The blog about the State Department I always wanted to be is Diplopundit. The anonymous writer manages to point out State’s dumbassery without resorting to terms like dumbassery, quite an accomplishment.
So I tip my hat to Diplopundit for pulling up the video below. It was made by the U.S. government with your tax dollars. The stated purpose of the video is to somehow encourage more students from Saudi Arabia to come to the U.S. for college. Education is a huge business now in America, and foreign students from places like Saudi pay top dollar. So while the goal to bring more of their money to the U.S. is a noble one, how this video helps is beyond me. Have a look.
Oh where oh where to begin? First question of course, is how could this possibly cause a Saudi to decide he wanted to throw his lot in with these people? What would be the key selling point? The gratuitous use of English to communicate with a foreign audience? The broken English of the Saudi student applicants? The hard to read subtitles? The nearly endless parade of stereotypes? The poncy Marilyn Monroe thing near the end? The Saudi guy dressed like a 1970s pimp? Yes, that would be the winner.
Anyway, enjoy the video and have a laugh. After all, you paid for it.
BONUS: We all do remember one of the last times the State Department went out of its way to get more Saudis to travel and study in the U.S., right? That was the Visa Express system that facilitated the travel for several of the 9/11 hijackers. And that episode didn’t even need its own cartoon advertisement.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Citing its inherent right to self-defense, an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson today announced his country had destroyed the Lincoln Tunnel, one of the main arteries connecting New Jersey with the island of Manhattan. Israeli forces also shelled New Jersey, causing additional hundreds of casualties.
“With a ceasefire in place in Gaza while we reload for humanitarian purposes, we figured it was time to close off some other Hamas infiltration tunnels around the world. Our intelligence agents had long noted that many people who were either Indian or Arab or maybe Puerto Rican have been using the Lincoln Tunnel to travel from Jersey to New York City. We decided that to preserve the security of the Jewish State, we had no choice but to destroy the tunnel. That was that.”
“As for shelling New Jersey, hell, we just felt sorry for them and wanted to put them out of their misery.”
While steadfastly defending Israel’s right to self-defense, Barack Obama decried the loss of innocent lives. “It is always sad to wake up from my nap to hear some folks got whacked,” said the president, apparently referring to the 782 Americans killed as the Lincoln Tunnel collapsed into the waters of the Hudson River. “But let me be clear: Israel has a right to defend itself– wait, did I say that already? Whatever.”
Secretary of State John Kerry was equally clear on America’s position. “Israel has an absolute right to defend itself, even though crappy places like Gaza, Russia, Venezuela and Iran do not. That said, the president has asked me to begin work on an immediate ceasefire in the United States. I have called Israel about this, but it went to voicemail and apparently they are not accepting texts. I have thus instructed my staff to friend them on Facebook and open channels of communication that way.”
Kerry later that day vetoed a motion in the United Nation condemning Israel for attacking his own country, claiming “All the facts are not yet in.”
“We also had Vanuatu voting with us in support of Israel’s right of self-defense,” beamed Kerry, explaining the U.S. offered the tiny island $4 trillion in aid for its support, “but at the last minute they had this really important thing come up and didn’t vote.”
On background, the IDF spokesperson explained that even though it is common knowledge that the Lincoln Tunnel was opened in 1932, well before either Israel or Hamas even existed, Israel “just does not believe that, knowing how Hamas twists the truth.” Instead, he continued, “we are certain Hamas opened the tunnel solely for the purpose of taking innocent lives, and so for the safety of so many, we regretfully were forced to intercede.”
“These people are freaking nuts,” retorted a Hamas media flack. “We’re buried under rubble here in Gaza drinking our own urine to survive, and those madmen think we built the Lincoln Tunnel? Oh wait, and let me guess, the Americans claim it was all part of Israel’s right to self defense, right? Don’t they even have a new excuse? Try the same line on your wife when you come in late five nights in a row and let me know how that works out for you. Excuse me now, I have to bury my child.”
The IDF plans to take most of the weekend off. “That’s not say we won’t rocket an orphanage or two, but generally speaking we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. Also, none of this is like the Holocaust in any way, so stop that stuff. Are you anti-Semitic?” said the spokesperson.
“Look, hate us if you want to, but if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll just have to fight them here,” concluded the IDF spokesperson.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
General Ray Odierno lives in the third person regarding Iraq. “Mistakes were made” for sure, but not by him, even when he was in charge. Somehow the mistakes happened temporally on his watch, but by someone, never named. Certainly not by General Ray Odierno.
Continuing a media-led open sucking chest wound process of giving a platform to those who were responsible for the current disaster in Iraq to explain anew to us what happened in Iraq (short version: they didn’t do it), the Aspen Security Forum featured a long, sad dirge by Odierno on Iraq.
One could presume Odierno knows something about Iraq; he spent a lot of time there in key positions of responsibility and built up quite a resume: From October 2001 to June 2004, General Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division, leading the division in combat. He was Commanding General of the Multi-National Corps in during the famous Surge that was fantasized as ending the war. Odierno was also Commander of United States Joint Forces Command, meaning he was in charge of every American service member in the country. It was during this time that Odierno had personal responsibility for implementing General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency doctrine, overseeing the 2010 Iraqi elections that gave Prime Minister Maliki his second term, and working hand-in-hand with the American embassy in Baghdad to ensure the training of the Iraqi police and army before the U.S. retreat from Iraq at the end of 2010. Odierno is currently Chief of Staff of the Army. Tragically, Odierno’s son, an Army captain, was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad in August 2004 and lost his left arm.
So it is with some sad amusement (think slowing down to gawk at a car wreck on the side of the road) to read Odierno’s comments from the Aspen Security Forum. The general was led through his comments by David Sanger of The New York Times. Sanger himself in 2003 was part of the Times’ wholesale acceptance of the Bush White House’s falsehoods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so the two make quite a pair.
But no matter; that was in the hard air of then, this is now.
Here are some key points Odierno made at the 2014 Forum:
– “The country was going in the right direction when the United States left in 2011, but Iraqi leaders overestimated the progress made by their military and government institutions.”
– “The problem in Iraq was not the training of the Iraqi security forces, although their ability to sustain their own training was ‘disappointing.’ The problem was a lack of confidence, trust and loyalty between troops and their leaders because of politicization of Iraq’s military leadership.”
– “Leaders were changed out. Many of them weren’t qualified. There was some sectarian nature to the changes that were made. Members of the Iraqi security forces were unwilling to fight for a government that they perceived as not standing up for all the different peoples of Iraq, so when they were challenged, you saw them very quickly fade away.”
– “But military power isn’t enough to solve the problems in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East for that matter. The lesson here is [that] you’ve got to stand up an institution. And that includes not just a military, but also a functioning government. Iraq will continue to disintegrate if the unity government doesn’t re-form… The good thing about this is they are in the process of forming a new government. They just had an election. The hope is that the government that would come out would be one that clearly supports a unity government as we go forward. Will that solve the problem?” My guess is not completely. But that’s the first step.”
Odierno has rehearsed his lines– from 2010. Here’s what he claimed after the 2010 elections in Iraq: “”Iraqi security forces performed superbly… I think it was very much a success for the Iraqi people yesterday.” He said earlier that same year “Iraq presents a solid opportunity to help in stabilizing the Middle East.” The Washington Post, never a stranger to hagiography, said on Odierno’s departure from Iraq: “He leaves behind a war not yet won, not yet lost and not yet over. The gap has narrowed in one notable way: Iraq’s security forces, trained, equipped and to a large extent designed by the U.S. military, are increasingly professional and competent.”
The very factors Odierno speaks today of almost as if he was an independent third party dispassionately looking back are the same ones he was responsible for resolving over his many years of command in Iraq. Odierno watched as the United States poured $25 billion into training the gleefully third world standard Iraqi Army he now says was not properly trained. He was handmaiden to the 2010 elections that saw the Iranians broker a Maliki victory and the installation of a Shia-based non-representative government. He oversaw the military reconstruction efforts over years of the Occupation that failed (alongside the State Department’s efforts) to create the very institutions whose absence he now decries. Despite all this, the best Odierno can come up with as an explanation for why everything is a mess in 2014 is the Iraqi’s messed up his good work.
But if Maliki is anything more than a talisman for the whole mess of post-2003 Iraq, he was certainly America’s choice (twice) for the role, and it is unfair to simply fob current events off on him, or assume things will turn around when he is sent off-stage like a modern day Ngo Dinh Diem. Same for “the Iraqis,” whoever they are in this context, who have been designated as a group the responsible party for failing to reassemble the broken country the U.S. created, uninvited, and then left for them.
Odierno is far from alone in absolving himself of responsibility for all the good he failed to do. The big difference is that Odierno likely knows better.
While in Iraq, I met Odierno several times. He traveled tirelessly and spoke to everyone. Addressing small groups of his field officers, the general was often more considered in his remarks, and more aware of the nuanced ground truth, than in his photo-op statements. Yet for all his McNamara of 1965-like public optimism during the war, Odierno does not now seem able to rise to the McNamara of 1995 in admitting his shortcomings, and those of his war. In not doing so– as McNamara did when he remained silent over Vietnam for so long– he blocks the lessons of the past from informing the present. Odierno, like all of Washington vis-vis Iraq, seems to believe he is exempt from history.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
No one wants to see anyone suffer, Yazidi or otherwise. What we do want is to know the truth about what is going on in Iraq even as Obama continues airstrikes, and prepares to send in 130 more American troops. The 130 additional advisers brings the number of American military personnel in Iraq to more than 1,000.
U.S. officials said they believed that some type of ground force would be necessary to secure the passage of the stranded members of the Yazidi group. The military is drawing up plans for consideration by President Obama that could include American ground troops.
So a couple of questions here.
Long before U.S. airstrikes, the defenseless Yazidi people climbed up that mountain for refuge from ISIS, who supposedly wanted to slaughter them. Why didn’t ISIS just also climb up and then slaughter them? We know ISIS had mortars and actual artillery, because the U.S. later bombed those. Why didn’t ISIS use those weapons to slaughter the Yazidis from afar?
Also, after one or two airstrikes, ISIS became so easy to defeat that the Kurds made it possible for 24,000 Yazidis to walk off the mountain, walk into Syria and then U-turn walk back into Iraq and settle in safely. It begs the question about how surrounded by determined ISIS fighters that mountain really was. It takes a long time for 24,000 people to do anything, and they’d need to be walking a long way during which time they would be vulnerable to ISIS. How could ISIS go from being such a threat that U.S. airpower was essential, to be pushed aside by Kurds who otherwise were having their hats handed to them by ISIS everywhere else?
And after all that, plus more airstrikes, why are there still people up on that mountain without food or water? How was it that 24,000 people could walk away but not everyone? The air strikes are ongoing, and those same Kurds that cleared a path once are still there.
The Iraqi government claims ISIS killed at least 500 Yazidis, burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves. The Iraqi government claimed “Some of the victims, including women and children, were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar.” This was reported by western media, at least one of whom was still ethical enough to add “no independent confirmation was available.” Recent mass graves in a desert area should stand out. This seems like something worth confirming instead of just repeating. What efforts are being made to confirm the information?
If every seat on every helicopter will save a Yazidi child’s life via evacuation, why are seats being allotted to CNN camera crews and other journalists? What is the priority?
What is the thinking about a group the U.S. has long-designated as a terrorist organization playing an active part in rescuing the Yazidis under American air cover? Shouldn’t the U.S. be bombing known terrorist organizations instead of working with them? Isn’t that sort of the actual point of a war on terror, to kill terrorists wherever they are?
Maybe there are good answers to these questions (please share below, with links) but is it at all possible that we’re being sold an emotionally compelling story to justify U.S. military intervention in Iraq? Perhaps that mountain the Yazidis are on has a slippery slope for the U.S.?
As America goes back to war in Iraq with airstrikes, here’s what to know and do instead:
– This is a slippery slope if those words have any meaning left. Airstrikes are in part to protect American advisors sent earlier to Erbil to support Kurds there because Iraqi central government won’t. The U.S. is assuming the role of the de facto Iraqi Air Force. What happens next week, next crisis, next “genocide?” Tell me how that ends.
– Understand how deep the U.S. is already in. It is highly likely that U.S. Special Forces are active on the ground, conducting reconnaissance missions and laser-designating targets for circling U.S. aircraft. If U.S. planes are overhead, U.S. search and rescue assets are not far away, perhaps in desert forward operating positions. Protecting/evacuating Americans from Erbil will be a major military operation. This is how bigger wars begin. Go Google “Vietnam War,” say starting about 1963.
– The U.S. media is playing the meme that the U.S. is worried about Christian minority in Iraq, as a way to engorge the American people with blood. But the media fails to note that over half of Iraq’s Christians were killed or fled during the U.S. occupation. The play in the Arab world that the U.S. cares more about a limited number of Christians now than untold thousands of Muslim lives will not aid U.S. long-term goals.
– The questions of why what is happening in Iraq is “genocide” and why what is happening in Gaza is not remains unaddressed by the United States. Even if Americans are not asking for an answer, many others are.
– Wait a tic– are we again “buying time” by putting American lives at risk so the Iraqis can form a government and reconcile in some short-term thing? Isn’t that what America had been doing since 2003? Wasn’t that what the “success of the Surge” in 2007 was all about? We have seen this movie already friends.
– The only realistic hope to derail ISIS is to alienate them from Iraq Sunnis, who provide the on-the-ground support any insurgency must have to succeed. Mao called a sympathetic population “the water the fish swims in.” Separating the people from the insurgents is CounterInsurgency 101. Instead, via airstrikes, the U.S. has gone all-in on side of Iraqi Shias and Kurds. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
– Sunnis are not confined by the borders of Iraq and this is not a chessboard. U.S. actions toward Sunnis in Iraq (or Syria, or wherever) resonate throughout the Sunni world. There is no better recruitment tool for Sunni extremists than showing their fight is actually against the Americans. ISIS seems to be playing to this, calling the Americans “defenders of the cross.”
– Throughout the broader Islamic world, the takeaway is that again the U.S. unleashes war against Muslims. Nothing can inspire jihad like seeing the struggle in Iraq as one against the Crusaders. ISIS seems to know this, and taunts America into deeper involvement with statements such as “the flag of Allah will fly over the White House.”
– Precise, Surgical Strikes: Sure, just ask those wedding parties in Yemen and Afghanistan how that has worked out. It is near-evitable that mistakes will be made and innocents will die at American hands.
– ISIS’ connections to al Qaeda are tenuous at present. However, just like when Sunnis felt threatened during the U.S. occupation, fear and military needs will inevitably drive them closer to al Qaeda.
– Irony: Back to the Future: U.S. airstrikes on Iraq are being launched from an aircraft carrier named after George H.W. Bush, who first involved the U.S. in a shooting war against Iraq in 1991′s Desert Storm.
– Air strikes will not resolve anything significant. The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better? We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
– Oh, but what should we do?!?!? The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
Step One: Stop digging the hole deeper (see above, Sunni-Shia-Kurd problem);
Step Two: 2: Demand the Iraqi government stop persecuting and alienating their own Sunni population, the root of these insurgent problems;
Step Three: Demand the Saudis and others stop funding ISIS in hopes of choking back their strength;
Step Four: Demand the Iraqi government launch airstrikes in support of the Kurds as a show of support;
Step Five: Deliver humanitarian aid only through the UN and the Red Crescent. In Vietnam, this mistake was colloquially expressed as “F*ck ‘em, then Feed ‘em.” So instead, divorce the good U.S. stuff from the bad U.S. stuff.
Those things will be a good start. Airstrikes are a terrible start that begs a tragic finish.
Be sure to also see Ten Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq are a Terrible Idea.
Show of hands: anybody out there who heard much of the Yazidi in Iraq before a day or two ago? Because our president is going to re-engage in combat in Iraq to save them. Airstrikes are now authorized!
Save Our Yazidi
Once upon a time placing America’s service people in harm’s way, spending America’s money and laying America’s credibility on the line required at least the pretext that some national interest was at stake. Not any more. Anytime some group we don’t like threatens a group we could care not so much about, America must act to save a proud people, stop a humanitarian crisis, take down a brutal leader, put an end to genocide, whatever will briefly engage the sodden minds of the public between innings and spin up some new war fever. Some of these crisis’ get a brief moment in the #media (Save our girls!), some fizzle and fade (The Syrian people!) and some never even made sense (Somebody in the Ukraine!)
With some irony, “freeing the Iraqi people from an evil dictator” was one of the many justifications for the 2003 invasion.
And so this week, apparently it is the Yazidis in northern Iraq. These people consider themselves a distinct ethnic and religious group from the Kurds with whom they live in Iraq, though the Kurds consider them Kurdish. Their religion combines elements of Zoroastrianism with Sufi Islam. One of their important angels is represented on earth in peacock form, and was flung out of paradise for refusing to bow down to Adam. While the Yazidis see that as a sign of goodness, many Muslims view the figure as a fallen angel and regard the Yazidis as devil-worshippers. Fun Facts: the Yadzidi don’t eat lettuce, either, and also boast a long tradition of kidnapping their wives. The photo above shows them slaughtering a sheep, which they do eat.
Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians (kind of a big spread of an estimate given how important these people are now to the U.S.) are currently stranded on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq without food and water, having been driven out of town by ISIS earlier this week.
So, in response to this humanitarian crisis, or this genocide as the New Yorker called it, Obama’s answer is pretty much the same answer (the only answer?) to any unfolding world event, more U.S. military intervention.
With no apparent irony, the White House spokesperson, surnamed Earnest (honestly, Orwell must be laughing in his grave) said on the same day “We can’t solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions.”
Obama also has said U.S. airstrikes on Iraq aim to protect U.S. military advisers in Iraq who one guesses are not part of that political solution by definition.
I feel for anyone suffering, and I have no doubt the Yazidis are suffering. But as we start bombing things in Iraq again, let’s invite Obama to answer a few questions; White House journalists, pens at the ready please:
– Since this is happening in Iraq, and the U.S. spent $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army and sold it some serious weaponry, why isn’t it the Iraqis who will be doing any needed bombing? Is it because they are incompetent, or is it because the Baghdad government is either afraid to operate in Kurdish territory and/or wholly unconcerned what the hell happens up there?
Yep, might be those things. The Yazidis have long complained that neither Iraq’s Arabs nor Kurds protect them. In 2007, in what remains one of the most lethal attacks during the American Occupation, suicide bombers driving trucks packed with explosives attacked a Yazidi village in northwestern Iraq, killing almost 800 people.
– At the same time, since this is happening in defacto Kurdistan, and the U.S. has spent billions there since 1991 and supplied it some serious weaponry, why isn’t it the Kurds who will be doing any needed bombing to protect those they consider their own people? Hmm, just an idea, but the U.S. has recently imposed an economic oil embargo on Kurds to force them to stay with Iraq and they might be unhappy with American ‘stuff right now.
– Outside Kurdistan/Iraq, the other major Yazidi population centers are in Turkey and Iran. So why aren’t they doing any needed bombing?
– If indeed this Yazidi issue is a genocide, why isn’t the U.S. seeking UN action or sanction? The UN has, after all, started safely extracting small number of Yazidis. Could anyone help with that?
– If indeed this Yazidi issue is a genocide, why aren’t any of America’s allies jumping in to assist in any needed bombing? Seriously, if all this is really so important, how come it is just the U.S. involved, always?
– While saving the Yazidis is the stated goal, in fact any U.S. airstrikes are technically and officially acts of war on behalf of the Government of Iraq. And we’re also cool with that, yes?
– And c’mon, isn’t this just a cynical excuse to tug on some American heartstrings, crank up the war fever and get us back into the Iraq war? ‘Cause even if that’s not the intention, it is a likely result.
– And Obama, we’re gonna be cool announcing the loss of American life, again, in Iraq, this time to save the Yazidi? ‘Cause even though there are supposedly no boots on the ground, there is no way you are going to drop bombs near civilians you are trying to protect without Special Forces laying their boots on the ground to guide in the airstrikes. We are not Israelis, after all.
I am quite pleased to have joined the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.org.
The group’s message is clear: encourage more government officials to blow the whistle. As said on their website, “ExposeFacts.org represents a new approach for encouraging whistleblowers to disclose information that citizens need to make truly informed decisions in a democracy. From the outset, our message is clear: “Whistleblowers Welcome at ExposeFacts.org.”
I’m sort of amazed I fit in alongside the others working with ExposeFacts: Barbara Ehrenreich, Dan Ellsberg, Tom Drake, Jesselyn Radack, Michael Ratner, Matt Hoh, Coleen Rowley, Ann Wright and Ray McGovern. So there’s yer humble brag for today.
I am also quite pleased that half a block from the State Department in Washington, at a bus stop used by America’s diplomats, ExposeFacts erected its first outdoor advertisement encouraging government employees to blow the whistle (photo above; that’s Matt Hoh there, not me). The ad shows Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg alongside the words “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until a new war has started, don’t wait until thousands more have died, before you tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. You might save a war’s worth of lives.”
ExposeFacts will erect more such ads at other prominent locations in Washington and beyond. As an advisory board member, I’m glad to report that outreach to potential whistleblowers is just getting started.
(For those new to the blog, I am a State Department whistleblower, so this all resonates with me personally as well as a concerned American. Learn more in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project))
You can’t get more serious about protecting the people from their government than the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, specifically in its most critical clause: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In 2011, the White House ordered the drone-killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without trial. It claimed this was a legal act it is prepared to repeat as necessary. Given the Fifth Amendment, how exactly was this justified? Thanks to a much contested, recently released but significantly redacted — about one-third of the text is missing — Justice Department white paper providing the basis for that extrajudicial killing, we finally know: the president in Post-Constitutional America is now officially judge, jury, and executioner.
Due Process in Constitutional America
Looking back on the violations of justice that characterized British rule in pre-Constitutional America, it is easy to see the Founders’ intent in creating the Fifth Amendment. A government’s ability to inflict harm on its people, whether by taking their lives, imprisoning them, or confiscating their property, was to be checked by due process.
Due process is the only requirement of government that is stated twice in the Constitution, signaling its importance. The Fifth Amendment imposed the due process requirement on the federal government, while the Fourteenth Amendment did the same for the states. Both offer a crucial promise to the people that fair procedures will remain available to challenge government actions. The broader concept of due process goes all the way back to the thirteenth-century Magna Carta.
Due process, as refined over the years by the Supreme Court, came to take two forms in Constitutional America. The first was procedural due process: people threatened by government actions that might potentially take away life, liberty, or possessions would have the right to defend themselves from a power that sought, whether for good reasons or bad, to deprive them of something important. American citizens were guaranteed their proverbial “day in court.”
The second type, substantive due process, was codified in 1938 to protect those rights so fundamental that they are implicit in liberty itself, even when not spelled out explicitly in the Constitution. Had the concept been in place at the time, a ready example would have been slavery. Though not specifically prohibited by the Constitution, it was on its face an affront to democracy. No court process could possibly have made slavery fair. The same held, for instance, for the “right” to an education, to have children, and so forth. Substantive due process is often invoked by supporters of same-sex unions, who assert that there is a fundamental right to marry. The meaning is crystal clear: there is an inherent, moral sense of “due process” applicable to government actions against any citizen and it cannot be done away with legally. Any law that attempts to interfere with such rights is inherently unconstitutional.
On September 30, 2011, on the order of the president, a U.S. drone fired a missile in Yemen and killed Anwar al-Awlaki. A Northern Virginia Islamic cleric, in the aftermath of 9/11 he had been invited to lunch at the Pentagon as part of a program to create ties to Muslim moderates. After he moved to Yemen a few years later, the U.S. accused him of working with al-Qaeda as a propagandist who may have played an online role in persuading others to join the cause. (He was allegedly linked to the “Underwear Bomber” and the Fort Hood shooter.) However, no one has ever accused him of pulling a trigger or setting off a bomb, deeds that might, in court, rise to the level of a capital crime. Al-Awlaki held a set of beliefs and talked about them. For that he was executed without trial.
In March 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder made quite a remarkable statement about the al-Awlaki killing. He claimed “that a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to ‘due process’ and that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against depriving a citizen of his or her life without due process of law does not mandate a ‘judicial process.’” In other words, according to the top legal authority in the nation, a White House review was due process enough when it came to an American citizen with al-Qaeda sympathies. In this, though it was unknown at the time, Holder was essentially quoting a secret white paper on that killing produced by the Office of Legal Counsel, located in the department he headed.
In June 2014, after a long court battle to shield the underlying legal basis for the killing, the Obama administration finally released a redacted version of that classified 2010 white paper. In the end, it did so only because without its release key senators were reluctant to confirm the memo’s author, David Barron, who had been nominated by President Obama to serve on the First Circuit Court of Appeals. (Once it was made public, Barron was indeed confirmed.)
The importance of the white paper to understanding Post-Constitutional America cannot be understated. Despite all the unconstitutional actions taken by the government since 9/11 — including striking violations of the Fourth Amendment — this paper is to date the only glimpse we have of the kind of thinking that has gone into Washington’s violations of the Bill of Rights.
Here’s the terrifying part: ostensibly the result of some of the best legal thinking available to the White House on a issue that couldn’t be more basic to the American system, it wouldn’t get a first-year law student a C-. The arguments are almost bizarrely puerile in a document that is a visibly shaky attempt to provide cover for a pre-determined premise. No wonder the administration fought its release for so long. Its officials were, undoubtedly, ashamed of it. Let’s drill down.
Death by Pen
For the killing of an American citizen to be legal, the document claims, you need one essential thing: “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government [who] has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” In addition, capture must be found to be unfeasible and the act of killing must follow the existing laws of war, which means drones are okay but poison gas is a no-no.
The rest of the justification in the white paper flows from that premise in a perverse chain of ankle-bone-connected-to-the-leg-bone logic: the president has the obligation to protect America; al-Qaeda is a threat; Congress authorized war against it; and being in al-Qaeda is more relevant than citizenship (or as the document crudely puts it, “citizenship does not immunize the target”). International borders and the sovereignty of other nations are not issues if the U.S. determines the host nation is “unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual targeted.” Basically, it’s all an extension of the idea of self-defense, with more than a dash of convenience shaken in.
When the white paper addresses the Fifth Amendment’s right to due process, and to a lesser extent, the Fourth Amendment’s right against unwarranted seizure (that is, the taking of a life), it dismisses them via the “balancing test.” Not exactly bedrock constitutional material, it works this way: in situations where the government’s interest overshadows an individual’s interest, and the individual’s interest isn’t that big a deal to begin with, and a mistake by the government can later be undone, the full due process clause of the Fifth Amendment need not come into play.
The three-point balancing test cited by the white paper as conclusive enough to justify the extrajudicial killing of an American comes from a 1976 Supreme Court case, Mathews v. Eldridge. There, the court held that an individual denied Social Security benefits had a right to some form of due process, but not necessarily full-blown hearings. In Anwar al-Awlaki’s case, this translates into some truly dubious logic: the government’s interest in protecting Americans overshadows one citizen’s interest in staying alive. Somehow, the desire to stay alive doesn’t count for much because al-Awlaki belonged to al-Qaeda and was in the backlands of Yemen, which meant that he was not conveniently available by capture for a trial date. Admittedly, there’s no undoing death in a drone killing, but so what.
The white paper also draws heavily on the use of the balancing test in the case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in which the U.S. rendered from Afghanistan Yaser Hamdi, a Saudi-American citizen, and sought to detain him indefinitely without trial. After a long legal battle that went to the Supreme Court, the balance test was applied to limit — but not fully do away with — due process. Despite limiting Hamdi’s rights in service to the war on terror, the court was clear: Yaser Hamdi should have a meaningful opportunity to challenge his status. Fearing that giving him his moment in court would expose the brutal reality of his capture, interrogation, and detention, the U.S. government instead released him to Saudi Arabia.
Hamdi’s case dealt with procedural questions, such as whether he should be allowed a trial and if so, under what conditions. As with Mathews v. Eldridge, Hamdi never focused on issues of life and death. Cases can be (re)tried, prisoners released, property returned. Dead is dead — in the case of al-Awlaki that applies to the drone’s target, the balance test, and the Fifth Amendment itself.
What Do Words Mean in Post-Constitutional America?
Having dispensed with significant constitutional issues thanks to some exceedingly dubious logic, the white paper returns to its basic premise: that a kill is legal when that “informed, high-level official” determines that an “imminent threat” to the country is involved. In other words, if the president is convinced, based on whatever proof is provided, he can order an American citizen killed. The white paper doesn’t commit itself on how far down the chain of “high-level officials” kill authority can be delegated. Could the Secretary of the Interior, for instance, issue such an order? He or she is, after all, eighth in the line of succession should the president die in office.
The white paper does, however, spend a fair amount of time explaining how the dictionary definitions of “imminent” and “immediate” do not apply. For kill purposes, it says, the U.S. must have “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.” However, the paper goes on to explain that “immediate” can include a situation like al-Awlaki’s in which a person may or may not have been engaged in planning actual attacks that might not be launched for years, or perhaps ever. The paper claims that, since al-Qaeda would prefer to attack the U.S. on a continual basis, any planning or forethought today, however fantastical or future-oriented, constitutes an “imminent” attack that requires sending in the drones.
And if, as perhaps the author of the paper suspected, that isn’t really enough when faced with the bluntness of the Constitution on the issue, the white paper haphazardly draws on the public authority justification. According to this legal concept, public authorities can, in rare circumstances, violate the law — a cop can justifiably kill a bad guy under certain conditions. By extension, the white paper argues, the government of the United States can drone-kill a citizen who is allegedly a member of al-Qaeda. The white paper conveniently doesn’t mention that police shootings are subject to judicial review, and those who commit such unlawful acts can face punishment. The laws behind such a review are unclassified and public, not the rationed fodder of a redacted white paper.
For the final nail in the coffin of some American citizen, the white paper concludes that, Fifth Amendment violation or not, its arguments cannot be challenged in court. In cases of “foreign policy,” courts have traditionally almost always refused to intervene, holding that they are in the realm of the executive branch in consultation, as required, with Congress. Killing an American abroad, the white paper insists, is a foreign policy act and so none of any courts’ business.
Substantive due process legally applies only to legislation, and it is highly unlikely that the Obama administration will seek legislative sanction for its kill process. So it is in one sense not surprising that the white paper makes no mention of it. However, looking at what we can read of that redacted document through the broader lens of substantive due process does tell us a lot about Post-Constitutional America. In Constitutional America, the idea was that a citizen’s right to life and the due process that went with it was essentially an ultimate principle that trumped all others, no matter how bad or evil that person might be. What is important in the white paper is not so much what is there, but what is missing: a fundamental sense of justness.
As medieval kings invoked church sanction to justify evil deeds, so in our modern world lawyers are mobilized to transform government actions that spit in the face of substantive due process — torture, indefinite detention without charge, murder — into something “legal.” Torture morphs into acceptable enhanced interrogation techniques, indefinite detention acquires a quasi-legal stance with the faux-justice of military tribunals, and the convenient murder of a citizen is turned into an act of “self-defense.” However unpalatable Anwar al-Awlaki’s words passed on via the Internet may have been, they would be unlikely to constitute a capital crime in a U.S. court. His killing violated the Fifth Amendment both procedurally and substantively.
Despite its gravity, once the white paper was pried loose from the White House few seemed to care what it said. Even the New York Times, which had fought in court alongside the ACLU to have it released, could only bring itself to editorialize mildly that the document offered “little confidence that the lethal action was taken with real care” and suggest that the rubber-stamp secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court be involved in future kill orders. The ACLU’s comments focused mostly on the need for more documentation on the kills. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans, 52%, approve of drone strikes, likely including the one on Anwar al-Awlaki.
The Kind of Country We Live In
We have fallen from a high place. Dark things have been done. Imagine, pre-9/11, the uproar if we had learned that the first President Bush had directed the NSA to sweep up all America’s communications without warrant, or if Bill Clinton had created a secret framework to kill American citizens without trial. Yet such actions over the course of two administrations are now accepted as almost routine, and entangled in platitudes falsely framing the debate as one between “security” and “freedom.” I suspect that, if they could bring themselves to a moment of genuine honesty, the government officials involved in creating Post-Constitutional America would say that they really never imagined it would be so easy.
In one sense, America the Homeland has become the most significant battleground in the war on terror. No, not in the numbers of those killed or maimed, but in the broad totality of what has been lost to us for no gain. It is worth remembering that, in pre-Constitutional America, a powerful executive — the king — ruled with indifference to the people. With the Constitution, we became a nation, in spirit if not always in practice, based on a common set of values, our Bill of Rights. When you take that away, we here in Post-Constitutional America are just a trailer park of strangers.
“I’m still not sure exactly what happened,” said gaffe-prone, beleaguered Secretary of State John Kerry, “but I’m told I agreed to sanctions on myself.”
In an exclusive, Kerry explained his mistake.
“So there we were in the Middle East. I travel almost constantly, and at my age, even with a large staff, it can get hard to keep track. I mean, have you ever been to the MidEast? Every place looks like every other place. It’s hot, sandy, and each country seems to have some sort of odd headgear. Look, I’m not the first to get confused by all this.”
“Anyway, so I’m tired. We’re in West-Somewhere-Stan, some forsaken patch of garbage with no oil, where the national export is dust, and I’m shaking hands for a photo op with what seems like the same orphan I shook hands in Baghdad, Kabul, Cairo and Tunis. Does that kid travel on the plane with me? We had had some local food for lunch which did not agree with me, and so I proposed sanctioning humus. Maybe it was sort of a joke, maybe I meant Hamas, maybe it was the Ambien talking. Next thing I know, the State Department spokesperson in Washington is telling reporters I have imposed a sanction on a beloved food product.”
“It really hits the fan then. Half the Middle East turns around and imposes retaliatory sanctions on me. Those people can’t agree on something simple like not killing each others’ kids, and bang! overnight they band together on some silly food thing. I had hoped it was going to blow over after another suicide bombing like always, but then Israel joins in the sanctions against me. Cray cray, amiright?”
Kerry leaned over to an aide, who confirmed for him that he had read his printed talking points correctly.
“Can’t be too careful, right?” joked Kerry, now chewing on the edge of the note card.
“So once Israel agreed to join every Arab nation on the planet in sanctioning me, my hands were tied. I mean, when Israel barks, I’m there with a Scooby treat, often a multi-million dollar treat. So, in a show of solidarity with Israel– who indeed has the right to defend itself against me, which I strongly support– I agreed to join the sanctions regime against myself. I even explained that the United States views the situation with concern to make it all official. Tomorrow I’ll add ‘grave concern.’ That’ll show me I mean business about myself.”
“Next thing I know, everybody in the U.S. is on TV about it. I thought nobody actually watched those Sunday morning news shows, but it turns out that Fox has an intern who takes notes if she’s up early. Pretty soon all of the media has opinions on this, some former Ambassador is writing an Op-Ed and then Barack orders me to come home and not leave my room.”
“So we get on the plane and I’m relaxing with a stiff drink when out the window I see three F-18′s escorting us. My pilot tells me they’re trying to force us to land somewhere, saying I’m violating my own sanctions by flying, plus I’m on the No-Fly list now. Guess what? I end up in Moscow! Nearest airport somehow. You’d think they had a lot of places to stay there with capitalism and all, but I found out all the VIPs are stuck in the same place, which was booked solid for the Ukrainian National Day celebration, and I get stuck on Edward Snowden’s couch for the night. Awkward.”
“At least the guy is pretty quiet, though he leaves his towels on the floor in the shower. And who doesn’t flush? But we got along OK and he even helped me with my laptop. The State Department still runs some software thingie I’m told is called “Windows XP” and Snowden told me it hadn’t been ‘patched’ since ‘like when the first Matrix came out.’ I had left the paper with all my passwords on the plane, but he knew mine somehow. He even said he installed a free ‘keylogger’ for me and some other good stuff. I asked him if I needed a new laptop and he was adamant that I should never, ever stop using the one he had installed all that magic stuff on. What could I say? Hah hah, I can’t even program my VCR I told Ed.”
“That was apparently funny, because my aide had to explain to Ed what a VCR was. Ed said ‘LOL,’ which made me feel good after all those sanctions.”
“How it could the day get worse? One word– Vladimir Putin. Really, what is that guy’s problem? Putin shows up on TV opposing sanctions against me. C’mon, does that dude have to oppose everything we do? Yeah, apparently he does. So I have to throw together a press conference where I call out Putin for opposing sanctions on me, and call on the international community to robustly support even greater sanctions against me. The EU issues a statement saying they resolutely aren’t sure what their position is, and the press sniping starts all over. I’m stuck ‘accidentally’ saying into an open mic I’m personally really angry at myself for not upholding the sanctions. What a mess.”
“Next thing I know, my own State Department starts Tweeting about the sanctions, hashtagging my sorry self with junk like #SaveALifeSanctionKerry. Worse yet, they’re sending me emails asking me to approve the Tweets about myself, something about policies come and go but bureaucracy remains. Man, me and Snowden had a laugh about that one. He knew my password for Netflix and so we just chilled after that.”
“So here I am stuck in Russia with all these sanctions on me. I hear Obama is threatening to ‘ratchet down’ the sanctions on me if China doesn’t lower tariffs. I’d like to fly there and sort that out, but with the sanctions I’m really over a barrell. I can’t even use my card at the ATM. At this point I’m not sure what to do next. I’m thinking of calling up Jon Stewart and seeing if he’ll weigh in for me. He’s about the only guy left Barack really listens to. Wish me luck.”
In the world of spying in general, and especially when you’re spying on allied nations, Rule No. 1 is “Don’t Get Caught.” Rule No. 2 is “Make Sure the Juice is Worth the Squeeze.” The U.S. broke both rules, several times, in Germany. For what?
Rule No. 1: Don’t Get Caught
Getting caught spying is never a good idea. Want to end a relationship? Have your girlfriend discover you looking through her cell phone. The same applies to nations. Though the adage “everyone spies on everyone” and its antecedent “spying is the world’s second oldest profession” are true, getting caught trumps both, especially when spying on a friendly nation.
In Germany, the U.S. was caught. Several times.
The Snowden revelations showed that not only did the United States (via the NSA) spy on Germany as a whole, vacuuming up all sorts of communications, but that it drilled down to the level of spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. Recently, however, two more examples emerged.
The first involved a mid-level employee of the German intelligence service, arrested on July 2. The employee, identified only as Markus R., became of interest in May after he sent an email to the Russian consulate in Munich offering classified information. He even attached a sample intelligence document to his email, information suggesting another German official was a Russian spy.
German counterintelligence officials set up a trap, replying to Markus R. using a fake Russian email address, suggesting a meeting. Markus R. didn’t bite. Seeking help, the Germans forwarded Markus’ Gmail address to the Americans, asking if they recognized it. No reply from the Americans. Instead, Markus R.’s email address suddenly shut down. The Germans arrested Markus, who rolled over and provided proof he was spying for the U.S.
That other German official, maybe a Russian spy Markus dangled in front of the Russians? That took a curious twist. It turns out that German intelligence had had the guy on its radar since 2010, and had learned the man had taken trips paid for by an “American friend.” Soon after the Germans raided the guy’s home and, perhaps by coincidence, then immediately expelled the head of the CIA resident in Germany.
How Not to Get Caught
Sometimes things just go belly-up and there is not much you could have done. But often times there are things you could have done.
To begin, one must vet one’s agents, the foreign citizen who is paid to spy for you on his own country. Is he a flake? A fake? A glory seeker, an adventurer, a Walter Mitty-type? Has he shopped his information around to other spies? What is his motivation? If you pay him a lot of money, will he do stupid things like suddenly start buying luxury goods on a clerk’s salary? What are his weaknesses– if he talks too much to you when drunk, maybe he’ll do the same with others. If he can be played with women, men, drugs, gambling or whatever, well, the other side(s) knows how to do that too. The answers to these questions can help predict whether or not he can be trusted. After all, by your choosing to work with him, he now knows some of your secrets too.
Next up is assessing his ability to spy for you without doing things that will compromise the action. Does he understand how to communicate securely, how to be discreet, how to acquire documents without alerting his employer? Is he teachable, can he follow instructions on how to do all those things? If you give him secure ways to communicate, does he use them all the time, or does he panic and call over open channels? (Markus R., after his initial email(s), was apparently given a secure communications device by his American handler.)
What about the host nation? How good are they at counter-intelligence? How good are you at counter-counter-intelligence, knowing what they know about your activities? This dictates how much caution and discretion needs to be involved.
Markus R. apparently offered himself directly to the U.S. via an open email, and then went on to try the same with the Russians. In the latter instance, he communicated openly over Gmail, even attaching a sensitive document. Given the furor over the Snowden revelations in Germany, and his own position inside the German intelligence operation, it is impossible that he was unaware of the boneheadedness of such actions. This should have been a full-blown emergency sign inside the CIA.
Finally, don’t make it easy for the other side to catch you. Slamming shut the Gmail account right after the Germans asked the U.S. about it pretty much sealed the deal.
All of this brings us to Rule No. 2.
Rule No. 2: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
In other words, for any given information (the juice), what effort is required to obtain it (the squeeze)? Similarly, what is the potential fallout if the squeeze is exposed? In the German caper, the violation of Rule No. 2 seems near-complete.
Following the Snowden revelations, it was dead solid perfect obvious that anything to do with additional spying inside Germany, never mind spying on Germany, would be sensitive enough to immediately reach the highest levels of both governments. That should have set off a careful evaluation of activity, with a risk analysis of each and every operation ongoing or planned. The question that should have been being asked was “If this gets out, given the likely bilateral fallout, can we justify that by what we learned?” In other words, was the info acquired so valuable to the U.S. that it was worth the firestorm that followed?
It does not appear that risk analysis was done, or if it was done, that anyone paid attention to it. Though full details are of course (for now…) unknown, it appears that Markus R. did not turn over documents critical to U.S. national security. Some reports claim what he revealed mostly dealt with what the German’s were doing about the earlier NSA revelations. According to one news source, Markus “admitted passing to an American contact details concerning a German parliamentary committee’s investigation of alleged U.S. eavesdropping disclosed by Edward Snowden.”
Though some agents are bought off very cheaply by the CIA, that seems less applicable in a first world nation such as Germany. You often do get what you pay for; the U.S. allegedly only paid Markus R. about $34,000.
Further risk was assumed by possibly involving a third country, also an ally. Reports suggest Markus R. traveled to Austria to meet his CIA handler, and that the whole operation was run primarily out of Austria. That can push the disruption of relations across a second border with little if any potential benefit to the United States.
There have been short-term negatives. The German Interior Ministry said it would cancel a contract with Verizon Communications. “The links revealed between foreign intelligence agencies and firms,” the ministry said in a statement, “show that the German government needs a high level of security for its essential networks.” A lot of rhetoric will pass. There is no doubt that American intelligence officers in Germany will come under greater scrutiny, likely reducing their effectiveness. Some points of intel cooperation between the U.S. and Germany may suffer.
But U.S.-German relations are long, deep and complex. The Markus R. incident, like the NSA revelations, will be hard to track in the broader picture. It will be hard to pinpoint specific changes in the relationship, as they will be subtle if not classified, or because they may not even occur.
Perhaps though the bigger lesson here is more domestic than foreign. Obama claims he was not informed of the Markus R. case, as he claimed he was not informed of NSA spying on Merkel’s cell phone. Was CIA action in the Markus case (and the NSA’s earlier actions) sensitive to their implications? Did the CIA act in concert with broader U.S. government goals and aims, or did they act with a lack of concern? The answers to those questions may tell us more about how things are working inside our own government than anything to do with foreign relations.
BONUS: There is a Rule No. 3, but if I told you that I’d have to kill you…
Film Director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, Untold History of the United States, W., Nixon, Salvador) endorsed We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
Have a look:
Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne (whose excellent book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails was reviewed on this blog) and Abigail R. Hall, a second year Mercatus PhD Fellow, have come up with original research that shows the dangers of America’s unfettered global arms sales:
– Policymakers cannot know the outcome of supplying new arms in an attempt to influence foreign affairs in one manner or another because there are a series of unpredictable consequences that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.
– It is nearly impossible for the U.S. government to monitor how arms it has sold for a particular purpose are latery used or transferred. These weapons may ultimately be used to achieve ends which may be at odds with the original goal.
– An expansion in the global arms market creates new profit opportunities funded by international political entities leading domestic arms producers to direct additional resources to lobbying both domestic and foreign governments. An increase in the size and scope of the global arms market for domestic producers increases this lobbying and the associated deadweight loss brought about by rent seeking.
– It is unclear if the U.S. government were to scale back its control of the global arms market, the result would be more total global arms. This is because a decrease in U.S. subsidies of weapons to other countries would increase the price of weapons and decrease the quantity demanded by foreign governments; a sharp decrease in the supply of arms would drive the price of weapons upward; many foreign governments face diseconomies of scale leading to a lower overall volume of arms.
U.S. Dramatically Leads in Global Arms Sales
Coyne and Hall explain just how big a player the U.S. is in the world arms market: Between 1970 and 1979 the U.S. arranged more than $74 billion in weapons sales. Between 1980 and 1989 the U.S. would agree to sell over $97 billion in arms to nations abroad. This number would rise again between 1990 and 1999 to $128 billion. Between 2000 and 2010 the U.S. arranged to send more than $192 billion in arms to countries all over the globe.
That makes America responsible for at least 68.4 percent of all global arms trade today. The next highest countries, Russia and Italy, account for only nine percent each. U.S. share in the arms market to developing nations is even higher, 78 percent. Russia, number two, accounts for just under six percent.
Do Arms Sales Facilitate Diplomacy and Secure National Security Objectives?
The most prominent U.S. government argument in favor of all these arms sales is that they facilitate diplomacy and secure national security objectives. For example, the line goes, countries that receive U.S. weapons want better all-around ties with the U.S. As for national security objectives, the idea is supposedly, as in Iraq at present, weapons sold allow some other country to fight for what the U.S. supports. But is any of that actually true?
Well, no, not really, according to Coyne and Hall. Successes in foreign policy bought with weapons sales assumes U.S. policymakers can determine the correct mix of weapons and recipients needed to achieve these goals. But the real world is messy; send arms to the Mujahedin in Afghanistan to kill occupying Russians in the 1980s and inadvertently help create al Qaeda in the 1990s, that kind of thing. Influence one thug leader somewhere with shiny weapons, and then hope like hell he stays within U.S. boundaries, does not transfer the weapons for his own purposes (illicit small-arms sales are a big business for some governments, constituting more than an estimated $1 billion in annual revenues), and does not lose control of the weapons entirely in some future coup, revolt or invasion. In short, as the report puts it, “system-type thinking matters because it implies that attempts to influence foreign affairs through arms sales can never simply do one thing, even if this is the intention, because there are a series of unpredictable consequences over time and space that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.”
And Then There’s Iraq
Professor Coyne, in an interview with me, brought the whole academic point down to the very practical in applying his and Ms. Hall’s work to the current situation in Iraq:
“The situation in Iraq provides an excellent, albeit sad, illustration of some of our main points. The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the ISIS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware (Humvees, trucks, rifles, ammunition.) ISIS promptly picked up this equipment and are now using it as part of their broader offensive effort. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.
“Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?”
There are many more well-argued such examples in a report that should cause U.S. policymakers to rethink their global arm sales policies, but likely won’t. The U.S. remains committed to a chess-board based view of foreign policy in general, and arms sales in particular. We make a move that we think affects only one square on the board, or maybe one piece or at the most one opponent. That opponent then makes a counter move. The U.S. plays multiple boards at once– Iraq, China, Venezuela– under the illusion that the games are not fully interconnected. Coyne’s and Hall’s work shows, in the specific case of global arms sales, how very wrong such a thought process is.
The world is complex. Countries’ interests intertwine, alliances are multi-dimensional, and you can’t assume a move on one board won’t affect another, or all of the others. That is why in lay terms, as Coyne and Hall demonstrate academically, in anything but the shortest term thinking U.S. global arms sales are doomed to neither facilitate diplomacy nor secure national security objectives.
The whole report is worth your time. Download a copy here.
The mistakes of U.S. foreign policy are mostly based on the same flawed idea: that the world is a chessboard on which the U.S. makes moves, or manipulates proxies to make moves, that either defeat, counter or occasionally face setbacks from the single opponent across the table.
The game held up for a fair amount of time; the U.S. versus the Nazis (D-Day = checkmate!), the U.S. versus Japan (Lose an important piece at Pearl Harbor, grab pawns island by island across the Pacific, and so forth). Most of the Cold War seemed to work this way.
And so into Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration seemed to believe they could invade Iraq, topple Saddam and little would be left to do but put away the unused chessmen and move on to the next game. In reality, world affairs do not (any longer?) exist in a bipolar game. Things are complex, and things fall apart. Here is a quick tour of that new form of game in Iraq.
– Iranian transport planes are making two daily flights of military equipment into Baghdad, 70 tons per flight, to resupply Iraqi security forces.
– Iran is flying Ababil surveillance drones over Iraq from Al Rashid airfield near Baghdad. Tehran also deployed an intelligence unit to intercept communications. General Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, visited Iraq at least twice to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. Iran has also deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilize more than 2,000 Shiite militiamen from southern Iraq.
– As many as ten divisions of Iranian military and Quds Force troops are massed on the border, ready to intevene if Baghdad comes under assault or if important Shiite shrines in cities like Samarra are threatened, American officials say.
– Suleimani was a presence in Iraq during the U.S. Occupation and helped direct attacks against American troops. In particular, Iraqi Shiite militias under the tutelage of Suleimani attacked American troops with powerful explosive devices supplied by Tehran. These shaped charges were among the very few weapons used toward the end of the U.S. Occupation that could pierce U.S. armor, and were directly responsible for the deaths of Americans.
– General Suleimani is also the current architect of Iranian military support in Syria for President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. calls for Assad to give up power, and was steps away from war in Syria to remove Assad only months ago.
– Should America conduct air strikes in Iraq (some claim they are already stealthily underway), those strikes would be in direct support of Iranian efforts, and perhaps Iranian troops, on the ground.
– The United States has increased its manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq, and is now flying about 30 to 35 missions a day. The American flights include F-18s and P-3 surveillance planes, as well as drones.
– ISIS, currently seen as a direct threat to both Iraq, Syria and the Homeland, is a disparate group of mostly Sunni-affiliated fighters with strong ties to Syria. The U.S. is now at war with them, though it appears that as recently as 2012 the U.S. may have had Special Forces arming and training them at a secret base in Safawi, in Jordan’s northern desert region. There are reports that the U.S. also trained fighters at locations in Turkey, feeding them into the Syrian conflict against Assad.
– ISIS has been funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, three supposed U.S. allies. “The U.S. Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing. But Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug,” a Brookings Institute report states.
– ISIS itself is a international group, though added 1,500 Sunni Iraqis it liberated from a Shia prison near Mosul. A senior U.S. intelligence official said there are approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters — roughly 7,000 in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign fighters who have been incorporated into ISIS ranks.
– The New York Times reports Turkey allowed rebel groups of any stripe easy access across its borders to the battlefields in Syria in an effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad. An unknown number of Turks are now hostages in Iraq, and Turkey continues its tussles with the Kurds to (re)fine that border.
– “The fall of Mosul was the epitome of the failure of Turkish foreign policy over the last four years,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “I can’t disassociate what happened in Mosul from what happened in Syria.”
– With the official Iraqi Army in disarray, Prime Minister Maliki is increasingly reliant on Shiite militias primarily loyal to individual warlords and clerics, such as the Madhi Army. Despite nine years of Occupation, the U.S. never defeated the Madhi Army. Prime Minister Maliki never had the group surrender its weapons, and now, with the Baghdad government too weak to disarm them, they exist as the private muscle of Iraq’s hardline Shias. Once loosed onto the battlefield, Maliki will not be able to control the militias. The Mahdi Army has also sworn to attack American “advisors” sent to Iraq, believing them to be a vanguard for a second U.S. occupation. Many of the most powerful militias owe their ultimate loyalty not to the Iraqi state, but to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has much blood on his hands left over from the Occupation.
Syria and Israel
– Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 57 civilians and wounding 120. Syrian warplanes also killed at least 12 people in the eastern Iraqi city of Raqqa Wednesday morning. A U.S. official said it was not clear whether the Iraqi government requested or authorized Syrian air strikes in Iraqi territory.
– Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria the same day as Syria struck Iraq.
It should be clear that there is no such thing as simply “doing something” in this crisis for the U.S. As with the 2003 invasion itself, no action by the United States can stand alone, and every action by the United States will have regional, if not global, repercussions apparently far beyond America’s ability to even understand.
A chess game? Maybe, of sorts. While American interest in Iraq seems to parallel American interest in soccer, popping up when world events intrude before fading again, the other players in Iraq have been planning moves over the long game. In the blink of an eye, U.S. efforts in Syria have been exposed as fully-counterproductive toward greater U.S. goals, the U.S. has been drawn back into Iraq, with troops again on the ground in a Muslim war we thought we’d backed out of. The U.S. finds itself supporting Iranian ground forces, and partnering with militias well outside of any government control, with Special Forces working alongside potential suicide bombers who only a few years ago committed themselves to killing Americans in Iraq. What appears to be the U.S. “plan,” some sort of unity government, belies the fact that such unity has eluded U.S. efforts for almost eleven years of war in Iraq.
In such a complex, multiplayer game it can be hard to tell who is winning, but it is easy in this case to tell who is losing. Checkmate.
The smell of blood is once again in the air in Washington, this week for airstrikes and other forms of violent intervention in Iraq (reference: many of the same people– McCain and Graham in particular– were only recently calling for airstrikes or other military action in the Ukraine, and before that Syria, and before that…)
Here are some of the many reasons airstrikes (or any other form of U.S. military action) in Iraq are just a terrible idea.
1) Air strikes will not resolve anything significant.
The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better?
We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
2) But air strikes now are crucial to buying the Iraqi government time to seek a political solution.
See above about nine years of ineffectiveness. Today’s crisis is not new; Iraqi PM Maliki has been in power since 2006 and has done nothing to create an inclusive government. Indeed, he has done much to actively ostracize, alienate, jail and destroy his Sunni opposition. Maliki currently is his non-inclusionary own Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense. Replacing Maliki, another regime change the U.S. now apparently supports, is no magic cure. Maliki’s successor will most likely come from his own majority party, and inherit his own ties to Iran and the many Shia groups needed to stay in power. Even with good intentions, a new Prime Minister will walk into office in the midst of a raging, open war against Sunni forces, not exactly the best place to start towards a more inclusive government. This argument of buying the Iraqis time is the same falsehood that fueled the unsuccessful Surges in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009). History matters, and it is time to accept that despite arguable tactical progress, in the longer view, the Surges did not work. And long views are what matter.
Even David Petraeus, once America’s golden boy as architect of the Iraq Surge, warns against military intervention now in Iraq.
3) John Kerry flying around the world diplomizing on Iraq is an air strike of its own.
Worth noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy intelligence presence. It is clear that all those diplomats have not accomplished much in service to Iraqi reconciliation under even the more peaceful conditions in the past. It is unrealistic to expect more now.
As for recruiting allies to intercede somehow with America in Iraq, that seems equally unlikely. The British, America’s former stalwart companion in global adventures, refused to get involved in American action last September in Syria. British involvement in the 2003 invasion remains controversial at home, and it is hard to see the Brits getting fooled again.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) June 23, 2014
4) Air strikes are surgical.
Oh please. Check with the wedding parties in Yemen destroyed, and funeral gatherings massacred in Pakistan. Bombs and missiles are not surgical tools. They blow stuff up. It is impossible to avoid killing people near the other people you set out to kill, what the U.S. blithely refers to as collateral damage. And even that assumes you are aiming the weapons even close to the right place to begin with. Bad info that identifies the wrong house means you kill an innocent family, not a ISIS command cell.
And even if you take the coldest American view possible that collateral damage is just an unavoidable cost of war, you fail to understand the real cost. Every innocent killed sets the population further against the U.S. and the people the U.S. seeks to support, both in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East. Videos of dead children propagate well over social media.
5) Air strikes are not a counterinsurgency tool.
See nine years of war and occupation in Iraq, or forever years of war in places like Vietnam. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
6) Air strikes mean the U.S. is taking sides in a pit bull fight.
The U.S. strikes would presumably be in an attempt to support the “Iraqi government and army.” The problem is that those entities are elusive. The Maliki government enjoys uneven public support, so supporting it alienates swaths of the Iraqi population and nearly requires them to take up arms against the U.S. and its puppets. The forces Maliki is putting into the field include a growing number of Shia militias under the control, such as that even is, of individual warlords and religious leaders. These are fighters who actively killed Americans just a few years ago, but somehow we’re on their side now. Maliki’s collection of forces are also bolstered in various ways by Iran. Somehow we’re on their side now too. Air strikes are part of a pattern of failed short-term thinking by the U.S.
7) Air strikes are just more of “whack-a-mole” foreign policy.
These entanglements are much more serious than to be dismissed as “well, politics makes for strange bedfellows” or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Such trite phrases are typical of a U.S. foreign policy that only sees discrete crises within clear geopolitical borders. As long as the U.S. fantasizes that it can support Sunni fighters in Syria while striking them in Iraq, and as long as the U.S. believes it can bolster Iranian goals and credibility in Iraq while pushing back against it elsewhere in the Gulf, the worse things will get in the broader region.
The same applies to the U.S.’ global “whack-a-mole” geopolitical strategy. Russia invades the Ukraine? A devoted by Washington to that. Boko Harem kidnaps girls? Ten days of Twitter memes. Iraq simmers for years? Let’s act now (and only now) before the next shiny object distracts our leaders.
8 ) But air strikes are necessary because the U.S. must “do something.”
Nope. There is nothing that says the U.S. must “do something” in response to all world events. There are many reasons to say even if we are compelled to do something, a military “solution” is not necessarily, or even often, the right thing to do. Imagine if you are outside a burning house, with a can of gasoline in your hand. With the compulsion to do something, is it better to throw the gas can into the flames, or stand back. Sometimes the best answer is indeed to stand back.
9) ISIS is a threat to the U.S. and has to be air struck to stop another 9/11.
ISIS is far from the Super Villains the U.S. media has seen necessary to depict them as. The groups fighting on the “Sunni” side, such as it is, are a collection of tribal, Baathist, religious, warlord and other conglomerations. Their loosely organized goal is to hold territory that criss-crosses the borders of Iraq and Syria. Absent some odd event, they are likely to withdraw or be chased out of central Iraq and hold on out west, where they have existed as a state-like thing for some time now. Central Iraq is way too far from their home base to retain supply lines (though they have been doing well capturing weapons from the retreating Iraqi forces), and Shia militia strength is more powerful the closer ISIS, et al, get to Baghdad.
The threat line is most ardently espoused by who else, Dick Cheney, who brought out his own go-to scary thing, saying “One of the things I worried about 12 years ago – and that I worry about today – is that there will be another 9/11 attack and that the next time it’ll be with weapons far deadlier than airline tickets and box cutters.”
ISIS and/or its Sunni supporters in Iraq have held territory in western Iraq for years without being a threat to the U.S. Homeland. Little changes if they hold a bit more, or less territory.
ISIS is not a transnational terror group, and unless the U.S. drives them into an alliance with al Qaeda (as the U.S. did in the early years of the 2003 invasion with the Sunnis), they are unlikely to be. They fight with small arms in small groups under loose leadership. They will not be invading the U.S.
10) Bottom line why air strikes are a terrible waste.
The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
As the U.S. “relocates” personnel (it’s not an “evacuation”) out of the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, it is valuable to look at that one billion dollar monument to American hubris.
Though likely tens of thousands of people have been inside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and a great many of them have scattered photos of the place across the social media landscape, actual official photos of the embassy have been limited to a handle of narrow views. The stated reason for all this is “security.”
Still, what has been missing is a really nice color shot of the lawn. We have that now, posted online by someone:
There is a very interesting backstory to that nice lawn you see pictured above. If you’ve read my book about Iraq, We Meant Well, you may already know the story:
The World’s Biggest Embassy (104 acres, 22 buildings, thousands of staff, a $116 million vehicle inventory), physically larger than the Vatican, was a sign of our commitment to Iraq, at least our commitment to excess. “Along with the Great Wall of China,” said the ambassador, Chris Hill at the time, “the Baghdad Embassy is one of those things you can see with the naked eye from outer space.” The newly-opened embassy was made up of large office buildings, the main one built around a four-story atrium, with overhead lights that resembled sails. If someone told us there was a Bath and Body Works in there, we would not have thought it odd. The embassy itself, including juicy cost overruns, cost the American taxpayer about one billion dollars.
The World’s Biggest Embassy sat in, or perhaps defined, the Green Zone. Called the Emerald City by some, the Green Zone represented the World’s Largest Public Relations Failure. In the process of deposing Saddam, we placed our new seat of power right on top of his old one, just as the ancient Sumerians built their strongholds on top of fallen ones out in the desert. In addition to the new buildings, Saddam’s old palaces in the Zone were repurposed as offices, and Saddam’s old jails became our new jails. Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed, but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans.
The new Embassy compound isolated American leadership at first physically, and, soon after, mentally as well. The air of otherworldliness started right with the design of the place. American architects had planned for the Embassy grounds to have all sorts of trees, grassy areas and outdoor benches; the original drawings made it look like a leafy college campus. For a place in the desert, the design could not have been more impractical. But in 2003, no projection into the future was too outlandish. One building at the compound was purpose-built to be the international school to educate the diplomats’ happy children who accompanied their parents on assignment. It was now used only for offices. Each embassy apartment offered a full-size American range, refrigerator, and dishwasher, as if staffers might someday take their families to shop at a future Baghdad Safeway like they do in Seoul or Brussels. In fact, all food was trucked in directly from Kuwait, along with American office supplies, souvenir mugs, and T-shirts (“My father was assigned to Embassy Baghdad and all I got was…”, “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel”) and embassy staff were prohibited from buying anything to eat locally. The Embassy generated its own electricity, purified its own water from the nearby Tigris and processed its own sewage, hermetically sealed off from Iraq.
The ambassador, who fancied himself a sportsman, ordered grass to grow on the large sandy area in front of the main Embassy building, a spot at one time designated as a helicopter landing zone, since relocated. Gardeners brought in tons of dirt and planted grass seed. A nearly endless amount of water was used, but despite clear orders to do so, the grass would not grow. Huge flocks of birds arrived. The birds had never seen so much seed on the ground in one place and ate passionately. No grass grew. The ambassador would not admit defeat. He ordered sod be imported into Kuwait, and then brought by armored convoy to the embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars. The sod was put down and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were used to make it live in what was practically a crime against nature. Whole job positions existed to hydrate and tend the grass. No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert. Later full grown palm trees were trucked in and planted to line the grassy square.
We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look, water shortages throughout the rest of Iraq be dammed. The grass was the perfect allegory for the whole war.
BONUS: Long-time friend of the blog Rich submitted this poem by Carl Sandburg as a coda to the green grass of the Baghdad Embassy:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
For those (I’m talking to you here CNN) who seem surprised about events unfolding now in Iraq, here’s an excerpt from something I wrote almost four years ago. At that time pretty much everyone disagreed with these conclusions, but can you hear me now?
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation (the formal mission handover is Oct. 1), it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, “But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic or whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a … relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.”
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song. On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything. The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return.
Blood for Oil?
Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta’s patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell “Kurdistan” from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO — imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time– they temporarily ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban “Al Hassan and Al Hussein” on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. “This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife,” said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran…
Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran’s nukes (if Cheney couldn’t edge the United States into that fight, who can?).
The Iranians also came to see that Iraq, like Lebanon, made for a nice proxy battleground. By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: Iranian-made roadside bombs ealled EFPs. These shaped “explosively formed penetrating devices” fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. (Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower which also advances the United States vs. Iran proxy theory in general.)
Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq. When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003. Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.
Iran Ascendant in Iraq
Yet while strategic and political relationships are very important between Iraq and Iran, it is the growing economic and social-religious ties that cement the relationship and signify Iran as the real winner of the U.S. invasion. The raw numbers tell a big part of the story: the two countries’ current annual trade is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion and growing, with much more money changing hands on the black market.
On more formal terms, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi kicked off the most recent round of goodwill on July 6, when he traveled to Baghdad to join the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. Better yet, Iran agreed to supply 9,400 barrels of “gasoil” a day to Iraq for power generation. Iraq also signed a $365 million agreement to install a pipeline network to import natural gas from Iran for power stations in the country. The pipelines will eventually supply 25 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas a day to the Sadr, al-Quds and South Baghdad power stations in the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said that Iran and Iraq would soon sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said.
But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism. Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange. It also creates significant people-to-people ties that Iran will be able to exploit long into the future.
Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian companies are associated with local hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to the religious site Mashhad, in Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.
Business is Booming
Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.
I saw a little slice of this during my own time in Iraq. My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.
Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select friends of Saddam. My translator recalled family trips to the area the way my daughters remember a visit to Disney, leaving me a bit nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.
On routine patrols through the area, my PRT and Army would frequently see giant tour buses with Iranian license plates and markings hauling tourists around the city. The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.” Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom. We didn’t know it then, but our tourists were offering us a glimpse of the future, a picture of who the winners, and losers, were to be in our war.
Adding it Up
As for Iraq, add it up:
–no resolution to the Arab-Kurd issue,
–no resolution to the Sunni-Shia issue,
–no significant growth in the oil industry,
–a weakened U.S. presence more interested in a Middle East land base and profitable arm sales than internal affairs,
–and an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Here’s the full article.
Iraq before our invasion was three separate pseudo-states held together by a powerful security apparatus under Saddam. If you like historical explanations, this disparate collection was midwifed by the British following WWI, as they drew borders in the MidEast to their own liking, with often no connection to the ground-truth of the real ethnic, religious and tribal boundaries.
That mess held together more or less until the U.S. foolishly broke it apart in 2003 with no real understanding of what it did. As Saddam was removed, and his security regime dissolved alongside most of civilian society, the seams broke open.
The Kurds quickly created a de facto state of their own, with its own military (the pesh merga), government and borders. U.S. money and pressure restrained them from proclaiming themselves independent, even as they waged border wars with Turkey and signed their own oil contracts.
The Sunni-Shia rift fueled everything that happened in Iraq, and is happening now. The U.S. never had a long game for this, but never stopped meddling in the short-term. The Surge was one example. The U.S. bought off the Sunni bulk with actual cash “salaries” to their fighters (the U.S. first called them the Orwellian “Concerned Local Citizens” and then switched to “Sons of Iraq,” which sounded like an old Bob Hope road movie title.) The U.S. then also used Special Forces to assassinate Sunni internal enemies– a favored sheik need only point at a rival, label him al-Qaeda, and the night raids happened. A lull in the killing did occur as a result of the Surge, but was only sustained as long as U.S. money flowed in. As the pay-off program was “transitioned” to the majority Shia central government, it quickly fell apart.
The Shias got their part of the deal when, in 2010, in a rush to conclude a Prime Ministerial election that would open the door to a U.S. excuse to pack up and leave Iraq, America allowed the Iranians to broker a deal where we failed. The Sunnis were marginalized, a Shia government was falsely legitimized and set about pushing aside the Sunni minority from the political process, Iranian influence increased, the U.S. claimed victory, and then scooted our military home. Everything since then between the U.S. and Iraq– pretending Maliki was a legitimate leader, the billions in aid, the military and police training, the World’s Largest Embassy– has been pantomime.
But the departure of the U.S. military, and the handing over of relations to the ever-limp fortress American embassy, left Iraq’s core problems intact. Last year’s Sunni siege of Fallujah only underscored the naughty secret that western Iraq had been and still is largely under Sunni control with very little (Shia) central government influence. That part of Iraq flows seamlessly over the artificial border with Syria, and the successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a war zone that now takes in both countries should not be a surprise.
The titular head of Iraq now, Nuri al-Maliki, is watching it all unravel in real-time. He has become scared enough to call for U.S. airstrikes to protect his power. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will comply, though covert strikes and some level of Special Forces action may happen behind the scenes. That won’t work of course. What the full weight of the U.S. military could not do over nine years, a few drone killings cannot do. It’s like using a can opener to try and catch fish.
What Might Happen Next
Things are evolving quickly in Iraq, but for now, here are some possible scenarios. The Kurds are the easy ones; they will keep on doing what they have been doing. They will fight back effectively and keep their oil flowing. They’ll see Baghdad’s influence only in the rear-view mirror.
The Sunnis will at least retain de facto control of western Iraq, maybe more. They are unlikely to be set up to govern in any formal way, but may create some sort of informal structure to collect taxes, enforce parts of the law and chase away as many Shias as they can. Violence will continue, sometimes hot and nasty, sometimes low-level score settling.
The Shias are the big variable. Maliki’s army seems in disarray, but if he only needs it to punish the Sunnis with violence it may prove up to that. Baghdad will not “fall.” The city is a Shia bastion now, and the militias will not give up their homes. A lot of blood may be spilled, but Baghdad will remain Shia-controlled and Maliki will remain in charge in some sort of limited way.
The U.S. will almost certainly pour arms and money into Iraq in the same drunken fashion we always have. Special Forces will quietly arrive to train and advise. It’ll be enough to keep Maliki in power but not much more than that. Domestically we’ll have to endure a barrage of “who lost Iraq?” and the Republicans will try and blast away at Obama for not “doing enough.” United States is poised to order an evacuation of the embassy, Fox News reported, but that is unlikely. “Unessential” personnel will be withdrawn, many of those slated to join the embassy out of Washington will be delayed or canceled, but the embarrassment of closing Fort Apache down would be too much for Washington to bear. The U.S. will use airstrike and drones if necessary to protect the embassy so that there will be no Benghazi scenario.
What is Unlikely to Happen
The U.S. will not intervene in any big way, absent protecting the embassy. Obama has cited many times the ending of the U.S. portion of the Iraq war as one of his few foreign policy successes and he won’t throw that under the bus. The U.S. backed off from significant involvement in Syria, and has all but ignored Libya following Benghazi, and that won’t change.
The U.S. must also be aware that intervening to save Maliki puts us on the same side in this mess as the Iranians.
Almost none of this has to do with al Qaeda or international terrorism, though those forces always profit from chaos.
The Turks may continue to snipe at the Kurds on their disputed border, but that conflict won’t turn hot. The U.S. will keep the pressure on to prevent that, and everyone benefits if the oil continues to flow.
The Iranians will not intervene any more than the Americans might. A little help to Malaki here (there are reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the fighting), some weapons there, but Iran is only interested in a secure western border and the Sunni Surge should not threaten that significantly enough to require a response. Iran also has no interest in giving the U.S. an excuse to fuss around in the area. A mild level of chaos in Iraq suits Iran’s needs just fine for now.
There are still many fools at loose in the castle. Here’s what Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics said: “There is hope… that this really scary, dangerous moment will serve as a catalyst to bring Iraqis together, to begin the process of reconciliation.”
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, brought out a tired trope, on Twitter no less: “The U.S. has a permanent Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We have suffered and bled together, and we will help in time of crisis.”
The war in Iraq was lost as it started. There was no way for America to win it given all of the above, whether the troops stayed forever or not. The forces bubbling inside Iraq might have been contained a bit, or a bit longer, but that’s about all that could have been expected. Much of the general chaos throughout the Middle East now is related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how that upset multiple balances of power and uneasy relationships. The Iraq war will be seen as one of the most significant foreign policy failures of recent American history. That too is inevitable.
I suppose I have to get this over with. Sigh. Hillary’s book, Hard Choices, is out this week. As I write it is ranked Number 5 on Amazon.
The main theme of the book echoes the current media meme around Hillary: that her successes and accomplishments as Secretary of State make it almost mandatory that she be elected president in 2016.
For that to snuggle even close to truth, there must be successes and accomplishments that rose to the level of being the president. These must be real and tangible, not inflated intern stuff gussied up to look like “work experience.” The successes and accomplishments should not be readily debatable, hard-to-put-your-finger on kind of things. Last time around we bet big on just the two words hope and change, so this round we probably should do a little more due-diligence. And we need to be able to do that. It will not be a good thing heading into an election cycle unable to talk about Hillary except in ALL CAPS BENGHAZI RETHUGS!!! or ELECT HER ‘CAUSE SHE’S A DEM AND A WOMAN!
So, Can We Talk?
Let’s start with Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times. Nick pulls no punches in a column headlined “Madam Secretary Made a Difference.” He frames his argument:
Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy — just not the traditional kind. She didn’t craft a coalition of allies, like James Baker, one of the most admired secretaries of state. She didn’t seal a landmark peace agreement, nor is there a recognizable “Hillary Clinton doctrine.” No, her legacy is different.
The Clinton Legacy Difference
Specifically, Nick offers the following examples (all quotes from his article):
– For starters, Clinton recognized that our future will be more about Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations. She didn’t fully deliver on this “pivot” — generally she was more successful at shaping agendas than delivering on them.
– Clinton vastly expanded the diplomatic agenda. Diplomats historically focused on “hard” issues, like trade or blowing up stuff, and so it may seem weird and “soft” to fret about women’s rights or economic development. Yet Clinton understood that impact and leverage in 21st-century diplomacy often come by addressing poverty, the environment, education and family planning.
– Clinton was relentless about using the spotlight that accompanied her to highlight those who needed it more… On trips, she found time to visit shelters for victims of human trafficking or aid groups doing groundbreaking work.
– Clinton greatly escalated public diplomacy with a rush into social media.
– So, sure, critics are right that Hillary Rodham Clinton never achieved the kind of landmark peace agreement that would make the first sentence of her obituary. But give her credit: She expanded the diplomatic agenda and adopted new tools to promote it — a truly important legacy.
First up, Nick used the word “agenda” three times. Not sure what that means really. Also, I am not sure when and where diplomats historically focused on “blowing up stuff.” I also think issues such as “poverty, the environment, education and family planning” were in State’s portfolion pre-Hillary. But matter, we move on.
A read of Kristof’s article (which mirrors Clinton’s own self-written list) begs the question: What really did Clinton accomplish as Secretary of State? Even her supporters’ lists make it seem like her four years as Secretary and nearly endless world travel were little more than a stage to create video footage for use in the 2016 campaign.
Here’s Clinton talking about a pivot to Asia (that never happened); Here’s Clinton talking about all sorts of soft power issues (that little was accomplished on; readers who disagree please send in specifics, with numbers and cites and do not try and get away with the cop-out of “raising awareness,” that’s what Bono does); Here’s Clinton visiting shelters and all sorts of victims (whose plight seemed to drop off the radar after the brief photo-op; hey, how’s Haiti doing these days?); Here’s Clinton making her whole Department do social media (without any measures or metrics accompanying the push to see if it helps in any way other than generating hashtag mini-memes and please, let’s not go on about how Twitter changed the world ) and so forth. Clinton’s State Department did spend $630,000 of taxpayer money to buy “likes” on Facebook, so I guess that is one metric.
The many lists of Clinton’s accomplishments that trailed her departure from State are not very different; here are some examples.
Missing are things that in the past have stood out as legacies for others, history book stuff like the Marshall Plan, or ending a war we didn’t start in the first place, or saving something or advancing peace even a little in the Middle East or opening relations with China to forever change the balance of power in the Cold War. And for the purposes of this discussion we will not get into Clinton’s mistakes and no-shows on important foreign policy issues.
Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State does not show she is a leader. She showed no substance. She focused on imagery. She remained silent on many issues of import (the aftermath in Libya and Iraq stand out.) Her time at State was more of a reality show many Americans seemed to enjoy, projecting their own ideas about women’s empowerment and modern social media onto her willing shell. We deserve all that we get– and are going to get– enroute to 2016.
Every media person knows to ensure maximum coverage for a story you put it out at the beginning of the week. That gives pundits five days on the job to comment and amplify it. Conversely, if you are compelled to release information that you’d like to not get that kind of play, dumping it on a Sunday is as good as anything else.
So when you’re the president and you’ve just made another of those tough calls (bin Laden raid!) that risked American lives, in this case, to bring “one of our own” home from a foreign battlefield, it’s kind of odd that the news comes out as it did recently about the “rescue” of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from years of Taliban captivity. Where are the tense you-are-there photos of Obama in the Situation Room like with bin Laden? The info-graphics of the high-tech gear our brave Special Forces used in the op? The leaked stories about how agonizing it all was for the president?
It was almost as if Obama was ashamed of what he did. Likely, he is. And it’s all because of Guantanamo.
Bowe Bergdahl and the Taliban
It remains very unclear how Bowe Bergdahl ended up with the Taliban. There are clear suggestions that he willfully left his own unit. Without surprise, Fox News has the inside story from “senior Pentagon officials” laying out that case. Some soldiers in his former unit straight-out called him a deserter who aided the enemy and put American lives in danger. Maybe yes, maybe no, but definitely not the issue.
One way or another, the United States owes its service members the ride home. They may face military court, or simply return to their lives, but leaving anyone behind is not right. But questions over Bergdahl’s motivations and actions are not what embarrases Obama.
Back to Guantanamo
The process that led to Bowe Bergdahl’s heading home is where we need to focus, and it points right back at the scab of Guantanamo.
Since Day One of his presidency, and often repeated over the last six years, Obama said he wants to close Guantanamo. He should. Gitmo is an ugly stain, an off-shore penal colony where America daily commits violations of international standards once done only by its scummiest enemies. Gitmo’s existence is a powerful recruiting tool for bad guys everywhere, living proof that what they say about America is true. One only need look at the limited pictures available, or read the dribs and drabs of information that come out. Guantanamo proves we are our own worst enemy, and theirs.
So close it already. Wait– Obama says he’d love to, but for a couple of problems. The two primary ones, the president has often said, are that some/many/a few of the people held there are hardened terrorists. They can’t be released without some assurance they will not return to the battlefield, and that’s damned hard to find.
The second thing Obama just can’t get around is Congress, whom he keeps saying has tied his hands on this.
Bad Boys: What’re You Gonna Do?
The thing is that all those “reasons” were tossed aside pretty casually this weekend to get Bowe Bergdahl home. Five Taliban prisoners at Gitmo, among the worst of the worst (the U.S. government previously called one of them “one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained”), suddenly got approved for a flight out. Those hard-to-find assurances that the baddies would not return to the fight were rubber-stamped by the Emir of Qatar. The ever-supportive Susan Rice piped up with the details: “…The Taliban prisoners [are] being monitored and kept in a secure way in Qatar.” The assurances include a one-year travel ban out of Qatar. Right. So that’s sorted.
Obama added “The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.” The assurances are apparently recorded in a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Qatar, a copy of which Obama declined to release.
There was not even much discussion over releasing the five. The process for getting there was rushed, according to U.S. intelligence officials. This time around there was no formal intelligence assessment for example of the risks posed by releasing the Taliban commanders. While some intelligence analysts looked at the issue, no community-wide intelligence assessment was produced.
And About That Congress Thing
As for Congress tying his hands, Obama was referring to statutory restrictions on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The statutes say the Secretary of Defense must determine that a transfer is in the interest of national security, that steps have been taken to substantially mitigate a future threat by a released detainee, and require the secretary notify Congress 30 days before any transfer.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated unambiguously he did not notify Congress. At all. Just didn’t.
Administration officials explained when Obama signed the bill containing the latest version of the Gitmo transfer restrictions into law, he issued a signing statement claiming that he could lawfully override them under his executive powers. Signing statements were made popular during the Bush-Cheney years, and are essentially a fuzzy addendum that even though the president is signing a bill into law to avoid a veto fight, he just may not follow the actual law he just signed if he does not wish to.
Another “administration official” added the circumstances of a fast-moving exchange deal made it appropriate to act outside the statutory framework for transfers, even though that statutory framework for transfers does not provide for any such circumstances.
A funny thing is that just five days ago, Hagel was asked about the release of some other prisoners out of Guantanamo. Uruguay had agreed to accept them, but Hagel was not sure:
Hagel said he was taking his time in reaching a decision about six detainees Obama had discussed with Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, as well as other detainees, in order to be sure that releasing them was the responsible thing to do. “I’ll be making some decisions on those specific individuals here fairly soon,” he told reporters.
Hagel said the U.S. Congress had assigned him the responsibility of notifying it of a decision to release detainees.
“My name goes on that document. That’s a big responsibility,” he said. “I have a system that I have developed, put in place, to look at every element, first of all complying with the law, risks, mitigation of risk. Does it hit the thresholds of the legalities required? Can I ensure compliance with all those requirements? There is a risk in everything… I suspect I will never get a 100-percent deal.”
What a difference a few days can make, right Chuck Hagel?
It is time. The Bowe Bergdahl episode proved that Obama can close Guantanamo, and he can do it quickly. Assurances of America’s safety, even from nasty Taliban leaders, require just a stroke of a pen from characters like the Emir of Qatar. Hands tied by Congress? Obama just went ahead anyway and is sitting back watching Congress fume. That whole business about not negotiating with terrorists? Um, not anymore. The fact that Bergdahl was held in ally Pakistan for five years, just like they harbored bin Laden? Whatever. People the U.S. captures are not POWs under the Geneva Conventions but we still do prisoner swaps? It’s complicated. Swapping prisoners 5 for 1? No problem.
There is nothing stopping Obama from closing Guantanamo now except Obama.
Mr. President, how about this? There are now some 143 human beings still being held in Guantanamo. Next prisoner swap that comes up, why not trade 143 for 1 and kill two birds with one stone?
BONUS: Susan Rice told CNN, when asked whether this meant that the United States could no longer claim that it does not negotiate with terrorists, that she “wouldn’t put it that way.”
Rice also opined that Bergdahl “served with distinction,” despite significant evidence to the contrary.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Hagel said in an interview on NBC. Since the negotiations were handled mostly by Qatar, the United States did not negotiate directly with the Taliban. The administration’s announcement of Bergdahl’s release said only that negotiations began several weeks ago through the government of Qatar, and there was no indication of any direct contact between the United States and the Taliban.
BONUS BONUS: Chuck Hagel, I’ve met you, and we all know your personal story. When you were a Senator, you and your staff went out of the way to do the right thing. I saw it. You had balls. So how do you live with yourself nowadays?
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she won’t “be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans” over the 2012 Benghazi attacks,” though she devotes a full chapter to the incident in her forthcoming book Hard Choices. Politico was given a pre-release excerpt from the book, from which the quotes below are drawn.
Clinton’s book raises some important points. Here are the questions some reporter should ask her if given the chance, along with a note about “why it matters” for each one to make clear these are things we need to know from the likely-next president of the United States, far apart from any political slugfest.
1) Where was Clinton?
The Benghazi attack unfolded from about 4pm in the afternoon until very late at night, Washington time. Clinton said she was first told of the incident as it began. She has refused to be specific about her whereabouts and actions that night. Where was Clinton between 4pm and say midnight? The State Department Operations Center was on the phone live with officials in Benghazi, Tripoli or both locations. Was Clinton in the State Department Operations Center? If not, why not? When did she leave the State Department? Why did she leave? Did she go to the White House Ops Center, who no doubt was monitoring the situation? If not, why not?
Senator Charles Schumer was called to the White House, from 5:30 p.m. to midnight, as the Benghazi attack unfolded. Clinton would be an unlikely source to explain Schumer’s presence, but certainly should be asked to explain her own non-presence.
For example, the CBS timeline for the attack states that 4 a.m. Washington time Obama was told of Ambassador Stevens’ death. Where was Clinton at that time? If she was asleep, at home or elsewhere, why did she chose that over staying at the State Department?
Clinton has refused to explain where she was the night of the Benghazi attack. CNN asked her, and here is her response:
QUESTION: … could you tell us a little bit about what you were doing when that attack actually happened? I know Charlene Lamb, who as the State Department official, was mentioning that she back here in Washington was monitoring electronically from that post what was happening in real time. Could you tell us what you were doing? Were you watching? Were you talking with the President? Any details about that, please.
SECRETARY CLINTON: … I think that it is very important to recognize that we have an investigation going on… So that’s what an investigative process is designed to do: to try to sort through all of the information, some of it contradictory and conflicting… So I’m going to be, as I have been from the very beginning, cooperating fully with the investigations that are ongoing, because nobody wants to know more about what happened and why than I do. And I think I’ll leave it at that.
Why It Matters: A Commander-in-Chief is responsible for lives and decisions. She has to be present and ready to make the “hard choices” in real time. If Clinton was elsewhere and not directly monitoring Benghazi in real-time (as opposed to getting periodic “briefings” aside some other event), how will she act as president in a similar crisis?
2) About That Anti-Muslim Video
In her book Hard Choices Clinton states about Benghazi:
There were scores of attackers that night, almost certainly with differing motives. It is inaccurate to state that every single one of them was influenced by this hateful video. It is equally inaccurate to state that none of them were. Both assertions defy not only the evidence but logic as well.
What evidence can Clinton present that any of the Benghazi attackers were motivated by the video so offensive to Muslims? The attacks appear to have been well-coordinated and goal-oriented, not the faceless mobs content to tear down the American flag as seen in Cairo.
For example, at 6:07 p.m. Washington time an alert from the State Department Operations Center stated the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli reported the Islamic military group “Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack”… on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli. It did not appear that the offensive video was cited.
The UK’s Independent noted the Consulate attackers made off with documents listing names of Libyans who are working with Americans, and documents related to oil contracts.
Why It Matters: If you cite evidence, put up or shut up. The president must speak precisely, both to avoid misunderstandings and to preserve her credibility.
3) What is Responsibility?
As Secretary I was the one ultimately responsible for my people’s safety, and I never felt that responsibility more deeply than I did that day.
Define “responsibility.” Many definitions imply some sort of relationship between being responsible, making decisions and accepting consequences. What decisions did Clinton make as Secretary of State vis-vis security in Benghazi? If delegated, to whom? What controls, management tools or other means did she employ to assure those delegates acted out her intentions?
Why It Matters: As president, Clinton will need to delegate almost everything. If she is unable to manage that, simply saying she takes “responsibility” while shucking off consequences will undermine her leadership.
4) More About Responsibility
In Hard Choices, Clinton writes about the messages from Benghazi before the attack requesting more security:
The cables were addressed to her as a ‘procedural quirk’ given her position, but didn’t actually land on her desk. “That’s not how it works. It shouldn’t. And it didn’t.”
Fair enough. Obviously the Secretary cannot read even a fraction of what pours into the State Department. So, who were the highest level people to see those cables? What were their instructions on which issues to elevate to the Secretary and which to deal with themselves? Clearly the need for more security at Benghazi was not addressed. Following Benghazi, did Clinton initiate any internal review, leading to changes? Details are important here.
Following Benghazi, no one in the State Department lost his/her job. No one was fired. Several people were placed on administrative leave, a kind of purgatory, until media attention focused elsewhere. All were eventually reinstated. The one person who claimed to have resigned actually just changed job titles, “resigning” from one to take on another.
At the time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “the discipline is a lie and all that has happened is the shuffling of the deck chairs. That will in no way change [the] systemic failures of management and leadership in the State Department.”
Why It Matters: God alone knows how much paper, how many memos and reports, arrive at the White House daily. The president must have staff and a system that filter the right things up and down. The country needs to have confidence that President Clinton will be able to handle that to prevent bad decisions that may lead to more tragedy. And when things go wrong, the president must be willing to shed ineffectual people and replace them with better ones.
Clinton writes of her non-appearance on television, with Susan Rice taking the lead:
[People] fixate on the question of why I didn’t go on TV that morning, as if appearing on a talk show is the equivalent of jury duty, where one has to have a compelling reason to get out of it. I don’t see appearing on Sunday-morning television as any more of a responsibility than appearing on late-night TV. Only in Washington is the definition of talking to Americans confined to 9 A.M. on Sunday mornings.
At the time, Susan Rice was America’s ambassador to the UN, what many saw as an unusual choice for a spokesperson for such a State Department-specific tragedy with little UN touchpoint.
Clinton was Secretary of State, the leader of the State Department, which had just had one of its consulates overrun, and two of its employees killed, one an ambassador. Clinton admits she held “responsibility” for this. Why wouldn’t she be the person to speak of this to the American people? Indeed, it was Clinton, not Susan Rice, in the foreground of the serious, patriotic photos taken later at the Dover Air Force base when the remains of the dead were returned to the U.S. in their flag-draped coffins.
Clinton went on to miss numerous opportunities to speak of her role regarding Benghazi.
Why It Matters: The buck stops here, said president Harry Truman. The president needs to be the one who speaks to America, explains things that happened to Americans, the one who shows by example her role, her compassion, for those whom she sent into harm’s way. The president, to lead, can’t duck that.
6) Information and Disinformation
Clinton writes in her book:
[There is a] regrettable amount of misinformation, speculation, and flat-out deceit by some in politics and the media, but new information from a number of reputable sources continues to expand our understanding of these events.
Can Clinton be specific about what new information she is referring to, and from what sources? Can she explain how she determined these sources are reputable as opposed to those she characterizes as “flat-out deceit”?
One Democratic talking point opposing additional investigation into Benghazi is that the event has been dissected fully and we know all there is to know, that a new hearing in Congress is simply partisan politics. But if there is new information, as Clinton says, it seems more investigation would be helpful.
Why It Matters: A president’s word choice is very important. Precision is important and establishes credibility.
Clinton writes that the Accountability Review Board (ARB), State’s after-action process following any tragedy abroad as significant as two employees being killed by terrorists, did not interview her for their report, by their own choice. She does not know why they did not call on her. The report was bland and singled out no one for discipline or sanction despite the deaths and the decisions (by someone) not to increase security as personnel on the ground demanded.
Given the central role the Secretary of State and her office, delegates and staffers played in Benghazi before, during and after the crisis, how could this possibly be true? Assuming that the ARB truly found no reason whatsoever to speak to the head of an organization about arguably the most significant event of her term as head of that organization, why didn’t Clinton seek them out? Why didn’t she prepare a written statement, ask to add in her recollections? Get her role on record? Make sure history was recorded.
The Accountability Review Board personnel were hand-selected by Clinton.
And as John Kerry said (about Edward Snowden) “patriots don’t run away.”
Why It Matters: Not participating in such a review process, and then dismissing such non-participation simply as “they didn’t ask,” even if true, raises significant credibility questions about the validity of the ARB and the leader who did not participate. Credibility to her own staff, as well as to the American people, is a critical thing for a president.
If either lose faith in her, she cannot be effective. Leaders lead without excuses.
OK, let’s get this out of the way. It is impossible to divorce an attempt at serious, dispassionate discourse about Benghazi from the political side promoted by Republicans and Democrats. And yes, of course, it is aimed at Hillary 2016.
But Hillary 2016 is a big deal. If the election were held today, she’d be the next president. So maybe, albeit with some of the inevitable political mud slung alongside, we should pay attention to how she acted, if she failed to act, and whether she enjoyed some sort of cover-up/soft-sell over what really happened in Benghazi.
To paraphrase Mrs. Clinton’s own political rhetoric as directed at then-candidate Obama, we need to know how she’ll act when that tragic 3 a.m. phone call comes through. While past performance is no guarantee of future success or failure, it is how the smart money should bet.
What kind of president would Hillary Clinton be? Let’s ask some real questions, and hold out for real answers.
Pomegranate Peace, a new novel by Rashmee Roshan Lall, is a funny, sad and all-too-true piece of fiction about the failure of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and about the crippling isolation America’s diplomats impose on themselves in that misguided war. The novel is also a cookbook, but we’ll get to that later.
Pomegranates for Freedom
The story is built around the arrival to Afghanistan of a fresh State Department employee, quickly tasked with one of the many reconstruction projects designed by the U.S. to gain the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, eradicate poppy production to save the drug-using American people and, not coincidentally, win the war. The project could have been any of the insane ideas tried in Afghanistan (as they were in Iraq) but in this case it was pomegranates. First step was five million dollars in U.S. taxpayer money, handed over to an Afghani-Canadian contractor resident in Vancouver. Said Canadian would then use the money to get Afghan farmers to grow pomegranates to replace the evil poppy, and then arrange for the fruit to be marketed worldwide. Afghanistan apparently grows some mighty tasty pomegranates.
Though it would be wrong to spoil the tragic-comic details of how the project rapidly falls apart (alert readers may already be questioning how someone in Canada could affect much change on the ground in Afghanistan), it does, with the only pomegranates ever exported traveling out on a single U.S. military flight, and the protagonist fails spectacularly and semi-hilariously in her whistleblowing attempts to tell the State Department how pitifully it has again failed (“If we started to second-guess our colleagues we’ll never really get on with the task at hand,” the ambassador tells her.) It’s a good story on its own, and you keep turning the pages to watch it unfold.
“We soldiered on proposing-– and paying for-– a philanthropic revolution at every level of Afghanistan’s life as a nation but our only measure of success was that the ‘small’ grants were big and the big were simply enormous,” says the main character. Indeed, since 2001 nearly $60 billion has poured into Afghanistan. Yet the author’s description of her city– “twenty-first-century Kabul’s story appeared to be written in the dust that overlaid a definite, if ill-defined sense of decay–” tells the tale of waste. “Be nice to America or we’ll bring democracy to your country,” one character sardonically jokes.
Living Her Story
The author, Rashmee Roshan Lall, worked for the U.S. State Department in Kabul as a contractor. Though she is clear that her book is fiction, and that none of the characters and events are real, her descriptions of her colleagues, their surroundings and their attitudes toward their work are scary-spot on. She reminds us that the Afghan’s referred to the flow of U.S. dollars as “irrigation,” and joked that those who worked alongside the Americans had been tamed.
Her description of daily life inside the embassy is very accurate:
…The odds were very good if you were an unaccompanied woman. The men– predatory or passionate or just passing through on what was called TDY or temporary duty – were decidedly odd. They were a mix-– military, diplomats, development workers, private contractors. It didn’t matter if they were married, unaccompanied and prowling, or unmarried and prowling – all of them suffered acutely from an affliction that Americans in the badlands of Afghanistan knew, dreaded and awaited with dreary expectation: an acute, aching loneliness. Being an American in Afghanistan was the loneliest you could get. The money was good; the levels of stress kept pace. It is curiously stirring in all sorts of ways to be constantly told-– and to believe-– that everyone is out to get you.
About That Cookbook
Paralleling the main story line is a more subtle one, as the main character comes to grips with the near-complete isolation that America’s warriors in suits live in. Referring to State’s walled compound in Kabul as “Americastan,” her quest to connect with the country she is tasked with saving fails several times, until the very few Afghans allowed inside the ramparts begin bringing her local food. The food enters her life as a respite from the cafeteria glop served to the cold warriors, but quickly becomes a window into the real world outside. Alongside the narrative, the book is filled with actual recipes, which grow in complexity as the story progresses. The inclusion of recipes is distracting at first, but they are presented in italics and thus easily skipped over if you prefer. Using food in this way is a nice tool to illustrate the problem of isolation.
What It Is Really About
I wrote my own book about the failure of reconstruction in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and can clearly see in Pomegranate Peace that art imitates life. In Iraq we wanted to save the nation by exporting chicken, and failed, while our contractors bought condos in Dubai. We even had a failed agricultural coop venture not unlike this book’s own. And the same cast is present: bureaucrats with no knowledge tossing around millions of dollars, smart careerists pressing forward in fear of rocking the boat, a few locals making bank off us even while so many others around them slipped further behind, unable to drain the American money teat for themselves. One could retitle Pomegranate Peace as We Meant Well, Too and not be too far off the mark.
That the story told here about Afghanistan, as in real life, is nearly exactly the story that was told in Iraq, is what this book in a larger sense is really about. Two wars that if they had any validity ever, went on too long, took too many lives and consumed too much money. Hand maidens to the failures in both cases were bureaucrats who gleefully acted on their ignorance to, almost against the odds, make a terrible situation worse.
Pomegranate Peaceis available on Amazon.
Traditions are fun, and we all certainly enjoy dressing up at Halloween as Sexy Soccer Mom or Sexy Soccer Dad with Kids in Tow. Good times. When my kids were younger I had great fun dressing up as Santa Claus, sometimes even at Christmas.
However, in the age of social media, images have assumed a greater significance. So, let’s ask ourselves what these images of State’s ambassadors presenting their credentials in Japan and the UK convey:
Tradition holds that a newly-appointed ambassador must present his/her “credentials” to the foreign government. I’m not sure what credentials actually are, maybe some sort of leather scroll or parchment thing calligraphed by virgin dwarfs. The process does seem to involve elaborate 19th century doo-dads, and in the case of imperial countries like Japan and the UK, bypassing the elected government and going right to the Emperor and the Queen, respectively.
The same credential process occurs in the U.S., but as best I can tell does not involve Cinderella carriages and Downton Abbey leftover costumes. Now I know that our intrepid diplomats abroad are mostly following local tradition in these photos, but one wonders if U.S.-Japan relations would indeed descend into Pearl Harbor-like animosity if we said “Hey, this carriage is kinda outside the 21st century e-Diplomacy Pivot thing we’re doing nowadays, plus the whole 19th century imperialist vibe, so maybe this year we’ll take a taxi. Cool?” After all, by tradition, our ambassador does not bow to the Queen because of the American Revolution (this is true), and that has worked out OK with the Brits.
NEXT: State to consider requirement that all cables must be written in cursive longhand.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who at this point has all the credibility of a minor Kardashian just out of rehab, somehow was allowed on national television to say this:
If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States, we’ll have him on a flight today. [He] should stand up in the United States and make his case to the American people… A patriot would not run away… Let him come back and make his case. If he cares so much about America and he believes in America, he should trust the American system of justice.
A near-complete failure as Secretary of State (if you are not sure, read this), Kerry is apparently relegated within the Obama administration to the role of mumbling bully-boy statements, faux-machismo rantings whose intended audience and purpose are very, very unclear. Did Kerry think he might persuade Snowden to take up the challenge and fly back to the U.S.? Maybe meet Kerry in the Octagon mano-a-mano? No, Kerry sounded much more like Grandpa Simpson than America’s Senior Diplomat.
And Kerry should know better. He once, perhaps briefly, was also brave enough to act on conscience.
Kerry’s Fall from Courage
In the 1960s, Kennedy-esque, Kerry went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in what he came to see as a lost war. He became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. He threw away his medals, no doubt causing some pundit of the day to claim he had harmed America in the eyes of its enemies, perhaps disgraced his fellow service members. Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. What does he do from that peak? Make fun of Edward Snowden.
(I’ll keep the focus on Kerry here, but is important to mention that the things said about Snowden are the same old lazy, sad tropes said about whistleblowers since Dan Ellsberg. They should face justice. They harmed America (never any specifics on that one) and so forth.)
Make His Case to the American People?
Having watched Manning, Snowden (and Kerry if he’d admit it) knows what he could expect from American justice.
Trials under the Espionage Act, which the U.S. says is how Snowden will be charged, quite specifically prohibit discussion of anything except proof or rebuttal that the accused did leak classified information. A jury is not allowed to rule on, or even hear about, motive and intent.
John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who was the first to go on-the-record with the media about waterboarding, pled guilty in his Espionage Act case last year partially because a judge ruled he couldn’t tell the jury about his lack of intent to harm the United States. In the case of State Department official Stephen Kim, the judge ruled the prosecution “need not show that the information he allegedly leaked could damage U.S. national security or benefit a foreign power, even potentially.” In the Espionage Act case against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, the government filed motions to make sure the words “whistleblowing” or “overclassification” would never be uttered at trial. In Chelsea Manning’s trial, Manning’s defense wanted to argue she intended to inform the public, that the military was afflicted with a deep and unnecessary addiction to overclassification, and that the government’s own internal assessments showed she caused no real damage to U.S. interests. All this information was ruled inadmissible.
A SuperMax cell is not a very good bully pulpit.
Kerry is either lying, or his hopelessly ignorant.
John Kerry, here’s a deal Snowden might accept: When the Department of Justice agrees to charge James Clapper, national director of intelligence, for lying under oath to Congress about the surveillance of Americans, Snowden will know American justice is fair and equally applied, and come home for a trial. Better yet Kerry, promise that both trials will be televised live with no sealed documents or secret sessions. Deal?
As for any sort of a fair trial, John Kerry claimed in the past “People may die as a consequence to what this man [Snowden] did. It is possible that the United States would be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another that they didn’t know before.”
Despite the fact that none of that has happened in the long year since Snowden’s information has been on the Internet worldwide, it does suggest officers of the United States government such as Kerry have stepped back from the now-quaint notion of innocent until proven guilty.
Patriots Don’t Run
As for Kerry’s remark about patriots not running, the Secretary should check with the Department of State he titularly heads up. He’d learn between 2009-2011 the U.S. granted asylum to 1,222 Russians, 9,493 Chinese, and 22 Ecuadorians, not including family members, among many others from a variety of countries. The U.S. acknowledges these people as patriots, men and women who took a dangerous and principled stand against a government they felt had gone wrong. A double-standard is no standard at all.
Love of Country
As for love of country, which Kerry maintains Snowden does not have until he surrenders himself to American authorities, Snowden took his love of America with him. Unlike whatever topsy-turvy version Kerry might still hold to, love of country does not necessarily mean love for its government, its military, or its intelligence services. Snowden, and Kerry took an oath that stated: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” He didn’t pledge fealty to the government or a president or party, only — as the Constitution makes clear — to the ultimate source of legitimacy in our nation, The People.
In an interview, Snowden indicated that he held off on making his disclosures for some time, in hopes that Obama might look into the abyss and decide to become the bravest president in our history by reversing the country’s course. Only when Obama’s courage or intelligence failed was it time to become a whistleblower. Snowden risked everything, and gained almost nothing personally, not to betray his country, but to inform it.
John Kerry, love is expressed through one’s actions, not just words. Snowden clearly believes something other, more, deeper, better than himself matters. He has to believe that one courageous act of conscience can change his country. I think once, long ago, John Kerry might have believed that, too.
BONUS: John Kerry, who said patriots don’t run, and that people should face justice, make their case to the American people and trust in the system, is currently running away from a Congressional subpoena because he doesn’t want to talk about Benghazi.
Your FBI is concerned that bonehead Americans will travel overseas to enemy-controlled territory such as China and be recruited as spies. Since this apparently happened once to one total dumbass kid, the FBI turned right around and spent a boatload of your taxpayer dollars to make a cheesy video, albeit one with professional actors and Hollywood-level technical production qualities. This video explains how to become a Chinese spy.
The whole silly thing is a long half hour to wade through, so for those already at the airport waiting to board a flight to Asia, we’ll summarize the steps to becoming a Red spy:
– Go to China. Make out a bit with Chinese girls. These are not spies, it’s just that Chinese girls are easy. Be seduced by the ancient culture and sleazy Asian tail. You know they like big, tall Americans, just like in those old Vietnam movies, Charlie.
– Answer an ad on Craigslist in China. This is really what happened LOL. It seems the Chinese government will pay you, a dumbass abroad who speaks just tragically awful Mandarin, a lot of money to write “papers” on whatever, politics and stuff, with no strings attached. They will not, however, send one of those beautiful hot Chinese women as your “handler.” They will send someone who looks like your mom if she was Chinese and used to be sort of hot but really, not any more, even if you’d been drinking a little first. Very clever.
– Your Chinese mom will soon introduce you to Mr. X. He will look and act like a Chinese Bond villain, but kinda sleazier. He will ply you with booze and hand you lots of money, because, that’s what happens in China. He will make a chess analogy. You won’t get it, but you… are… the… pawn!!!!!
– Mr. X will encourage you to take the State Department Foreign Service Exam. In the video, the kid fails it, because of course he is a bonehead. Next, Mr. X will introduce you to Mr. Y, who somehow is even sleazier. He’ll say hello, then demand you apply for a job with the CIA, perhaps via Craigslist.
– The stern CIA will catch you with their super-polygraph trade-craftery and you’ll go to jail. No more Chinese love affairs buddy.
An Idiot Abroad
The real life dumbass this instructional hygiene film is based on did indeed do all these things. He ended up charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, even though he never had a chance to enter the federal government (he couldn’t even pass the State Department test!) and was in no position to give away any secrets because he knew none.
One assumes it was either a slow week at the FBI, or the kid was popped as a warning to other stupid Americans to just stay on campus smoking dope in L.A. and not mess around with foreign languages and their vile women. Indeed, the collegiate perp had this insider’s advice from another dumb video for his peeps studying abroad: “If someone is offering you money and it feels like you don’t have to do anything for that money, then there’s probably a hook in there that you’re not seeing.”
Americans: That advice, about not accepting free money because there is always a hook, also applies when “Coach” invites you over to his bachelor pad to do some yardwork. On Saturday night. At midnight. In your tight jeans, specifically.
Important Video Points
Before you consume the video, a couple of things to watch for.
– Note how all the Chinese in the video are nice, polite, well-spoken. Note how every American in the video is shrill and unpleasant. The FBI video crew may want to send the script back with notes for a rewrite.
– Note how much technology and how many people the CIA and the FBI devote to luring in and arresting this kid. They even surveilled him in China! They were on to the scheme all along, just like Jack Bauer and Tom Clancy!
– Hey Chinese spies, a tip! You want to recruit Americans who actually have access to secrets, not the nerds we send abroad during college, ‘kay?
– But if the Chinese really want to waste their time, money and assets on recruiting idiot American college students, we should let them. Just like when the Republicans won the Cold War by tricking the Russkies into spending too much on outer space rocket defenses against the Spiders from Mars, we’ll sit back and watch China fritter away their moola, then hope they still have some left to loan us.
One also hopes that this helpful video from the FBI is never translated into Mandarin. It is highly likely our own secret agent men are using these same tactics to lure in Chinese students in America. Wouldn’t want to tip them off…
Anyway, here’s the FBI’s anti-spy video, along with one of its peers:
Or maybe this???????????????????????????
I am excited that Busboys and Poets, Washington’s best independent bookstore (with its own restaurant and bar) will host me for an evening of reading, signing, possibly some drinking and certainly conversation in connection with my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.
The event is May 20, from 6:30pm, at the Busboys and Poets store at 5th & K Streets. The full address is 1025 5th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001, Tel. 202-789-2227. Nearest Metro stations are Gallery Place/Chinatown and Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street-Convention Center. More specific directions here. More event info here.
Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.
Since this will be my only chance to speak in Washington DC, please come join me at Busboys and Poets!
My thanks again to the students and faculty of Penn State (especially Professor Dennis Jett) for hosting me to speak about Iraq, my experiences at war with the Department of State and my new book Ghosts of Tom Joad.
It is a positive and gratifying thing to realize that there are young people passionately interested in what is happening to our nation, and who instinctively grasp the connection between the horrific loss of life and spending of taxpayer money in wars like Iraq (Afghanistan, Libya, etc.) and the decay here at home. Why did we waste so much building things and trying to promote businesses in Iraq when so much is needed at home? they asked. They got it.
There were also a number of foreign students, from China, Turkey, Japan and elsewhere taking notes on our America. I think they got it too.
The Community Church of Boston is kind enough to host me for a morning of reading, book signing, and certainly conversation in connection with my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. I am very proud to add that my talk is in conjunction with the group’s 2014 Sacco & Vanzetti Award for Social Justice ceremony.
The Community Church of Boston is at 565 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116, Tel. 617-266-6710, very close to Copley Square and the beautiful Boston Public Library. The nearest T stop is Copley Station. The Church of Boston is a a non-sectarian, free community united for the study and practice of universal religion, seeking to apply ethical ideals to individual life and the democratic and cooperative principle to all forms of social and economic life. They’ve been active peace and justice congregation since their founding in 1920.
Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State as a whistleblower because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.
Please come join me at the Community Church!
The concept behind it dates right back to the Founding– people in a democracy must know what their government is doing in their names. Such an informed citizenry (in Jefferson’s words) is essential to our system of government. How else can we know how to vote, what to support, what to oppose?
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) began with the general premise that except for some obvious categories (serious national security things, personal information and the like) the default position should be that everything the government has should be otherwise available to the public. The ideals behind FOIA were so grand that there wasn’t even a request form created. Citizens would (pre-Internet) simply write a letter to a designated FOIA office at say, the Department of State, saying what records they sought and the federal agency would send those records out to them. The official deadline for response was 30 days. If the records broadly served the public interest there wasn’t even a fee. Otherwise, the only cost was to be for copying.
FOIA in 2014
The FOIA system today works very differently. Agencies are generally loath to release anything, and so create roadblocks to legitimate FOIA requests. Some still require original signatures and won’t accept requests online. Others demand hyper-detailed information on the request, such as the precise dates and titles of documents whose dates and titles may be classified and thus unavailable– Catch 22. Most agencies regard the deadline for a response simply as the time period to send out a “request received” note. Many employ very, very few staff to process requests, leading to near-endless delays. The CIA won’t directly release electronic versions of documents; if a digital format is requested, the CIA prints out the original, then scans it into a PDF, significantly raising the costs to the requester while delaying delivery. Even when a request is fulfilled, “free” copying is often denied, and reproduction costs exaggerated, further hurdles to be overcome.
My own FOIA requests ahead of a possible lawsuit to my then-employer, the Department of State, were routinely returned for “more identifying information” and ultimately were assigned a “fulfillment date” of several years into the future, precluding their use in any legal setting.
John Young, who runs the web site Cryptome and who is a steadfast FOIA requester, stated “Stonewalling, delay, brush-off, lying are normal. It is a delusion for ordinary requestors and a bitch of a challenge for professionals. Churning has become a way of life for FOIA, costly as hell for little results. In short, it is a confidence game.”
Individual states have started to follow the federal government’s example. The Michigan Department of Education said the least expensive employee able to fulfill a specific Freedom of Information Act request has a total compensation of $116,917 a year. In 2009, the Michigan State Police said in a FOIA response to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that materials related to the spending of Homeland Security grants would cost $6.8 million to fulfill.
What is the State Department Hiding?
Chief among federal agencies which do not fulfill their legal duties under FOIA is the U.S. Department of State. Of the top fifteen agencies in terms of FOIA requests received (representing over 90 percent of all FOIA requests,) new research shows that State ranks dead last, with a score of 37. Homeland Security bests State with a 51. The Department of Justice beats State with an 81.
One FOIA case in particular reveals the depth to which the State Department seeks to withhold information from the public.
In 2012, a Gawker editor filed a FOIA request with the State Department, asking specifically for all the emails between Hillary Clinton confidant/spokesperson Philippe Reines and reporters from 34 media outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Agencies are required to maintain copies of official communication by the FOIA– a “system of records.” Not having such as system in place is a violation of federal law. Emails are clearly included in what must by law be archived.
Nearly a year after filing his FOIA request, the Gawker editor finally recieved a response from the State Department. “After a thorough search,” the State Department wrote, “no records responsive to your request were located.” The letter did not explain why the Department could not locate emails between reporters and someone whose job it was to correspond with reporters. Gawker is appealing the action by State.
Despite State’s inability to locate a single email between Hillary spokesperson Philippe Reines (he is working on Clinton’s “transition staff” at present and is expected to play a major role in her administration) and any reporter, we found one, on the internet. The email exchange is with now-deceased reporter Michael Hastings, concerning Benghazi. Reines concludes the email chain by telling Hastings “And by good day, I mean F*ck Off.”
But All is Not Lost?
There is good news. Everyone’s favorite part of the State Department, Diplomatic Security (“Stop Calling Us the Stasi, We’re Not that Organized”) is hiring. Specifically, just this week they listed an opening for a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act Division Chief responsible for planning, managing, directing and supervising the staff, oversees the development of the Bureau’s policies, and develops the Division’s plans and strategies.
And righteous bucks. Depending on your civil service grade, this job starts at more than $100,000 and zooms up.
Most Transparent Administration in History
Obama’s early pledge to oversee the most transparent administration in history is by now a punch line in every pundit’s act. But let’s put some numbers to the joke.
In the past year, the government cited national security as a reason to withhold information sought under FOIA 8,496 times, a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason only 3,658 times. Even the Agriculture Department cited national security six times, followed by the Environmental Protection Agency doing it twice and even once by the National Park Service. Five years after Obama directed agencies to less frequently invoke a “deliberative process” exception to withhold materials describing decision-making behind the scenes, the government did it anyway, a record 81,752 times.
Government is not made up of dynamic, freethinkers. Most folks inside the federal government are, or become, a little less bold, a little more gun shy, a lot more concerned about what they say and the consequences of what they do. They are not folks who by and large like to stick their necks out. So a clear pattern of a government essentially refusing to follow the FOIA law isn’t happenstance.
It’s policy now in Post-Constitutional America.
The Chicago Tribune gained access to the U.S. Army’s report on the death of State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan.
She was only 25 years old. She was one of three American civilians, three soldiers and a local interpreter killed in what was once the deadliest day of last year for Americans in Afghanistan. There’s always a new record set.
Because karma demands balance, the same day that Anne was killed “NATO” forces accidentally killed ten Afghan children in an air strike. The children’s crime was being in a house of a suspected Taliban man. Neither the U.S. Army report, nor any of Anne’s official mourners at State, mentioned the ten dead kids. Nothing about them in the Tribune story this week either.
The mission in which the four on the American side gave their lives was to allow a visiting State Department VIP participate in a book give-away to local Afghan kids, surrounded by media. These events were common in Iraq, and are common in Afghanistan, and are designed to generate “positive visuals.”
Failed at All Levels
The Army report cited by the Tribune (the State Department report on the incident remains forever classified) lays out in black and white what most people with knowledge of what really happened already knew: poor planning that “failed at all levels” led to the deaths. Specifics:
“The [security for Anne] platoon did not know the exact number of people they were escorting, they did not conduct a formal risk assessment, they did not have a specific threat analysis, and they had the wrong location for the school.”
The State Department shared too much information with Afghan officials, and the group may have been targeted because specifics on the event’s exact time and who would attend “had leaked out.”
The book event at the school was characterized in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza.” One soldier wrote in a statement that he described the event as providing “Happy Snaps,” or photo opportunities, for top officials in Kabul. The company supplying the books also desired “more media reporting.”
The people who created the mission that killed Anne have blood on their hands. However, in a statement in response to the new report, the State Department spokesperson only said “The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the mission.”
Dying for a Mistake
A current Foreign Service Officer (FSO) meme is that if only they were not bound by overly-strict security rules, they would have been more successful in Afghanistan (Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan…) Diplomats, many say, perhaps in an attempt to seem less flaccid next to the military, should be allowed to assess their own risk. After all, they volunteered to be in harm’s way no less than the soldiers who die every day around them. Such a theme is present in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.
Without disparaging Anne, though she too was perhaps naive, there is that question about risk. The issue is that almost no FSOs in the field are in a clear position to assess risk. Having done my own time in wartime Iraq, I rarely had access to the full intel picture, never knew who the Embassy had or had not told about my movement outside the wire and never knew what military action might have taken place before I got there. And what specific knowledge or training did I, or most any FSO, have on military tactics and risk assessment? I was in a very, very poor position to assess risk.
Instead, I trusted the State Department and others, as did Anne. What seems to have happened to her in part is that the desire to hold yet another pointless media event overshadowed a proper risk assessment by professionals and the taking of proper steps to mitigate that risk. To me, the “hero” tag applies when one knowingly acts, consciously setting aside personal safety (like running into a burning building to save a child), not when someone is gullible enough to stumble into something.
Everyone a Victim
As for the “helping others” part, well, I wrote a whole book about how little help we gave to Iraqis. In Anne’s case, her mission that day seemed highly skewed toward a VIP photo-op, what the Army called “Happy Snaps” and offered little to the Afghans except the chance to again serve as props for our attempts to dis-portray reality. How did the Afghan kids who were to receive books from Anne and the Afghan kids who were blown up by NATO that same day differ? Just an accident of location. Everyone was a victim.
In Iraq during my own service I came to realize I was putting my life, and those of the soldiers around me, at jeopardy so someone in Washington could have fresh photos for another Powerpoint proving we were winning. It would have been a poor exchange of my life if I had been killed doing that, and, with respect to the dead, it was a poor exchange for Anne, the three soldiers, and the interpreter.
For this is what we sacrifice our young, bright and energetic for.
Let’s enjoy a quick look at what the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is Tweeting. This is called “social media diplomacy” and is designed to “reach out” to “local” people in the host country and make them love America more. State is kinda shy about saying it, but given the world-wide nature of these things, there is also a sweet little domestic propaganda side to it all. And get this– you pay for all this with your Bitcoins! Have a read:
To begin, like the U.S. Embassy said, Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. Thing is, Afghanistan is remarkably not Christian, and the purpose of social diplomacy is to “reach out,” so opening with the Christian thing might be… awkward? Many Muslims in the target area already characterize the U.S. as a Crusader at war with Islam, so there, there’s that going for us.
Next up the Embassy reTweeted something in Spanish about the U.S. Ambassador visiting one of the Crusader bases in Herat. Apparently the base contains some Spanish troopers, so that’s the linguistic connection sure, but like Christians, there are relatively few Spanish speakers among the local Afghan population.
And on to the domestic side of today’s social diplomacy Tweets, two cheery notes.
The first heralds Afghan efforts to build an new “Silk Road.” The many Afghans still fighting for, with or against the Taliban and/or the U.S., never mind those whose relatives have been blown up by car bombs or drones, may not fully share the vision of progress, but one guesses the whole Silk Road thing is meant more for gullible Americans than gullible Afghans.
The second Tweet doubles down on the good news, this time sharing the breaking story that “U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia [is] A Vision for Prosperity and Security.” So that’s sorted. The only skeptics on that front might include the relatively few Americans who read the news, and pretty much everyone in Afghanistan.
BONUS: Wait a tick– if the purpose of social media diplomacy is to engage with the local people, why are the Tweets all in English (and Spanish?) Maybe it is like a language tutorial, some kind of “linguistic diplomacy.” There’s also the “issue” that Internet use in Afghanistan varies from 12 percent in Kabul itself, to zero percent lots of other places. The average is about two-three percent. Subtract out of those already low percentages those who do not read English (or Spanish) and those who do not use Twitter and you’ve got a pretty small pool of targets. Anyway, those happy few Afghan web browsers are no doubt the most important people in the country and all that. Besides, you know, social media, Cuban Twitter, youth demographic, whatever.
We are a sad and lonely people, aren’t we?
Switch to our mobile site