent managers based on their business backgrounds before being sidelined by State’s incestuous culture. The best political appointees are old pols like Howard Baker, whose Washington connections and political savvy make them at least effective stooges for the president’s personal political agenda, if not always America’s.
Why It May Not Matter
The bad news is that there are equal inconsistencies on the side of State Department professionals who become ambassadors outside the political appointee spoils system.
Many, especially to smaller nations (think Africa, parts of the Middle East), have spent most of their careers in the neighborhood, and have built up significant, trusted relationships. Many of these career ambassadors got to know young leaders long ago, and have kept the relationship intact as those men and women ascended into positions of authority. Pretty cool to call your old buddy and sort out a diplomatic problem using first names and shared experiences as a base.
There are exceptions to excellence; watch one of our career ambassador’s in a Congressional hearing not know how much money his embassy is spending in Afghanistan nor the U.S. death toll for the year.
Unfortunately, even for out-of-the-way places, it is very hard to make it to ambassador without sucking up to State’s big shots, even if you have the chops to do the job well. Every careerist at State (i.e., everyone) wants that title, the big house and the limo that comes with the job. As an autocracy, just being the most qualified for anything inside State is rarely enough. That leaves plenty of suck ups, wankers and toadies of the higher ups mucking around to get into an ambassador’s chair. It’s unavoidable.
The last sticking point on why foreign service officers can make lousy ambassadors is the dual nature of the job. While in most cases the ambassador’s primary task is headline-level “policy,” s/he also is the head of the embassy. Many administrative and personnel issues rise to the ambassador’s office. Most State Department ambassadors have gotten as far as they did based nearly 100 percent on those policy things, and many thus make very poor managers. The best defer the decisions to their own management staff; the worst dive in, wielding power without responsibility and the very worst use the position to settle old scores and promote the interests of their own lickspittles.
Why It Really, Really Doesn’t Matter
Critics of political appointee ambassadors inside State are quick to point out that people don’t get appointed as generals in the military. Senior leaders in the Army are expected to have come up through the ranks. Admirals have captained ships. Marine generals have eaten snakes, that sort of thing.
The reason big campaign donors don’t get appointed as generals in the military is because what generals do can matter, matter beyond at least embarrassing the nation. Not to say all or even most generals make the right calls, but to say that generals need technical knowledge of the services they work for, and the decisions they make literally affect lives and can shape world events.
Ambassadors are increasingly becoming curios left over from a distant past, before instant worldwide telephone and internet communications, before senior White House officials could jet around the world, a past when ambassadors actually had to make big decisions in far-off places. Nowadays most ambassadors don’t change their socks without “conferring with Washington.” Their own jobs matter less and less, as does the State Department they work with.
So never mind ambassador slots, which often stay empty for months as donors wrangle for the prime positions. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that more than one fourth of all U.S. State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008.
In government, what matters most gets funded most. There are more military band members than State Department foreign service officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. The State Department is now a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has 22,000. The Department of Defense has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the U.S.
In an age of military ascendancy, when State and diplomacy are seen as tools to buy time for later military action instead of as potential solutions themselves, it just might not matter who is ambassador anymore. Of course the man or woman in the chair might best avoid sexual solicitation of minors and inane, embarrassing acts, but really, that’s just a nice thing, not a requirement.
Old-school political patronage was about giveaways, handing over some largely ceremonial job to a hack. The medieval kings had it down, appointing dukes and grand viziers and equipping them with plumed hats and lots of gold braid while ensuring they stayed out of the way.
Political appointee or career foreign service officer as ambassador? Why does it matter?
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In an article headlined The U.S. Has Finally Outfoxed Hamid Karzai, the occasionally-respected Fiscal Times explains how for months Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States, causing mounting frustration within the White House and the Pentagon. Now, according to the Times, “it appears as if President Obama and his advisers have finally outfoxed Karzai, marking the end of a long and tumultuous relationship.” The Times:
The White House and DOD have decided not to make any agreement until after April’s presidential elections in which Karzai is not expected to be a candidate. They’ll only make a deal with Karzai’s successor.
“If he’s not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him,” a senior U.S. official said of the elected leader. “It’s a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the (deal) and that he doesn’t represent the voice of the Afghan people.”
By way of perspective, the U.S. has previously outfoxed Karzai by handing him fantastic amounts of unmarked cash and creating a massive, corrupt system in Afghanistan that bleeds the U.S. taxpayer while feeding even more money to Karzai and his family.
(None of the above is satire. It is true. Here’s the satire part.)
Karzai, however, is a sly old fox himself and is thus not easily outfoxed. Unbeknownst to U.S. authorities as the NSA was preoccupied with Beyonce’s selfies folder, Karzai has moved to Washington DC. While the Old Grey Fox first was just using the money he stole from the U.S. to buy up real estate (“giving back”), these days Karzai is shipping hundreds of his relatives, friends and his favorite hired gunmen into the DC suburbs.
“It’s freaking dangerous in Afghanistan, and you crazy Americans want to keep the war going forever,” Karzai exclusively told this blog, “I’ve got ‘graveyard of empires’ printed right on my wallet so its not like the Ambassador doesn’t see it every time we meet, but that dude is crazy. ‘We don’t want another Vietnam, er, Iraq,’ he says. I guess his solution is that as long as the U.S. keeps killing Afghans they can say it’s not over and they haven’t lost. So anyway, who wants to be a part of all that? I’ll just pack up in April and let the next jerk to do this job sort it out. I still can’t figure out why the Taliban want this dump anyway.”
“Despite all that, I still like the Ambassador personally. Funny guy. He once gave me a stack of Benjamins just to “like” the embassy Facebook page. Sometimes when the Ambo and I are just kicking back with a few 40′s he talks about the U.S. not wanting to lose the gains they’ve made over the last decade in this rat hole. I always end up with beer spraying out my nose when he says that. I mean, look out the window– that goat cost you Americans 75 billion dollars.”
Karzai did get reflective at the end of the interview, remembering his first cash bribe from a then-junior CIA officer. “That guy is now running their whole op here,” said the president. “Twelve years goes by. They just grow up so fast.”
“Anyway, I’m out of here. Somebody tell the U.S. Army ‘last man to die for a bad idea, turn off the light when you leave.’ That’s the expression you guys use in English, yes?” By the way, what do you think about BitCoin as an investment? I’m fat with cash right now and how many Rolexes do you really need?”
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
When a person sees things that aren’t there, hears voices that tell him to do irrational things and insists on believing things that simply are not supported by fact, most psychologists would label that person delusional and seek to help him regain his toehold on reality. When that person does all the same things regarding U.S. aid to Afghanistan, it is called statecraft.
The Obama administration unveiled Monday yet another aid package for Afghanistan. The country remains one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries despite a dozen years of massive international aid efforts.
The announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of three new development initiatives worth almost $300 million is part of a U.S. effort to ensure that Afghanistan, as its ‘war economy’ ends, won’t “reverse gains made over the last twelve years.”
How Much We Have Already Spent
To fully grasp the insanity of yet another initiative that drains taxpayer money into the open sore of Afghanistan, some numbers may help. Over the past twelve years the U.S. has given the Afghans some $100 billion in aid. About half of all “aid” goes directly to the Afghan military. There have also been significant amounts of aid delivered to Afghanistan by other countries and private donors.
The Return on Investment: 80 Percent Never Gets There
The aid money works out to be over $3300 per Afghan, assuming any of the money actually reaches an Afghan. The reality is, according to a Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction auditor, that 70-80% of the money is siphoned off by contractors as overhead.
The Return on Investment: Losses to Corruption
No one knows how much of the money disappears as bribes, graft or outright theft. However, a 2009 U.S. State Department cable disclosed on Wikileaks stated “While reports vary widely, records obtained from Kabul International Airport (KIA) support suspicions large amounts of physical cash transit from Kabul to Dubai on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis. According to confidential reports, more than $190 million left Kabul for Dubai through KIA during July, August, and September.” A 2012 report showed $4.6 billion fled via the Kabul airport, about one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. The year before, $2.3 billion in cash left via the airport. In a single incident, the then-Afghan Vice President flew to Dubai with $52 million in unexplained cash.
The Return on Investment: Funding the Taliban
And that’s all the good news because as Douglas Wissing points out in his excellent book Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, significant amounts of U.S. money are paying for the enemy to keep fighting. U.S. ignorance and naivete in the contracting process sends money to Taliban-affiliated subcontractors, and direct payoffs to warlords and others known to work with the Taliban are made for safe passage guarantees for military supplies.
The Return on Investment: What the U.S. Government Believes
Here’s what the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has to say for itself:
Our work continues to be a vital support to Afghanistan in its efforts to ensure economic growth led by the private sector, establish a democratic and capable state governed by the rule of law, and provide basic services for its people. The Afghan people rejoice in peace and freedom. They are dedicated to working for a better future for the generations to come. USAID assistance is crucial to achieving this goal… Only investment in Afghanistan’s human capital – that is, in its people – will ultimately lead the country to prosperity, peace and stability on a long-term, sustainable basis.
When I wrote my book on the waste and failure of the similar U.S. money hemorrhage in the Iraq War, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, there was no widespread agreement. Many people, both in and out of government, questioned my conclusions. Fair enough, though they were obviously proven wrong.
With Afghanistan, it is difficult to find anyone, outside of a few true believers and U.S. government PR people, who believe the money spent on aid to Afghanistan is not a waste. What charitably could be called at the time a difference of opinion over Iraq allowed the taxpayer money to keep flowing. With Afghanistan, there is no charitable explanation.
One service member characterized the situation as “A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached.” That service member served in the British Army that was destroyed in Afghanistan in 1843.
Delusional. That’s really the only word that applies.
I don’t watch a lot of porn, or a lot of other movies, but stuck in a motel off a highway on the edge of nowhere, it’s either pay-per-view or Meet the Press, and that show crosses a line in offensiveness.
The movie I watched, Lone Survivor, was made by Leni Riefenstahl to tell the story of four Navy SEALs in Afghanistan who, in the process of mowing down about ten million Afghans (“Taliban”), end up with only one SEAL guy surviving. If that spoils the end of the movie for you a) watch Meet the Press. It too has its whole narrative in the title and b) I’m glad it spoils the movie for you because I should be the last person on earth who pays to see it.
But flipping between the porn and Lone Survivor, I realized they are pretty much the same movie.
Both lack context. In porn a woman sits in a room, a man enters and they have sex. We don’t know or care about who they are, why they are there, even what their pretend names are. In Lone, we do know from the credits it is set in Afghanistan (albeit an Afghanistan that looks like New Mexico.) Otherwise, it’s just one set of guys killing another set of guys for our vicarious pleasure. We don’t know who they are (the SEALs are all named Mac, or Murph or Biff anyway), really why they are there except to kill (have sex) and we really don’t care.
A feature of porn seems to be denying the realities of biology and physics. Every thing is bigger than in real life, even to the pneumatic point where no one is even trying to pretend it is real. It obviously is completely fake, but that doesn’t matter because that’s what porn is about.
In Lone, the main character falls off a mountain not once, but three times, bounces down off rocks, lands on his back on rough ground, slams into a tree, only to show up at the bottom with some scratches, shouting “good to go.” One Biff gets shot multiple times, including in the head, and keeps going. The lone survivor dude (and they are all dudes) does not bleed to death or go septic over giant pieces of shrapnel in his leg, and even digs them out with a dirty knife. Oh– the wounds were also rubbed in dirt and dunked in a stream. Guess he got a tetanus shot.
Depending on your point of view, typically one partner in a porn film is really just there as a kind of prop, to support the person(s) you are supposed to want to see. Same in Lone. The literally hundreds of evil dog Taliban have no purpose other than to be slaughtered, often in the super close-ups also favored by porn. Things spurt as bullets enter their bodies, and they move through the movie anonymously like, well, sorry, a gang bang crowd. In both movies, everyone is just a target.
The worst thing however about Lone Survivor is that in the end it is a terrible movie. Porn is what it is, and sort of exists simply to provide whatever stimulation one gets from watching it. Lone just devolves into an endless loop of killing that gets so boring the viewer keeps flipping back to the pizza guy surprising the lonely woman in the bath.
When the time is up for both movies, you feel about the same. Any pleasure is wiped away as you realize people were exploited, and your emotions hijacked, for a cheap thrill. You feel empty, used. You’re embarrassed by war porn that tries to convince you that killing people in Afghanistan has some purpose, same as you’re embarrassed that you believed for a selfish moment that all those oohs and ah ah ahs just might have been real. Both movies make you feel good briefly about something that isn’t good.
And you can’t tell anyone about what you did. You are the Lone Survivor.
BONUS: Despite constant bragging about how the SEALs are the most highly trained warriors on earth, not one in the movie speaks one word of Pashtu. In the odd moments were Afghans need to be told how to service the SEALs’ needs, communication is done via shouted English and threats. You’d think at some point in all that training a little local language would come in handy. But, like with porn, you’re not there for the dialogue, right?
Jeez, they should at least make it sporting for me.
Here’s some video from a show called “Cross Talk,” with the subject the sad state of affairs in Iraq, and the sad state of affairs in Afghanistan. I guess the show’s producers felt they had to dig up someone to take the “pro” side, suggesting maybe not everything all the time the U.S. did and has done to those two countries was a tragic waste. But about the best they could find is some living corpse of a former U.S. ambassador. Because he is a former ambassador his “job” is to walk around with a title like “Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Realm” connected to a “think tank” while I live in my parents’ basement writing these blog posts in my own blood and saliva on the walls (my intern then transcribes them into this “electronic” format.)
Anyway, it ain’t much of an argument, but do entertain yourselves watching one of the people once in charge of America’s foreign policy try and justify his own actions.
And after the video is over, would you please ask my mom to send some meatloaf and a couple of beers down to the basement?
BONUS: Even as Iraq slides ever-deeper into overt civil war, the State Department gave the University of Cincinnati a grant of $300,000 of your tax money to “to build partnerships in Iraq.”
What will the university spend your tax dollars on? They say “professional development workshops for leaders in higher education and the community – workshops that emphasize civic and cultural leadership.”
Hah! Bring that spokesperson on for the next debate!
I was very pleased to be on Democracy Now! to talk about Iraq. Here’s the segment:
Journalist Liz Sly reports a rejuvenated al Qaeda asserted control over the Iraqi city of Fallujah, raising its flag over government buildings and declaring an Islamic state in one of the most crucial areas that U.S. troops fought to pacify during our nine year War and Occupation.
Sly goes on to say that the capture of Fallujah came amid an explosion of violence across the western desert province of Anbar in which local tribes, Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda have been fighting one another for days in a confusingly chaotic three-way war.
Reality: About a third of all American deaths and wounds in the Iraq War and Occupation took place in Fallujah and nearby Anbar Province. In 2003, before the American Invasion, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq, and now there is.
Many who lost loved ones there, and many survivors, are now asking What Did They Fight For, What Did They Die For?
With great respect for everyone’s losses and sacrifices, the time to ask those questions is not just now, but when the U.S. government begins beating the drums ahead of the next war. Please don’t be fooled again.
So maybe it is time to admit what many Americans think happened in Iraq is a myth– the reality is playing out daily there. The near-complete destruction of civil society in 2003 was a hole that could not be climbed out of. The U.S. never addressed the fundamentals in Iraq and, when the war grew tiresome, just left. The endless backslapping over the “Anbar Awakening” and COIN now is clearly hollow. History will judge said the Iraq War apologists, and now it has.
Anyone offended by the image above can kiss my ass. That’s what war does and you should not turn away from it. It is America’s decisions to fight pointless wars that does that to our fathers, brothers and sons. If you won’t save them, at least look at them and know what your bloodlust for more war did to them.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Why Barack, I’m the Christmas Ghost of Presidential Legacies Past. I visit second-term presidents to help them map out their foreign policy legacy.”
“Dude, Christmas was last week. It’s 2014, the New Year.”
“Yeah, sorry, traffic was bad, and I lost most of a day trying to sign up for healthcare.”
“I’m calling the Secret Service. Get out of my bedroom!”
“No need Mr. President. No one can see me but you. I’m here to talk about the future, about America overseas, so you can achieve your place in history. I am here to help guide you.”
“You do this for all presidents? What happened with Bush, then?”
“That was unfortunate. It turned out Karl Rove had been a hyena in a previous life and could somehow still smell me, so I got chased out. And see how it ended up for Bush? His legacy is fear of overseas travel, wondering how far the Hague’s reach really is.”
“OK Spirit, what do you want from me?”
“Barack, you were elected the first time on the promise of hope and change. You got reelected mostly by not being Mitt Romney. You need to reclaim the original mantel. You need to be bold in foreign affairs and leave America positioned for this new world. You won the election by not being the candidate from the 1950s. Now, you need to establish a foreign policy for an America of 2014 instead of 2001.”
“What do you mean, Spirit?”
“Stop searching for demons. Let’s start with the Middle East. You inherited a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly, thanks to Rove and his canine sense of smell, but what did you do with it?”
“I ended the war in Iraq.”
“No, you agreed not to push back when the Iraqis threw the troops out in 2010. The war continues there, just without us, fought in little ugly flare-ups among Iranian proxies. But that’s spilled milk. What you need to do is reclaim your State Department from what is now a lost cause.”
“What do you mean?”
“Much like the way Vietnam destroyed the army, Iraq and Afghanistan gravely wounded your State Department. Why does America still maintain its largest embassy in a place like Baghdad? That massive hollow structure sucks money and, more importantly, personnel, from your limited diplomatic establishment. Scale it back to the mid-size level the situation there really requires, and move those personnel resources to places America badly needs diplomacy. As a bonus, you’ll remove a scab. That big embassy is seen throughout the Middle East as a symbol of hubris, a monument to folly. Show them better — repurpose most of it into a new university or an international conference center and signal a new beginning.”
“You mentioned Iranian influence in Iraq, so yeah, thanks, George Bush, for that little gift. I have the Israelis up my back looking for a war, and it seems every day another thing threatens to spark off a fight with the Iranians.”
“Iran can be your finest achievement. Nixon went to China, remember.”
“You know Spirit, you actually look a little like Henry Kissinger in this light.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot. Coincidences, right? Barack, you can start the process of rebalancing the Middle East. Too many genies have slipped out of the bottle to put things back where they were and, like it or not, your predecessor casually, ignorantly allowed Iran to reclaim its place as a regional power. Let’s deal with it. Don’t paint yourself into a corner over the nukes. You know as well as I do that there are many countries who are threshold nuclear powers, able to make the jump anytime from lab rats to bomb holders. You also know that Israel has had the bomb for a long time and, despite that, despite the Arab hatred of Israel and despite the never-ending aggressive stance of Israel, their nukes have not created a Middle East arms race. Yet. Keep talking to the Iranians. Follow the China model (they had nukes, too) and set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Feel your way forward. Bring the Brits and the Canadians along with you. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with.”
“But they’ll keep heading toward nuclear weapons.”
“That may be true. America’s regular chest-thumping in the Middle East has created an unstoppable desire for Iran to arm itself. They watched very, very closely how the North Koreans insulated themselves with a nuke. The world let that happen and guess what? Even George W. stopped talking about North Korea and the stupid Axis of Evil. And guess what again? No war, and no nuclear arms race in Asia. Gaddafi went the opposite route, and look what happened to him, sodomized while your then-Secretary of State laughed about it on TV.”
“But what about sanctions?”
“Real change in Iran, like anywhere, is going to have to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They start to demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government with half a brain yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonalds happening. Are you going to go to war with China? Of course not. We’re trading partners, and we have shared interests in regional stability in Asia that benefit us both despite the occasional saber-rattling around elections. Sure, there will always be friction, but it has been and can be managed. We did it, with some rough spots, in the Mediterranean with the Soviets and we can do it in the Gulf, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.” I don’t think this will result in a triumphant state visit to Tehran, but get the game started. Defuse the situation, offer to bring Iran into the world system, and see if they don’t follow.”
“I can’t let them go nuclear.”
“Well, I don’t know if you can stop it without exploding the entire region, and focusing just on that binary black and white blocks off too many other, better options. Look, they and a whole bunch of other places can weaponize faster than you can stop them. What you need to do is work at their need to weaponize, pick away at the software if you will, the reasons they feel they need to have nukes, instead of just trying to muck up the hardware. Use all the tools in the toolbox, Barack.”
“But they’re Islamos.”
“Whatever you want to call it. Islam is a powerful force in the Middle East and it is not going away. Your attempts, and those of your predecessor, to try and create ‘good’ governments failed. Look at the hash in Syria, Libya and, of course, Iraq. You need to find a real-politick with Islamic governments. Look past the rhetoric and ideology and start talking. Otherwise you’ll end up just like the U.S. did all over Latin America, throwing in with thugs simply because they mouthed pro-American platitudes. Not a legacy move, Barry. It will feel odd at first, but the new world order has created a state for states that are not a puppets of the U.S., and not always an ally, but typically someone we can deal with, work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s diplomacy, and therein lies your chance at legacy. Demilitarize your foreign policy. Redeploy your diplomats from being political hostages in Baghdad and Kabul and put them to work all over the Middle East.”
“Sure Spirit, nothing to it. Anything else you want me to do before breakfast?”
“Hey, you asked for the job — twice — not me.”
“Spirit, sorry to go off topic, but is that an 8-track tape player you’re carrying around?”
“Hah, good eye Barack. KC and the Sunshine Band, Greatest Hits. Things work oddly in the spirit world and one of the quirks is that unloved electronics from Christmas’ past migrate to us. Here, look at my cell phone, big as a shoebox, with a retractable antenna. I still play games on an old Atari. We got Zunes and Blackberries piled up like snow drifts over there. But back to business.”
“What else, Spirit?”
“As a ghost, I’m used to taking the long view of things. I know better than most that memory lasts longer than aspiration, that history influences the future. You have it now in your power to finally amend an ugly sore, America’s dark legacy of the war of terror. Guantanamo. You realize that every day that place stays open it helps radicalize dozens of young men for every one you hold in prison. Demand your intel agencies give you a straight-up accounting on who is locked away there. For the very few that probably really are as horrible as we’d like to believe, designate them something or the other and lock them away in an existing Federal Super Max. Just do it, override Congress and take the heat. Heck, you’re not very popular even among your former supporters anymore, so why not go for a win for the base. Turn the others in Gitmo over to the UN or the Red Cross for resettlement. It is an ugly deal, but it is an ugly problem. Close the place down early in 2014 over the first three-day weekend to defuse the media, let the short-term heat burn off and move on.”
“Same thing. Cut your losses. Afghanistan will be on a slow burn for, well, probably forever no matter how many occupiers you can leave in place. Among other reasons, Pakistan needs it to stay that way. They like a weak but not failed state on their western border and you can manage that. The special ops guys you secretly leave behind can deal with any serious messes. Corruption and internal disagreements mean there will never be a real Afghan nation-state, no matter how badly you want one. The soldier suicides, helicopter accidents and green-on-blue attacks are a horror, and so unnecessary at this late stage of the great game. You are going to accomplish nothing by dragging that corpse of a war around with you for two more years, so cut it off now.”
“Next is drones, right?”
“Yes Barack, next is drones. This is fool’s gold and you bought into it big. You thought it was risk-free, no American lives in danger, always the 500 pound elephant in the room when considering military action. But, to borrow a phrase, look at the collateral damage. First, you have had to further militarize Africa, setting up your main drone base in Djibouti. Like Gitmo, every thug you kill creates more, radicalizes more, gives the bad guys another propaganda lede. Seriously, haven’t you noticed that the more you kill, the more there seem to be to kill? You need more friends for America and fewer people saying they are victims of America. Make your intel people truly pick out the real, real bad guys, the ones who absolutely threaten American lives. Be comfortable in publicly being able to articulate every decision. Don’t be lazy with bringing death. Don’t continue to slide downhill into killing easier and easier just because you have a new technology that falsely seems without risk. Drones are a tool, not a strategy. Seek a realistic form of containment, and stop chasing complete destruction. You need an end game. The risk is there my friend, you just have to pull back and see it in the bigger picture.”
“Bigger picture, eh? That’s what this legacy business is all about, isn’t it? Seeing Iranian nukes not as the problem per se, but as part of a solution set that doesn’t just leave a glowing hole in the ground, but instead fills in things, builds a base for more building.”
“You’re getting it now. And even as domestic politics suffers in gridlock, you have room to do things in foreign policy that will mark history for you. As a second term president, you are freed from a lot of political restraints, just like you told Medvedev you would be.”
“Open mikes, who knew, right? But what about my successor? The party wants me to leave things ready for 2016.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got Springsteen working on new songs for the campaign. Hey, you know anything that rhymes well with ‘Hillary’? Right now we’ve only got ‘pillory’ and ‘distillery.’ Bruce is stuck on that.”
“But look, Spirit, I appreciate the advice and all, but to be honest, all this you propose is a lot of work. It’s complicated, needs to be managed, has a lot of potential for political friction. I could, you know, just stick with things the way they are. Ordering the military to do things is easy, we’ve got an online form for it now where I just select countries to attack from a drop-down list. People seem to have gotten used to a permanent state of low-level warfare everywhere, drone killings, the occasional boil flaring up like Benghazi. It wasn’t a serious election issue at all. Why should I bother?”
“Well, among other things Barack, you’ve got two very sweet, wonderful reasons sleeping just down the hallway. It is all about their future, maybe even more than yours.”
(This review first appeared on the Huffington Post)
If Christopher Coyne’s new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Failsneeded a subtitle, I’d be willing to offer up “We Meant Well, Too.”
Coyne’s book puts into formal terms what I wrote about more snarkily in my own book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People: large-scale attempts at reconstruction, long-term humanitarian aid, nation building, counterinsurgency or whatever buzz word is in favor (I’ll use them interchangeably in this review), not only are destined to fail, they often create more suffering through unintended consequences and corruption than would have occurred simply by leaving the problem alone. Coyne makes it clear that continued U.S. efforts at nation building in Afghanistan (Haiti, Libya, Syria…) will not accomplish America’s national goals and will actually make the lives of the locals worse in the process. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond.
Coyne’s book is a careful, detailed, academic answer to the real-world question surrounding U.S. reconstruction efforts: How is it possible that well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially, as in Afghanistan?
Central to Coyne’s explanation of why such efforts fail so spectacularly (and they do; I saw it first hand in Iraq, and Coyne provides numerous examples from Kosovo to Katrina) centers on the problem of “the man of the humanitarian system.” An economist, Coyne riffs off of Adam Smith’s “man of the system,” the bureaucrat who thinks he can coordinate a complex economy. In humanitarian terms, The Man thinks he can influence events from above, ignorant (or just not caring) about the complex social and small-scale political factors at work below. Having no idea of what is really going on, while at the same time imaging he has complete power to influence events by applying humanitarian cash, The Man can’t help but fail. There is thus no way large-scale humanitarian projects can large-scale change a society. The connection between Coyne’s theoretical and the reality of the U.S. State Department staff sequestered in Iraq’s Green Zone or holed up on military bases in Afghanistan, hoping to create Jeffersonian democracies outside the wire, is wickedly, sadly perfect.
The Man takes additional body blows in Coyne’s book. One of the most significant is in how internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.
With the fundamental base of ignorance and arrogance laid to explain failure, Coyne moves on to address how harm is done. One begins with subtractive harm, how most aid money is siphoned off into the pockets of the contractors and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), plus bureaucratic and security overheard, such that very little reaches the country in need. For example, of the nearly two billion dollars disbursed by the U.S. Government to Haiti, less than two percent went to Haitian businesses. In Iraq, I watched as USAID hired an American NGO based in Jordan specifically to receive such money, who then hired an Iraqi subcontractor owned by a Dubai-consortium, to get a local Iraqi to dig a simple well. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the money “spent” actually went toward digging the well; the rest disappeared like water into the desert sand.
Some more bad news: in today’s development world, The Man monopolizes the show. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction have been militarized, primarily by the U.S., as a tool of war; indeed, the U.S. Army in Iraq constantly referred to money as a “weapons system,” and planning sessions for aid allotments were called non-lethal targeting. They followed the same rubric as artillery missions or special forces raids in laying out goals, resources, intel and desired outcomes. USAID, State and other parts of the U.S. Government exert significant control over more indigenous NGOs simply by flinging money around; do your own thing under the radar with little money, or buy-in to the U.S. corporate vision of humanitarian aid. Many chances at smaller, more nimble and responsive organizations doing good are thus negated.
In addition to such subtractive harm, the flow of aid money into often poor and disorganized countries breeds corruption. Coyne reckons some 97 percent of the Afghan GNP is made up of foreign spending, with healthy chunks skimmed off by corrupt politicians. I saw the same in Iraq, as the U.S.’ need for friendly partners and compliant politicians added massive overhead (corruption, price inflation) to our efforts. A thousand Tony Sopranos emerged alongside our efforts, demanding protection money so that supply trucks weren’t ambushed and requiring the U.S. to use “their” local contractors to ensure no accidents would cripple a project. In Afghanistan, such corruption is casually documented at the highest levels of government, where even President Karzai boasts of receiving shopping bags of cash from the CIA each month.
(One Afghan, perhaps humorously, commented online “I would like the CIA. to know they can start delivering money to the carpet shop my family owns any day this week. But, please, no plastic bags. Kabul is choked with them. The goats eat as many as they can, but still the Kabul River is filled with them, waiting to be washed down to Pakistan, where they have enough problems of their own.”)
And of course those nasty unexpected consequences. The effect of billions of dollars in “helpful” foreign money accompanied by thousands of helpful foreign experts also dooms efforts. If the U.S. is willing to pay for trash pickup (as in Iraq, for example) or build schools and roads, why should the local government spend its time and money on the tasks? The problem of course is that when foreign money drifts away on the newest political breeze, there are no local systems in place to pick up the work. The same problem occurs on a macro scale. Huge piles of free money air-dropping in-country create their own form of shadow economy, one far-removed from both local entrepreneurship and market forces. Again, when the free money stops, there is no viable market economy in place to take up the slack. Chaos at worst, corruption and haphazard progress at best, are inevitable.
Not-such-a bonus: Foreign workers, Coyne documents, often act with impunity, if not formal immunity, from local laws. From UN workers fueling the child sex trade in Africa, to State Department hired Blackwater mercenaries gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, harm is often done under the guise of good.
Coyne tries hard to come up with some sort of solution to all this. Though he bypasses the question of whether countries like the U.S. should make reconstruction and large-scale aid national policy, he accepts that they will. What to do? Coyne posits that the only chance for success is economic freedom. Encouraging discovery via entrepreneurship and access to the free market while rolling back the state in humanitarian interventions will allow the space for genuine economic and societal progress. Coyne concludes this process is messy and will often appear misguided to outsiders, but that it is the only way to achieve society-wide development.
And good luck to those who try and press such change on the U.S. efforts. In the end, Coyne’s book is extremely valuable as a way of understanding why current efforts have failed, and why future ones likely will fail, rather than as a prescription for fixing things. That’s a bit of an unfair criticism; changing U.S. policy on such a fundamental level is no simple task and Coyne, to his credit, gives it a try. I may have meant well personally, but failed in my own efforts at reconstruction and then writing about it to do much more than lay out the details. Coyne deserves much credit for formalizing what many of us experienced, and for at least laying out the theoretical construct of a more successful approach.
Author’s site: http://www.ccoyne.com/
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.
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!
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.
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.
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