“John Kerry has the skill, toughness, and ego to be a great secretary of state,” says Aaron David Miller on ForeignPolicy.com. So that’s that.
But don’t stop there. Miller goes on to say:
This sense of self-confidence is the hallmark of the Kerry style of diplomacy. No problem is too big that it can’t be made better. Trying and failing isn’t ideal; but it’s better than not trying at all. And if given enough time and focus — will and skill, too — there’s always a way forward. Only someone with this kind of can-do attitude would venture into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy against such extremely long odds; keep pushing for a Geneva conference to end Syria’s civil war with the faintest of hopes of success; and (not or) be bullish on a deal with Iran that has alienated key U.S. allies and much of Congress, too.
But wait, there’s more. In fact, Miller pulls out the debate trick everyone in Washington with an apparent failure to explain away uses:
I’m less interested in an interim report card on his record. It is way too soon for that. What intrigues me more are the trend lines, and specifically what will be required at the end of the day for him to be judged a truly consequential secretary of state, let alone one of America’s best. Perhaps this isn’t his goal. But watching John Kerry — the Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy — I’d be stunned if it wasn’t.
First, a big “LOL” for the Energizer Bunny reference. But the real rabbit out of the hat is the idea that no matter messed up Kerry seems to be at present, we just have to wait, for what, like 20 or 40 years and then we’ll see he was right all along. I remember the Bush apologists saying the same garbage about the Iraq War, give it time, history will judge. Right.
The article goes on and on, tumbling to earth somewhere between the Plain of Lack of Insight and the Sea of Hagiography. And why not? Here’s what the author’s Wikipedia page has to tell us about his objectivity on the subject of America’s international relations, especially in the MidEast:
Miller worked within the United States Department of State for twenty four years (1978–2003). Between 1988 and 2003, Miller served six secretaries of state as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations, where he participated in American efforts to broker agreements between Israel, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinians. He left the Department of State in January 2003 to serve as president of Seeds of Peace, an international youth organization, founded in 1993. In January 2006, he became a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
Now you’d think a guy who was dining out on participating in 15 years of stalemate in the Middle East might be a tad… humble, or introspective, instead of the dull cheerleading that passes for journalism over at FP.com. Hah hah.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
You people all hate them Muslims and want to see them go to hell, amiright? Well, maybe some do, and American can-do companies are filling that market niche. May God, Allah, Buddha and whoever else is out there have mercy on our blackened souls.
First up, you need some Muslim-hating ammo. Sure, a regular round can kill your average Terrorist, no problem, but then he is off to those virgins awaiting him in Paradise. Can’t have that, so you need to use Jihawg Ammo, made by South Fork Industries in Idaho. This speciality ammunition is actually coated with pork in the idiotic belief that if it penetrates a Muslim body said Muslim will die and go to hell as he is impure. This is based on the only-in-Idaho interpretation of the Koran that the dead guy is now spiritually unclean and thus unworthy. Guys, really, I remember my first beer, too, but just shut up.
Here is what the company actually says about itself:
In the fall of 2010, patriots from Idaho County, Idaho sat around a campfire enjoying an adult beverage. The discussion turned to concern and disgust that a mosque was being built at ground zero. Everyone in attendance agreed that freedom of religion is paramount for all peoples of Earth but this showed poor taste and had a sense of “rubbing our noses” into 9/11 tragedy. The discussion turned toward possible solutions to stop such a great insult.
With Jihawg Ammo, you don’t just kill an Islamist terrorist, you also send him to hell. That should give would-be martyrs something to think about before they launch an attack. If it ever becomes necessary to defend yourself and those around you our ammo works on two levels.
These bullets are “Peace Through Pork” and a “peaceful and natural deterrent to radical Islam” so a Christian shooter “Put Some Ham in MoHAMed.” “The nullifying principle of our product is only effective if you are attacked by an Islamist in Jihad.”
Yes, they have a Facebook page. Good news: since the pork ammo is still ammo, you can also use it to kill your Christian girlfriend after you get drunk and start yelling at her for wearin’ those cheap outfits like some Jezebel.
Bible Verse Military Rifle Sites
Bringing the wrath of the Christian God against Muslims cannot be done solely with the eyes God gave to the shooter. No, righteous killing requires a good scope to put steel on flesh properly.
Luckily, the Trijicon company has a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army, all inscribed with references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ. The sights were used by our brave crusaders in Iraq and continue to bring Jesus’ message of love thy neighbor to Afghanistan.
Trijicon confirmed to ABCNews.com that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon said the inscriptions “have always been there” and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them. Munson said the issue was being raised by a group that is “not Christian.” The company has said the practice began under its founder, Glyn Bindon, a devout Christian from South Africa, where in the past Jesus’ message of love was enshrined in the Apartheid system.
Good news: the same sights with the same Bible references are exported for use by the Israeli military to also slap down Muslims in their way toward God’s vision of heaven on earth.
But it doesn’t really matter all that much, because as one Christian commentator remarked, it is unlikely any actual Muslim cares, because to do so they’d have to:
– have access to an expensive US military rifle sight by this specific manufacturer
– can read (Afghanistan’s literacy rate is 28%, according to the CIA)
– can read English
– know enough about the English-language Bible to recognize an abbreviated reference at the end of a string of letters and numbers
– either have the reference memorized or have access to a Bible or Torah; and
– are offended by the presence of that reference.
Luckily for us, there are no Muslims in the U.S. military, no one on the bad guys’ side can use Google Translate and our literacy programs in Afghanistan have been a failure. God is truly on our side!
Hate-Based Coloring Books for Kids
But guns don’t shoot themselves. All that cool bullet and sight tech means nothing if you don’t have a righteous human Christian killer behind it, and what better way to achieve that than to indoctrinate them young.
Into the breach is coloringbook.com, a frightful pus-filled sore of a web site that sells coloring books to kids with titles such as The Tea Party Coloring Book Why America Loves You, Global Terrorism True Faces of Evil Never Forget and We Shall Never Forget 9/11, The Kids Book of Freedom.
The Tea Party book promises “many activities including how to start a tea party in your town, a tea party debate club at school and learn about freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to be who you are! The genius of America is how The Tea Party truly reflects, represents and respects its homeland.”
The 9/11 books are super-keen. They are about:
Good vs. Evil. To a terrorist, this is a way of life and they do not consider themselves to be radicals, they consider themselves as soldiers. Current examples of modern evil are the Radical Islamic Muslim Tsarnaev brothers,Tamerlan and Dzhokhar one of which became a US Citizen on 9/11/2012. Designed as a consumer friendly, family publication for use with children and adults, this excellent graphic coloring novel helps expand understanding of the factual details and meanings in the War on Terror. Included are detachable printed show case cards with “Faces of Global Terrorism” very similar to the FBI’s ads featuring photos of murderous terrorists and suspects.
Also included are “terrorist trading cards, inspired by real people, real life and reflecting the truth. Vol. II also includes a government labeled cyber terrorist named Assange and modern day weather underground founder/leader Bill Ayers, a current educator in Chicago Illinois.”
And here’s some inspiring text from the coloring book, designed of course for children:
Terrorist Trading Cards clearly identifies the evil that may sit next to you on an airplane, or it could be an avowed Atheist in the lot of your local grocer on a sunny morning.The world should look at them, make fun of them, name them – shame them, recognize who the terrorists are and rid the earth of them.
Onward Christian soldiers!
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I try to stop, maybe go a few days, but then I’ll be feeling a little sorry for myself, maybe a little lonely and I say, just a quick one, just one web page, and then I’ll quit. I’ll pop over to say the US Embassy in Baghdad site, for example, you know, just for a quick look, and then before I know it the room is spinning around me, I can’t find my shirt and somehow the clock is showing 5 am and I have to explain to a seven year old why daddy never went to bed last night. Again. My wife just rolls over; she already knows.
I want to stop– really– but then this happens and I can’t. Here’s just a taste of the hell I live in through because of the Embassy press releases I binge on:
Ambassador Stephen Beecroft hosted a business roundtable with the representatives of several U.S. companies operating in Iraq. Although the local market presents certain challenges, there is an increasing number of substantial U.S. companies making strategic investment commitments in Iraq.
Then it spirals out of control for me. I frantically look for any reference, just a link maybe, to any of these “several (substantial) U.S. companies operating in Iraq.” My hands shake on my mouse as I Google madly, trying to find just one name of one company that participated in this roundtable. I find none.
My thirst grows. I return to Google, eyes now blazing, looking through the world’s media for any mention of this roundtable outside of the Embassy’s own press release. I find one: Iraq-Business News. But even as my hand steadies and the electrons start to flow into my brain, there is no relief. The article is just a word-for-word republishing of the embassy press release, with ads selling some sort of flim-flam “How To Do Business in Iraq” consulting reports.
My last hope fades as I re-read the line from the embassy press release “Although the local market presents certain challenges…” Challenges? Like open civil war, car bombs, al Qaeda, bribery, hatred of Americans, need for 24/7 armed security, kidnappings, murder for hire and an almost complete lack of infrastructure, banking and transportation? What mad mind summarizes that as “certain challenges?” What sick, sick person thinks anyone will be persuaded by such pathetic words? Are they doing this to break me? Are there gray men and women in the embassy in Baghdad writing this, knowing I’ll read it, State’s slow revenge on me?
I pound the keyboard into plastic bits, the tiny pieces mimicking what has happened in my head. I tell myself this is it, I can’t– won’t– do this to myself again. I will quit cold reading Embassy press releases, not just from Iraq, but from Afghanistan and all the others. I will start writing instead about, I don’t know, gardening, or something to do with kittens, and re-find my soul.
I dream of gin-scented tears to run down either side of my nose and allow me to conquer myself. But then I reach for the mouse. Someone on Twitter has posted a link to another press release and I close my eyes and click, click, click once again, knowing I am doomed to repeat the cycle. I no longer have the choice. I love embassy press releases.
(My sincere apologies to any reader wrestling with real substance abuse. I hope you can appreciate the attempt at humor and if not, sorry for the offense.)
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class. Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?
In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?
If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.
Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!
We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia
Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.
Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.
All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…
… in the Middle East
If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.
The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.
Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty. He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”
Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.
State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.
Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…
… Everywhere Else
Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.
Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.
After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.
Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…
… Entering Syrian Airspace
The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)
Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)
Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.
His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”
As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)
In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.
Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.
Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.
Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.
Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.
The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.
Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.
The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.
This is horrific, what appears to be a video of Afghan military beating and torturing a bound captive while persons who appear to be American soldiers stand by and watch. One of the Americans has on surgical gloves and is holding something that indicates he is there as a combat medic. When Americans conduct torture, medical personnel are typically available to ensure the torture is done to inflict maximum pain without typically killing the victim.
Rolling Stone, which obtained the video, dates the incident as post-2012.
Like the scenes of torture from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, this video is widely circulating on Afghan websites, ensuring the continued decline in American credibility.
A final warning. We’ve all seen horrible stuff on the web, but this is a new step beyond. The audio is chilling. It inhuman. If those people are Americans, they have no right to call themselves soldiers, nor men.
I’m helping someone sell a house in Northern Virginia and, knowing many readers are from the area, ask that you take a look. Regular readers, back to our usual snark soon…
They sold it.
The house is within the excellent Falls Church City Schools District (See ratings; School bus stops in front of the townhouse). Offered at $539,000.
Three bedrooms, 2½ baths, solid oak hardwood floors (not laminate), all appliances (stove, fridge, dishwasher, microwave, washer+dryer, range hood), redone kitchen cabinets, new no-maintenance resin counter tops (granite may look nice, but check the regular maintenance it requires), finished basement with built-in workbench and shelves, eastern and southern direct lighting, open kitchen, sunny fenced in back patio with composted beds to grow veggies or flowers, a Japanese Red Maple and a flowering cherry tree, one assigned parking spot, plenty of street parking, monthly condo fee of only $75 includes community swimming pool with special kiddie pool (see photos below.)
Quiet street, public park with playground two minutes’ walk. Pet-friendly neighborhood. Two minute walk to shops and restaurants, a fitness club, CVS, post office, excellent public library. Harris Teeter coming, in walking distance. Close to East Falls Church Metro, Orange Line to Foggy Bottom or Ballston and West Falls Church Metro, where the Silver Line to Tysons and Dulles connects. 15 minute drive to FSI/NFATC.
When you need to rent, the property rents easily because of the location and schools; expect about $2800+ each month.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is in the US this week, meeting with officials in hopes of getting more US assistance, including lots of weapons he says he needs to fight terrorism, or Syria, or whatever (whatever=killing more Sunnis.) You can expect lots of dumb, uninformed comment about this visit.
To save readers valuable time and as a public service, I have searched the web for the dumbest article you’ll encounter about Maliki’s visit, and present it here, with some explanatory comment.
The winner is Douglas A. Ollivant, writing for the really, really important blog-thingie War on the Rocks. Ollivant is certainly a smart apple about Iraq; indeed, he is responsible in part for the disaster there.
Ollivant served as Director for Iraq at the National Security Council during both the Bush and Obama administrations. He is now the Senior Vice President of Mantid, a “consulting firm” with offices in Washington, Beirut and Baghdad. He was also a member of now-disgraced idiot warrior-poet-flim flam man David Petraeus’ “brain trust” of “warrior-intellectuals.”
But enough about Google. Let’s see what this warrior intellectual has to tell us now about Iraq.
Iraq Did This to Themselves
First, it is important to note, Ollivant says, that “Iraq is, quite simply, on the receiving end of a major al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) offensive. AQI remains one of the most capable of the al Qaeda affiliates or regional franchises. As a percentage of the population, Iraq has lost more of its citizens to al Qaeda explosives in each of the past three months than the United States did on September 11, 2001.” Not that any of that has anything to do with the United States’ invasion and inept occupation of Iraq.
No, no, the al Qaeda “issue” in Iraq is actually Iraq’s own fault. We learn:
AQI has experienced a resurgence. As I have written elsewhere, this is largely due to the release of AQI-affiliated detainees, spill-over from the Syria conflict, passive support from elements of the Sunni population, and the simple fact that the Iraqi security forces fall far short of JSOC, particularly with respect to training and equipment.
To defeat this sophisticated terrorist network, the Iraqis must acquire more JSOC-like capabilities
(JSOC– Joint Special Operations Command, is a super-secret special forces entity that the US used for years in Iraq as a high-tech assassination squad, killing off a long whack-a-mole string of “senior al Qaeda leaders.” JSOC now continues its filthy work pretty much everywhere in the world following its success in Iraq.)
Of course, one cannot just order up some JSOC-like Iraqi guys on the internet or something for speedy delivery. Or can one? Ollivant has the answer:
Perhaps a more feasible answer is for the United States to facilitate the Iraqi contracting of private U.S. firms that specialize in intelligence analysis, many of them formed and/or staffed by JSOC, and other military intelligence, veterans.
That’s it, the solution to Iraq’s problem is for the nation to hire some of the US’ out-of-work mercenaries, from Blackwater or whomever, to return to Iraq and return to killing Iraqis. We all know how much Iraqis loved American mercs stampeding over their country during the Occupation, so this makes perfect sense.
After the Mercs, Weapons
Ollivant also knows that the Iraqis need weapons, lots of weapons. But why?
The frustration with the delays in fighter jets, air defense equipment, helicopters, and armored vehicles has moved beyond the staff level and become a Prime Ministerial issue. This should be of interest to the United States, as the reason Iraq needs this equipment is to stand up to—among others—its perennial rival, Iran.
C’mon man, this borders on warrior intellectual satire! Rival Iran? For the love of Allah, Maliki is an Iranian stooge. He was put into power by Iran, uses Iranian thugs to capture, imprison or kill his political rivals and visits Tehran as necessary to maintain a robust cross-border trade. Iranian planes overfly Iraq freely, on their way to Syria to deliver weapons to some version of whatever count as “rebels” nowadays (Ollivant says “Iraq lacks the Air Force and Air Defense system to stop this.”) And of course fighter jets and armored vehicles are exactly what you need for counter-insurgency work, right? I mean, that’s what the US used so fruitfully for nine years in Iraq so it must be right.
That Sunni-Shia Thing
Ollivant is also aware of that nasty Sunni-Shia thing. He does skip over Maliki’s arrest threats that drove his own Sunni Vice President into exile days after the US pulled out, and the systematic disenfranchisement of Sunni voters, and the abandonment of the Sahwa, Sunni fighters promised jobs in return for putting down their arms and all that. But Ollivant is a realist and so adds:
Maliki is no doubt expecting—with some resignation—a lecture on Sunni inclusion and reconciliation. This is a delicate issue and one that does not lend itself to easy solutions. But the reasonable Sunni issues can be reduced to de-Baathification reform, inclusion in Iraqi society, and an end to persecution by the security forces.
The de-Baathification thing is just a hoot, given that it was done by the US in 2003 and in many respects was the tipping point of the whole disaster, destroying Iraq’s civil service and thus functional government, throwing millions of Sunni’s out of work, and essentially creating the groundwork for the next nine years of insurgency. Hi-larious.
Security forces (Shia controlled) killing Sunnis? Just a typo: “Regarding the alleged persecution of Sunnis, there is no doubt that some innocent Sunni are caught in the raids that the security forces engage in to try to discover the AQI cells.”
Inclusion into Iraqi society? A statistical anomaly. “Sunni do not appreciate what they do have. While there has been no census in many decades, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq are no more than 25% of the population, and the CIA Factbook estimates they could be as little as 12%. Yet most Sunnis believe they comprise at least 50% of the Iraqi population. If the 12% is correct, Sunnis may well be over-represented…”
Maliki is Actually Thomas Jefferson
At this point you’d think that Ollivant would have sobered up, realized how he had embarrassed himself, and hit the delete key, just like he might do with those Facebook photos that seemed fun when posted last night but now don’t seem like resume material. Instead, he doubles-down for a big conclusion:
Maliki is not coming to the United States with hat in hand—he has his own money, and plenty of it. He does not want Iraq to be a ward of the U.S. military, but, rather, a customer of U.S. business. Iraq doesn’t need the U.S. to give it anything other than goodwill. It just wants the U.S. to deliver on sales of goods and services.
And in this, the Prime Minister will be echoing the sentiment, if not the words, of Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
So there you have it. The democracy the US failed to implement in Iraq after nine years of Occupation, trillions of dollars and thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives, is in hand. Thomas Jefferson is now Prime Minister of Iraq.
If the US gives Maliki anything on his trick-or-treat visit but a cold shoulder it has learned nothing in defeat. Huzzah!
Update: We now have a runner-up. Psychotic microcephalic James Jeffrey, former US ambassador in Baghdad, said Iraq desperately needs teams of US advisers, trainers, intelligence and counterterror experts to beat back al-Qaeda.
“They could mean all the difference between losing an Iraq that 4,500 Americans gave their lives for,” said Jeffrey.
So heads up American military reservists, for the recall order to ship back to Iraq for some more war. We’re getting the old band back together!
The oft-repeated pop psychology definition of mental illness– doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results– pretty much sums up America’s limp efforts at reconstruction, nation building, hearts and minds, counterinsurgency, whatever tag you choose.
Efforts failed spectacularly and expensively in Iraq and (ongoing) in Afghanistan, and just as significantly, though more quietly, in Libya. With Obama having morphing into McCain like an old werewolf movie scene and calling for more wrath in Syria or wherever, it is obvious that the U.S. intends to stay in the nation building business.
The Return of the Jedi
One guy with some experience in the trade thinks he has a better idea of how to do this. Stuart Bowen was the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and produced a series of reports that year-by-year carefully documented America’s failure in Iraq to reconstruct much of anything. Whereas in my own book, We Meant WellI sought to document such failures on the local scale, Bowen’s assessments were Jedi-like, sweeping and Iraq-wide. Through the seemingly endless years of that war, Bowen shouted into the darkness about the waste, fraud and corruption in Iraq. His organization actively sought criminal prosecutions of those doing the wasting and the corrupting. This guy was born with both fists up, and good for him about that.
In a working document Bowen’s office shared with me, the story is this:
Who should be accountable for planning, managing, and executing stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs)? The U.S. government’s existing approach provides no clear answer. Responsibilities for SROs are divided among several agencies, chiefly the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development. As a result, lines of responsibility and accountability are not well-defined.
The lack of an established SRO management system forced the U.S. government to respond to challenges in Iraq through a series of ad hoc agencies that oversaw stabilization and reconstruction activities with—unsurprisingly—generally unsatisfactory outcomes.
A New Hope
Bowen suggest a new solution, comprising a collection of targeted operational reforms and the creation of an integrated management office— the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO)— that would be accountable for planning and executing SROs. You can read more details about his proposed new agency.
As almost an air-tight endorsement of the idea, both State and Defense oppose it. Bowen explained that both agencies believe that the existing management structure, which diffuses duties between and among varying agencies, is preferable to implementing a new, consolidated system. State believes that SRO problems chiefly arise from insufficient resources and not management weaknesses (Note: A lack of money, and not management problems, is State’s default answer to nearly everything from failure in Iraq to failure in Benghazi).
The Empire Strikes Out
While the reality is that just about nobody in Congress will support creation of a new government entity in the current political climate, the Obama Administration remains hell-bent to do some more nation building. If nothing new is tried (that mental illness definition again!) nothing new will happen. Failure is assured. Again. Bowen’s idea is worth looking into as a possible way to break the loop.
At the same time, a new organization sitting around the table with no purpose other than to tuck into reconstruction may be more dangerous that you think. The bureaucratic rules of evolution that govern Washington say any organization, once spun up, will seek more resources and more reasons to continue to exist. Would having a new office for SRO work simply create another strong voice inside government in favor of more SRO operations?
The jury is still out on how best to proceed. The best way to win at Fight Club is not to get into it in the first place. Is it too much to dream that maybe the U.S. will just stop invading and intervening abroad, and perhaps create an office designated to reconstructing America instead?
According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Convening Authorities can reduce or eliminate a convicted soldier’s sentence. They use this power when they feel the court martial failed to deliver justice. As Commanding General of the Military District of Washington, Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan is the only other individual besides President Obama (and there ain’t no joy there unless Manning qualifies as a Syrian kid) with the power to lessen Pvt. Manning’s sentence.
This process is not new, nor unique. Though a slightly different judicial procedure, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals only in June of this year reduced the sentence of a former Ramstein Air Base staff sergeant who advertised babysitting services to gain access to three young girls he repeatedly sexually assaulted. Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Smith’s sentence was reduced such that Smith, 30, would be eligible for parole after a decade or more. The appellate judges, in their written opinion, said that despite the heinousness of Smith’s crimes against the girls — ages 3, 4 and 7 — the sentence handed down in November 2010 by military judge Col. Dawn R. Eflein and approved by the Third Air Force commander was “unduly severe.”
If you wish to add your voice to the many now asking for Manning’s sentence to be reduced, the instructions on how to do so are straightforward.
Here is what I wrote:
Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan
Commanding General, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, DC
I write to request that as the Convening Authority in the case of U.S. v. Bradley E. Manning you move to reduce Pvt. Manning’s sentence to time served. Pvt. Manning has, in the course of several difficult years of confinement, taken responsibility for his actions and has been punished.
As the leader of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, I was embedded with the 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer at the same time Manning was deployed there (though we never met.) I worked closely with Colonel Miller and his team to implement U.S. goals, and came away with great respect for him and his officers, and the enlisted men and women of the Commandos.
At the same time, I experienced first-hand the austere conditions at FOB Hammer, and the difficult lives the soldiers led. As you are aware, one young soldier tragically took his own life early in the deployment at Hammer. Many veteran soldiers, some who served in the Balkans, also talked about the rough conditions at our FOB. I saw that at times computer security was imperfect. While none of this excuses Pvt. Manning (nor should it; he himself has plead guilty to multiple counts), it does in part help explain it. I ask that you consider these factors in your decision.
As a State Department employee, I had access to the same databases Pvt. Manning in part disclosed, and back in Washington played a small roll in State’s “damage review.” I thus know better than most outsiders what Pvt. Manning did and, significantly, did not disclose, and am in a position to assess dispassionately the impact. As the State Department and the DoD reluctantly concluded at Manning’s trial, little if any verifiable damage was indeed done to the United States. There is no denying that the disclosures were embarrassing and awkward, but that is not worth most of a man’s life.
Justice elevates us all, and reflects well on our beloved nation. The revenge inherent in a 35 year sentence against Pvt. Manning does not.
Peter Van Buren
I would have thought that it was a bit early for nostalgia for the halcyon days of Provincial Reconstruction Work (PRT) in Iraq, but things move quickly these days. At least no one is calling it “The Good War’ or us “The Most Recent Greatest Generation.”
But hey, what’s past is past, right (sorry to you Iraqis who live everyday in the hell we Americans now consider “history”)?
So for those who worked in the reconstruction program, or who did not but still want to impress the ladies on a night out, there is available now Baghdad PRT memorabilia. No, no, not the missing billions of dollars in “lost” taxpayer money or the many computers, generators and vehicles bought to grow Iraq’s democracy, but groovy t-shirts and even a logo’ed teddy bear. Snap these up folks!
It is hopefully not necessary to add, but since this is the internet, I have nothing to do with the selling of these items and make no money from either the items or mentioning them here.
Readers may recall D. Inder Comar, a San Francisco lawyer who is seeking to do what the Obama Administration refuses to do, hold the Bush Administration accountable for the unnecessary invasion of Iraq and its ongoing, horrific, aftermath.
On March 13, 2013, Comar filed two lawsuits in California against George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz on behalf of an Iraqi client and himself. He alleges the defendants planned and waged a “war of aggression” in violation of laws set down at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 and seeks to hold the defendants personally liable for their actions.
Well, we can’t have that.
So, because every other problem in America has been resolved, Obama’s Department of Justice requested that the Bush Gang be granted procedural immunity. DOJ claims that in planning and waging the Iraq War, the Bushies acted within the legitimate scope of their employment and are thus immune from suit. This is the “Westfall Act Certification,” defense, submitted pursuant to the Westfall Act of 1988. The Act permits the Attorney General, at his or her discretion, to substitute the United States as the defendant and essentially grant absolute immunity to individual government employees for actions taken within the scope of their employment.
To save you non-lawyers the expense of a Google: In 1988, Congress amended the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) to reinforce federal employees’ immunity from tort actions. These amendments — commonly known as the Westfall Act because they were a response to Westfall v. Erwin, 484 U.S. 292, 300 (1988) — provide that an action against the United States is the only remedy for injuries caused by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment. 28 U.S.C. SS 2679(d)(1). There some limited exceptions to when Westfall can be used, such as an action “which is brought for a violation of the Constitution of the United States.” Hmm.
Now to be fair, this is actually a fairly standard defense by the government. The idea in theory is that if a government official follows the rules and say, denies you a passport lawfully because you did not present the required documentation, you can’t sue the guy. I can say in my own State Department career assisting American Citizens abroad, most of whom had been arrested for something (top three reasons for arrest: drugs, drugs and drugs), more than one wanted to sue me personally because of something well out of my control, such as a foreign judge thought they were scum sucking freaks. I was just doing my job, and followed the rules, and thus the government protected my actions.
Still, while understanding the Department of Justice wants to just dismiss cases like Comar’s as routinely as possible, it leaves a sour taste to learn that the current administration wants to immunize the Bushies over a terrible war that nearly bankrupted America and resulted in so many needless deaths.
Comar does raise a good point: since much of the planning for the Iraq War was done long before guys like Rumsfeld, Rice and Wolfowitz actually took office, they should not be protected by Westfall. In addition, there is that “violation of the Constitution of the United States” clause that must figure into this all somehow.
The ongoing case against Bush is Saleh v. Bush (N.D. Cal. Mar. 13, 2013, No. C 13 1124 JST).
Today, our guest is long-time friend of this blog, Charlie Sherpa. Sherpa runs his own blog at Red Bull Rising. It’s one of the best milblogs out there, and always worth your time. This guest piece tells of how we can help save some of the Iraqis and Afghans who served as interpreters (‘Terps to the trade) during our adventures in their countries. These folks saved regular Americans’ lives in many cases, and helped us make the best of the crappy situation our national leaders flung us into. Many of them did this at great personal risk, and they were promised in return that they would get visas to the U.S. for themselves and their immediate families. This would save their lives from the revenge and retribution that is even now sweeping through their countries as the U.S. once again grows tired of another quagmire and abandons it.
Not such a surprise as much as an expectation, America’s promise to give them visas had as much validity as what drunk men say to drunk women they pick up from a bar. The next morning it all seems embarrassing and awkward to even bring up those promises, at least to the man. The woman’s opinion is usually not given much air time.
I’ve written myself on this topic in the past. A core problem is that this program was set up to do one thing, circumstances changed, and the program became unattractive to the government but was never canceled. State has always given out Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), typically to foreign nationals who had worked in our embassies, and typically at retirement. The SIV program for Terps was intended the same way, a thank you for what was expected to have been years of service. This of course presumed the U.S. had won quickly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and service to the U.S. there was similar to what it was in London, Kenya or Bonn. When the wars went a different way, the SIV program morphed into a way to save the lives of Terps, which a) flooded what was supposed to be a limited pool of older, well-vetted applicants with many young less-known people and b) was an embarrassment to the USG, a daily reminder of all the good we failed to accomplish. Congress was afraid to just do away with or radically change the program and generate bad PR while the wars still dragged on, and State had no bureaucratic interest in sticking its neck out to approve what it saw as risky cases. Now, with Iraq a distant memory and Afghanistan about to be, the plan in Washington seems to be to just allow the program to fade away, sorry to the Terps. Hence, a human quagmire.
Not leaving a comrade behind does not just apply to fellow soldiers. According to Charlie Sherpa, here’s how to help.
In the days before the Internet, I pulled a few short stints in the offices of a couple of U.S. senators. A couple of times as an “intern,” one time as a “Congressional fellow.” In such capacities, not only did I get opportunities to open the daily mail and prepare internal media summaries, I regularly answered letters from constituents. I even learned to use the machine that signed the senator’s name—before some idiot co-worker started writing and signing his own job references.
Through those experiences, I learned that a letter “written by a senator” on behalf of a constituent was often like applying the Penetrating Oil of Helpfulness to the Stuck Machine Bolt of Bureaucracy. I helped get retirees their Social Security checks, veterans their missing medals, and school kids their answers to social studies tests. Small and concrete victories. Democracy in action. Your tax dollar at work.
To this day, I still write business letters like a certain senator from Iowa:
Dear CONSTITUENT NAME:
Thank you for contacting me regarding PROBLEM X. I am glad to be of help. [...]
I have a sent a letter to AGENCY Y regarding this matter. I will contact you again when I receive a response. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to let me or my staff know if I may be of additional assistance. Keep in touch!
Later, after I’d joined the Army, I was on the receiving end of a few of these Congressional inquiries. Troops would write their representatives about pay concerns, food quality, or other matters. No matter how seemingly silly some of the questions were, the military put an emphasis on quickly investigating and responding to each query. Whether because of the legislative power of the purse or the War Powers Act, when Congress calls, soldiers listen.
On Capitol Hill, constituent letters also factored into senators’ legislative calculations. So-called “legislative correspondents,” specialized research staffers who kept up-to-date on where their senators stood on matters of policies and politics, were more likely to respond to such letters. The whole office would see the weekly contact summaries, however—that was our feel for the pulse of opinions back home.
Usually, responses to individual constituents were kept non-committal. A letter about a hot-button issue like gun control, for example, would likely receive a boilerplate response, blandly marking out the senator’s current positions. The response to a “pro” letter would often be very similar to the one for a “con” letter. In one senator’s office, we called such letters “robo-letters.” I preferred the more-punny term “Frankenmail,” a nod to Congressional members’ power to send official mail without paying postage.
Staffers would tally letters and telephone calls they the senator’s office had received on given topics. Letters from constituents mattered more than letters from out of state. It didn’t matter whether a constituent identified themselves as Republican, Democrat, or Independent: A constituent was a constituent. We were all in this together. We called it “representative democracy.”
Letters that were obviously written by individuals, citing specific examples and requesting specific actions, were valued more than fill-in-the-blank form-letters. The latter were considered more as evidence of Astroturf by special interests than actual grassroots support. Bottom line: Constituent contacts were like straw polls. People who write letters are people who are motivated to vote. A senator might not vote your way every time, the thinking went, but he or she was bound to listen.
Despite the gridlock and partisan gameplay that generate so much of today’s headlines, I’d like to think that Congress, fundamentally, still operates that way. Our legislative branch has to listen, right?
If it doesn’t, what values are we fighting for?
Write an Email Today
I was recently inspired to dust-off my letter-writing skills (developed at taxpayer expense!) regarding the plight of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who are seeking to immigrate to the United States. These are men and women who have risked their families and their futures to help U.S. forces. Troops call them “terps” for short.
I’ve posted my letter below, as an example. I am sending similar letters to other U.S. senators and representatives—and note that many Iowa and Minnesota members (“Red Bull” country) of Congress are involved in immigration policy.
Check out who’s on the senate House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, for example, or the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.
I hope that you might be similarly motivated to voice your own opinions to Congress, whether about this or other topics.
Dear Senator Grassley:
I am retired Iowa Army National Guard soldier who deployed under Operation Enduring Freedom orders in 2003. In 2011, I also traveled to Afghanistan as civilian media, during the largest deployment of Iowa National Guard soldiers since World War II. I am writing to you regarding the need to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to granting special visas to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who have fought alongside U.S. soldiers, and who have placed themselves and their families at great risk on our behalf.
It is my understanding that an extension of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 and Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2013. Without extension, these programs will soon expire. In your response to this correspondence, I would appreciate an update regarding the status of this and other efforts to deliver upon America’s promise to our allies.
According to recent news reports, including those in the Washington Post and National Public Radio, the U.S. State Department has failed to effectively or efficiently implement the special immigrant visa program authorized by Congress. According to the above-cited news reports, as of late 2012, only 32 visas had been issued. As of June 2013, only 1,120 visas of the 8,750 authorized had been issued.
I am not going to suggest that all interpreters are saints. To be honest, some seemed suspect in their actions, attitudes, and interactions with U.S. soldiers. Others, however, were shining examples of Afghan bravery and American ideals. All are worthy of consideration, and safety after we leave Afghanistan. We owe them that.
Please help our citizen-soldiers—past, present, and future—deliver on our country’s promises.
Thank you for your attention. Keep in touch!
I recently joined a panel discussion at the Library of Congress on the topic “Freedom, Security, and America’s Role in the World.” In light of the ongoing clusterfutz in Syria, the sub-theme for the evening was really a debate on whether or not America should keep intervening abroad and if so, when and how.
Panelists tried to present both sides, but as you’ll see in the video, I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the argument. I was really looking forward to getting into it, but the pro-intervention arguments were just weak cliches (maybe they don’t have anything else?) with a criminal disregard for facts and history.
The Lady in Red (from Fox; her website features her standing next to a Kissinger who looks like the Cryptkeeper) for example claimed Saint Reagan never intervened abroad, leaving out Central America, our hissy fit in Grenada, Lebanon and the gift that keeps on giving, arming bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The other “pro” kept setting up weak strawman arguments (“If we disbanded our military…”) His capper statement after I pointed out the selectivity of our intervening (Syria dead kids bad, North Korean dead kids no matter) was “Just because we don’t intervene everywhere is no reason not to intervene somewhere” might be better turned around as “Just because we can intervene somewhere doesn’t mean we should.”
The economist to my left in the video wicked schooling the interventionists over and over is Chris Coyne. He is one of the smartest people I know at explaining, coolly and rationally (unlike my approach), why scattered intervention is so wrong. I reviewed his book Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails.
Here’s the video. The thing begins with a commercial, then twenty some minutes of Rand Paul announcing War Bad, Debate Good. Mom and Dad: My parts starts at about 27 minutes in, and yes, I know my tie went askew.)
BONUS: Some have made a thing about the fact that the discussion was sponsored by the Koch brothers, and that I should not have “lent my name” to their event. I welcome the chance to speak out, and especially welcome the chance to talk to over 300 people perhaps not predisposed to agree with me. Changing minds is my goal. To do that I have to talk with people from a variety of points of view. This is very different from having any organization put their name on a publication that is mine or paying me to write something; it is more akin to having some organization distribute my work, like a bookstore does. I guess everyone has their price for selling out, but mine’s high enough that even the Koch brothers don’t have the cash. I was not paid for my participation.
My politics are not left or right anymore, but concerned about up and down. But enough theory; watch the video and you can judge for yourself.
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones. Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.
At every significant moment in those years, our presidents opted for more, not less, violence, and our Congress agreed — or simply sat on its hands — as ever more moral isolation took the place of ever less diplomacy. Now, those same questions loom over Syria. Facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama appears to be grasping — without any sense of irony — at the straw Russian President Vladimir Putin (backed by China and Iran) has held out in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff proposal that put the White House into a corner. After claiming days ago that the U.N. was not an option, the White House now seems to be throwing its problem to that body to resolve. Gone, literally in the course of an afternoon, were the administration demands for immediate action, the shots across the Syrian bow, and all that. Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief that it may not be forced to take a stand. The Senate has put off voting; perhaps a vote in the House will be delayed indefinitely, or maybe this will all blow over somehow and Congress can return to its usual partisan differences over health care and debt ceilings.
And yet a non-vote by Congress would be as wrong as the yes vote that seems no longer in the cards. What happens, in fact, if Congress doesn’t say no?
A History Lesson
The “Global War on Terror” was upon us in an instant. Acting out of a sense that 9/11 threw open the doors to every neocon fantasy of a future Middle Eastern and global Pax Americana, the White House quickly sought an arena to lash out in. Congress, acting out of fear and anger, gave the executive what was essentially a blank check to do anything it cared to do. Though the perpetrators of 9/11 were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda itself sought refuge in largely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. So be it. The first shots of the War on Terror were fired there.
George W. Bush’s top officials, sure that this was their moment of opportunity, quickly slid destroying al-Qaeda as an organization into a secondary slot, invaded Afghanistan, and turned the campaign into a crusade to replace the Taliban and control the Greater Middle East. Largely through passivity, Congress said yes as, even in its earliest stages, the imperial nature of America’s global strategy revealed itself plain as day. The escape of Osama bin-Laden and much of al-Qaeda into Pakistan became little more than an afterthought as Washington set up what was essentially a puppet government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, occupied the country, and began to build permanent military bases there as staging grounds for more of the same.
Some two years later, a series of administration fantasies and lies that, in retrospect, seem at best tragicomic ushered the United States into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its autocratic leader and our former staunch ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, ruled a country that would have been geopolitically meaningless had it not sat on what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called “a sea of oil” — and next to that future target of neocon dreams of conquest, Iran. Once again, Congress set off on a frenzied rush to yes, and a second war commenced out of the ashes of 9/11.
With the mighty American military now on their eastern and western borders and evidently not planning on leaving any time soon, Iranian officials desperately sought out American diplomats looking for some kind of rapprochement. They offered to assist in Afghanistan and, it was believed, to ensure that any American pilots shot down by accident over Iranian territory would be repatriated quickly. Channels to do so were reportedly established by the State Department and it was rumored that broader talks had begun. However, expecting a triumph in Iraq and feeling that the Iranians wouldn’t stand a chance against the “greatest force for liberation the world has ever known” (aka the U.S. military), a deeply overconfident White House snubbed them, dismissing them as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Congress, well briefed on the administration’s futuristic fantasies of domination, sat by quietly, offering another passive yes.
Congress also turned a blind eye to the setting up of a global network of “black sites” for the incarceration, abuse, and torture of “terror suspects,” listened to torture briefings, read about CIA rendition (i.e., kidnapping) operations, continued to fund Guantanamo, and did not challenge the devolving wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Its members sat quietly by while a new weapon, armed drones, at the personal command of the president alone, crisscrossed the world assassinating people, including American citizens, within previously sovereign national boundaries. As a new president came into office and expanded the war in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone attacks, made war against Libya, did nothing to aid the Arab Spring, and allowed Guantanamo to fester, Congress said yes. Or, at least, not no, never no.
The World Today
Twelve years later, the dreams of global domination are in ruins and the world America changed for the worse is a very rough place. This country has remarkably few friends and only a handful of largely silent semi-allies. Even the once gung-ho president of France has been backing off his pledges of military cooperation in Syria in the face of growing popular opposition and is now calling for U.N. action. No longer does anyone cite the United States as a moral beacon in the world. If you want a measure of this, consider that Vladimir Putin seemed to win the Syria debate at the recent G20 summit as easily as he now has captured the moral high ground on Syria by calling for peace and a deal on Assad’s chemical weapons.
The most likely American a majority of global citizens will encounter is a soldier. Large swaths of the planet are now off-limits to American tourists and businesspeople, far too dangerous for all but the most foolhardy to venture into. The State Department even warns tourists to Western Europe that they might fall victim to al-Qaeda. In the coming years, few Americans will see the pyramids or the ruins of ancient Babylon in person, nor will they sunbathe, among other places, on the pristine beaches of the southern Philippines. Forget about large portions of Africa or most of the rest of the Middle East. Americans now fall victim to pirates on the high seas, as if it were the nineteenth century all over again.
After 12 disastrous years in the Greater Middle East, during which the missiles flew, the bombs dropped, doors were repeatedly kicked in, and IEDs went off, our lives, even at home, have changed. Terrorism, real and imagined, has turned our airports into giant human traffic jams and sites of humiliation, with lines that resemble a Stasi version of Disney World. Our freedoms, not to speak of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, have been systematically stripped away in the name of American “safety,” “security,” and fear. Congress said yes to all of that, too, even naming the crucial initial piece of legislation that began the process the PATRIOT Act without the slightest sense of irony.
When I spoke with Special Forces personnel in Iraq, I was told that nearly every “bad guy” they killed or captured carried images of American torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib on his cellphone — as inspiration. As the victims of America’s violence grew, so did the armies of kin, those inheritors of “collateral damage,” seeking revenge. The acts of the past 12 years have even, in a few cases, inspired American citizens to commit acts of homegrown terrorism.
Until this week, Washington had abandoned the far-from-perfect-but-better-than-the-alternatives United Nations. Missiles and bombs have sufficed for our “credibility,” or so Washington continues to believe. While pursuing the most aggressive stance abroad in its history, intervening everywhere from Libya and Yemen to the Philippines, seeking out monsters to destroy and, when not enough could be found, creating them, the United States has become ever more isolated globally.
The horror show of the last 12 years wasn’t happenstance. Each instance of war was a choice by Washington, not thrust upon us by a series of Pearl Harbors. Our Congress always said yes (or least avoided ever saying no). Many who should have known better went on to join the yes men. In regard to Iran and George W. Bush, then-candidate for president Senator Joe Biden, for instance, said in 2007, “I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years. I teach separation of powers in constitutional law. This is something I know. So I brought a group of constitutional scholars together to write a piece that I’m going to deliver to the whole United States Senate pointing out that the president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war against a country of 70 million people unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him. The House obviously has to do that, but I would lead an effort to impeach him.”
Only a year ago, Biden criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being too anxious to go to war with Syria. That country, Biden said, “is five times as large geographically [as Libya], it has one-fifth the population… It’s in a part of the world where they’re not going to see whatever would come from that war. It’ll seep into a regional war… If in fact it blows up and the wrong people gain control, it’s going to have impact on the entire region causing potentially regional wars.”
Biden has been missing from the public eye this week. His last public statement on Syria was in late August. Monday, while Susan Rice begged for war and Obama taped multiple TV interviews, the vice president was in Baltimore handing out federal grant money to improve the port. Silence in the face of a car wreck isn’t golden, it’s deadly. Good God, man, hit the brakes before we kill someone!
What If Congress Says Yes?
Some in Congress now are talking about a new resolution that would pre-authorize the administration to launch “fallback airstrikes” — that is, its desired attack on Syria — after some sort of deadline passed for U.N. action, Syrian action, or perhaps just another mythical red line was crossed. Should Congress say yes yet again to such a scheme or anything like it, nothing will change for the better, and much is likely to change for the worse.
An attack on Syria will demand a response; war works that way, no matter how “surgical” the strikes may be. Other countries, and even terrorists, also tend to imagine that, in such situations, their “credibility” is at stake. Fearing reprisals, the U.S. has already preemptively withdrawn its diplomats from a consulate in Turkey near the Syrian border, and from Lebanon. Security has increased in Iraq, with the already fortress-like U.S. embassy there bracing for attacks, allegedly already being planned by Iranian-sponsored sappers.
Be assured of one thing: bombs and missiles falling in Syria will cause “collateral damage,” newspeak for images splashed across the globe of Muslim women and children killed by American weaponry. History has ensured that borders in the Middle East are arbitrary and easily enough ignored. As the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq sparked a metastasizing regional Sunni-Shia civil war, so a new intervention in the latest version of that war will lead to further, possibly devastating, and certainly divisive consequences in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. Think of this as a grim domino theory for the new century.
Should a desperate Assad regime in Syria, or an Iranian proxy from Lebanon, retaliate against Israel, the U.S. could wake up to find itself in the middle of a far larger war. Who knows then what a Russia already moving naval forces into the Mediterranean and with a naval base in Syria itself might do, perhaps citing the need to maintain Putin’s “credibility”?
Even the most optimistic pundits do not believe a single set of strikes over a limited number of days will have much strategic effect. And what if, after giving up some or all of his chemical weapons, Assad just makes or buys more? The famous comment of General David Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq — “Tell me how this ends” — would need answering again. We didn’t like the answer the last time and we won’t like it this time.
Of course, something like half of the anti-Assad rebels fight for Islamic fundamentalist outfits. If, however unmeant, the U.S. essentially becomes the air force over Syria for al-Qaeda-branded and other jihadist outfits, unleashing them to take further territory, that would undoubtedly create even more unsettled and unsettling conditions across the region. A rebel victory, aided by U.S. strikes, would certainly give al-Qaeda the sort of sovereign sanctuary the U.S. has been fighting to eliminate globally since the Clinton administration. No serious scenario has been offered in which the civil war in Syria would begin to abate thanks to U.S. bombs and missiles.
With or without an attack, some things will remain constant. Israel destroyed Syria’s nascent attempts to build nuclear weapons and would do so again if needed. Iran has played a clever game in the regional proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere — they won in Iraq — and will continue to do so. Since the 1970s, Syria has had stocks of chemical weapons that the Assad regime manufactured itself and has never used them against the United States or any other country, nor have they in 40 years transferred those weapons to any terrorists. There is no reason to believe that will change now, not even as a way to strike back should the U.S. attack first (though the fate of those weapons, should Assad fall under U.S. attacks, no one can possibly know.)
With a U.S. president willing, for the first time in decades, to hand over some part of his decision-making powers to Congress (though he dubiously maintains that it would still be constitutional for him to launch strikes against Syria on his own), the Senate and House of Representatives have a chance to courageously re-insert themselves in war policy. Alternatively, they can once again assure themselves of a comfortable irrelevance. On one thing Obama is certainly right: the world is indeed watching the unfolding spectacle.
What If Congress Says No?
If Congress says no to an attack on Syria, the U.S. may for the first time in 12 years have the chance to change the world for the better. Though this is not an overly dramatic statement, it’s also true, as every diplomat knows, that it’s easier to break things than fix them.
The world would at least have seen Washington step back after its citizenry told their government that enough is enough. The world would see an America which, in a modest but significant way, was beginning to genuinely absorb the real lessons to be drawn from our post-9/11 actions: that endless war only fuels more war, that living in a world where foreigners are seen mainly as targets brings no peace, that lashing out everywhere means no safety anywhere.
In the wake of a non-attack on Syria, parts of the world might be more open to the possibility that the United States could help open new paths, beginning with a tacit acknowledgement that we were wrong. Nothing can erase the deeds of the past years or those long memories common not just in the Middle East, but to humanity more generally. Certainly, what we did is likely to haunt us for generations. But when in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging. Via Congress, the U.S. can take a small first step toward becoming an “indispensable nation” in more than our own minds.
If Congress says no on Syria, it will, just as the president warns, also be sending a message to Iran — not, however, that the United States lacks the resolve to fight. It seems unlikely, given the past 12 years, that anyone doubts this country’s willingness to use force. A clear no from Congress would, in fact, send a message of hope to Iran.
It was only in June that Obama claimed Iran’s election of a moderate as president showed that Iranians want to move in a different direction. “As long as there’s an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t proceed,” Obama said. “The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything anytime anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Diplomacy is often a series of little gateway-like tests that, when passed, lead two parties forward. A no on Syria would be such a step, allowing Iran and the United States a possible path toward negotiations that could someday change the face of the Middle East. Only three months ago, Obama himself endorsed such a plan. If Congress says no, it won’t destroy credibility with the Iranians; it’s likely, in fact, to enhance it. This decision by Congress could empower both parties to proceed to the negotiating table in a more hopeful way. A yes from Congress, on the other hand, could sideline Iranian moderates and slam the door shut on discussions for a long time.
It is clear that partisan politics will play a significant role in Congress’s decision. That body is fundamentally a political animal, and the House, of course, faces midterm elections in little more than a year. Still, that’s not a terrible thing. After all, for the first time in a long while, when it comes to foreign policy, House members are openly speaking about the influence that a wave of constituent opposition to a Syrian intervention is having on them. They appear to be hearing us speak, even if the impulse isn’t just to do the right thing, but to garner votes in 2014.
Should Congress say no, it seems unlikely that a president, isolated at home and abroad, will go to war. Some of Obama’s top aides have already been signaling that reality. Despite macho talk in the upper echelons of his administration on his right to ignore Congress, as a constitutional scholar and a savvy politician he would be unlikely to risk the demands for his impeachment and the spectacle of a Constitutional crisis by launching Syrian strikes in the wake of a no vote. All the noise about not backing down and his credibility suffering a catastrophic blow should be taken as so much pre-vote political saber rattling. The president may make foolish decisions, but he certainly is no fool.
By saying no, not again, not this time, the current group of gray men and women who largely make up our Congress have the chance to join some of the giants who have thundered in those chambers in the past. At this moment, that body has the opportunity to choose a new meaning for future anniversaries of 9/11. It could be the day that life went on just as disastrously as previously — or it could be the day that changed everything, and this time for the better.
(Follow me on Twitter as @wemeantwell or I’ll just keep repeating myself here)
US isn’t the world’s policeman Obama says. No, we’re the world’s George Zimmerman.
The question no journalist will ask Obama: Mr. President, if you use the military again, tell me how this ends?
And by the way, what wars had Obama ended? Even the end of the Iraq war was negotiated by Bush. (Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, AFRICOM)
Our US military pinpricks are really BIG.
The policy on Syria is in such disarray that it’s obvious Kerry is just making things up as he goes along.
No truth to the rumor that Colin Powell will speak alongside Obama to make the case for war.
Scary White House videos from Syria were on YouTube, but now “significant” as intel community gives stamp of “authenticity”
How’d that last Middle East thingie work out for ya? Marines moved closer to Libya as 9/11 anniversaries approach.
Iran warned the U.S. twice in 2012 that Syrian rebels the U.S. supports have chemical weapons of their own.
Russia proposes Syria turn over chem weapons to avoid war. Predicting U.S. will claim Syria can’t be trusted in 5, 4, 3, 2…
Pathetic: Susan Rice citing Bush officials who sold the WMD scam to Americans on Iraq as supporters of Syria strikes.
When Obama said “There is no NSA spying on Americans,” he lied. But it’s cooool if you trust him on #Syria …
When Obama talks about the dead children in Syria, do ask him why Syria is a crisis but North Korean labor camps are not even mentioned.
日本の歴史の本で発見：”パールハーバー：。ただ空爆、地上の歩兵を持つ” (Found in the Japanese archives: “Pearl Harbor: Just an airstrike, with no boots on the ground.”)
WaPo (slogan: Obama’s Stenographer) fans flames quoting unnamed source (Israel) about new threat– Syria bioweapons!
Because it’s the morally right thing to do: France says it won’t act alone on Syria, waits for the UN.
Obama: the world cannot remain silent on Syria. Meanwhile, the world disagrees and remains silently unconvinced.
The world has set a red line, he says, but somehow he’s the only one in the world talking about it.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, nor a policy. We do not need another war in the Middle East.
Happened to be reading the chem weapons treaty. Says disputes settled by the UN. Nowhere does it say US’ obligation.
Hagel either lied or was stirring up propaganda: Russia does not supply Syria with chemical weapons.
Other popular international norms: don’t torture, don’t render, don’t violate sovereignty by drone, don’t indefinitely imprison people without trial.
Obama in Egypt: OK to kill your own people. Obama in Syria: Killing your own people means war.
Assad helped the U.S. torture rendered CIA prisoners.
Some brown-skinned dude called me a sissy in the bar, so I beat him to ensure my credibility. Not related to Syria in any way.
If I hear anyone, ever, say “boots on the ground” again, I will puke. Deal with it: It’s US infantry dying on another MidEast battlefield.
Watching Kerry make things up on the spot today, one can’t help but wonder at what point those pharmaceutical grade hallucinogens kicked in.
Kerry says multiple Arab nations support US attack on Syria, says can’t name countries in unclassified setting because “It’s complicated.”
Party Outta Bounds in Pyongyang Ya’all: Kerry says failure to bomb #Syria will cause celebration in North Korea.
Kerry gives weasel answer on “boots on the ground” ’cause a) special forces likely already on ground and b) more troops may go in to seize chemical weapons.
Just called my Congressional reps’ offices to tell them vote no on Syrian attack. Call your reps today.
Syria, thank you for calling. Your attack is important to us. Please stay on the line, and our cruise missiles will be with you shortly.
What is wrong with these people– Kerry says Syria is now a “Munich moment.”
I took a nap and now the war with Syria isn’t about sending a message to Assad anymore? It’s now about sending a message to Iran?
Legal basis for attacking Syria? If the president does it of course it is legal.
Kucinich: “Syria Strike Would Make U.S. Al Qaeda’s Air Force.” Well, there’s something we can all get behind.
Once-great BBC ran Syrian-rebel supplied propaganda photo– actually taken years ago in Iraq– to stir up war fever.
UN says will take weeks to analyze Syria samples for evidence of chem weapons; Kerry says US already has proof.
Mix n’ Match: Obama’s strategy stands in contrast to 2011, when he sought UN authorization for Libya but not approval of Congress.
Kerry: “Assad regime’s chem attack is a crime against conscience, humanity, the norm of int’l community.” AS ARE DRONES AND GITMO.
If the US is sincere about a humanitarian response, send doctors to the refugee camps and nerve gas antidote and gas masks to Syria.
Don’t you wish Nobel Peace prizes came with an expiration date after which they self-destruct?
Mr. President, we’re going to have to convince the American people about this war with Syria. Our polling shows more support for nuking Miley Cyrus the next time she twerks on TV than for your policy.
She does have a sweet little–
We have the Congressional midterms coming up, and Boehner is up my ass about defunding my healthcare legacy. I need this vote, or Hillary’s gonna kill me.
Right, right, sir.
(Licking of chops heard)
Kill them! Kill them all!
Easy Susan, I promise you’ll see the post-attack color close up photos first, then you pass them to McCain like always.
Yes, It likes the Precious Photos, It likes them.
Somebody get her some water or something?
So what’s our reason for Syria?
Hey, do we still have to put five bucks in the tip jar if we say ‘Slam Dunk’?
Seriously now people, we are committing American lives at risk here.
(General laughter in room)
OK, OK. We go to war in Iran–
OK, war in Syria because of a red line.
Is that the same as a line in the sand?
No, ours is red. Very different.
Good one, sir.
Well, Americans have not been hooked tight enough by the red line. We need another reason.
OK, evil dictator, killing his own people, yadda yadda.
That has some traction, but roughly half of the dead in Syria were killed by ‘our own’ rebels, and those were their own people too. What else?
(General laughter in room)
I think U.S. credibility went down the freaking toilet when you promised to close Gitmo and didn’t.
Shut up Chuck. Nobody asked you.
Goddammit, I served in Vietnam.
Yeah, so did John Kerry and Colin Powell, and you don’t see them whining.
So why don’t we just go old-school and say the Syrians attacked us in the Gulf of Tonkin?
Would that work?
Dammit, I had friends killed in Vietnam because of that lie.
I think one of my frat brothers’ dad got greased in Laos. Is that over there too?
Also, I read somewhere that we used napalm, white phosphorus and Agent Orange over there. Are those chemical weapons?
Yeah, but that’s history.
Not to the victims and their malformed children still alive, nor to the loved ones still mourning their dead at America’s hand.
O.K., back on track, how about, um, violation of international law?
(General laughter in room)
Maybe with our drones, ongoing indefinite imprisonment at Gitmo, torture, renditions, black sites, NSA spying on foreign heads of state, bringing down a sovereign leader’s plane because we thought that son-of-a-bitch Snowden was on board, pushing international law too hard might not be the best thing.
Yeah, especially since until around 2006 we were rendering prisoners into Assad’s Syria for out-sourced torture.
OK, back to Iran. We bomb the hell out of Syria to send a message to Iran.
That they can’t support evil regimes.
But the Iranians have been supporting bad guys in Lebanon forever, these days the Taliban in Afghanistan, and basically control our allies in free Iraq. Hell, they even sent Qods force guys into Iraq to kill our own troops. Not sure here why Syria, now, is the place for a message.
So what do we have left?
I’d say we just keep saying ‘WMD, WMD’ over and over again until Americans beg Congress for a military strike on Syria.
I like that a lot. Any opposition? No? OK then, we go with WMD scare tactics.
Might as well.
Agreed. It worked last time.
O.K., thanks everyone. And thank you gentlemen for coming back to Washington to help see this through. John, would you be kind enough to walk W., Dick and Condi out please?
This article also appeared on the Huffington Post
Hah! You just crossed my red line with your chemical weapon eyes, clearing the way to me cruise missile you!
But enough about me. Like me, I am sure that you are overjoyed at the prospect of the U.S. inserting itself even deeper into another MidEast civil war (I think it is still Syria at present but the U.S. could have invaded another place between the time this was written and when you are reading it.)
The United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the U.K. has not supported U.S. military action. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?
Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect women and children? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.
Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.
So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:
The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.
The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.
Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.
The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:
Is it Iraq again? That went well.
Does it have oil?
Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)? Even John Boehner made sense on this question.
Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators?
Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?
Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda, won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?
What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?
Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
BONUS: The U.S.’ use of white phosphorus and tear gas against civilian areas in Fallujah during the liberation of Iraq, and the use of depleted uranium munitions during the Iraq and Afghan crusades clearly do not in any way constitute the use of chemical weapons. Nor did Agent Orange and napalm in Vietnam.
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.
One (of thousands) of examples of how we lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was our shoddy management of the things we built. To be fair, the lack of oversight was often due to our own limited personnel (in numbers and in intellect) and the ever-worsening security situation that made getting out into the field difficult. That said, the problem was often just our own laziness and plain not caring; our bosses were satisfied with trumped-up reports of success and cared not a zot for the truth.
Reconstruction, the Iraq Edition
The milk plant was a good example. Leaving aside our plan to disrupt an indigenous milk production and distribution system that had worked for the Iraqis for say, 2000 years, in favor of a neo-Stalinist centralized way of handling things, our refrigerated storage facility was a bust. After dropping $500,000 of your tax money on a local contractor who assured us everything was A-OK, we then sent out an Iraqi engineer in our employ to verify things. He sent back a message that everything was A-OK before disappearing. Finally, after a couple of months, I got a chance to see the A-OK stuff myself. Instead of delicious refrigerated milk, I walked into a room with crooked plumbing stitched together, rusted “stainless” steel and holes in the storage tanks big enough to accommodate my chubby fingers. The contractor ripped us off, the engineer took a bribe to tell us everything was fine and the Iraqis we were supposed to be helping thought we were insane, stupid, corrupt or all of the above. No hearts and minds were won.
Reconstruction, The Afghan Edition
With such examples fresh in their minds, you’d figure the State, DoD and USAID reconstructors in Afghanistan would be doing better. If you do, you’re as dumb as they are.
Our good friends at the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; motto: We Have the Worse Jobs Ever, Please Kill Us Now) recently sent letters to the usual suspects pointing out that two schools built by the U.S. to win over hearts and minds are in danger of instead killing Afghans.
Case One is the Bathkhak School addition in the Bagrami district, Kabul province, Afghanistan. Here’s what SIGAR said:
Our inspection of the Bathkhak School addition found that it has not been constructed in accordance with contract requirements. The contractor substituted building materials without prior U.S. government approval or knowledge. Furthermore, the school addition appears to have design and construction flaws. Specifically, the school’s interior and exterior walls appear to be insufficiently constructed to hold the weight of the concrete ceiling. As a result, the building’s structural integrity could be compromised.
Because the first U.S. government oversight visit did not take place until six months after construction started, there may be other deficiencies that cannot be seen. Our concerns are heightened by the fact that Bathkhak School is located in an area of high seismic activity. In light of these construction flaws and the distinct possibility that an earthquake resistant design was not used, we have serious concerns for the safety of the hundreds of faculty and children that will be using the classrooms at any given time.
A-OK, let’s move on to Case Two:
Our inspection of the Sheberghan teacher training facility in Jawzjan province, Afghanistan found problems with the electrical, water, and sewage systems that could pose potentially serious health and safety hazards for its occupants. SIGAR inspectors found that the facility’s electrical wiring does not meet the U.S. National Electrical Code–as required by the contract– and other problems that create potential electrocution risks and fire hazards for its occupants.
Although the facility currently does not receive power from the electrical generator provided under the contract, serious risk for its occupants are present due to improper entry into the electrical system–known as a “tap”–and by the improper connection to an alternative electrical power supply. In addition to the electrocution hazard, the facility currently lacks operational water and sewage systems, raising potential health issues for the building occupants.
Despite the fact that the building is still under construction, our inspectors found that the Afghans have already begun using the building. As you know, the U.S. government is still responsible for the facility’s operations and maintenance and any occupational health and safety issues because the U.S. Agency for International Development has not yet transferred the facility to the Afghan government.
God, after twelve years in Afghanistan, this is so depressing.
(This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post)
While poets and psychologists talk about soldiers bringing the battlefield home with them, in fact, the U.S. is doing just that. More and more, weapons, tactics, techniques and procedures that have been used abroad in war are coming home, this time employed against American Citizens.
Armor, Drones and Armed Drones
Others have written about the rise of warrior cops. Armored military-style vehicles are now part of most big-city police forces, as are military-style weapons. The FBI has admitted to using drones over America. In a 2010 Department of Homeland Security report, the Customs and Border Protection agency suggests arming their fleet of drones to “immobilize TOIs,” or targets of interest.
Stingray Knows Where You Are
Much of the technology and methodology the NSA and others have been shown to be using against American Citizens was developed on and for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular the advanced use of cell phones to track people’s movements.
A technique now at use here at home is employing a fake cell phone tower under a program called Stingray. Stingrays spoof a legitimate cell phone tower in order to trick nearby cellphones and other wireless devices into connecting to the fake tower instead of a nearby real one. When devices connect, stingrays can harvest MAC addresses and other unique identifiers and data, as well as location information. To prevent detection, the stingray relays the call itself to a real tower so the pickup is transparent to the caller. By gathering the wireless device’s signal strength from various locations, the Feds can pinpoint where the device is being used with much more precision than they can get through data obtained from the mobile network provider’s fixed tower location.
Better yet, stingray bypasses the phone company entirely. Handy when the phone company is controlled by the enemy, handy when laws change and the phone companies no longer cooperate with the government, handy when you simply don’t want the phone company to know you’re snooping on its network.
Also refined in Iraq, Afghanistan and the greater archipelago of the war of terror was the use of metadata and data-mining, essentially amassing everything, however minor or unimportant, and then using increasingly powerful computers to pull out of that large pile actionable information, i.e., specific information to feed back to combat commanders and special forces to allow them to kill specific people. Knowing, for example, the name of a guy’s girlfriend leads to knowing what car she drives which leads to knowing when she left home which leads to listening to her make a date via cell phone which leads a credit card charge for a room which leads to a strike on a particular location at a specific time, high-tech flagrante delicto.
The FBI has followed the NSA’s wartime lead in creating its Investigative Data Warehouse, a collection of more than a billion documents on Americans including intelligence reports, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and private financial information including credit card data. All accessible to 13,000 analysts making a million queries monthly. One of them called it the “uber-Google.”
Welcome Home Aerostat
The latest (known) example of war technology coming home is the aerostat, a medium-sized blimp tethered high above its target area. Anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize the thing, as one or more flew over nearly every military base of any size or importance (You can see photos online).
What did those blimps do in war? Even drones have to land sometime, but a blimp can stay aloft 24/7/forever. Blimps are cheaper and do not require skilled pilots. Blimps can carry tons of equipment, significantly more than a drone. The blimps can carry any sensor or technology the U.S. has available, suspending it at altitude to soak up whatever that sensor is aimed at– cell calls, radio waves, electronic whatevers. The aerostats also carried high-powered cameras, with heat and night vision of course. While in Iraq, I had the aerostat video feed on my desktop. Soldiers being soldiers, occasional diversions were found when a camera operator spotted almost anything of vague interest, including two dogs mating, an Iraqi relieving himself outdoors or on really dull days, even a person hanging out laundry. The device obviously also had much less benign tasks assigned to it.
The war has come home again, as the Army announced this week that by 2014 at least two of these aerostats will be permanently over Washington DC. They will be run by the Army, using operators who likely learned their trade at war. The aerostats are brought to you by the Raytheon company, who also makes some of America’s favorite weapons and surveillence gear.
It’s All Good
No need to worry Citizens, as the aerostats will only be used for your own good. In fact, their sensors will scan for incoming cruise missiles, mine-laying ships, armed drones, or anything incoming from hundreds of miles away, because of course Washington is constantly being attacked by those sorts of things (I love the idea of protecting the city from mine-laying ships sneaking up the Potomac River).
Those DC-based aerostats will certainly not have employed the Gorgon Stare system, now in use in Afghanistan to rave reviews. Gorgon Stare, made up of nine video cameras, can transmit live images of physical movement across an entire town (four km radius), much wider in scope than any drone. Might be handy for VIP visits and presidential stuff, however, right?
And of course the temptation to mount a stingray device where it can ping thousands of cell phones would be ignored.
But I could be wrong about all the 1984-stuff, in which case the multi-million dollar aerostat program to protect against mines in the Potomac would be noteworthy only as another waste of taxpayer money. Remember when that was what made us the maddest about the government?
It takes a nation to hold us back.
A decision by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the military’s highest court, overturning a Marine’s murder conviction based on violations of the Fifth Amendment, may have positive implications for Bradley Manning. The Court held that the Marine’s being held in solitary confinement for seven days without access to a lawyer, after refusing to incriminate himself, made his subsequent statements invalid as his Fifth Amendment rights were violated. The technicalities differ, but the similarity between that Marine’s situation and Manning’s may prove significant.
The facts in Marine Lawrence Hutchins’ case are clear. On patrol in Iraq in 2006, Hutchins ordered his squad to kidnap and execute in cold blood an Iraqi civilian, and then make it look like they had ambushed a high-value insurgent in a “good shoot.” The squad would be praised for its work in the war on terror. The truth came out, and Hutchins was arrested in Iraq. After he refused to talk to investigators and asked for a lawyer, Hutchins was instead locked into a shipping container for seven days and nights, denied the chance to contact a lawyer, and held under mind-numbing solitary conditions. After seven days of this, and still without a lawyer, Hutchins was asked to consent to a search of his belongings, and started to incriminate himself.
The Court of Appeals ruled that Hutchin’s Fifth Amendment rights were stomped upon when the investigators, after a seven day solitary confinement softening up, spoke to him again with a lawyer.
Former Navy officer David Glazier, now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said “Here this guy’s conviction is overturned on the basis that he was mistreated by the government during his initial apprehension, and yet he’s already served five years in prison. If the conviction was unjust in the first place, it’s kind of appalling it’s taken the military justice system five years to resolve it.”
That leaves us with the question of Private Manning. The military held him for three years, much of the time without a lawyer, much of the time under overtly inhumane conditions. While we don’t know what statements Manning did or did not make prior to seeing a lawyer, or at what point if any he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights, one would think his current attorney would be reading the Hutchins’ decision word-by-word today.
And hey, Bradley Manning did not murder anyone.
BONUS: Whistleblower Jesslyn Radack’s firing from the Department of Justice was based in large part on her assertions that the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, was held under inhuman conditions, interrogated without a lawyer even after he requested one, and thus denied his Fifth Amendment rights. DOJ fired her, and threw Lindh and most of the Constitution into prison.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) website is always an interesting, if depressing, read. Current headlines include “$5 million spent on unused incinerators; burn pit used instead despite potential health risks” and “Poor project management by U.S. agencies hinders efforts to commercialize Afghanistan’s national power utility.” The purpose of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The U.S. strategy has always been clear, hold and build, the latter the most important in the long run for establishing a stable society somewhat friendly to U.S. aims.
Reading the SIGAR site, however, it is almost as if the goal was to reproduce all of the failures of Iraq reconstruction, only on a larger, more expensive and more foolish scale. If that is the goal, the U.S. is succeeding.
SIGAR’s most recent report is in the form of an alert letter warning State, DoD and USAID of serious problems involving failure of prime contractors to pay subcontractors in Afghanistan. SIGAR reports that evidence has come from multiple credible sources, and adds that the issue puts at risk numerous multimillion-dollar projects intended to promote stability in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:
– SIGAR has 52 ongoing investigations based on $62 million in claimed monies owed;
– Losses from non-payment have the collateral effect of eroding support for U.S. and coalition forces and costing the US time and money;
– Failure of prime contractors to pay their subcontractors has resulted in projects promoting the stability of Afghanistan being delayed or not completed;
– Prime contractors’ failure to pay is often viewed by Afghan subcontractors as a failure on the part of the U.S. government;
– A subcontractor threatened to set himself on fire in front of the U.S. embassy in protest of nonpayment;
– A prime contractor told SIGAR that a subcontractor threatened to blow up a compound of U.S. contractors and government agencies over non-payment.
In short, contractors for the U.S. government, clearly seen by the Afghans as one in the same as the U.S. government, are stiffing their Afghan partners. Whether through bureaucracy or as outright theft, and with the dullard-like lack of oversight by State, DoD and USAID, the very programs designed to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people are having just the opposite effect. Indeed, when people threaten to set themselves on fire in protest, you can assume things are not going well.
BONUS: One group of Afghans is however doing well with the reconstruction: Karzai’s government. SIGAR tells us that the Afghan government has levied nearly a billion dollars in “taxes” on contractors supporting U.S. Government efforts in Afghanistan. Because the SIGAR folks are polite men and women, they do not refer to these “taxes” as what they really are, bribes, kickbacks and protection money. Better yet, SIGAR also found that State and DoD contracting officers do not fully understand Afghanistan’s tax laws and, as a result, they have improperly reimbursed contractors for taxes paid to the Afghan government (with your tax money!).
America’s spies– our bad guys who sold secrets to other countries, Ames, the Walkers, Pollard– worked for money. Their motives were straightforward and they clearly, actively sought to trade secrets away for personal gain. They choose secrets such as code ciphers of specific interest and value to the enemy.
But what about now? The people Obama is/has/will be prosecuting under the Espionage Act (Manning, Drake, Snowden) did not act for money (quite the contrary; all suffered personally for their actions) and instead of informing a foreign power, they sought to inform the American people. That is not spying.
Our current whistleblowers were all vetted multiple times by the U.S. Government. If Snowden’s publically available bio is true, he was vetted by the Army, the CIA, the NSA and again as an NSA contractor. What happened?
What happened was conscience, and God bless us all for it.
History recognizes the need to act on conscience when faced with unconscionable situations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about Kristallnacht, said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The Nuremberg prosecutors reminded the accused that “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.” Dr. Martin Luther King, writing from a Birmingham jail cell, said “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
Bradley Manning provided no real aid and comfort to the enemy. Among other horrific events, he exposed what was a war crime to everyone but the U.S. Government as civilians and journalists were machine gunned from the air. He exposed U.S. murder of Iraqi civilians. He shared with the American people exactly what was being done in their name. None of that information was secret for any legitimate reason (it was kept quiet to protect the USG from embarrassment and/or prosecution), and it certainly was not secret to the “enemy;” they knew damn well what we were doing.
The case is the same with Snowden. He simply told the American people, in much greater detail than the Government wished to reveal, what their own government was doing to them. The NSA spying focused on Americans, and even as the government seeks to justify it the case weakens around them. Indeed, all that surveillance failed to even catch Snowden gathering documents from the inside but we’re supposed to believe it has saved us from terrorism? Once again, the people most informed by the leaked material were the American people, not any imagined generic “enemy.” Indeed, most of the enemy comes from police-state countries where surveillance (and torture, another recent U.S. activity) is routine and overt. They knew damn well what we were doing. Bin Laden stopped using cell phones a decade ago.
If I could shout into the White House, it would be something like this:
Your own guards are turning against your surveillance and secrecy. People whom you vetted are being moved into glorious, selfless democratic acts of conscience by your lies and your actions. If the government continues to treat every citizen as a potential terrorist, more and more of them will be moved to act, to uphold their true oath of office– to uphold and protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Are you not aware Mr. Obama that one whistleblower, Assange, is living in a foreign embassy for his own protection from you, while another, Snowden, is said to be headed for asylum somewhere abroad for his own safety? During the Cold War and onward, it was American Embassies abroad that provided shelter and asylum to political victims. You can expect more leakers, and by focusing your response on arresting the messengers instead of changing your policies, you will in fact assure it as your legacy.
I enjoyed a recent interview with the blog Random Thoughts. A sample:
Teri: In light of new reports on the wasted money we spent on Iraq’s reconstruction, I suspect you got an apology from the State Department. Did you?
Van Buren: You’re a funny person. My apology may have been lost in the mail.
Teri: You’ve worked for the State Department under a number of Secretaries. Who was the most effective of these, in your opinion?
Van Buren: Ironically, the first half of the Colin Powell tenure. Powell, likely because of his military background where caring for the troops is an essential requirement for any leader, was the only Secretary to make positive changes to the life and work of the rank and file. Powell, for example, overruled Diplomatic Security’s ban on the internet inside of the State Department. Security claimed it was dangerous to info security while Powell said the reality of our modern world demanded access. Without him State employees would still be getting their news a day late in paper form. The irony, of course, is that it was Powell who plunged State into Iraq and thus helped to destroy the rank and file by wasting their time, energy and lives inside that failed war.
Have a look at the whole discussion on Random Thoughts.
Though the interview took place almost two years ago, a friend only recently sent me a transcript of my talk with NPR’s Fresh Air. For the historical record as well as a cheap and easy blog post, here it is.
National Public Radio (NPR), September 26, 2011 Monday, FRESH AIR 12:00 PM EST NPR
THE GREEDY BATTLE FOR IRAQ’S ‘HEARTS AND MINDS’
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. How would you feel about spending millions of Americans’ tax dollars to build a chicken processing plant in Iraq that never processed any chickens except to impress visiting journalists? That’s just one of the projects described in a new book by our guest Peter Van Buren, a veteran foreign service officer who gives a ground-level account of the effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq.
Van Buren has spent much of his career in the Far East, when in 2009, he joined a surge of State Department personnel headed to Iraq to assist in reconstruction. Van Buren’s experience working on a provincial reconstruction team is a dispiriting tale of waste, corruption and sometimes comically misguided approaches to the mission of improving the lives of Iraqis.
His account isn’t kind to American policymakers, and as you’ll hear, he has strong feelings about the futility of his efforts. We contacted a spokesperson for the State Department who declined to respond to Van Buren’s book except to say that the author’s views are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department.
Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were in the State Department for more than 20 years before you went to Iraq. Tell us just a little bit about your career.
PETER VAN BUREN: My work was primarily concerned with what I like to think is the benign side of empire. I helped American citizens overseas. When people got arrested, when people fell into trouble one way or the other outside the United States, it was my job to help get them out of trouble, to visit them jail, when people passed away to make sure their remains got back to their loved ones. It was very rewarding work.
It was social work on steroids at times, but dealing with people and being able to help them was very fulfilling, very satisfying.
DAVIES: I read you won a Superior Honor Award for helping a rape victim in Japan. What was that about?
VAN BUREN: It was a terrible tragedy. An American citizen suffered a very violent attack in Japan, and it was our responsibility to help her. She decided very courageously that she wanted to go through the very difficult process of seeing her attacker put in jail, and it was a very difficult experience for her. It was my obligation to assist her with this, and the two of us together got her through it.
It was a difficult process in that many times the language that she needed to use to describe what had happened to her was language that was not typically heard in a Japanese courtroom. There were translation problems. There were times when the prosecution attempted to paint her as a person who might have brought on this attack somehow herself.
But we were able to get her through that and see that justice was done. Her attacker went to jail, and it was a moment when we really understood what it meant to have an American embassy overseas that was there to support you. She probably could have done it without us, but it was an honor to have done it with her.
DAVIES: Now, when you went to Iraq, this was in 2009, and this is far beyond the days when a lot of people would say American military policy was so misguided. By then, a lot of people think we had figured this out. The military was much more committed to friendly engagement with the Iraqi population and reconstruction and winning hearts and minds.
So you’re there to do good things, to help rebuild the country. But as you tell the story, you certainly weren’t out among the people. Just tell us a little bit about your living kind of situation and how that meshed with the mission that you had.
VAN BUREN: What a PRT, Provincial Reconstruction Team, was supposed to do, was to operate at a grassroots level, embedded with the U.S. military, to bring stability and economic success to all of Iraq, particularly operating outside of the major cities. One of the key problems was the inability to reconstruct something while it was essentially still falling apart.
The American presence in Iraq basically had three components. You had the military command, which sat in a place called Victory Base – the Army has no irony in its naming conventions – and they had a very limited view of things. They were very isolated.
You had the American embassy, the world’s largest embassy, surrounded by the world’s largest walls that kept both bad guys and reality out. The joke was that the embassy kept an eye on events in Iraq from the roof.
And then you had the Provisional Reconstruction Teams, me. We were – are small groups of people – we were embedded with military units. We would roll out in military convoys, typically riding in a vehicle called an MRAP, which is like a giant monster truck. It has all sorts of armor and special electronics on it that make it less vulnerable to the IEDs, which plague the campaign in Iraq for its entire life.
It had machine guns on the top and full of soldiers with their game faces on; guns, rifles, grenades, the whole manner of stuff. Myself, I would wear body armor and a helmet just like the soldiers would. I wasn’t armed. I didn’t carry a weapon. But we made quite an impression on people when we rolled through town.
Sometimes when we rolled through the center of town, we made quite an impression because our vehicles were tall enough that they tore down all the electrical and phone lines that were strung across the roads. Sometimes we made quite an impression when we roared through fields and left ruts where there had been rice or wheat planted. And oftentimes we made quite an impression by attracting a lot of attention to people just by our presence.
It was difficult to say that we ever could have a normal interaction with anyone. The mere presence of us made us look like aliens descending from armored spaceships in the middle of nowhere. Every interaction with every Iraqi took place with soldiers with weapons standing around. Oftentimes, I was told to leave my body armor and helmet on while I was speaking with the Iraqi people for my own safety.
We rarely could stay in any one place for very long for fear of attracting too much attention and an attack. Setting up appointments was very difficult because it was dangerous to tell people too far in advance that we were going to be arriving. We didn’t want to give the bad guys too much time to get ready.
And under those conditions, the ability to meet with people, to interact with them, was a failure.
DAVIES: And I believe kind of one of your first interactions with Iraqis involved this fellow named – I think he had the nickname McBlazer, and there was a particular issue you had to work out. Tell us that story.
VAN BUREN: State Department people love to wear blue blazers with brass buttons. It’s almost kind of a uniform. And one of the Iraqis that we interacted with regularly had adopted this as his form of dress. And so he was nicknamed McBlazer among us.
The embassy constantly was tasking us to put on presentations, shows, lectures. We were going to tell Iraqis how things were going to work. Here’s how democracy works. Here’s what women should be doing. Here’s the way that you should be running your businesses.
These were hard to put on, and it required a lot of logistical arrangements, things that we couldn’t possibly do on our own in a country where we couldn’t travel freely, where telephone service was sporadic and where there was no infrastructure for us to work with.
It became necessary for us to seek out these middlemen, these operators, carpetbaggers, slick guys like McBlazer who for money could make things happen.
The very first day, as I arrived and met my team, the very first task I was handed was to commit fraud so that we could properly pay off McBlazer for the last thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: Now, fraud is a nasty word to use…
DAVIES: Well, let me just interrupt here. What do you mean commit fraud? What did you have to do?
VAN BUREN: Well, it turns out that there limits the State Department put on how much we could spend on refreshments. This was very important because without refreshments, the Iraqis wouldn’t come to our meetings. We simply couldn’t get a crowd unless we fed them. To feed them costs money, and the cost of that food oftentimes exceeded the maximums that we were allowed to spend.
This doesn’t stop a guy like McBlazer. He simply created fake receipts for printing that covered the cost of the food. And my very first diplomatic action in Iraq was to be told by my colleagues to sign the fake receipts so that we could pay McBlazer for the food, which we had to use to bribe the Iraqis to come to the meeting so that the embassy would be satisfied that we were reconstructing Iraq.
DAVIES: And did you object?
VAN BUREN: It seemed like a wrong way to get started to me, and I have this aversion to going to jail for fraud, and so I said no, I’m not going to sign that. This was a problem. Well, McBlazer, it turns out, is married into a very powerful family that’s connected to some very powerful Kurds, who happen to be connected to a lot of guys that apparently used to work for the mafia until they found out working in Iraq was more profitable.
And it was not going to be in our best interest to crisscross on McBlazer. In fact, McBlazer offered that he was setting up conferences for all of the PRTs all over Iraq and that if we didn’t pay him the money that he wanted, he was going to stop servicing the other PRTs. And so simultaneously with my arrival to Iraq, I was going to be responsible for the countrywide breakdown of a system that had been running smoothly for about a year.
VAN BUREN: Yeah, I signed.
DAVIES: OK. So you could see some immediate frustrations with what was happening in this State Department effort to assist the Iraqi people. But there were enormous needs around you. You write about trash disposal. Do you want to give us a little picture of what you saw?
VAN BUREN: I’d never seen so much garbage in one place in my life. It was almost as if the only thing being manufactured in Iraq was garbage. This oftentimes didn’t jive with other things. People were not very wealthy. People in fact in many cases were quite poor. But suddenly, everywhere I looked, there was garbage, garbage and garbage.
The garbage was a problem for the Iraqis. It was a problem for us. The bad guys used to hide bombs in it that would catch us as we drove down the road. So one day, we were told it was going to be our job to clean up the garbage.
Now, I’m a pretty energetic guy, but it seemed like I was going to need some help. Well, not a problem. There were oftentimes sheiks who would appear, sometimes without us even calling them, who would offer to take care of whatever problems we happened to have, in this case the garbage. They would be able to, for a very small fee, get their entire extended family and their family’s families out there to pick up the trash for us.
It was an absolute amazing thing until we found, of course, that we were overpaying these people so much that we had distorted the local labor market, and in fact several shops had closed down because people found it more profitable to have us pay them to pick up trash than to operate small businesses.
DAVIES: And of course they were temporary jobs, right?
VAN BUREN: They were temporary jobs in the sense that when we got bored with picking up trash, or some other shiny object caught our attention, we moved onto a different project. The garbage piled up. The city of Baghdad generates hundreds of tons of garbage every day.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran in the State Department who spent a year in Iraq on Iraqi reconstruction. He’s written a new book called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
There was also a tremendous need for clean water and sewage treatment, and it just seems like so obvious that meeting these basic needs would have done a lot to build meaningful relationships with the Iraqi people. Do you want to tell us – I mean, there’s an example you tell of a treatment plant in Nahrawan, I believe, northeast of Baghdad.
VAN BUREN: Nahrawan.
DAVIES: OK. Yeah, go ahead.
VAN BUREN: Ever since the Romans had occupied this part of the world, providing water to people was what government did. It was the essence of surviving in the desert. Saddam had built a number of water plants, oftentimes with Soviet or other people’s money, and these water plants had pumped along without much success from the 1960s on up. Some of them were older than I was.
We were told to go out and see what we could do about a water plant not far from where we living out in the desert. The great news was that way back in the good days of 2003 and ’04, when people were still enthusiastic for the war, apparently the Japanese had promised to pay for repairing this water plant.
This was good news. But when we contacted them, it turned out that they neither remembered paying for it nor had any interested in driving out through the dangerous parts of Iraq to see a water plant. It fell on our shoulders to go out and check up on things.
The water plant was run by a wonderful gentleman who I hope to the bottom of my heart is still alive somewhere in Iraq. We called him The Engineer. And The Engineer had been working at this particular water plant since the 1960s. He would tell us these wonderful stories about how during the glory days, Saddam would send him off to Russia or Bulgaria for water plant training, and he would trade his then-valuable Iraqi dinars for rubles and be very popular with the women that he would meet and come home with suitcases full of vodka. They were good times for him.
The war did not work out well. He had a number of people on his staff killed in the sectarian violence. Another larger group disappeared, some of them possibly killed; a lot of them running away to relatives in Jordan or nearby countries.
But throughout this all, The Engineer stayed at his post throughout the sectarian violence and the worst years of the war, even though the plant had long since ceased to process any fresh water, and raw sewage ran right through it into the beautiful Tigris River.
The Engineer was still optimistic, and when we arrived there, he brought out these incredibly dense three-ring binders full of plans that were drawn up by a Japanese engineering firm in Tokyo that had never been to Iraq and never seen his plant. But these were the plans for the water of the future.
The Engineer needed nothing from us except a lot of money and a lot of help. The way he saw it, he was going to work this all out by hiring an Iraqi contractor who would actually be a front for a Turkish country, which would hire Arabic-speaking Jordanian engineers to bring Chinese equipment into Iraq – rebuild his water plant.
He then planned on the Chinese equipment being left behind so he could sell it off on the black market and raise enough money for maintenance of the plant because unfortunately, our planning never extended past the end of next year, and we had no money for long-term maintenance.
DAVIES: So what happened?
VAN BUREN: Nothing. Nothing happened. The problem is, is that you can’t, with all the best intentions in the world, simply rebuild a water network. Our plant was one plant, was one plant in a long line of facilities that were necessary to take water out of the Tigris, process it, bring it all the way into Baghdad, then take the dirty water out, bring it all the way back, process it and bring it back in, put it back into the river.
This involved hundreds of facilities. We had authority to try to fix one of them.
DAVIES: It sounds like this was a case where there was a big, important problem like sewage treatment and water purification, but that you didn’t have nearly the kind of resources that you would need to do something on that scale. People needed to think bigger?
VAN BUREN: We were never able to do thing on a large enough scale to make a difference because the thinking was never long-term. Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one year tours, myself included. Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we needed to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments and pictures of smiling Iraqis and metrics and charts.
It was impossible under these circumstances to do anything as long-term as a water and sewer project, particularly with the need for our work to dovetail with work being done to the left and to the right of us.
We rarely thought past next week’s situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn’t flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot some video of something that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work, to do the very slow work that reconstruction and development takes place, the idea that development work is a pyramid, you build the base that creates the possibility of a top, never existed in our world.
DAVIES: Now, there were some efforts to do things on a smaller scale. They bought some of these Mobile Maxes, a trailer-mounted, what, a water filtration system. What happened there?
VAN BUREN: One day, a soldier literally trolling through the Internet came across something called Mobile Max. Mobile Max seemed like the solution to our problems. It was a solar-powered, trailer-mounted water purification device. You put the hose into dirty water, the sun shone on Mobile Max, and clean water would pour out the other end.
The soldier told his boss, who told his commanding officer, who told some other people, and believe it or not, in the time it takes me to write a letter home to my wife, we found that the Army was buying five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes and paying to have them shipped all the way around the world to the middle of the desert at a place called Forward Operating Base Hammer.
It took months and months for these things to arrive, and the day that they showed up, it was like a fair at the base. They came on trailers. They were bright blue. People came out of their workstations and sleeping quarters to see this arrive, as if the circus had come to town.
DAVIES: And what happened?
VAN BUREN: We set the first Mobile Max up, put the hose into a hole that we had dug and found water in, waited for the sun to warm up the engine. There was a hush, and poured out of the other end of it – nothing. It turns out that the groundwater in Iraq is too salty for Mobile Max. Mobile Max can clean all sorts of naughty stuff out of water, but it can’t turn salty water into drinking water, and so it was a complete failure.
DAVIES: And you had 25 of these things. What became of them?
VAN BUREN: The five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes were moved off to a corner of the base where they were parked in very neat rows and left to sit there for the course of the year that I was in Iraq. I’m told that soon after I left, and we closed the PRT down, the commanding general forces there, General Odierno, came out, asked what those blue things were, was told the story and ordered them to be gotten rid of.
My understanding is one of them ended up in a sheik’s backyard, where it did some good work for him and his family. No one seems to know what happened to the other ones.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren is the author of the new book “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” We’ll hear more of his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of our show. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to Dave Davies’ interview with Peter Van Buren, the author of “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” It’s about the sometimes comically misguided projects, wasted money and corruption he encountered while working with the State Department team on reconstruction efforts in Iraq in 2009.
DAVIES: Now this brings up the subject of all the money that was available. Did you ever want for cash for these initiatives?
VAN BUREN: Working for the government for 23 years, the only constant was there’s never money. There’s never enough money to do all the things we wanted and there were times when I bought my own office supplies and stole yellow stickies from my kid’s school so I had them in the office because it was easier than trying to get money for it.
In Iraq we had money everywhere. It was literally in boxes that you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in cash in a small safe in my office. I felt like a drug dealer, I kept pulling out bundles of money. There was so much money that the Iraqis invented a new slang word in Arabic that means a large pile of hundred dollar bills. What’s the word?
My pronunciation may not be precise, but I believe it’s duftar.
DAVIES: A stack of Benjamins, huh?
VAN BUREN: A large pile of Benjamins. They were at first the most convenient way for us to put money out. There was no banking system. There were no electronic transfers. There were no checking accounts, no credit cards. And so when we needed to give someone money, we literally gave them money. I would travel around with $50,000 in a paper bag to hand out to one of the people who was taking over our project. We would have these counting sessions where we had to account for our money, where we would have $20,000, $30,000 out on a desk. This was all tracked on paper and through some Excel spreadsheets.
Most of the folks I worked with were honest people and I don’t think we lost any money. But somewhere along the way millions and millions of dollars were just casually misplaced. The Army lost 60 million dollars at one point in time. And over the course of the eight years of the Iraq Project, the United States has spent 63 billion dollars on the reconstruction.
DAVIES: And there were reports by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that documented literally billions in waste and mixing funds. You were on this provincial reconstruction team doing the reconstruction, but you were embedded with an Army unit. I think the 82nd Airborne, right? And how much, to what extent did the Army actually call the shots in these efforts? Was the State Department in charge, or was the Army in charge, or was it a negotiation? How did it work?
VAN BUREN: The original plan was that we were to be equals. The State Department and the Army were to work as equals on these projects and work as equals in making decisions. The problem was we couldn’t leave the base unless the Army took us out. We couldn’t make a phone call, use a computer, make a photocopy or get a meal without the Army’s permission and consent. And so in situations where you couldn’t get along with your colonel, the colonel in charge of your unit, you couldn’t do your job. It created a terribly unequal relationship. The joke was that we practiced more diplomacy inside the wire than outside.
DAVIES: You write about one colonel that had – who really liked the idea of passing out humanitarian assistance bags, HA bags. Explain what they were and why they were appealing.
VAN BUREN: One of the problems that plagued the whole reconstruction program, from its sad birth to whenever it finally passes away, it was the overall concept. The State Department imagined this as remaking an entire nation. The Army had a little harder time getting its head around that concept and tended to think in smaller units.
One colonel that I worked with decided that the best way to win the hearts and minds was to give away stuff. Everybody likes free stuff. He characterized this as a humanitarian gesture, and the project was called HA, humanitarian assistance. What would happen is the Army would load up some trucks with food bags. The amount of food in there might have given a family of four a meal or two. It was nothing special, nothing elaborate. He would load up these food bags, drive out to some village, and hand them out to people.
What you saw in these instances was very interesting. If you imagine yourself as a camera and you focus very closely, you saw happy smiling soldiers handing food bags over to young children or women, who were smiling as they accepted them. If you zoomed out a little bit, you found that the soldiers who weren’t in camera range were probably not smiling. You zoomed out a little further and you found that the Iraqi men would stay in the background and give us kind of hard stares. This is a country where pride, where self-image is very important to people, and being handed food by Americans who had invaded their country and in many cases caused damage and violence around them was a shock to the Iraqi people, was a blow to their pride.
Imagine if the Chinese army appeared one day in Minneapolis and started handing out food to the people there. Would Americans feel proud about that?
DAVIES: Now why did the colonel do this? And was this ever evaluated? Did anybody ever look at whether this had any positive impact?
VAN BUREN: The chances are that your listener’s thinking about this constitutes the only time anything was evaluated what we did there. The entire process was one of improvisation, of please do something because something might work. There was never anybody who said, hey, that’s not working. Let’s not do that again. Or this seems to have promise, let’s keep doing that. What we did was never examined, was never looked at. There was no sense of output. Everything we did we did for us. We did it for our personal satisfaction. We did it because we felt good doing it. We did it because we were told to do it. We did it because we wanted to get promoted and patted on the head. The sense was it wasn’t about the Iraqis. It was about us.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is called “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran Foreign Service officer in the U.S. State Department who spent a year in Iraq. His book about his frustrations with the Iraqi reconstruction effort is called “We Meant Well.”
Did you have any contact with the media? I mean could you give them a sense of what was really going on?
VAN BUREN: I saw very little of the media. And the embassy made sure that whenever someone from the media did go out into the field that the journey and the experience was stage managed to the final degree. We did have one experience that might illustrate how this works. The largest amount of money I ever spent was with the Army, a two million dollar chicken processing plant. The idea was that instead of these systems that had been in place for about 5,000 years, where people bought live chickens in the market, we were going to take those chickens and cut them up and put them in styrofoam and plastic just like you’d get at the Safeway. Problem was that that didn’t work out very well. The farmers were had a system of selling to the markets. The people didn’t have refrigeration at home to handle cutup chicken. And there was Brazilian frozen chicken being imported at that time that underpriced us. So the factory didn’t produce any chicken.
One day we were told that the journalist was coming out and wanted to see our factory in action. This was a moment of panic for us, because we had not really admitted to the embassy at that point that it wasn’t working.
DAVIES: I just want to understand this. So from scratch you imported all this mechanized equipment and built a chicken processing plant that simply was sitting idle?
VAN BUREN: That’s correct. Because when these projects were conceived – and this project actually was in conception long before I arrived, it had taken so long to spec out and to create – no one considered where those chickens were going to come from and how they were going to be paid for. And no one considered what was going to happen to our processed chicken once we put it in the plastic.
For example, there were no transportation networks. There were no trucks that could carry frozen or chilled food around Iraq. And even if we had those trucks, the roadways made it impossible for them to travel very long distances. No one bothered to figure out how we were going to buy the chickens, how we were going to pay for them, which farmers were going to sell, whether the farmers needed to raise the chickens specifically for us. None of that was thought out. Simply, we built something and hoped it would work in either direction.
DAVIES: All right. So it’s time to prove to a journalist that you’ve done something good here. what happened?
VAN BUREN: This was a real problem. We contacted the Iraqi sheikh who had taken possession of the chicken processing plant and explained our problem. He was a very clever man. He sent one of his sons out to the market that day and what every live chicken in about a five mile radius of the place. Lord knows what they paid for it, brought all those chickens in and the plant was humming like the middle of a speedway when the journalists arrived. We processed through about 150 chickens that day.
DAVIES: And nobody ever caught on. No one was the wiser.
VAN BUREN: The good news was is that it was 100 percent productivity increase from the day before…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: …so we were kind of happy about that. It turned out that the chicken that we actually served the journalists was bought at a different place, because we weren’t quite sure if our machinery was clean enough and we were afraid to actually serve the person because the machinery hadn’t been used so we bought chicken someplace to serve them.
This was a problem. The problem was is that the journalists said what a great day had happened out here and other people wanted to come out and see the plant too. So, every time someone came out we had to buy chickens to run them through the plant so there was something to see. This led to a new unit of measurement – the chicken measurement. We would try to figure out who was important and who wasn’t because the chickens were expensive. So an important person might see 50 or 60 chickens processed. A journalist who comes from a smaller outlet for or a hometown newspaper, they might see 20 chickens processed. And so it became kind of a joke how many chickens we were worth.
DAVIES: Didn’t – I mean were you ever in a position to pull someone aside and say – ask them if this is running tomorrow or was running yesterday?
VAN BUREN: Dave, please don’t be upset. We would’ve given you the full 50-chicken treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: No, everyone played the game.
VAN BUREN: Everyone was looking the other way. There was an understanding that you wanted to get through your tour, and the way to do that was not make waves, not ask questions. It had been running before you got there, it was going to be running after you got there. Look away like everyone else was doing and things would work out for you. The only time I got into trouble, the only time I was called into my boss was when I canceled a project.
DAVIES: Well, I was going to ask you about that. You were called on the carpet at one point. What happened?
VAN BUREN: I wasn’t spending enough money. Early on, soon after failing to properly attend to the fraudulent receipts of McBlazer, I was presented with another opportunity to excel. My colleagues had arranged for us to pay about $5,000 a head for sheep to be delivered to widows. Good idea. Widows are it’s a sad thing. We created more than enough of them ourselves in Iraq, why not help them out. We were going to give them sheep. They’d raise the sheep. Everybody would be happy. So I asked a few questions. How are we going to find the widows? Well, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will find them for us. OK. How will the widows know how to raise the sheep? Oh, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will teach the widows. OK. Who is going to pay him for that? Oh, he’s going to take the lambs from the widows so that he’ll get paid that way. It sure seemed to me that this was kind of a scam – that it was a pyramid scheme so that the guy we were buying things from was going to make all the money. I didn’t see how the widows were going to benefit, and I canceled the project.
DAVIES: And then you were what, summoned to the embassy?
VAN BUREN: This brought down the wrath of Mesopotamia on me. Because once I realized what the questions were and I started asking them, I found out that the women’s rug-making cooperative that we were paying for had devolved into child labor. I found out that most of the things that we were paying for at the vocational school were actually nonexistent; that there were no vocational classes being held, and the equipment that we had paid for had long since been trundled off and sold off on the black market. I found that many of our projects existed solely in our own minds and our checkbooks, and so I started canceling them. This did not sit well with my bosses and I was called into the embassy and reminded that my predecessors had found ways to spend money, I should find ways to spend money. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make trouble. You’re one little guy in a big operation. Do what you’re told. Get through your year. Go home. Maybe we’ll promote you.
DAVIES: And when you got that speech how did you respond?
VAN BUREN: I didn’t know what to respond. I did know how to respond. I went through a period of trying to do what I was told was the right thing. I signed off on a lot of projects that would embarrass me to explain to you in great detail right now. I spent a lot of money. At some point, I realized that that was wrong. It was not true to myself. It was not true to the integrity that I believe is important for us, and so I stopped signing projects.
I found that not saying yes and not saying no gave me enough grey zone that my year ran out before they caught up with me.
DAVIES: Have any of your colleagues in the State Department read this manuscript? How is this being received?
VAN BUREN: The State Department, as an organization, is not very happy about what I’ve done. I was required to submit an early copy of the manuscript to the State Department for them to determine that I wasn’t releasing classified information, or the more hilarious one, that I wasn’t misrepresenting this as official State Department policy. It’s pretty clear that I’m kind of speaking for myself, here.
The State Department is unhappy about this. The organization is not one that is comfortable with its private parts showing in public. This is very clear in their reaction to the WikiLeaks scandal, where suddenly the internal workings of the State Department were on display. This makes everyone very uncomfortable, and my book does something of the same. My colleagues oftentimes will privately tell me that they saw many of the same things I saw, that they were – they’re pleased that someone has written down what I wrote. But in public, many of them have shunned me, have accused me of not being fair to them, of blaming them for things that I knew were institutional. They didn’t make these same decisions because they were stupid. I didn’t make these same decisions because I was stupid. We all knew we were told to these things, and they’re a little bit angry at me for sometimes maybe labeling them as complicit in this, when they knew that they weren’t.
DAVIES: What kind of assignment do you have? Has your writing affected your work?
VAN BUREN: Unfortunately, the State Department has started an investigation against me. They claim that a link on the blog connected with this book links to a WikiLeaks document, and that constitutes disclosure of classified information. And so the security people have begun an investigation against me that will probably end in my losing my job.
DAVIES: Well, you know, one of my reactions in attempting to judge this was that when I look at your account of these events, I mean, they’re told with really telling detail, and it’s quite funny in many places. But you’re not very specific about, well, certainly people. You use only first names, or, in some cases, no names at all. You refer to people as my boss or the major.
VAN BUREN: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Someone might say, well, aren’t you kind of fudging of the details here, and that gives you some ability to exaggerate?
VAN BUREN: To a certain extent. It’s difficult. It turns out that when you throw pies at people’s faces, they sometimes get upset about that. And so in these litigious days, it became important in many instances do not identify people by name, partially for legal reasons, partially because, in many cases, they were decent people trying to do the right thing who shouldn’t be blamed personally by name for what they did because they were following orders. They were doing the things that they were told to do.
The book that I wrote is not a scholarly text. It’s not a history. It’s not full of footnotes and things like that. It’s an impressionistic version of what I saw. It’s the rough draft of the PRP, the Provincial Reconstruction Program that I helped administer. My hope would be that someone who is better at these things can write a book that has footnotes that can chronicle in great detail and with great accuracy what happened over there. Others will fill in the details. I don’t know that it’s important to know that the major I referred to was Major Jones or Major Smith. What’s important to understand is at that time, at that place, this is what happened.
And we have your assurance that the details that you recount – I mean, the phony tours of the chicken processing plant that this…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: …and the sheep for widows programs, all of those are as accurate as you can make them?
VAN BUREN: If you were with me, you would’ve seen the things that I wrote in this book. My hope would be that at some point, some of the other people there will feel comfortable in speaking up. I don’t doubt that someone in the State Department will claim that some of this is inaccurate, or that some of the details are exaggerated. What else can they do to defend themselves here, but try to assault my personal credibility? The book is there. The stories that I tell are there. You, as the reader, are in a position to judge them, to say this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense.
Some readers will look beyond the book to the documents that the special inspector general for Iraq has written that chronicles some of the chronic episodes of waste. Some folks will talk to their friends who served in Iraq and say, hmm, this Van Buren guy is talking about this Mobile Max thing. You were there. What do you know about that? And hopefully come to the conclusion that the stories I tell are sadly accurate, that the things I saw are sadly representative of the failures that we experienced there, that unfortunately, “We Meant Well” is true.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
VAN BUREN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well.” After recording the interview, we called the State Department. A spokesperson declined to comment on the book, saying only that it represents the author’s views and not those of the State Department. He also said the department never comments on whether an employee is under investigation. You can read an excerpt of “We Meant Well” on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the Bangles’ new album. This is FRESH AIR.
Along with the odd threat or hate mail (a few people hilariously misunderstand the book’s title We Meant Well as being serious and chastise me for supporting the Iraq War), some interesting things pop up. Here’s one, a report from the front lines of freedom in Iraq:
I work in Iraq and I’ve seen first hand the waste and abuse you chronicled so well during the “reconstruction”. I think you once called the US Mission in Iraq a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ — a self-contained, self-aggrandizing system of little actual use to Iraqis. An apt analogy.
Here’s something you’d appreciate:
A couple of days ago, just minutes after a briefing on the latest death toll from sectarian violence (50 killings in one night;
520 close to 1000 total this month) in Iraq, I attended a meeting with people who were enthusiastically discussing the massive uptick in “likes” on our mission’s Facebook page.
As journalism, I checked Facebook to find that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has some 137,000 “likes.” Their banner graphic celebrates breaking 100,000. As a comparison, retired porn star Jenna Jameson’s Facebook page as 566,703 likes. Maybe the Embassy needs to show more skin?
So, as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains the world’s largest and most expensive diplomatic mission, we salute the brave boys and girls out there who are still more focused on their Facebook likes than Rome burning down around them. To Victory!
Jokes aside, here’s a serious interview on the reconstruction failures in Iraq, still relevant as we repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan and prepare to repeat them in Syria? Yemen? and wherever. Have a listen.
More on the series, Conversations with Great Minds. The interview with Eyal Press, author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Timesis particularly good.
Remember the guy who said you should never watch how laws or sausages are made? Here is a typical summer scene on the subway (“Metro”) in lovely Washington DC to illustrate your government. Inside the Beltway, represent ya’ll!
Male: Hey, you’re wearing pearls and a sweater in May on the Metro.
Female: Oh, you’re wearing a blue button down and khaki slacks.
Together: We should so talk!
Female: My life goal is to look like Zooey Deschanel.
Male: Mine is to live in Brooklyn. I don’t know where it is.
Male: I am totally shallow and get all my opinions from web sites I accidentally end up on.
Female: I only read web sites that mirror my own shallow thoughts and perpetuate myths I learned as an undergrad.
Together: The only adjective I know is “amazing.”
Male: GW?* (*George Washington University)
Female: UVA? (*University of Virginia)
Male: Oh my God, I got so drunk one time at a GW frat party!
Female: Me too! I did like so many Jello shots and then posted photos of myself with my roommate on Facebook. We wore fake plastic moustaches and pretended to grope each other, for irony.
Male: I randomly troll Facebook to look at such photos of girls I don’t know!
Female: UVA is so cool. My brother’s neighbor played lacrosse there.
Male: So you’re carrying around The Economist and not reading it?
Female: How’d you know! You have briefs from think tanks you don’t read.
Male: I am so busy drinking PBRs* and playing adult kickball and wearing heavy-rimmed black glasses like my Grandpa wore I don’t have any time to read. (*Pabst Blue Ribbon, drank ironically)
Female: I also wear heavy-rimmed black glasses like my Grandpa. I used to do aerobics but then I switched to yoga because it is now cool and I got to buy new outfits.
Together: We’re dedicated to remaining adolescents forever!
Male: I vote for people Jon Stewart likes.
Female: I over-pronounce Stephen Colbert’s name often!
Male: So what do you do?
Female: I work on the Hill. You?
Male: I am the personal assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communication and Outreach at the Department of… of… I forgot, but it’s near Metro Center. Something about the web or social media.
Female: We should certainly hang out.
Male. Totally. Georgetown for shots?
This Memorial Day, in addition to our own dead, we remember the 4,700 people (estimated; the actual body count is classified and/or unknown) killed by American drones. While some were terrible people, many were collateral damage, innocents murdered by accident and simply tossed into the ever-growing pile of horrors the United States has created through its fear and paranoia (some, such as Nobel Peace Prize recipient Obama, still insist on calling it self-defense.)
The drone death toll is subject to debate; the 4,700 number is from Senator Lindsey Graham, a happy proponent of drone killings. Other have placed the count as low as 1,700. Some use a higher number than Graham, including in the math military strikes in combat. We now know that whatever the total number, at least four of the dead were American Citizens murdered by their own government without due process in clear violation of the Constitution.
So here they are. Pick an X below and imagine a person. Then kill him. It is your right as an American.
Happy Memorial Day.
(As a secular act of Kaddish, a meditation, I typed the X’s one by one, all 4,700 of them. Amen)
Our topic was the simmering chaos in free Iraq. With over 290 dead in the past month, the interviewer questioned me on whether things might get as bad as in 2006. My reply: They will get worse, because unlike in 2006 the American Army is not sitting in between the angry Sunnis and the Shias, meaning no third party is available to intercede. In addition, the sort of successful Sunni rebels in Syria (ironically supported by the US against the Shia government assisted by Iran, politics makes strange bedfellows) are at least an inspiration in Iraq and perhaps a source of arms. The Sunnis in Iraq appear now to be strong enough not to lose while not being strong enough to win, a prescription for more and more violence.
I also noted for the BBC audience that the U.S. still maintains the world’s largest and most expensive embassy, in Baghdad, some 11,000 American personnel. Their role in abating chaos is of course zero. No one really knows why they are even there anymore; the embassy’s last role is simply as an artifact of our errors.
Also while in Boston I had a chance to meet some of the students and faculty of Brandeis University. My hat tips to them for maintaining a broad curriculum that emphasizes social justice at its core, in every subject from Biology to Literature.
Lastly, it must be noted that Boston is the source of America’s original patriots, the ones who truly believed in creating a nation based on the rights of people, and who were willing to stake their lives in pursuit of those inalienable rights. These men stand as a reminder to modern Americans that the real meaning of commitment means more than just making it to the gym three times a week.
I thus dropped by the Sam Adams Brewery for a tour and tasting session, held under the oil-painted gaze of namesake Samuel Adams, Brewer and Patriot. Just because you believe in freedom doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.
Bonus: Those of you who don’t get the reference to Shipping Up to Boston better go get a beer and click here.
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