When Islamic State beheads someone it is terrorism. When an Iraqi housewife beheads an ISIS fighter and cooks his skull, it is freedom. That is the CNN doctrine.
CNN reports the story of 39-year-old Wahida Mohamed aka Um Hanadi, an Iraqi woman who supposedly leads a tribal militia force of around 70 men south of Mosul. She and her band allegedly helped “government forces” drive Islamic State out of a small town.
“I began fighting the terrorists in 2004, working with Iraqi security forces and the coalition,” she told CNN. CNN cites no other source other than Um Hanadi herself and Facebook in its coverage.
As a result, Um Hanadi said, she attracted the wrath of what eventually became al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which later morphed into ISIS. “I received threats from the top leadership of ISIS, including from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself,” she says. “I’m at the top of their most wanted list, even more than the [Iraqi] Prime Minister.”
Um Hanadi stated al Qaeda/AQI/ISIS planted car bombs outside her home in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014.
Along the way, her first husband was killed in action. She remarried, but ISIS killed her second husband. ISIS also killed her father and three brothers. They also killed, she added, her sheep, her dogs and her birds, and tried to otherwise assassinate her six times.
Where Has Um Hanadi Been Hiding All These Years?
Despite her claim to have worked with the U.S. coalition, to be higher on the ISIS hit list than the Prime Minister, to have been the target of multiple bombing attempts, and to be a very, very, very rare example of a Muslim woman leading Muslim men in combat, I could not find any references to Um Hanadi that predate the CNN report. Um Hanadi does have a self-created social media presence which she updates between battles.
In addition, Um Hanadi may be the luckiest person in Iraq, apparently cheating death on a near-daily basis.
CNN did not explain in its coverage how it came to locate and interview Um Hanadi amid the chaos of present-day Iraq.
Now, on to the beheadings.
CNN quotes Um Hanadi as saying of ISIS “I fought them. I beheaded them. I cooked their heads, I burned their bodies.” CNN states “She made no excuses, nor attempted to rationalize this. It was delivered as a boast, not a confession.”
“This is all documented,” she said. “You can see it on my Facebook page.”
The CNN reporter wrote that he indeed checked her Facebook page and saw photos, and though he could not verify them, still “got the point.”
This is propaganda of the worst, and most infantile, kind. In addition to the broad question of whether or not any of this is even true, the question of who set CNN up to meet with Um Hanadi is left unanswered. That CNN would run this story on its television news, and website, is a shameful descent into the decaying corpse of the First Amendment. Media around the globe, including the once venerable New York Times, have reprinted the story.
Lastly is the horrific idea that atrocities such as beheading people are somehow right when an anti-ISIS person does it, and justification for an entire undeclared war by the U.S. when ISIS does it.
CNN have you no shame? Hah, trick question, you bast*rds really don’t, do you?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Social Media Uber Alles
Despite the reality that propaganda in wartime is as old as dirt, America collectively is freaking out because a lot of ISIS’ takes place on social media. The elderly and feeble who run our government do not understand The Online gizmos and thus are terrified of them and declare they must be turned off with a big switch somewhere.
The young who serve them and understand little outside their own online bubbly life, all want to get ahead and so are eager to “engage” in online warfare with ISIS as if it was all just a cooler version of Pokemon Go.
So it was without meaning or surprise that the Obama Administration announced that Twitter traffic to pro-ISIS accounts has fallen 45 percent in the past two years.
American Strikes Back in the Twitter Wars
See, two years ago the administration put together an international coalition that’s mostly just America to fight ISIS, with one of the goals being to discourage the popularity of the group online. The “coalition” has been unsuccessful, making “gaffes” that seem, um, amateur. For example, a lot of the content was written solely in English, which sort of didn’t help in that a lot of ISIS people read only Arabic or whatever Chechens speak.
The State Department, who is in charge of all this media-ing, also spent $1.5 million of your taxpayer money earlier this year making a TV drama for Afghans saying ISIS is bad. Silicon Valley executives even met with top government officials to “game out” strategies to counter Islamic State online.
There’s been ever so much “messaging” over the last two years. One example is that in honor of #HumanRightsDay 2015, the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” program Twittered and Facebooked out the message of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a discredited Islamophobe who says things like Islam itself is a death cult. In 2007, she called for the west to destroy Islam using military force.
Also, in a whole-of-government effort, everyone calls ISIS “Daesh,” which supposedly is a meany word in Arabic. I guess the idea is that in a war for minds, sending every ISIS fighter to bed angry at being called a name by the Secretary of State is a thing.
But It’s All Better Now
According to an Administration spokesperson, the coalition now uses “memes” — like a teddy bear that says ISIS “slaughters childhood” — written in Arabic. And Anonymous declared war on ISIS with, most recently, a member shaming ISIS by hacking their accounts and posting sexy photos of women. The same group once hacked an ISIS web site and replaced it with a Viagra ad. Laffs!
The only problem of course is that ISIS seems to have no problem recruiting people to replace those killed by the “coalition.” Could it be… that U.S. actions on the ground stomping on Muslims, and U.S. actions from the air droning women and children, and U.S. actions garrisoning Muslim lands, could possibly play more of a role in ISIS recruitment than 140 characters on Twitter?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
#NeverForget911 . Wait, did something happen yesterday besides #ClintonCollapse ? I forgot.
OK, ok, serious now. It’s been 15 years now people, so we can talk about this kind of thing, ‘kay? That’s what anniversaries are for, after all.
Peter Bergen, at CNN, who is often the sanest clown in the CNN circus, tell us that al Qaeda really blew it on 9/11.
“Like the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Bergen, “9/11 was a great tactical victory for America’s enemies. But in both these cases the tactical success of the attacks was not matched by strategic victories. Quite the reverse.” He goes on to remind us the U.S. totally kicked Japan’s butt.
Now it can get a little fuzzy when you try to jam 9/11 and al Qaeda into the Saving Private Ryan narrative framework. So it’s important to understand what Bergen thinks al Qaeda’s goal was with the attacks 15 years ago. I’ll quote him so when I call him an idiot a bit later, you’ll understand my reasoning:
“Bin Laden believed that al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington would result in an American withdrawal from the Middle East. Instead, the United States quickly toppled the Taliban and al Qaeda… The United States not only did not reduce its influence in the Middle East, but it also established or added to massive bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And, of course, it also occupied both Afghanistan and Iraq. Bin Laden’s tactical victory on 9/11 turned out to be a spectacular strategic flop.”
Bergen is an idiot. Al Qaeda got much, much more than it ever hoped for out of 9/11, and Bergen’s silly retelling of al Qaeda’s goals is part and parcel of what drives American foreign policy off a cliff on a daily basis in the Middle East.
Japan was a nation set on territorial conquest in WWII. It bombed Pearl Harbor to destroy as much of America’s Navy as it could to buy itself as much time as it could to conquer as much as it could across the Pacific before America got back on its naval feet. Standard war as it has been since Caesar.
Terrorists fight a different war, a political one. They don’t have navies. They have guys who hijack planes.
Quite the opposite of what Bergen says, al Qaeda did not want America to withdraw from the Middle East, he wanted to pull America into a Middle Eastern quagmire as deep and sticky as possible. This would drive recruits to al Qaeda’s cause, establishing with global certainty the west was at war with Islam.
That worked; see Islamic State, and the way war and chaos has spread from edge-to-edge in the region, as well as the presence of so-called lone wolves in the U.S. and Europe. And remember, on 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya were all stable countries and there were no lone wolves in California and Florida.
Bin Laden did almost blow it. He expected the west to bog down in the graveyard of Afghanistan very quickly, but that didn’t happen. The early successes that drove the Taliban out of governing and into the mountains were done with very few troops and relatively clean bombing attacks. It was after that the Afghan war grew messy, when reconstruction and democracy and all that became the new goals interlaced with the U.S. having new tolerance for the nasty bastards running Pakistan.
And, of course, the crown jewel of bin Laden’s success, the invasion of Iraq.
Bush’s invasion of Iraq was so transparently pointless to everyone but most Americans that it made concrete all the things bin Laden was saying: America was at war with Islam, America sought to conquer the Middle East, America wanted the oil, and so forth. But even bin Laden could not have hoped for the free gifts his cause got out of the invasion: the chance for al Qaeda to set up shop in Iraq, the massacre at Fallujah when the Marines reduced the city to medieval rubble, the images of torture from Abu Ghraib, the jihadi training grounds at prison Camp Bucca, and, of course, the overall Sunni-Shia clusterf*ck the invasion ended up as. You know, the one that is driving the current ISIS war today.
And never mind the U.S. destruction of the Libyan state, America’s clumsy hand in crushing the Arab Spring, the growth of Islamic State and the little wars between the Turks and the Kurds, in Yemen, and more to come. Chaos and failed states favor the terrorists.
As Canadian historian Gwynne Dyer, a guy we all should be listening to said, “It is hard enough for Westerners to recognize that their attackers actually have a coherent strategy and are not simply mad fanatics motivated by hatred. To accept that these terrorist attacks are not really about Western countries at all, but merely an attempt to use the overreaction of Western countries to create change in the Middle East, is beyond their understanding.”
What Peter Bergen cannot seem to understand himself is bin Laden was practicing a kind of tough love when he staged the 9/11 attacks, to bring the wrath of the United States down on innocent Muslims to radicalize and politicize them. It is, bin Laden (and now ISIS) believe, for their own long-term good.
We’ll need to wait longer to find out if the U.S. will ever get it. See you next year for the next anniversary of 9/11.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
We’re instituted full background checks, body scanners and cavity searches at my home for all guests and pets (can’t be too careful!), which keeps me pretty busy, so this will be a short post. Because they hate our freedoms, we’ve taken them away for safekeeping.
So here’s our fun thing for today: reflecting. So let’s get started:
State of Things September 11, 2001
— There was no Islamic State.
— Syria and Libya were peaceful places more or less.
— There was no global refugee crisis.
— There was no Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iraq opposed Iran, helping establish a balance of power in the Middle East. Any danger Saddam was worth was contained by the no-fly zones and had been, successfully, since 1991.
— Iran’s plans were cooled by an enemy on its western border, Iraq, and one on its eastern border, the Taliban.
— The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. was not at war, and 4,486 Americans had not died in Iraq and 1,935 had not died in Afghanistan. A bunch o’ brown people were still alive. Suicide was not the most common cause of death in our military.
— The U.S. was not known as a torturer, a keeper of secret prisons, an assassin with drones.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and helped finance jihad (in Afghanistan.)
— America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats.
— Americans at home were secure, protected from abuses by their government by the First and Fourth Amendments.
State of Things September 11, 2016
— There is an Islamic State (and still an al Qaeda) that makes war across the Middle East and commits terrorism in Europe.
— Syria and Libya are failed states, at war, and sanctuaries for Islamic State and al Qaeda.
— There is a global refugee crisis that threatens the stability of Europe.
— There is a Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East, with well-established ties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
— The Taliban control much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. government actively and continuously spies on Americans, particularly through electronic means. Once aimed only abroad, the NSA now devotes a substantial portion of its mighty resources inside the U.S.
— The U.S. government drone assassinates American Citizen abroad without trial.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and help finance jihad (in Afghanistan, Syria, maybe for a day in New York.)
— We’re all scared as hell about terrorism all the time.
Crystal is the traditional material of the 15th anniversary gift. Fitting, in that it breaks easily.
Checking out the news these days, it might seem pretty clear why the U.S. is at war in Syria: destroy ISIS. That is almost certainly the way the two main presidential candidates will see it during their upcoming first debate, in a rare point of agreement.
The funny thing is that ISIS did not become the reason for what now is a major regional war until late in the game.
If we rewind about three years, the original justification was to “rid the world of the dictator,” Syrian president Bashar Assad. The U.S. involvement was started under the pretext that Assad was using chemical weapons against the other side in what was once confined to a civil war. American declared Assad thus had to go to avoid a genocide and humanitarian disaster.
FYI: If you read no further, remember anytime a politician uses the word “genocide” these days we’re about to be dragged into another conflict that will morph into a quagmire.
So here’s a reprise of something I wrote three years ago. Let’s revisit it and see whether or not any of the current disaster, political and humanitarian, could have been anticipated.
From Three Years Ago:
As for intervening in Syria, the United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the UK has not supported U.S. military action [the UK later changed it’s policy and is now involved across the Middle East again]. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?
Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect the women and children of Syria? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.
Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.
So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:
— The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.
— The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.
— Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date [in 2013; the death toll is now likely in the millions].
— The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:
— Is it Iraq again? That went well.
— Does it have oil?
— Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
— Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)?
— Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators? [Trick question; it does not.]
— Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
— Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
— Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?
— Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda [Now ISIS], won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
— Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
— With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
— Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?
— What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?
Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
NOTE: Obama did intervene, and golly, who could have thought it, look what happened!
When I was a kid, successive presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.
I was a teenager during the Cold War, several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, maybe invade Cuba, fight covert wars and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.
Another president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
The one after him told us that because a bunch of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there 15 years later, and so is the American army. We believed. It was a lie.
After that the same President told us Saddam Hussein threatened every one of our children with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.
In 2011 the president and his secretary of state, now running for president herself, told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.
In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple, limited act only the United States could conduct, and then we’d leave. We believed. It was a lie.
That same president later told us Americans will need to fight and die in Syria. He says this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland. We believe. We’ll let history roll around again to tell it is again a lie.
The two main candidates for president both tell us they will expand the war in Syria, maybe Libya. Too many of our fellow citizens still want to believe it is necessary to protect America more. They want to know it is not a lie.
So candidates, please explain why what you plan is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time.
(This article is a reimagining of a piece I wrote about a year ago, when the war in Syria was less so, and the U.S. has not re-entered the fight overtly in Libya. I’ll update it from time to time as new wars happen.)
It was about two years ago to the day I was blacklisted at CNN.
I don’t want to remind them they were sadly wrong, but they were. So write this off however you prefer, but understand that we were lied to again to drag us again into an open-ended war in Iraq-Syria. Last time it was Bush and those missing Weapons of Mass Destruction. This time is was Obama and saving the Yazidi people from genocide.
Wait, what? Who are the Yazidis? How they get us back into Iraq?
Ah, how fast time flies.
Two years ago a group of Yazidis, a minority spread across Iran, Iraq and Turkey, were being threatened by a group called ISIS few American were focused on. Obama declared a genocide was about to happen, and the U.S. had to act. U.S. officials said they believed that some type of ground force would be necessary to secure the safety of the stranded members of the Yazidi group. The military drew up plans for limited airstrikes and the deployment of 150 ground troops.
No Congressional authorization was sought, no attempt was made to secure UN sanction, no effort was made to seek Iraqi military help to save their own people inside their own country. However, promises were made by the White House of having no American “boots on the ground” and that the airstrikes to kill people were for a humanitarian purpose.
Two years later the U.S. has some 6,000 troops on the ground, including artillery units and aircraft based inside Iraq and Syria. The limited airstrikes have expanded to a 24 month broad-based bombing campaign, which has spread into Syria, with the sideshows of complete collapse of democracy in Turkey, a Russian military presence in Syria, and an Iranian military presence in Iraq. For the record, the Yazidis are pretty much fine, as are ISIS and Syrian president Assad. The Yazadis do occasionally show up in fear-mongering, unsourced stories about ISIS sex slaves, usually spoon-fed to American media, and only American media, by pro-Yazidi ethnic groups safely in the west.
In fact, other than a massive regional death toll and no progress toward whatever the actual goal for the United States is (um, whatever, “destroy” ISIS), things are pretty much the same after two years, +chaos. And whomever is elected this November will be the fifth U.S. president to make war in Iraq.
Back to CNN.
As the Yazidi situation was unfolding, I was invited to tape a discussion there alongside the usual retired U.S. military colonel. I was asked a single question, explained in my answer that the U.S. was in fact using the Yazidi “humanitarian crisis/faux genocide” as an excuse to re-enter the Iraq quagmire, and equated it to George W. Bush’s flim-flam about weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
The host literally said I was wrong. I was not asked another question, though the colonel was given several minutes to explain the urgency of the situation, demand America act where no one else would, and assure the public that Obama planned only limited, surgical strikes and that was it, one and done.
My question was edited out, the colonel’s lengthy answer was played on air, and my very brief moment in the glow of CNN was ended even though I wore a nice suit and a tie. Oh well, we still have each other here, and hey, CNN, my number’s still the same if you wanna call.
Why, it is almost as if someone is creating them, and then calling the mass media’s attention to them on obscure sources, for anti-ISIS propaganda purposes. Hmm.
Well, don’t be shocked, but…
“To all the bros thinking about buying a slave, this one is $8,000,” began the Facebook posting attributed to an Islamic State fighter who calls himself Abu Assad Almani. The same man posted a second image a few hours later, this one a pale young woman’s face with weepy red eyes.
“Another sabiyah [slave], also about $8,000,” the posting reads. “Yay, or nay?”
The photos were taken down within hours by Facebook but of course still were coincidentally captured by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit group with unclear funding sources that monitors jihadists’ social media accounts. That Institute then pumped the story out across the web.
“We have seen a great deal of brutality, but the content that ISIS has been disseminating over the past two years has surpassed it all for sheer evil,” said a researcher for the Institute. “Sales of slave girls on social media is just one more example of this.”
Uh huh. It must all be true.
Ho, ho, ho, here’s a scenario no one could have possibly anticipated: some complex thing in the Middle East as a temporary patch to some previous complicated thing in the Middle East turned out to backfire for the U.S. because of a lack of any semblance of an actual policy as opposed to a series of random actions linked only in temporal order. Soon a new thing will be needed to counteract the lastest old thing, but that’s for next week.
The most current thing is that Russia deployed bomber and fighter aircraft to Iran for air strikes on rebels in Syria, the first time in 37 years that Iran allowed foreign forces to base and deploy from its territory. The new basing dramatically cuts into the number of frequent flyer miles the Russian air forces needs to bomb Syria. Flying out of Iran instead of from inside Russia means more sorties a day, maybe lower maintenance burdens, maybe heavier payloads.
Iran has, for now, walked back the arrangement, apparently embarrassed at the publicity. The larger issues still remain.
So a review, to put things in context. We’ll go quick here, kind of like the opening song of the Big Bang Theory, where they cover the history of the whole universe in 30 seconds of jaunty song:
— About 13 years ago Iraq was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same dictator it had been for decades. U.S. invades to “free Iraq,” chaos ensues through two presidencies with a third teed up. The more or less stable Iraqi-Syrian border became a porous sore for Sunni baddies to enter and leave the fight, precursor foot soldiers to ISIS. The Sunni collaboration with (then) al Qaeda to protect themselves from Shiite militias spread into Syria.
— Five years ago Syria was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same family of dictators it has been since the 1960s. The U.S. had tolerated, dealt with and cooperated with the Assad family during much of that time. Why, post-9/11, the U.S. even outsourced some torture to them. There were no Syrian aid agencies, no orphaned kids of Aleppo, no global refugee crisis.
— The Arab Spring starts in 2011, U.S. sees an opening, fans the flames in what started as a legitimate people’s revolt in Syria. Assad fights back, U.S. keeps intervening just enough to keep the fires burning but not much else, chaos ensues. Hillary and David Petraeus demand more U.S. war in Syria, end up instead getting a new U.S. invasion of Libya as a consolation prize from Obama and another failed state is created in another crappy Mideast stinkhole that had been run stably by the same dictator for decades. But we digress.
— Blah blah, time passes, people die, U.S. declares Assad an evil dictator who “must go,” thinks it negotiates the Russians into the new war to help “free Syria.” Russians grin wildly as they establish new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Syria without a shot fired. They’re back into the game in the Middle East, half-invited by the U.S.!
— The oops! It turns out the sneaky Russians support Assad (who knew???), as America used to, and aren’t fighting him, like America wants them to. Bad, bad. John Kerry flies around Europe ignored by the White House (“sure, John, off you go, don’t forget to write and let us know how it’s going”) with his trademark Muppety “cautious but optimistic” face.
— But oops! Things change; the U.S. doesn’t like Assad, no sir, evil dictator kills his own people genocide barrel bombs poison gas save children, but isn’t going to attack him either like the Russians won’t attack him, because the war isn’t about “taking him out” per se except when asked to say that on TV news in America, it is about
defeatingdestroying ISIS. So, the U.S., Russia and hey, sure, why not, Iran, are all on the same side, fighting ISIS.
— BONUS: The U.S. and Iran are also “fighting ISIS” in Iraq. Iran, the big winner of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is grinning wildly as it establishes a new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Iraq without a shot fired. They’re back in the game, half-invited by the U.S. Iran had been training and equipping the people who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011. Now they are helping U.S.-supported Iraqi Shiite militias who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011 retake the same cities U.S. soldiers died taking 2003-2011.
And that brings us to this week, where Assad is still around, ISIS is still around, Iraq is still a sectarian mess, Iran more or less controls the Iraqi government and the powerful Shiite militias except for the ones who might just rebel and/or slaughter Sunnis to complete a slow-burn civil war, Turkey a newly-collapsing crappy Mideast-ish stinkhole run by a new dictator and Russia and Iran, always a bit wary of one another, are cooperating militarily to attack ISIS (U.S. thumbs up!) in support of Assad (U.S. thumbs down!)
And that’s all before we get to the Kurds, who are well on their way to creating a confederacy of Kurdistan carved out of parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. That will be the impetus behind the next war inside the Middle East, with most of the same players now in Syria joining in. Figure maybe a year from now or so.
You know how it is. You just get back from a trip to the store and your significant other says “Honey, I just realized we are all out of AK-47s. And while you’re at the market, could you also grab a couple of mortars and some grenades in case your mother stops by again unexpectedly?”
Yes, it could be Texas, but it actually is what’s going on in Baghdad.
Iraq news site Niqash tells us about a market in Baghdad’s Sadr City, where masked men display their wares on open tables the same way vegetable sellers do in other city markets. Next to grenades on the tables are rockets, mortars and plenty of other weaponry, with markings that indicate they come from a number of different sources. Welcome one and all to Maridi market, one of Baghdad’s, if not, Iraq’s, most famous “illegal” arms markets.
(The photo above shows beautiful Sadr City back in the good old days, when America liberated it.)
There are a lot of ways he obtains weapons, said one trader in the market. The most significant route is across unguarded border crossings from NATO ally Turkey. The guns and other weapons enter Kurdistan (another American ally) and are then brought to Baghdad; checkpoints (manned by Iraqi security forces the U.S. pays for) don’t seem to be a problem and if they are, counterfeit ID cards or a bribe will often work.
“Most of the weapons come from the military, especially those located near the front,” a vendor told Niqash. “Soldiers who lose their weapons during fighting are not questioned as to why. If a soldier dies fighting, lost weapons are registered in their name. So a lot of the lost weapons are registered in dead soldiers’ names. And those weapons go to the arms dealers.”
Thanks to many Iraqis wanting to leave the country, soldiers and members of the state security forces also sell their weapons as part of efforts to raise funds. Some soldiers simply want to supplement their income.
This all could have something to do with why the U.S. can’t seem to win the war in Iraq, but I just can’t put my finger on it right now.
Last Thursday night, speaking at the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan paid tribute to his son, U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq on June 8, 2004, after he tried to stop a suicide bomber.
As for every parent, husband, wife, brother, sister and friend who lost someone any war, I grieve with them. I am sorry for the Khan’s loss. I am a parent and can all too easily be sent to thinking about the loss of a child.
So go ahead and hate on me. But of the almost 7,000 American families who lost sons and daughters in the last 15 years of American war of terror, why did the Democrats choose a single Muslim family to highlight?
No one knows how many hundreds of thousands (millions?) of non-American Muslims were killed as collateral damage along the way in those wars. Who spoke for them at the Convention?
I found the Democrats’ message shallow. It was pandering of the most contemptible kind, but not as some say simple pandering for Muslim votes from those alienated by Trump’s rhetoric.
The Democratic pandering was to an America that wants to believe we have good Muslims (who express their goodness by sending their kids to fight our wars) and “they” have the bad Muslims (who express their badness by sending their kids to fight their wars.) The pandering was to the cozy narrative that makes the majority of Americans comfortable with perpetual war in the Middle East and Africa.
MORE: At one point Khan challenged Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” True. But let us also remember the Clinton family sent no one to war. Their daughter did not serve any more than any Trump kid. Bill and Hillary served exactly as many days as Trump and Melania. Khan should have been more inclusive in his condemnation.
I would also like to ask Khan how he reconciles his son’s death with the fact that only a few years later Iraq is still deep in war.
Trump is an ass and I do not support him in any way. I am particularly troubled by his hate speech directed at Muslims, and Mexicans, and everyone else he hates.
It is not disrespectful to discuss these things. Khan choose to put himself and his son’s death on television to serve a partisan political purpose. We need to talk about what he talked about.
As terrorism struck again in Nice and Germany and… Donald Trump outlined his policy against Islamic State: as president, he will seek a full declaration of war from Congress, the first such formal invocation since Pearl Harbor.
Trump was short on specifics but very clear he would take the strategies of the post-9/11 era into a presidency. Clinton, for her part, intends on “intensifying the current air campaign [and] stepping up support for local forces on the ground.” Their French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, declared “We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil.”
The problem is that none of that will work. While perhaps necessary at times, military force is far from sufficient in defeating Islamic terrorism.
Post-Germany, Post-Nice, post-Brussels, post-Turkey, post-Paris… it is clear the last 15 years of the war on terror in general, and the last two against Islamic State in particular, have not worked. No society can defend itself fully when any truck can be turned into a weapon. No amount of curating social media will prevent disenfranchised people from becoming radicalized. Ramadi fell, Fallujah fell, Mosul will likely fall, and Nice still happened.
“The effect that’s going to happen now is like stepping on a ball of mercury,” stated one American intelligence analyst. “You step on a ball of mercury, all the pieces break up and spread around the world.”
A new way of thinking is needed.
The west must be willing to understand Islamic terror beyond scary search engine terms and decide if we wish to tackle the problem at its core, or simply choose to live with a new normal where incidents like Nice will just happen. Here is what might be considered. It will be hard, and will be unpopular.
— Admit the current strategy has not worked. Agree, in the U.S. and abroad, that something new is needed. Statements such as those from Trump and Clinton block anything beyond more of the same.
— Understand that the roots of Islamic terror rest in part in the Sunni-Shia divide, which the west helped fuel in arming jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and whose fuse the west lit in 2003 when it invaded once-stable Iraq. A significant amount of terror takes place insider the Muslim world, and sectarianism is a steady fuel for recruitment.
At the same time, both sides of the divide recruit well off of horror stories of CIA torture, the continued existence of Guantanamo, the fits of Islamophobia played out in western refugee policy, French and American militarization of Islamic Africa, and a core belief that the actual goal of the western powers is not to “defeat Islamic State,” but to create a permanent state of war against Muslims while garrisoning the Middle East (it used to be more about taking Arab oil, but the point is the same.) More war, more troops, and more draconian security measures are just gas on those fires.
— Another driver of Islamic terror is the unhappiness of many Muslim youth with the autocratic, secular governments in most of their Arab nations. The west must pull back its support for such governments and lessen its fear of non-secular governments. What Washington sees, for example as expedient, realpolitik decisions to support the repressive Saudi government, Bahrain where the United States turns a blind eye to human rights in return for an important naval base, or allowing the Arab Spring to be crushed in Egypt as a military coup unseated the only democratically elected president in the nation’s history, have not worked well in even the medium term. Same for supporting the corrupt government in Baghdad.
The west must find rapprochement with Muslim leadership (Iran, with a robust participatory component inside a fundamentalist theocracy, is an interesting example.) Much of radical jihadism is less about destroying the west than it is about changing the Middle East; even 9/11, the worst of the terror attacks, had as its extended purpose pulling the United States into Afghanistan in hopes of triggering a broader Muslim uprising across the region.
— Immigration out of the Middle East is toothpaste out of the tube. It can’t be snaked back in by tough policies against refugees or stopping Muslims from entering the United States. Western nations must assimilate their Islamic immigrants.
Islamophobia, law enforcement discriminatory targeting of Muslims, hot-headed rhetoric and the rise of right wing governments pleasing citizens enamored anxious to trade their freedom for security, fuel the anger and sense of displacement of so-called lone wolves, and send them to the solutions offered by groups such as Islamic State. It is not about cleaning up Twitter. It is about chipping away at the mindset that makes those 140 character messages so attractive.
This is, in the end, a long war of ideas. Success must include difficult decisions to acknowledge the tides of history moving across the Middle East. Because you can’t stop the next truck. You do have a chance at making it so a man won’t choose to get behind the wheel.
A friend of the blog passes on these comments:
I have just been watching the “Breaking News” about the military coup in Turkey and have been appalled at the historical ignorance of what all of these talking heads, Wolf Blitzer, et al are telling the American people.
Not a single anchorperson has referred to the Turkish military’s traditional role as the protector of Kemal Ataturk’s original 1920’s military coup to make Turkey a modern sectarian state rather than an Islamist Ottoman oligarchy. This was just following Turkey’s defeat in WWI and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which was aligned with Germany during the war.
All of the anchors keep referring to the coup using the phrase “the coup is attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of Erdogan.” Not a single one has appended that statement with the explanatory note that Erdogan, whose Party is the Islamist Party in Turkey, has used his term in office to slowly restrict free speech, crackdown on a free press, suppress opposition parties, and wage endless wars against the Kurds while tacitly supporting Jihadist groups in Syria who are aligned with ISIS. His aim was to become a permanent ruler in an Islamist state.
Another interesting sideline that our MSM carefully stays away from is analyzing the potential conflicts within the U.S. government which this coup presents.
On one hand there must exist very close ties between the U.S. military and Turkish military, since we jointly use Incirlik air base for operations. Then there is the State Department, who is probably having kiniptions over the deal that we signed with Erdogan for Turkey to hold hundreds of thousands of Iraqi-Syrian refugees from entering Europe.
There still is very testy question of how we can do any business with a coup government that has overthrown a NATO member government. Of course our morals on that are very loose since we helped the Egyptian military overthrow their government, but they didn’t belong to NATO.
My feeling is that this coup is long overdue and the outcome can be positive for returning Turkey to a more open society. Turkey, under Erdogan and his party, were aligned with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf regressive kingdoms so a sectarian Turkey may cut that tie. A little light in an otherwise dismal outlook.
Since the wave of Islamic State suicide bombings in May – killing 522 people inside Baghdad, and 148 people inside Syria – American officials have downplayed the suicide bombing strategy as defensive. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy in the fight against Islamic State, said the group “returned to suicide bombing” as the area under its control shrinks. The American strategy of focusing primarily on the “big picture” recapture of territory seems to push the suicide bombings to the side. “It’s their last card,” stated a compliant Iraqi spokesperson in response to the attacks.
The reality is just the opposite. Just a day after the June 26 liberation of Fallujah, car bombs exploded in eastern and southern Baghdad. Two other suicide bombers were killed outside the city. An improvised explosive device exploded in southwest Baghdad a day earlier. And now the latest, with a death toll approaching 200.
Washington should know better than to underestimate the power of small weapons to shape large events. After Donald Rumsfeld labeled Iraqi insurgents as “dead enders” in 2003, they began taking a deadly toll of American forces via suicide bombs. It was the 2006 bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari Golden Mosque in Samarra that kicked the Iraqi civil war into high gear. It was improvised explosive devices and car bombs that kept American forces on the defensive through 2011.
To believe suicide bombings represent a weakening of Islamic State is a near-total misunderstanding of the hybrid nature of the group; Islamic State melds elements of a conventional army and an insurgency. To “win,” one must defeat both versions.
ISIS differs from a traditional insurgency in that it seeks to hold territory. This separates it from al Qaeda, and most other radical groups, and falsely leads the United States to believe that retaking strategic cities like Fallujah from Islamic State is akin to “defeating” it, as if it is World War Two again and we are watching blue arrows move across the map toward Berlin. McGurk, following Fallujah, even held a press conference announcing Islamic State has now lost 47 percent of its territory. That may be true, but it also does not really matter.
Simultaneously with holding and losing territory, Islamic State uses terror and violence to achieve political ends.
Islamic State has no aircraft and no significant long-range weapons, making it a very weak conventional army when facing down the combined forces of the United States, Iran and Iraq in set piece battles. It can, however, use suicide bombs to strike into the very heart of Shi’ite Baghdad (and Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Turkey – as Tuesday’s bombing reminds us), acting as a strong transnational insurgency.
Why does such strength matter in the face of ISIS’ large-scale losses such as Fallujah?
Violence in the heart of Iraqi Shi’ite neighborhoods empowers hardliners to seek revenge. Core Sunni support for Islamic State grows out of the need for protection from a Shi’ite dominated military, which seeks to marginalize if not destroy the Sunnis. Reports of Shi’ite atrocities leaking out of the ruins of Sunni Fallujah are thus significant. Fallujah was largely destroyed in order to “save” it, generating some 85,000 displaced persons, mirroring what happened in Ramadi. Those actions remind many Sunnis of why they supported Islamic State (and al Qaeda before them) in the first place.
Suicide strikes reduce the confidence of the people in their government’s ability to protect them; Prime Minister Abadi was ridiculed at the site of the most recent attack, and a member of his cabinet forced to resign. In Iraq, that sends Shi’ite militias into the streets, and raises questions about the value of civil institutions like the Iraqi National Police. Victories such as the retaking of Ramadi and Fallujah, and a promised assault on Mosul, mean little to people living at risk inside the nation’s capital.
American commanders have already had to talk the Iraqi government out of pulling troops from the field to defend Baghdad, even as roughly half of all Iraqi security forces are already deployed there. This almost guarantees more American soldiers will be needed to take up the slack.
Anything that pulls more American troops into Iraq fits well with the anti-American Islamic State narrative. Few Iraqis are left who imagine the United States can be an honest broker in their country. A State Department report found that one-third of all Iraqis believe the Americans are actually supporting Islamic State, while 40 percent are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.
The suicide bombings — in Iraq and elsewhere — are not desperate or defensive moves. They are not inconsequential. They are careful strategy, the well-thought out application of violence by Islamic State. The United States downplays them at great risk.
Bill Gates’ philanthropic efforts are usually greeted with near-universal praise from people who
love his money believe he is a great humanitarian, but Bill Gates knows very little about sustainable, intelligent development.
Bolivia to Bill Gates: Go to Hell and Take Your Chickens with You
The billionaire recently sought to donate 100,000 chickens to impoverished countries. The leftist government of Bolivia, one of the nations to receive the poultry, refused the donation, describing Gates’ gift as “offensive.”
“He does not know Bolivia’s reality to think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle not knowing how to produce,” said Bolivia’s minister of land and rural development. “Respectfully, he should stop talking about Bolivia, and once he knows more, apologize to us.”
Gates announced the chicken initiative — dubbed [Honestly, I am not making this up] “Coop Dreams” — earlier this month.
“It’s pretty clear to me that just about anyone who’s living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens,” wrote Gates, who was born in a well-to-do suburb and has pretty much been one of the One Percent ever since. “In fact, if I were in their shoes, that’s what I would do — I would raise chickens.” He says that the animals are easy and inexpensive to raise, empower women (“because chickens are small and stay close to home”), and can help feed children in poor families.
Melinda Gates also likes chickens and women. She calls chickens “the ATM of the poor,” because they are easy to sell on short notice to cover day-to-day expenses.
What’s Wrong with Free Stuff?
So Bolivia aside, what could be wrong with free chickens?
— All countries have some sort of market economy going on. Farmers raise animals, and sell them to local people. In places without a lot of electricity and transportation, this all functions at a micro-level. There is a relationship between the economic needs and capacities of the farmer and how much food the local people want to buy. If you dump lots of free chicken into that system, the system tends to collapse. Prices can go up if people get greedy and push food out of the budgets of many, or go down because supply exceeds demand, and that can drive farmers out of business.
— The bit about “empowering women” by having them raise chickens can have the same effect as above, basically adding lots more producers into a closed system and hoping everything does not go to hell. It also ignores the question of what else those women might have to do, how many know anything about raising chickens, have space to do it and have the money needed to buy feed, veterinary services, whatever chicken raisers need.
— If the woman ends up with more chicken than her family needs, how is she to market it? Does she have access to transportation? Is there a dealer network? Most markets in the developing world are closed systems; one does not simply wander in and set up a stall.
— If a large number of women, or anybody, are raising chickens, why would others need to buy chickens? Wouldn’t they be raising their own?
— When people come to believe someone from the outside will randomly show up with free stuff, they tend to stop working very hard and just wait for the next shipment. Until it doesn’t come and then pretty much their world collapses.
— In developing economies, one does not just acquire 100,000 chickens, or import them, and drive around the countryside in four-wheel drive Ubers. One must work with the host country officials, who, sad to say, see their jobs mainly as a way to get rich off of corruption. There is a very good chance the well-meaning Gates’ will encourage host-country corruption by paying the bribes, processing fees, needed for their chickens, and there is a good chance the local officials will shake down the recipients of the charity once Bill has moved on to do good elsewhere.
— Now the reason you would donate chickens to a country is because that country lacks enough chickens. Well, you better hope that the chickens you buy somewhere else don’t bring in anything like disease or pests that the host country is not ready for.
— Bill claims most of the people he wants to give chickens to earn only $2 a day, but that the chickens sell for $5 a bird. Who will be buying up all that chicken? Maybe at some point a kind of chicken-trickle-down effect will occur?
— Bill and Melinda write about how when women in these countries become entrepreneurs with chicken, they will “have a voice.” Money certainly does talk in the world Bill and Melinda live in, but in traditional societies (for better or worse) the role of women changes very, very slowly. A few bucks made selling chickens, if that even happens, is unlikely to dent thousands of years of culture, particularly if that culture is also deeply embedded in a religion such as Islam. And some women may not really want to be entrepreneurs. The West tends to assume that all Muslim women, for example, hate the way their life works and wish to one day were mini-skirts and strappy red high heels
If you are talking about a short-term food donation to stave off hunger, such as after an earthquake, go ahead, please help. But for any long-term good to come of all this, it must respect the realities of the local market, and it must be sustainable. Free chickens are unlikely to do that.
BONUS: Now some might ask: Peter, how do you know anything about this? To which I would answer: because I watched an almost identical project fail in Iraq. The United States, in what we called Operation Chicken Run, sought to remake the local chicken market in a rural area of Iraq, and every bad thing I mentioned above actually did happen, in real time, around us. There’s a whole chapter in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about this, appropriately titled “Chicken Sh*t.”
DOUBLE BONUS: Bill Gates would probably improve the lives of more people by dumping 100,000 X-Boxes on them.
One of the concepts that emerged from the Vietnam War was that of destroying a village to save it.
The idea was that by leveling a place where people once lived, the area would be denied to the Viet Cong. The people? Well, they’d just have to find somewhere else. And you’re welcome, for your freedom!
The same cynical policy seems very much underway now in Iraq, in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State.
The current focus is on the city of Fallujah. During Iraq War 2.0, the United States captured the city twice, the final time via a siege that would have embarrassed the Nazis outside Stalingrad. White phosphorus and depleted uranium weapons were used against a civilian population living amidst some groups of Sunni militias and al Qaeda terrorists. No one knows the civilian death count.
In Iraq War 3.0, 2016 edition, beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was quick to declare victory in mid-June after Shia militias reached the center of Fallujah, displacing the Islamic State (an official in the U.S.-led coalition said Iraqi forces had so far taken only half of Fallujah, but why does that matter.)
Whomever is winning, the fighting has forced more than 85,000 residents to flee in a humanitarian crisis you’ll need to work hard to learn more about. One of the few Western journalists actually on the ground in Fallujah, the Washington Post’s Loveday Morris (follow her at @LovedayM if you have any interest in Iraq at all), described the scene as “No tents, latrines, water tanks for some. Aid agencies just can’t keep up. In 4.5 years covering Syria and Iraq I’ve never seen conditions this bad… No words.”
It will be years, if ever, before Fallujah is a functioning city again. How do we know? Because of Ramadi.
Ramadi was the city before Fallujah that was destroyed to free it from Islamic State. Some six months after that victory, the city remains a disaster zone. Estimates are that almost 80 percent of the buildings in Ramadi, including the majority of around 32,000 residential housing units, infrastructure, government departments and schools, have been damaged or destroyed. ISIS did its share of damage, but the U.S. launched thousands of airstrikes, artillery barrages and rocket attacks into the urban areas. Shia militias did the rest.
Special engineering committees were created to assess the damages, award compensation and schedule re-building. Forms are still being given out to members of the public who venture back into the ruins. According to local administrators, around $19.5 billion will be needed to rebuild the city.
Since the committees started work in May, they have received around 17,000 applications for compensation, says the mayor of Ramadi. About 50,000 are expected. Staff have managed to process 3,000 applications so far and have made the required site visits at a rate of only 30 and 50 per day.
So far, the Baghdad central government has only provided about one million dollars. That’s Ramadi. Fallujah awaits.
We may have achieved peak military-industrial complex: the U.S. is in part supplying both sides of the Iraq-Islamic State conflict and through that, creating the need for a new class of weapons to be sold as a counter measure. As arms manufacturers across our great land say, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Islamic State militants have not only acquired a grand majority of the military Humvees gifted to and then abandoned by the Iraqi Army, they are now re-purposing them into car bombs to use against the Iraqi Army (Hint: don’t leave the keys in the car next time.*)
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi confirmed that 2,300 are in ISIS hands, more than two-thirds of all Humvees provided to Iraq by the U.S.
While the vehicles make for handy battlefield transportation, it turns out they are almost tailor-made for use as suicide car bombs.
“There’s a simple reason the militants are using Humvees and other armored vehicles as rolling bombs,” reported Foreign Policy. “Their armor plating prevents defenders from killing the trucks’ drivers before the militants can detonate their loads, while the vehicles’ capacity to carry enormous amounts of weight means the Islamic State can pack in a ton of explosives.”
What to do when the weapons you gave to the Iraqi Army ended up as a super weapon of the enemy? Why, you sell new weapons to the Iraqi Army!
And so the U.S. has outfitted the Kurdish Peshmerga with 1,000 AT-4 anti-tank missiles last year, and plans to send 2,000 to the so-called Iraqi Army. Germany has provided the Peshmerga with the Milan guided missile, which has also been proven effective against the Humvee bombs. Assuming the Iraqi side holds on to their American-made missiles, they can be used to blow up the American-made Humvees.
The things work well. In fact, according to the Daily Caller, the anti-tank missiles are so popular, one Kurdish family even named their child after the weapon.
* Joke! They don’t have keys.
Barack Obama called the drone assassination on May 21 of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, “an important milestone.”
It might turn out to be. But I doubt it. My advice is every time you hear an American official use the term “milestone,” run the other way.
For example, back in September 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the formation of a new Iraqi government then was “a major milestone” for the country. But on the same day that Obama was proclaiming his own milestone, protesters stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad seeking the end of that previous milestone government.
But in case you’re not convinced, let’s take a look back at milestones and their companion, turning points, from the last Iraq War.
“This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003
“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003
“That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004
“Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004
“A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004
“Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004
“Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005
“The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005
“On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005
“I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005
“The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005
“2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005
“We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006
“We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006
“This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006
“When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006
“Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007
“This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007
“Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008
“The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008
“Iraq’s ‘Milestone’ Day Marred by Fatal Blast,” Washington Post, July 2009
“Iraq vote “an important milestone,” Obama, March 2010
“Iraq Withdrawal Signals New Phase, But War is Not Over,” ABC News, August 2010
“Why the Iraq milestone matters,” Foreign Policy, August 2010
“Iraq Milestone No Thanks to Obama,” McCain, September 2010
“Hails Iraq ‘milestone’ after power-sharing deal, ” Obama, November 2010
“Week’s event marks a major milestone for Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012
“National elections ‘important milestone’ for Iraq,” Ban Ki Moon, April 2014
“Iraq PM nomination ‘key milestone,'” Joe Biden, August 2014
One of the most popular apps these days is Snapchat. It allows the sender to set a timer for any photo dispatched via the app, so that a few seconds after the recipient opens the message, the photo is automatically deleted.
The evidence of what you did at that party last night is seen and then disappears. POOF!
I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that the Iraq-Syria War against the Islamic State (ISIS) is being conveyed to us via Snapchat. Important things happen, they appear in front of us, and then… POOF!… they’re gone. No one seems to remember them. Who cares that they’ve happened at all, when there’s a new snap already arriving for your attention? As with most of what flows through the real Snapchat, what’s of some interest at first makes no difference in the long run.
Just because we now have terrifyingly short memories does not, however, mean that things did not happen. Despite the POOF! effect, events that genuinely mattered when it comes to the region in which Washington has, since the 1980s, been embroiled in four wars, actually did occur last week, last month, a war or two ago, or, in some cases, more than half a century in the past. What follows are just some of the things we’ve forgotten that couldn’t matter more.
It’s a Limited Mission — POOF!
Perhaps General David Petraeus’s all-time sharpest comment came in the earliest days of Iraq War 2.0. “Tell me how this ends,” he said, referring to the Bush administration’s invasion. At the time, he was already worried that there was no endgame.
That question should be asked daily in Washington. It and the underlying assumption that there must be a clear scope and duration to America’s wars are too easily forgotten. It took eight long years until the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Though there were no ticker tape parades or iconic photos of sailors smooching their gals in Times Square in 2011, the war was indeed finally over and Barack Obama’s campaign promise fulfilled…
Until, of course, it wasn’t, and in 2014 the same president restarted the war, claiming that a genocide against the Yazidis, a group hitherto unknown to most of us and since largely forgotten, was in process. Air strikes were authorized to support a “limited” rescue mission. Then, more — limited — American military power was needed to stop the Islamic State from conquering Iraq. Then more air strikes, along with limited numbers of military advisers and trainers, were sure to wrap things up, and somehow, by May 2016, the U.S. has 5,400 military personnel, including Special Operations forces, on the ground across Iraq and Syria, with expectations that more would soon be needed, even as a massive regional air campaign drags on. That’s how Washington’s wars seem to go these days, with no real debate, no Congressional declaration, just, if we’re lucky, a news item announcing what’s happened.
Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate.
For those who prefer an even more forgotten view of history, America’s war in Vietnam kicked into high gear thanks to then-President Lyndon Johnson’s false claim about an attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The early stages of that war followed a path somewhat similar to the one on which we now seem to be staggering along in Iraq War 3.0 — from a limited number of advisers to the full deployment of almost all the available tools of war.
Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.
The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.
No Boots on the Ground — POOF!
Having steadfastly maintained since the beginning of Iraq War 3.0 that it would never put “American boots on the ground,” the Obama administration has deepened its military campaign against the Islamic State by increasing the number of Special Operations forces in Syria from 50 to 300. The administration also recently authorized the use of Apache attack helicopters, long stationed in Iraq to protect U.S. troops, as offensive weapons.
American advisers are increasingly involved in actual fighting in Iraq, even as the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers to an air base in Qatar before promptly sending them into combat over Iraq and Syria. Another group of Marines was dispatched to help defend the American Embassy in Baghdad after the Green Zone, in the heart of that city, was recently breached by masses of protesters. Of all those moves, at least some have to qualify as “boots on the ground.”
The word play involved in maintaining the official no-boots fiction has been a high-wire act. Following the loss of an American in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter labeled it a “combat death.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest then tried to explain how an American who was not on a combat mission could be killed in combat. “He was killed, and he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission,” Earnest told reporters.
Much more quietly, the U.S. surged — “surge” being the replacement word for the Vietnam-era “escalate” — the number of private contractors working in Iraq; their ranks have grown eight-fold over the past year, to the point where there are an estimated 2,000 of them working directly for the Department of Defense and 5,800 working for the Department of State inside Iraq. And don’t be too sanguine about those State Department contractors. While some of them are undoubtedly cleaning diplomatic toilets and preparing elegant receptions, many are working as military trainers, paramilitary police advisers, and force protection personnel. Even some aircraft maintenance crews and CIA paramilitaries fall under the State Department’s organizational chart.
The new story in Iraq and Syria when it comes to boots on the ground is the old story: air power alone has never won wars, advisers and trainers never turn out to be just that, and for every soldier in the fight you need five or more support people behind him.
We’re Winning — POOF!
We’ve been winning in Iraq for some time now — a quarter-century of successes, from 1991’s triumphant Operation Desert Storm to 2003’s soaring Mission Accomplished moment to just about right now in the upbeat third iteration of America’s Iraq wars. But in each case, in a Snapchat version of victory, success has never seemed to catch on.
At the end of April, for instance, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesperson, hailed the way American air power had set fire to $500 million of ISIS’s money, actual cash that its militants had apparently forgotten to disperse or hide in some reasonable place. He was similarly positive about other recent gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Hit, which, he swore, was “a linchpin for ISIL.” In this, he echoed the language used when ISIS-occupied Ramadi (and Baiji and Sinjar and…) fell, language undoubtedly no less useful when the next town is liberated. In the same fashion, USA Today quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying that American actions had cut ISIS’s oil revenues by an estimated 50%, forcing them to ration fuel in some areas, while cutting pay to its fighters and support staff.
Only a month ago, National Security Adviser Susan Rice let us know that, “day by day, mile by mile, strike by strike, we are making substantial progress. Every few days, we’re taking out another key ISIL leader, hampering ISIL’s ability to plan attacks or launch new offensives.” She even cited a poll indicating that nearly 80% of young Muslims across the Middle East are strongly opposed to that group and its caliphate.
In the early spring, Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, took to Twitter to assure everyone that “terrorists are now trapped and desperate on Mosul fronts.” Speaking at a security forum I attended, retired general Chuck Jacoby, the last multinational force commander for Iraq 2.0, described another sign of progress, insisting that Iraq today is a “maturing state.” On the same panel, Douglas Ollivant, a member of former Iraq commander General David Petraeus’s “brain trust of warrior-intellectuals,” talked about “streams of hope” in Iraq.
Above all, however, there is one sign of success often invoked in relation to the war in Iraq and Syria: the body count, an infamous supposed measure of success in the Vietnam War. Washington spokespeople regularly offer stunning figures on the deaths of ISIS members, claiming that 10,000 to 25,000 Islamic State fighters have been wiped out via air strikes. The CIA has estimated that, in 2014, the Islamic State had only perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms. If such victory statistics are accurate, somewhere between a third and all of them should now be gone.
Other U.S. intelligence reports, clearly working off a different set of data, suggest that there once were more than 30,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks. Now, the Pentagon tells us, the flow of new foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has been staunched, dropping over the past year from roughly 2,000 to 200 a month, further incontrovertible proof of the Islamic State’s declining stature. One anonymous American official typically insisted: “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”
Yet despite success after American success, ISIS evidently isn’t broke, or running out of fighters, or too desperate to stay in the fray, and despite all the upbeat news there are few signs of hope in the Iraqi body politic or its military.
The new story is again a very old story: when you have to repeatedly explain how much you’re winning, you’re likely not winning much of anything at all.
It’s Up to the Iraqis — POOF!
From the early days of Iraq War 2.0, one key to success for Washington has been assigning the Iraqis a to-do list based on America’s foreign policy goals. They were to hold decisive elections, write a unifying Constitution, take charge of their future, share their oil with each other, share their government with each other, and then defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later, the Islamic State.
As each item failed to get done properly, it became the Iraqis’ fault that Washington hadn’t achieved its goals. A classic example was “the surge” of 2007, when the Bush administration sent in a significant number of additional troops to whip the Iraqis into shape and just plain whip al-Qaeda, and so open up the space for Shiites and Sunnis to come together in an American-sponsored state of national unity. The Iraqis, of course, screwed up the works with their sectarian politics and so lost the stunning potential gains in freedom we had won them, leaving the Americans heading for the exit.
In Iraq War 3.0, the Obama administration again began shuffling leaders in Baghdad to suit its purposes, helping force aside once-golden boy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and pushing forward new golden boy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to — you guessed it — unify Iraq. “Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said as Abadi took office.
Of course, unity did not transpire, thanks to Abadi, not us. “It would be disastrous,” editorialized the New York Times, “if Americans, Iraqis, and their partners were to succeed in the military campaign against the Islamic State only to have the politicians in Baghdad squander another chance to build a better future.” The Times added: “More than 13 years since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there’s less and less reason to be optimistic.”
The latest Iraqi “screw-up” came on April 30th, when dissident Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters broke into the previously sacrosanct Green Zone established by the Americans in Iraq War 2.0 and stormed Iraq’s parliament. Sadr clearly remembers his history better than most Americans. In 2004, he emboldened his militias, then fighting the U.S. military, by reminding them of how irregular forces had defeated the Americans in Vietnam. This time, he was apparently diplomatic enough not to mention that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 41 years ago on the day of the Green Zone incursion.
Sadr’s supporters crossed into the enclave to protest Prime Minister Abadi’s failure to reform a disastrous government, rein in corruption (you can buy command of an entire army division and plunder its budget indefinitely for about $2 million), and provide basic services like water and electricity to Baghdadis. The tens of billions of dollars that U.S. officials spent “reconstructing” Iraq during the American occupation of 2003 to 2011 were supposed to make such services effective, but did not.
And anything said about Iraqi governmental failures might be applied no less accurately to the Iraqi army.
Despite the estimated $26 billion the U.S. spent training and equipping that military between 2003 and 2011, whole units broke, shed their uniforms, ditched their American equipment, and fled when faced with relatively small numbers of ISIS militants in June 2014, abandoning four northern cities, including Mosul. This, of course, created the need for yet more training, the ostensible role of many of the U.S. troops now in Iraq. Since most of the new Iraqi units are still only almost ready to fight, however, those American ground troops and generals and Special Operations forces and forward air controllers and planners and logistics personnel and close air support pilots are still needed for the fight to come.
The inability of the U.S. to midwife a popularly supported government or a confident citizen’s army, Washington’s twin critical failures of Iraq War 2.0, may once again ensure that its latest efforts implode. Few Iraqis are left who imagine that the U.S. can be an honest broker in their country. A recent State Department report found that one-third of Iraqis believe the United States is actually supporting ISIS, while 40% are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.
The new story is again the old story: corrupt governments imposed by an outside power fail. And in the Iraq case, every problem that can’t be remedied by aerial bombardment and Special Forces must be the Iraqis’ fault.
Same Leadership, Same Results — POOF!
With the last four presidents all having made war in Iraq, and little doubt that the next president will dive in, keep another forgotten aspect of Washington’s Iraq in mind: some of the same American leadership figures have been in place under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and they will initially still be in place when Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump enters the Oval Office.
Start with Brett McGurk, the current special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS. His résumé is practically a Wikipedia page for America’s Iraq, 2003-2016: Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran from August 2013 until his current appointment. Before that, Senior Advisor in the State Department for Iraq, a special advisor to the National Security Staff, Senior Advisor to Ambassadors to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey. McGurk participated in President Obama’s 2009 review of Iraq policy and the transition following the U.S. military departure from Iraq. During the Bush administration, McGurk served as Director for Iraq, then as Special Assistant to the President, and also Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 McGurk was the lead negotiator with the Iraqi Government on both a long-term Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces. He was also one of the chief Washington-based architects of The Surge, having earlier served as a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority from nearly the first shots of 2003.
A little lower down the chain of command is Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He is now leading Sunni “tribal coordination” to help defeat ISIS, as well as serving as commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force. As a colonel back in 2006, MacFarland similarly helped organize the surge’s Anbar Sunni Awakening movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
And on the ground level, you can be sure that some of the current colonels were majors in Iraq War 2.0, and some of their subordinates put their boots on the same ground they’re on now.
In other words, the new story is the old story: some of the same people have been losing this war for Washington since 2003, with neither accountability nor culpability in play.
What If They Gave a War and No One Remembered?
All those American memories lost to oblivion. Such forgetfulness only allows our war makers to do yet more of the same things in Iraq and Syria, acts that someone on the ground will be forced to remember forever, perhaps under the shadow of a drone overhead.
Placing our service people in harm’s way, spending our money in prodigious amounts, and laying the country’s credibility on the line once 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 care not so much about, the United States 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 public and spin up some vague facsimile of war fever.
But back to Snapchat. It turns out that while the app was carefully designed to make whatever is transmitted quickly disappear, some clever folks have since found ways to preserve the information. If only the same could be said of our Snapchat wars. How soon we forget. Until the next time…
There’s no past in Washington. There is no sense that actions taken today will exist past today, even though in reality they often echo for decades.
A video making the rounds online shows a fighter from a Kurdish group known as Kurdish Workers Party, or, more commonly, the PKK. Using what appears to be a Russian model shoulder fired portable air-to-air missile, the fighter is shooting down a Turkish military, American-made Cobra attack helicopter.
The attack helo is made by the United States and supplied to NATO ally Turkey;
The missile is of Russian design but could have been made and could have come from nearly anywhere in Eastern Europe. However, such weapons were flooded into the Middle East after the United States deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Many such weapons simply entered the black market when the Libyan army more or less dissolved, but many appear to have been sent into the Middle East by the CIA as part of a broader anti-ISIS strategy. Some say one of the functions of the CIA station overrun in Benghazi was to a facilitate that process.
Turkey and the United States official consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Many believe the U.S. surreptitiously supplies the PKK weapons in their fight against Islamic State. Turkey is a U.S. NATO ally who is engaged in active war against PKK.
The U.S. supports Kurdish forces in their fight against Islamic State. The PKK is not officially supported, but anyone who believes the PKK and the “official” Kurdish militias are not coordinated parts of the same entity is either a fool or works in Washington. Or both; the Venn diagram is nearly two overlapping circles.
The primary motivator of the Kurdish fight against ISIS is to push them out of northern Iraq and Syria to help create an independent nation of Kurdistan. This would dissolve the nation now known as Iraq. One of America’s stated goals is to preserve a unified Iraq.
The U.S. supports NATO ally Turkey in a fight against Islamic State. Turkey allows the U.S. to fly drones and other aircraft out of its air bases, but also allows ISIS foreign fighters to cross its border into Syria one way, and ISIS oil to reach market by crossing the border the other way.
If you can understand how all of those things can be simultaneously both true acts of the foreign policy of the United States, you are not a fool and you do not work in Washington. Or both; the Venn diagram is nearly two overlapping circles.
It is perhaps the most vexing of questions: why is it that whenever you see photos or video of ISIS driving around in their Mad Max-esque technicals with black flags, the vehicle seems to always be a Toyota?
Does Uber require its drivers moonlighting for ISIS to use Toyotas instead of black town cars? Does Toyota pay ISIS a promotional/product placement fee? Does Craigslist Iraq (no freaking way, there is a Craigslist for Iraq) just have a huge Toyota subsection? Is Toyota secretly supporting ISIS?
Those very questions are on the minds of America’s crack anti-terror warriors.
U.S. officials are indeed inquiring why ISIS has acquired a large number of Toyota vehicles, ABC News reports on a slow day when no one on TV at least is calling the president the N-word. Toyota-made pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles have been featured prominently in a number of ISIS propaganda videos used in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, according to ABC. Vehicles shown include the Hilux and the Land Cruiser.
“ISIS has used these vehicles in order to engage in military-type activities, terror activities, and the like,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace, apparently the only ex-government official who picked up over the weekend for a quote, told ABC News. “But in nearly every ISIS video, they show a fleet – a convoy of Toyota vehicles and that’s very concerning to us.”
Is Wallace saying to ISIS they better “buy American?” Is Wallace in the tank for ISIS? I don’t know.
Anyway, Toyota said in a statement to Autoblog that it has a strict policy not to sell vehicles to groups who may use them for terrorism, but notes that it can’t control if its vehicles are re-sold, stolen, or repurposed after they leave dealerships.
So, jot that down, ISIS people reading this. If you roll into your local Toyota dealership and, along with the rustproofing, extended warranty and upgraded sound system, you also ask for a 20mm cannon to be mounted in the back, the dealer may balk, or at least try and talk you into the Bitcoin payment plan.
“We are committed to complying fully with the laws and regulations of each country or region where we operate, and require our dealers and distributors to do the same,” Toyota’s statement says. “We are supporting the U.S. Treasury Department’s broader inquiry into international supply chains and the flow of capital and goods in the Middle East.”
BONUS: The actual answer is there are just a whole lot of Japanese vehicles in the Middle East. The Japanese have opened a bunch of dealerships there for one. The other reason is that people in Japan trade-in vehicles regularly on newer models, and the used car market there is weak. So, Japanese cars are exported en masse to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, even North Korea, to basically dump them for at least some profit. And so now you know…
Hey everyone, Happy bin Laden Day! It was five years ago May 2 that “we” got bin Laden. How did you celebrate?
For the CIA, marking the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden was as simple as fake live tweeting the raid by SEAL Team Six on the Al-Qaeda founder’s compound in Pakistan. Using the hashtag #UBLRaid, the CIA blasted out updates of the May 2011 strike as if it was unfolding in real time, all so we could savor the sweet, sweet taste of revenge which brought back to life everyone killed on 9/11.
Tweets included the now famous picture of President Barack Obama and other high-ranking U.S. officials watching matters unfold from the White House’s Situation Room.
1:51 pm EDT – Helicopters depart from Afghanistan for compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, read one tweet.
3:30 pm EDT – 2 helicopters descend on compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 1 crashes, but assault continues without delay or injury, read another.
That was followed just minutes later by: 3:39 pm EDT – Usama Bin Ladin found on third floor and killed.
Think about how much has changed since that momentous day. In 2011 the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the threat of a vicious global terror organization that had already killed Americans. Oh, wait, that looks just like 2016, only now we are also at war in Syria, too, still at war in Afghanistan (16 years in!) and back at war in Iraq. And al Qaeda is known as ISIS, and the Homeland remains a jittery mess on the verge of electing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have enthusiastically endorsed lots more war in the Middle East.
It’s as if Nothing. Has. Changed.
Anyway, the CIA’s anniversary tweets open up the idea of live tweeting other American victories. How about a minute-by-minute live tweet of a waterboarding session? Or maybe, for a really special date, a live tweet on August 6 of the Hiroshima bombing?
BONUS: Proving we have learned absolutely nothing, amid the bin Laden tweetstorm, CIA chief John Brennan said Sunday that taking out the head of Islamic State would have a “great impact.”
“If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization. And it will be felt by them,” he said.
Like about 90% of the news today, this would be terrific satire, if it wasn’t true.
America is dropping so many bombs on ISIS that the country is in danger of running out.
“We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 “smart bombs” in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget. But it could take a while to rebuild the stockpile.
“The U.S. maintains a pretty steady inventory of bombs and missiles,” says one aerospace and defense policy analyst. “But 2.5 years of fighting ISIS and continued bombing in Afghanistan have exceeded weapons-use projections.”
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.’ military intervention against Islamic State, strikes ISIS targets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, Joint Standoff Weapons, and air-to-ground missiles, such as the Hellfire. Per unit price tags on these munitions range from around $25,000 to close to $400,000. In the early days of the Syrian campaign the Navy fired multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles, which go for about $1 million a piece.
But bombs away, the overall cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.
Since the June 2014 start of Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run.
Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.”
The CIA estimated Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 began.
Somebody in Washington better do the math on this one.
A defense contractor hired mercenaries from Africa for $16 a day to guard American bases in Iraq, with one of the company’s former directors saying no checks were made on whether those hired were former child soldiers.
The director of Aegis Defense Services between 2005 and 2015, said contractors recruited from countries such as Sierra Leone to reduce costs for the U.S. occupation in Iraq. He said none of the estimated 2,500 boys recruited from Sierra Leone were checked to see if they were former child soldiers who had been forced to fight in the country’s civil war.
They were considered merely cheaper options to fulfill contracts to defend U.S. bases in Iraq, enabling Aegis to realize higher profits.
Aegis had contracts from the U.S. government worth hundreds of millions of dollars to protect bases in Iraq. It originally employed UK, U.S. and Nepalese mercenaries, but broadened its recruitment in 2011 to include Africans as a cost-cutting/profit raising measure.
I am saddened to say the use of children in this capacity in Iraq was an open secret. The guards at the forward operating base where I was located in 2009-2010 were obviously very, very young, often carrying weapons nearly their own height. They were kept isolated and segregated from the Americans so the two groups could not speak, ensuring the secret was nominally kept as everyone looked the other way.
That child soldiers were present in this capacity was (to my knowledge, first) mentioned in my 2011 book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (in the chapter titled “Tribes.”) Our military children happened to be from Uganda, not Sierra Leone, suggesting the practice was wide spread.
In some happy news, in 2010, the mercs guarding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad were primarily from Peru, and appeared to be all adults.
BONUS: The recruitment of African mercenaries and, more specifically, former child soldiers, is the subject of a new documentary (video clip, below) by Mads Ellesoe, a Danish journalist who spent two years researching the subject.
Candidates, one of you will be the fifth consecutive American president to make war inside Iraq. What will you face on day one of your administration?
You learned with us recently of the death of a Marine in Iraq, which exposed that the United States set up a fire base in that country, which exposed that the Pentagon used a twist of words to misrepresent the number of personnel in Iraq by as many as 2,000. It appears a second fire base exists, set up on the grounds of one of America’s largest installations from the last Iraq war. Special forces range across the landscape. The Pentagon is planning for even more troops. There can be no more wordplay — America now has boots on the ground in Iraq.
The regional picture is dismal. In Syria, militias backed by the Central Intelligence Agency are fighting those backed by the Pentagon. British, Jordanian and American special forces are fighting various enemies in Libya; that failed state is little more than a latent Iraq, likely to metastasize into its neighbors. There may be a worrisome note about Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon waiting for you under the Oval Office desk blotter.
But candidates, your focus must remain on Iraq; that is where what the Jordanian king now refers to as the Third World War began, and where Islamic State was birthed, and where the United States seems to be digging in for the long run.
Though arguably the story of Islamic State, Iraq and the United States can be traced to the lazy division of the Ottoman Empire after the Second World War, for your purposes candidates, things popped out of place in 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq unleashed the forces now playing out across the Middle East. The garbled post-invasion strategy installed a Shi’ite-dominated, Iranian-supported government in Baghdad, with limited Sunni buy-in.
Sectarian fighting and central government corruption which favored the Shi’ites drove non-ideologues without jobs, and religious zealots with an agenda, together. Clumsy policy cemented the relationship – a senior Islamic State commander explained the prison at Camp Bucca operated by the United States was directly responsible for the rise of the violent, theocratic state inside the divided, but then still largely secular, Iraq. “It made it all, it built our ideology,” he said. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else.” So first came al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by its successor, Islamic State.
Fast-forward through about a year and half of Washington’s fear-mongering and wagging the dog, and America’s re-entry into Iraq moved quickly from a Yazidi rescue mission, to advisors, to air power, to special forces, to today’s boots on the ground. That is your starting point on day one in office.
As your strategy, every one of you candidates has promised to destroy Islamic State.
Even if that destruction comes to be, the problems in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (space precludes drawing the Turk-Kurd conflict into this article, though the war itself has no such restrictions) would still be there. Islamic State is a response, and its absence will only leave a void to be filled by something else. Your root problem is the disruption of the balance of power in the Middle East, brought on by a couple of regime changes too many.
The primary forces the United States are supporting to attack Islamic State in Iraq Sunni territories are Shi’ite militias. Though they have been given a new name in Washington, Popular Mobilization Units, that does not change what they are; have a look at a popular Instagram, where a Shi’ite fighter asked for viewers to vote on whether or not he should execute a Sunni prisoner. Washington clings to the hope that the militias and it are united against a common foe – the bad Sunnis in Islamic State – while what the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad also supporting the militias more likely see is a war against the Sunnis in general.
Oh, and candidates, that Iraqi national army, trained at great cost until 2011, then re-trained for the past 18 months, is still little more than a sinkhole of corruption, cowardice and lethargy.
As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that over almost nine years of trying, re-trying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.
What you will be inheriting, in the words of one commentator, is a “bold new decade-old strategy” that relies on enormous expenditures for minimal gains. The question for you is: if war in Iraq didn’t work last time, why will it work this time?
The hole is deep and being dug deeper as we speak.
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in the flailing U.S. anti-ISIS strategy is the belief that any group willing to fight ISIS must support at least some U.S. goals, and that any group not ISIS is better in the long run than ISIS.
Such a viewpoint ignores the near-infinite complexities of Middle East alliances and politics, ignores the well-known reality that any group that does, in part, support the U.S. also needs to simultaneously prepare for when the U.S. one day suddenly picks up and leaves, and allows very dangerous weapons to exfiltrate out of the semi-right hands into the really wrong hands.
The video below shows the Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuda (KSS), which is also known as the Battalion of the Sayyid’s Martyrs, cruising around in an American-made M1 Abrams tank (at around the 16-second mark of the video). The video surfaced on SOFREP, a very pro-U.S. military website that states it is run by Special Ops veterans.
About those KSS guys with our tank.
Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) are an Iraqi Shia militia formed in 2013 to protect “Shia shrines across the globe” among other fun things. It militarily supports the Assad Government in Syria, and has close ties to the Badr Organization. The Badr’s are some nasty people who excelled at killing Americans, with Iranian help, during the 2003-2010 Iraq War 2.0.
The U.S. has since 2010 been supplying the government of Iraq with M-1 tanks. The Iraqi government is denying their involvement with KSS, and claims “not to know” how they obtained the U.S.-made tank. Tanks, of course, are just darned hard things to keep track of.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, “We have received assurances from the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces that they will use U.S. equipment in accordance with U.S. law and our bilateral agreements. If we receive reports that U.S.-origin equipment is being misused or provided to unauthorized users, we engage the Iraqi government in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy to address any confirmed issues — up to the highest levels, if necessary.”
The best news of all (it is not the best news) is that if Iranian-connected militia loyal to Assad have M-1 tanks, that means the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians, at a minimum, have access to any M-1 technology they might wish to inspect or reverse engineer, or sell on the global black market.
This war just keeps getting better (it is not getting better.)
The next time a candidate or reporter asks during a debate about education or healthcare “But how are you going to pay for that?” I would like the person being questioned to respond “The same way we find money to pay for Iraq.”
So maybe it would just be better for Flint, Michigan to claim it is under attack by ISIS instead of just being poisoned because no one has the money to fix America’s infrastructure.
See, each month, Iraq’s government pays out nearly $4 billion in salaries and pensions to the military and a bloated array of corrupt public-sector workers. But with more than 90 percent of government revenue coming from oil, it is bringing in only about half that as crude prices plunge. Some Iraqi officials and analysts say the government might struggle later this year to pay the seven million people on the public payroll, which could trigger mass unrest.
As a sign of the times, Iraqis are facing more nominal charges every day. Hospitals, which have long treated Iraqis free of charge, have introduced fees, for example, even for those visiting sick relatives.
For Iraq, the decline comes in the midst of an already destabilizing war. There are bills for reconstructing flattened cities destroyed for freedom, and assistance for the 3.3 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced over the past two years, with more expected to come.
So — good news, at least for Iraq — the United States is stepping in with U.S. taxpayer money to make sure the country can continue military spending while it seeks international loans.
So, while there is apparently no way anyone can conceive of to pay for fixing America’s infrastructure, making higher education affordable, reducing healthcare costs or any of those other icky socialist thingies, there is money for Iraq!
BONUS: No one really knows how much money the U.S. has already spent in Iraq, but it is way over two trillion dollars.
BONUS BONUS: The golden eagle shown above was paid for by the American taxpayers in 2010 as part of the reconstruction of Iraq. The area where it is shown is now devastated by the current fighting. I took the photo myself.
Iraq, the failed state that over 4,600 (and counting…) Americans died to free from some evil tyrant 13 years ago, is still ranking high internationally in something. Unfortunately, that something is corruption.
A couple of other places where America has been intervening for freedom also made the list.
Germany’s Transparency International released its newest corruption index for 2015, and as usual Iraq was on the list. The ten worst countries in its new study were Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya, Iraq, Venezuela, and Guinea-Bissau.
Seven of those nations held the same worst ranks last year. Iraq received the same score that it had for the last two years.
Most Corrupt Countries On Transparency International Corruption Index 2015:
2. North Korea
5. South Sudan
In Iraq, corruption is rampant throughout the state. The ruling elite use graft and bribes to maintain their patronage systems, their militias, and to enrich themselves. That’s also the reason why there is no real push to end it; if one top official was taken down it would threaten all the rest.
According to experts, that’s despite repeated promises by the prime ministers, the complaints of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and protests that occur almost every year demanding action on the issue. Current U.S.-chosen Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, for example, announced a reform program in August 2015 that was supposed to address corruption, but he was focused more on building up his own base and going after his rivals than actually addressing the problem, and nothing substantive was done. No one, including America, wants to seriously touch the golden goose that keeps the Iraqi good times going.
BONUS: See who else is on the top ten corruption list? U.S. occupied Afghanistan is No. 3. Libya, where the U.S. overthrew another evil tyrant with no follow-on plan, is No. 7. Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan are all places with active U.S.-led miniwars afoot.
It is almost as if there is a pattern here…
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…
And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.
The Obama Doctrine
That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.
Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.
Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.
Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”
But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.
Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”
As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”
And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?
“Free riders,” he said.
The Audacity of Ignorance
What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.
The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.
Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.
Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.
History is Not Generous
If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.
But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.
Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.
Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.
One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”
That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.
The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to “destroy” the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else — except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.
In that light, here’s a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions — they form the section headings below — that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.
And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that’s not good news. Now, let’s consider them four years later, one by one.
Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?
That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one’s even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don’t even notice.
In 2012, I wrote, “The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq… the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it’s clear that northern Mali is heading our way).”
Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can’t release most of the others without lots of approvals by… well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.
Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, “generational” American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016 — no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There’s still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen — albeit now mostly via America’s well-armed proxies the Saudis — and Africa is more militarized than ever.
As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier — it’s a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation’s airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.
In 2012, I also wrote, “Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of ‘al-Qaeda Number 3’ guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama’s drone-meister, has put it this way: ‘We’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.’”
Four years later, whack-a-mole seems to still be as polite a way as possible of categorizing America’s strategy. In 2013, the top whacker John Brennan got an upgrade to director of the CIA, but strangely — despite so many drones sent off, Special Operations teams sent in, and bombers let loose — the moles keep burrowing and he’s gotten none of the rest he was seeking in 2012. Al-Qaeda is still around, but more significantly, the Islamic State (IS) has replaced that outfit as the signature terrorist organization for the 2016 election.
And speaking of IS, the 2011 war in Libya, midwifed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, led to the elimination of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, which in turn led to chaos, which in turn led to the spread of IS there big time, which appears on its way to leading to a new American war in Libya seeking the kind of stability that, for all his terrors, Qaddafi had indeed brought to that country during his 34 years in power and the U.S. military will never find.
So an end to the Global War on Terror? Nope.
Do today’s foreign policy challenges mean that it’s time to retire the Constitution?
In 2012 I wrote, “Starting on September 12, 2001, challenges, threats, and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can’t accommodate terror threats to the Homeland.”
At the time, however, our concerns about unconstitutionality were mostly based on limited information from early whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Bill Binney, and what some then called conspiracy theories. That was before National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed our worst nightmares in June 2013 by leaking a trove of NSA documents about the overwhelming American surveillance state. Snowden summed it up this way: “You see programs and policies that were publicly justified on the basis of preventing terrorism — which we all want — in fact being used for very different purposes.”
Now, here’s the strange thing: since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state. (Only the Second Amendment, it turns out, is still sacred.) And speaking of rights, things had already grown so extreme by 2013 that Attorney General Eric Holder felt forced to publicly insist that the government did not plan to torture or kill Edward Snowden, should he end up in its hands. Given the tone of this election, someone may want to update that promise.
In 2012, of course, the Obama administration had only managed to put two whistleblowers in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Since then, such prosecutions have grown almost commonplace, with five more convictions (including that of Chelsea Manning) and with whatever penalties short of torture and murder are planned for Edward Snowden still pending. No one then mentioned the use of the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, but that wasn’t surprising. Its moment was still coming.
Four years later, still not a peep out of any candidate about the uses of that act, once aimed at spying for foreign powers in wartime, or a serious discussion of government surveillance and the loss of privacy in American life. (And we just learned that the Pentagon’s spy drones have been released over “the homeland,” too, but don’t expect to hear anything about that or its implications either.) Of course, Snowden has come up in the debates of both parties. He has been labeled a traitor as part of the blood sport that the Republican debates have devolved into, and denounced as a thief by Hillary Clinton, while Bernie Sanders gave him credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.
If the question in 2012 was: “Candidates, have we walked away from the Constitution? If so, shouldn’t we publish some sort of notice or bulletin?” In 2016, the answer seems to be: “Yes, we’ve walked away, and accept that or else… you traitor!”
What do we want from the Middle East?
In 2012, considering the wreckage of the post-9/11 policies of two administrations in the Middle East, I wondered what the goal of America’s presence there could possibly be. Washington had just ended its war in Iraq, walked away from the chaos in Libya, and yet continued to launch a seemingly never-ending series of drone strikes in the region. “Is it all about oil?” I asked. “Israel? Old-fashioned hegemony and containment? History suggests that we should make up our mind on what America’s goals in the Middle East might actually be. No cheating now — having no policy is a policy of its own.”
Four years later, Washington is desperately trying to destroy an Islamic State “caliphate” that wasn’t even on its radar in 2012. Of course, that brings up the question of whether IS can be militarily destroyed at all, as we watch its spread to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. And then there’s the question no one would have thought to ask back then: If we destroy that movement in Iraq and Syria, will another even more brutish group simply take its place, as the Islamic State did with al-Qaeda in Iraq? No candidate this time around even seems to grasp that these groups aren’t just problems in themselves, but symptoms of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem.
In the meantime, the one broad policy consensus to emerge is that we shouldn’t hesitate to unleash our air power and Special Operations forces and, with the help of local proxies, wreck as much stuff as possible. America has welcomed all comers to take their best shots in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting the Islamic State. The ongoing effort to bomb it away has resulted in the destruction of cities that were still in decent shape in 2012, like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and evidently at some future moment Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, “in order to save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without success, and whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office will be number five. No questions asked.
What is your plan to right-size our military and what about downsizing the global mission?
Plan? Right-size? Here’s the reality four years after I asked that question: Absolutely no candidate, including the most progressive one, is talking about cutting or in any way seriously curtailing the U.S. military.
Not surprisingly, in response to the ongoing question of the year, “So how will you pay for that?” (in other words, any project being discussed from massive border security and mass deportations to free public college tuition), no candidate has said: “Let’s spend less than 54% of our discretionary budget on defense.”
Call me sentimental, but as I wrote in 2012, I’d still like to know from the candidates, “What will you do to right-size the military and downsize its global mission? Secondly, did this country’s founders really intend for the president to have unchecked personal war-making powers?”
Such questions would at least provide a little comic relief, as all the candidates except Bernie Sanders lock horns to see who will be the one to increase the defense budget the most.
Since no one outside our borders buys American exceptionalism anymore, what’s next? What is America’s point these days?
In 2012, I laid out the reality of twenty-first-century America this way: “We keep the old myth alive that America is a special, good place, the most ‘exceptional’ of places in fact, but in our foreign policy we’re more like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself by yelling at the kids to get off the lawn (or simply taking potshots at them). Now, who we are and what we are abroad seems so much grimmer… America the Exceptional, has, it seems, run its course. Saber rattling… feels angry, unproductive, and without any doubt unbelievably expensive.”
Yet in 2016 most of the candidates are still barking about America the Exceptional despite another four years of rust on the chrome. Donald Trump may be the exceptional exception in that he appears to think America’s exceptional greatness is still to come, though quite soon under his guidance.
The question for the candidates in 2012 was and in 2016 remains “Who exactly are we in the world and who do you want us to be? Are you ready to promote a policy of fighting to be planetary top dog — and we all know where that leads — or can we find a place in the global community? Without resorting to the usual ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphors, can you tell us your vision for America in the world?”
The answer is a resounding no.
See You Again in 2020
The candidates have made it clear that the struggle against terror is a forever war, the U.S. military can never be big enough, bombing and missiling the Greater Middle East is now the American Way of Life, and the Constitution is indeed a pain and should get the hell out of the way.
Above all, no politician dares or cares to tell us anything but what they think we want to hear: America is exceptional, military power can solve problems, the U.S. military isn’t big enough, and it is necessary to give up our freedoms to protect our freedoms. Are we, in the perhaps slightly exaggerated words of one foreign commentator, now just a “nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries”?
Bookmark this page. I’ll be back before the 2020 elections to see how we’re doing.