On May 27, Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing. Though highly photogenic, the visit was otherwise one that avoided acknowledging the true history of the place.
Like his official predecessors (Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial in early April, as did two American ambassadors before him), Obama did not address the key issues surrounding the attack. “He [Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, stated.
With rare exception, the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end World War Two is debated only deep within the safety of academic circles: could a land invasion have been otherwise avoided? Would more diplomacy have achieved the same ends without the destruction of two cities? Could an atomic test on a deserted island have convinced the Japanese? Was the surrender instead driven primarily by the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific War, which, by historical accident, took place two days after Hiroshima—and the day before Nagasaki was immolated?
But it is not only the history of the decision itself that is side stepped. Beyond the acts of destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen.
The short version of the atomic myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were not dropped out of revenge or malice, immoral acts, but of grudging military necessity. As a result of this, the attacks have not provoked or generated deep introspection and national reflection.
The use of the term “myth” is appropriate. Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new, extraordinary power the United States alone possessed. The military necessity argument was largely created later, in a 1947 article defending the use of the atomic bomb, written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Conant described the article’s purpose at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”
The Stimson article was a response to journalist John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorker and later as a book. Due to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required that formal White House response. Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name. The Stimson article was quite literally the moment of creation of the Hiroshima myth.
The national belief that no moral wrong was committed with the atomic bombs, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection, echoes forward through today (the blithe way Nagasaki is treated as a historical after thought – “and Nagasaki, too” – only drives home the point.) It was 9/11, the new Pearl Harbor, that started a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition and indefinite detention are seen by most as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.
And with that, the steps away from the violence of Hiroshima and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are merely a matter of degree. The myth allows the world’s most powerful nation to go to war as a victim after the tragic beheadings of only a small number of civilians. Meanwhile, the drone deaths of children at a wedding party are seen as unfortunate but only collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism itself. It is a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who held the knife.
We may, in fact, think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands to otherwise end World War Two. There is little debate in the “war on terror” because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says an illusion of expediency wipes away any concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to strike next.
Japan, too, is guilty of failing to look deep into itself over its own wartime atrocities. Yet compared to the stunning array of atrocities during and since World War Two, the world’s only use of nuclear weapons still holds a significant place in infamy. To try and force the Japanese government to surrender (and no one in 1945 knew if the plan would work) by making it watch mass casualties of innocents, and then to hold the nation hostage to future attacks with the promise of more bombs to come, speaks to a cruelty previously unseen.
For President Obama to visit Hiroshima without reflecting on the why of that unfortunate loss of lives, acting as if they occurred via some natural disaster, is tragically consistent with the fact that for 71 years no American president felt it particularly important to visit the victimized city. America’s lack of introspection over one of the 20th century’s most significant events continues, with 21st century consequences.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The thing that always struck me about Hiroshima was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d get off the train, step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima. I had the same feeling only once before, taking a bus out of Munich and having the driver announce the next stop as Dachau. Somehow such names feel wrong being said so prosaically.
I guess no matter how many times I went to Hiroshima, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there that no matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down could not have been buried deep enough. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise.
But past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. The mountains that form the background in the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of tall buildings of course now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. In that way the Japanese had of trying to make the war go away as quickly as they could once it was over, most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the bomb. Same for most pubic buildings. With a map and some old photos, you could see where you where in 2016 and where you would have been in 1945.
In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. Take a fast walk and you feel like you have asthma. But in 2016, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English.
Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.
While grieving for the victims, many outside of Japan feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war, preferring to portray the nation as a victim.
Indeed, the otherwise moving Hiroshima Museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised by some as focusing too exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began years earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives at the hands of the Japanese military. The criticism is particularly sharp right now, given a rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
There have also been issues between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, many of them slave laborers kidnapped from Korea and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories.
The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, was created as the final resting place for the ashes and bones of the bomb’s victims, many of whom were never fully identified. Under Buddhist tradition, without such interment, the souls of those men and women will never rest. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial.
There is still much to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S., above all, remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American Ambassador ever came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” There is still not enough for some, even seven decades later.
Perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me.
Or so I thought each time I tried, because at night my dreams always sought revenge. I hope the same happens to Obama.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
What other nation on earth would signal its intent to “bury the hatchet, and what it believes to be the start of a new relationship, other than the United States, by lifting an arms embargo?
The United States is rescinding a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam, President Obama announced at a news conference in Hanoi on Monday, ending what the New York Times called “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War.”
“The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” Obama said. “It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.”
So, to sum up: the sale of weapons is a sign of normalization. Appropriate, in that that is what is normal in America’s foreign relations in the 21st century. Not whether a nation is an ally or adversary per se, but whether they are a customer for our defense industry. For example, Saudi Arabia. Sure, they fund Sunni terrorism globally and played a role in the horrible events of 9/11, but they are also one of America’s most prolific buyers of weapons, and so are courted.
As for the arms ban being “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War,” one does wonder what the Vietnamese might have say about that.
Started under false pretenses and brutally fought for unclear purposes, America’s war on Vietnam took a terrible toll. No one really knows, but estimates of the death count on the Vietnamese side run from half a million to a million and half. That is before you include the untold numbers who continue to die or suffer birth defects due to the prolific use of defoliants like Agent Orange. While the American deaths in the war were “voluntary” in the sense that America started the war and pointlessly continued it for years, the Vietnamese had no choice.
To now say that bygones are bygones, and seal the deal with the export of American weapons into Vietnam, seems a new low in cynicism by a fading American Empire.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
One of the most popular apps these days is Snapchat. It allows the sender to set a timer for any photo dispatched via the app, so that a few seconds after the recipient opens the message, the photo is automatically deleted.
The evidence of what you did at that party last night is seen and then disappears. POOF!
I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that the Iraq-Syria War against the Islamic State (ISIS) is being conveyed to us via Snapchat. Important things happen, they appear in front of us, and then… POOF!… they’re gone. No one seems to remember them. Who cares that they’ve happened at all, when there’s a new snap already arriving for your attention? As with most of what flows through the real Snapchat, what’s of some interest at first makes no difference in the long run.
Just because we now have terrifyingly short memories does not, however, mean that things did not happen. Despite the POOF! effect, events that genuinely mattered when it comes to the region in which Washington has, since the 1980s, been embroiled in four wars, actually did occur last week, last month, a war or two ago, or, in some cases, more than half a century in the past. What follows are just some of the things we’ve forgotten that couldn’t matter more.
It’s a Limited Mission — POOF!
Perhaps General David Petraeus’s all-time sharpest comment came in the earliest days of Iraq War 2.0. “Tell me how this ends,” he said, referring to the Bush administration’s invasion. At the time, he was already worried that there was no endgame.
That question should be asked daily in Washington. It and the underlying assumption that there must be a clear scope and duration to America’s wars are too easily forgotten. It took eight long years until the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Though there were no ticker tape parades or iconic photos of sailors smooching their gals in Times Square in 2011, the war was indeed finally over and Barack Obama’s campaign promise fulfilled…
Until, of course, it wasn’t, and in 2014 the same president restarted the war, claiming that a genocide against the Yazidis, a group hitherto unknown to most of us and since largely forgotten, was in process. Air strikes were authorized to support a “limited” rescue mission. Then, more — limited — American military power was needed to stop the Islamic State from conquering Iraq. Then more air strikes, along with limited numbers of military advisers and trainers, were sure to wrap things up, and somehow, by May 2016, the U.S. has 5,400 military personnel, including Special Operations forces, on the ground across Iraq and Syria, with expectations that more would soon be needed, even as a massive regional air campaign drags on. That’s how Washington’s wars seem to go these days, with no real debate, no Congressional declaration, just, if we’re lucky, a news item announcing what’s happened.
Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate.
For those who prefer an even more forgotten view of history, America’s war in Vietnam kicked into high gear thanks to then-President Lyndon Johnson’s false claim about an attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The early stages of that war followed a path somewhat similar to the one on which we now seem to be staggering along in Iraq War 3.0 — from a limited number of advisers to the full deployment of almost all the available tools of war.
Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.
The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.
No Boots on the Ground — POOF!
Having steadfastly maintained since the beginning of Iraq War 3.0 that it would never put “American boots on the ground,” the Obama administration has deepened its military campaign against the Islamic State by increasing the number of Special Operations forces in Syria from 50 to 300. The administration also recently authorized the use of Apache attack helicopters, long stationed in Iraq to protect U.S. troops, as offensive weapons.
American advisers are increasingly involved in actual fighting in Iraq, even as the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers to an air base in Qatar before promptly sending them into combat over Iraq and Syria. Another group of Marines was dispatched to help defend the American Embassy in Baghdad after the Green Zone, in the heart of that city, was recently breached by masses of protesters. Of all those moves, at least some have to qualify as “boots on the ground.”
The word play involved in maintaining the official no-boots fiction has been a high-wire act. Following the loss of an American in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter labeled it a “combat death.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest then tried to explain how an American who was not on a combat mission could be killed in combat. “He was killed, and he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission,” Earnest told reporters.
Much more quietly, the U.S. surged — “surge” being the replacement word for the Vietnam-era “escalate” — the number of private contractors working in Iraq; their ranks have grown eight-fold over the past year, to the point where there are an estimated 2,000 of them working directly for the Department of Defense and 5,800 working for the Department of State inside Iraq. And don’t be too sanguine about those State Department contractors. While some of them are undoubtedly cleaning diplomatic toilets and preparing elegant receptions, many are working as military trainers, paramilitary police advisers, and force protection personnel. Even some aircraft maintenance crews and CIA paramilitaries fall under the State Department’s organizational chart.
The new story in Iraq and Syria when it comes to boots on the ground is the old story: air power alone has never won wars, advisers and trainers never turn out to be just that, and for every soldier in the fight you need five or more support people behind him.
We’re Winning — POOF!
We’ve been winning in Iraq for some time now — a quarter-century of successes, from 1991’s triumphant Operation Desert Storm to 2003’s soaring Mission Accomplished moment to just about right now in the upbeat third iteration of America’s Iraq wars. But in each case, in a Snapchat version of victory, success has never seemed to catch on.
At the end of April, for instance, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesperson, hailed the way American air power had set fire to $500 million of ISIS’s money, actual cash that its militants had apparently forgotten to disperse or hide in some reasonable place. He was similarly positive about other recent gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Hit, which, he swore, was “a linchpin for ISIL.” In this, he echoed the language used when ISIS-occupied Ramadi (and Baiji and Sinjar and…) fell, language undoubtedly no less useful when the next town is liberated. In the same fashion, USA Today quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying that American actions had cut ISIS’s oil revenues by an estimated 50%, forcing them to ration fuel in some areas, while cutting pay to its fighters and support staff.
Only a month ago, National Security Adviser Susan Rice let us know that, “day by day, mile by mile, strike by strike, we are making substantial progress. Every few days, we’re taking out another key ISIL leader, hampering ISIL’s ability to plan attacks or launch new offensives.” She even cited a poll indicating that nearly 80% of young Muslims across the Middle East are strongly opposed to that group and its caliphate.
In the early spring, Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, took to Twitter to assure everyone that “terrorists are now trapped and desperate on Mosul fronts.” Speaking at a security forum I attended, retired general Chuck Jacoby, the last multinational force commander for Iraq 2.0, described another sign of progress, insisting that Iraq today is a “maturing state.” On the same panel, Douglas Ollivant, a member of former Iraq commander General David Petraeus’s “brain trust of warrior-intellectuals,” talked about “streams of hope” in Iraq.
Above all, however, there is one sign of success often invoked in relation to the war in Iraq and Syria: the body count, an infamous supposed measure of success in the Vietnam War. Washington spokespeople regularly offer stunning figures on the deaths of ISIS members, claiming that 10,000 to 25,000 Islamic State fighters have been wiped out via air strikes. The CIA has estimated that, in 2014, the Islamic State had only perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms. If such victory statistics are accurate, somewhere between a third and all of them should now be gone.
Other U.S. intelligence reports, clearly working off a different set of data, suggest that there once were more than 30,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks. Now, the Pentagon tells us, the flow of new foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has been staunched, dropping over the past year from roughly 2,000 to 200 a month, further incontrovertible proof of the Islamic State’s declining stature. One anonymous American official typically insisted: “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”
Yet despite success after American success, ISIS evidently isn’t broke, or running out of fighters, or too desperate to stay in the fray, and despite all the upbeat news there are few signs of hope in the Iraqi body politic or its military.
The new story is again a very old story: when you have to repeatedly explain how much you’re winning, you’re likely not winning much of anything at all.
It’s Up to the Iraqis — POOF!
From the early days of Iraq War 2.0, one key to success for Washington has been assigning the Iraqis a to-do list based on America’s foreign policy goals. They were to hold decisive elections, write a unifying Constitution, take charge of their future, share their oil with each other, share their government with each other, and then defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later, the Islamic State.
As each item failed to get done properly, it became the Iraqis’ fault that Washington hadn’t achieved its goals. A classic example was “the surge” of 2007, when the Bush administration sent in a significant number of additional troops to whip the Iraqis into shape and just plain whip al-Qaeda, and so open up the space for Shiites and Sunnis to come together in an American-sponsored state of national unity. The Iraqis, of course, screwed up the works with their sectarian politics and so lost the stunning potential gains in freedom we had won them, leaving the Americans heading for the exit.
In Iraq War 3.0, the Obama administration again began shuffling leaders in Baghdad to suit its purposes, helping force aside once-golden boy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and pushing forward new golden boy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to — you guessed it — unify Iraq. “Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said as Abadi took office.
Of course, unity did not transpire, thanks to Abadi, not us. “It would be disastrous,” editorialized the New York Times, “if Americans, Iraqis, and their partners were to succeed in the military campaign against the Islamic State only to have the politicians in Baghdad squander another chance to build a better future.” The Times added: “More than 13 years since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there’s less and less reason to be optimistic.”
The latest Iraqi “screw-up” came on April 30th, when dissident Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters broke into the previously sacrosanct Green Zone established by the Americans in Iraq War 2.0 and stormed Iraq’s parliament. Sadr clearly remembers his history better than most Americans. In 2004, he emboldened his militias, then fighting the U.S. military, by reminding them of how irregular forces had defeated the Americans in Vietnam. This time, he was apparently diplomatic enough not to mention that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 41 years ago on the day of the Green Zone incursion.
Sadr’s supporters crossed into the enclave to protest Prime Minister Abadi’s failure to reform a disastrous government, rein in corruption (you can buy command of an entire army division and plunder its budget indefinitely for about $2 million), and provide basic services like water and electricity to Baghdadis. The tens of billions of dollars that U.S. officials spent “reconstructing” Iraq during the American occupation of 2003 to 2011 were supposed to make such services effective, but did not.
And anything said about Iraqi governmental failures might be applied no less accurately to the Iraqi army.
Despite the estimated $26 billion the U.S. spent training and equipping that military between 2003 and 2011, whole units broke, shed their uniforms, ditched their American equipment, and fled when faced with relatively small numbers of ISIS militants in June 2014, abandoning four northern cities, including Mosul. This, of course, created the need for yet more training, the ostensible role of many of the U.S. troops now in Iraq. Since most of the new Iraqi units are still only almost ready to fight, however, those American ground troops and generals and Special Operations forces and forward air controllers and planners and logistics personnel and close air support pilots are still needed for the fight to come.
The inability of the U.S. to midwife a popularly supported government or a confident citizen’s army, Washington’s twin critical failures of Iraq War 2.0, may once again ensure that its latest efforts implode. Few Iraqis are left who imagine that the U.S. can be an honest broker in their country. A recent State Department report found that one-third of Iraqis believe the United States is actually supporting ISIS, while 40% are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.
The new story is again the old story: corrupt governments imposed by an outside power fail. And in the Iraq case, every problem that can’t be remedied by aerial bombardment and Special Forces must be the Iraqis’ fault.
Same Leadership, Same Results — POOF!
With the last four presidents all having made war in Iraq, and little doubt that the next president will dive in, keep another forgotten aspect of Washington’s Iraq in mind: some of the same American leadership figures have been in place under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and they will initially still be in place when Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump enters the Oval Office.
Start with Brett McGurk, the current special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS. His résumé is practically a Wikipedia page for America’s Iraq, 2003-2016: Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran from August 2013 until his current appointment. Before that, Senior Advisor in the State Department for Iraq, a special advisor to the National Security Staff, Senior Advisor to Ambassadors to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey. McGurk participated in President Obama’s 2009 review of Iraq policy and the transition following the U.S. military departure from Iraq. During the Bush administration, McGurk served as Director for Iraq, then as Special Assistant to the President, and also Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 McGurk was the lead negotiator with the Iraqi Government on both a long-term Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces. He was also one of the chief Washington-based architects of The Surge, having earlier served as a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority from nearly the first shots of 2003.
A little lower down the chain of command is Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He is now leading Sunni “tribal coordination” to help defeat ISIS, as well as serving as commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force. As a colonel back in 2006, MacFarland similarly helped organize the surge’s Anbar Sunni Awakening movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
And on the ground level, you can be sure that some of the current colonels were majors in Iraq War 2.0, and some of their subordinates put their boots on the same ground they’re on now.
In other words, the new story is the old story: some of the same people have been losing this war for Washington since 2003, with neither accountability nor culpability in play.
What If They Gave a War and No One Remembered?
All those American memories lost to oblivion. Such forgetfulness only allows our war makers to do yet more of the same things in Iraq and Syria, acts that someone on the ground will be forced to remember forever, perhaps under the shadow of a drone overhead.
Placing our service people in harm’s way, spending our money in prodigious amounts, and laying the country’s credibility on the line once required at least the pretext that some national interest was at stake. Not any more. Anytime some group we don’t like threatens a group we care not so much about, the United States must act to save a proud people, stop a humanitarian crisis, take down a brutal leader, put an end to genocide, whatever will briefly engage the public and spin up some vague facsimile of war fever.
But back to Snapchat. It turns out that while the app was carefully designed to make whatever is transmitted quickly disappear, some clever folks have since found ways to preserve the information. If only the same could be said of our Snapchat wars. How soon we forget. Until the next time…
Rules are for fools, and in this case the fools in question are you, me and what’s left of the American democratic system. Obama, in an interview, basically made it clear nobody is going to indict Hillary Clinton for exposing classified material via her unclassified email server, even if it requires made-up rules to let her get away with it.
The president’s comments in an interview last Sunday that “there’s classified and then there’s classified” made clear he imagines national security law allows for ample, self-determined fudge room when exposing classified material.
Does Over-Classification Matter?
In case you are still not sure, nope, that is not the way the law works, and everyone (including me, for 24 years) who has held a security clearance knows it.
Obama’s and Clinton’s defenders claim that much of what Hillary exposed was over-classified, and perhaps some should never have been classified at all. Maybe. After reading documents at the Top Secret level and above over more than two decades I can say, sure, sometimes it seemed odd that something was regarded as as secret as it was.
That said, one’s personal opinion is not relevant. The document is what it is and one is bound to handle it appropriately. The same rules apply to the lowest new hire to the highest officials. Just because the secretary of state, or the president, does it does not make it legal.
Clinton mishandled two broad categories of documents, those classified by her own State Department and those classified by other government agencies, such as the CIA. Had she believed that the documents were wrongly classified, she had recourses for both sets. She did not act on those available recourses.
With documents originally classified by her State Department, Hillary had the authority to declassify them herself while Secretary of State (both Obama and current SecState John Kerry still hold that authority and could declassify any of Hillary’s redacted emails right now with the stroke of a pen.) The thing is if Clinton did choose to declassify a document, she would have had to follow procedure, including seeking internal recommendations, make her action public and of course be willing to release the document newly-declassified. She did not do any of that.
For the other agency documents, Hillary did not have the authority to declassify them. Only the CIA, for example, can declassify a CIA document in this process. Hillary did however have the authority to request a review aimed at declassification by the originating agency. She did not do any of that.
No Blood, No Foul?
In addition to his made-up assertion that “there’s classified and then there’s classified,” Obama disingenuously stated Hillary did not expose any information of value to America’s adversaries and so should suffer not sanction, the national security equivalent of no blood, no foul.
The Federal laws that control classified information, up to and including the Espionage Act, do not require proof that the disclosed material aided America’s adversaries, or that the information even reached America’s adversaries. Motivation to disclose the information is also not considered relevant, whether than motivation was sincere whistleblowing or inadvertent mishandling. Guilt is based on the disclosure alone. This is why Chelsea Manning was not allowed to defend herself in this way, and why Ed Snowden believes he cannot have a fair trial in the U.S.
Snowden had the last word on Obama’s statements.
“If only I had known,” tweeted Snowden. “Anyone have the number for the Attorney General?. Asking for a friend.”
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…
And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.
The Obama Doctrine
That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.
Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.
Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.
Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”
But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.
Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”
As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”
And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?
“Free riders,” he said.
The Audacity of Ignorance
What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.
The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.
Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.
Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.
History is Not Generous
If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.
But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.
Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.
Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.
One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”
That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.
There are two ways to look at the video below, and they are both right. It shows the remains of a soldier and his K-9 coming home for the last time from Afghanistan. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.
If you can get through the video with dry eyes, you may not be human, or may not at least deserve the title. Someone replaced your heart with dry meat. Despite the sappy music, the expression of utter emotion packed into a mundane activity — unloading “cargo” from an airplane — is raw and undeniable and good. Each set of remains is brought from overseas into Dover, Delaware, where the U.S. military operates its largest mortuary and receiving facility. Each container is flag-draped and accompanied by military members, so the soldier is never alone on the long trip off the battlefield.
At Dover, s/he is cleaned up if possible for an open casket viewing by the family, and the body dressed in uniform with all decorations displayed. At that point, commercial air transport brings the deceased back to his or her home, in this case, Atlanta. Each serviceperson is escorted on the last flight by uniformed military personnel. The process is designed to show respect, and it does. It is only fitting and appropriate that it does so.
Delta Airlines’ staff at Atlanta have taken things further, organizing their own an honor guard, to add that much more to a final step.
No. no, the other way has nothing to do with not having this ceremony, or not honoring those who lost their lives.
This “other way” of looking at all this is to stop turning healthy young men and women into “remains” for causes of unclear purposes. After coming into office promising to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as begun with the darkest of hearts by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama will leave eight years later having accomplished neither task. After overseeing an “end” to what some now call Iraq War 2.0 in 2011, Obama reinserted American forces back into that country in 2014 for Iraq War 3.0. There is no end in sight.
Now, in Afghanistan, conditions are such that top U.S. military commanders, who only a few months ago were planning to pull the last American troops out of Afghanistan by year’s end, are now discussing a commitment that could keep thousands of troops in the country for decades, an “enduring presence.”
Bring them home, Mr. President. Alive.
In the many strategies proposed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) by presidential candidates, policymakers, and media pundits alike across the American political spectrum, one common element stands out: someone else should really do it.
The United States will send in planes, advisers, and special ops guys, but it would be best — and this varies depending on which pseudo-strategist you cite — if the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Sunnis, and/or Shias would please step in soon and get America off the hook.
The idea of seeing other-than-American boots on the ground, like Washington’s recently deep-sixed scheme to create some “moderate” Syrian rebels out of whole cloth, is attractive on paper. Let someone else fight America’s wars for American goals. Put an Arab face on the conflict, or if not that at least a Kurdish one (since, though they may not be Arabs, they’re close enough in an American calculus). Let the U.S. focus on its “bloodless” use of air power and covert ops. Somebody else, Washington’s top brains repeatedly suggest, should put their feet on the embattled, contested ground of Syria and Iraq. Why, the U.S. might even gift them with nice, new boots as a thank-you.
Is this, however, a realistic strategy for winning America’s war(s) in the Middle East?
The Great Champions of the Grand Strategy
Recently, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton openly called for the U.S. to round up some Arab allies, Kurds, and Iraqi Sunnis to drive the Islamic State’s fighters out of Iraq and Syria. On the same day that Clinton made her proposal, Bernie Sanders called for “destroying” the Islamic State, but suggested that it “must be done primarily by Muslim nations.” It’s doubtful he meant Indonesia or Malaysia.
Among the Republican contenders, Marco Rubio proposed that the U.S. “provide arms directly to Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces.” Ted Cruz threw his support behind arming the Kurds, while Donald Trump appeared to favor more violence in the region by whoever might be willing to jump in.
They may all mean well, but their plans are guaranteed to fail. Here’s why, group by group.
The Gulf Arabs
Much of what the candidates demand is based one premise: that “the Arabs” see the Islamic State as the same sort of threat Washington does.
It’s a position that, at first glance, would seem to make obvious sense. After all, while American politicians are fretting about whether patient IS assault teams can wind their way through this country’s two-year refugee screening process, countries like Saudi Arabia have them at their doorstep. Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to lend a helping hand, including some planes and soldiers, to the task of destroying that outfit? “The Arabs,” by which the U.S. generally means a handful of Persian Gulf states and Jordan, should logically be demanding the chance to be deeply engaged in the fight.
That was certainly one of the early themes the Obama administration promoted after it kicked off its bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq back in 2014. In reality, the Arab contribution to that “coalition” effort to date has been stunningly limited. Actual numbers can be slippery, but we know that American warplanes have carried out something like 90% of the air strikes against IS. Of those strikes that are not all-American, parsing out how many have been from Arab nations is beyond even Google search’s ability. The answer clearly seems to be not many.
Keep in mind as well that the realities of the region seldom seem to play much of a part in Washington’s thinking. For the Gulf Arabs, all predominantly Sunni nations, the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda-linked Sunni ilk are little more than a distraction from what they fear most, the rise of Shia power in places like Iraq and the growing regional strength of Iran.
In this context, imagining such Arab nations as a significant future anti-IS force is absurd. In fact, Sunni terror groups like IS and al-Qaeda have in part been funded by states like Saudi Arabia or at least rich supporters living in them. Direct funding links are often difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to publicly prove them. This is especially so because the money that flows into such terror outfits often comes from individual donors, not directly from national treasuries, or may even be routed through legitimate charitable organizations and front companies.
However, one person concerned in an off-the-record way with such Saudi funding for terror groups was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in 2009. In a classified warning message (now posted on WikiLeaks), she suggested in blunt terms that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
One who thinks the Saudis and other Gulf countries may be funding rather than fighting IS and is ready to say so is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the recent G20 meeting, he announced that he had shared intelligence information revealing that 40 countries, including some belonging to the G20 itself, finance the majority of the Islamic State’s activities. Though Putin’s list of supposed funders was not made public, on the G20 side Saudi Arabia and Turkey are more likely candidates than South Korea and Japan.
Most recently, the German vice chancellor has explicitly accused the Saudis of funding Sunni radical groups.
Expecting the Gulf Arab states to fight IS also ignores the complex political relationship between those nations and Islamic fundamentalism generally. The situation is clearest in Saudi Arabia, where the secular royal family holds power only with the shadowy permission of Wahhabist religious leaders. The latter provide the former with legitimacy at the price of promoting Islamic fundamentalism abroad. From the royals’ point of view, abroad is the best place for it to be, as they fear an Islamic revolution at home. In a very real way, Saudi Arabia is supporting an ideology that threatens its own survival.
At the top of the list of groups included in the American dream of someone else fighting IS are the Kurds. And indeed, the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, are actually on the battlefields of northern Iraq and Syria, using American-supplied weapons and supported by American air power and advisers in their efforts to kill Islamic State fighters.
But looks can be deceiving. While a Venn diagram would show an overlap between some U.S. and Kurdish aims, it’s important not to ignore the rest of the picture. The Kurds are fighting primarily for a homeland, parts of which are, for the time being, full of Islamic State fighters in need of killing. The Kurds may indeed destroy them, but only within the boundaries of what they imagine to be a future Kurdistan, not in the heartlands of the Syrian and Iraqi regions that IS now controls.
Not only will the Kurds not fight America’s battles in parts of the region, no matter how we arm and advise them, but it seems unlikely that, once in control of extended swaths of northern Iraq and parts of Syria, they will simply abandon their designs on territory that is now a part of Turkey. It’s a dangerous American illusion to imagine that Washington can turn Kurdish nationalism on and off as needed.
The Kurds, now well armed and battle-tested, are just one of the genies Washington released from that Middle Eastern bottle in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. Now, whatever hopes the U.S. might still have for future stability in the region shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Using the Kurds to fight IS is a devil’s bargain.
And talking about devil’s bargains, don’t forget about Turkey. The Obama administration reached a deal to fly combat missions in its intensifying air war against the Islamic State from two bases in Turkey. In return, Washington essentially looked the other way while Turkish President Recep Erdogan re-launched a war against internal Kurdish rebels at least in part to rally nationalistic supporters and win an election. Similarly, the U.S. has supported Turkey’s recent shoot-down of a Russian aircraft.
When it comes to the Islamic State, though, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Turks to lend a serious military hand. That country’s government has, at the very least, probably been turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms into Syria for IS, and is clearly a conduit for smuggling its oil out onto world markets. American politicians seem to feel that, for now, it’s best to leave the Turks off to the side and simply be grateful to them for slapping the Russians down and opening their air space to American aircraft.
That gratitude may be misplaced. Some 150 Turkish troops, supported by 20 to 25 tanks, have recently entered northern Iraq, prompting one Iraqi parliamentarian to label the action “switching out alien (IS) rule for other alien rule.” The Turks claim that they have had military trainers in the area for some time and that they are working with local Kurds to fight IS. It may also be that the Turks are simply taking a bite from a splintering Iraq. As with so many situations in the region, the details are murky, but the bottom line is the same: the Turks’ aims are their own and they are likely to contribute little either to regional stability or American war aims.
Of the many sub-strategies proposed to deal with the Islamic State, the idea of recruiting and arming “the Sunnis” is among the most fantastical. It offers a striking illustration of the curious, somewhat delusional mindset that Washington policymakers, including undoubtedly the next president, live in.
As a start, the thought that the U.S. can effectively fulfill its own goals by recruiting local Sunnis to take up arms against IS is based on a myth: that “the surge” during America’s previous Iraq War brought us a victory later squandered by the locals. With this goes a belief, demonstrably false, in the shallowness of the relationship between many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and the Islamic State.
According to the Washington mythology that has grown up around that so-called surge of 2007-2008, the U.S. military used money, weapons, and clever persuasion to convince Iraq’s Sunni tribes to break with Iraq’s local al-Qaeda organization. The Sunnis were then energized to join the coalition government the U.S. had created. In this way, so the story goes, the U.S. arrived at a true “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington still believe that the surge, led by General David Petraeus, swept to success by promoting and arming a “Sunni Awakening Movement,” only to see American plans thwarted by a too-speedy Obama administration withdrawal from the country and the intra-Iraqi squabbling that followed. So the question now is: why not “awaken” the Sunnis again?
In reality, the surge involved almost 200,000 American soldiers, who put themselves temporarily between Sunni and Shia militias. It also involved untold millions of dollars of “payments” — what in another situation would be called bribes — that brought about temporary alliances between the U.S. and the Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi central government never signed onto the deal, which began to fall apart well before the American occupation ended. The replacement of al-Qaeda in Iraq by a newly birthed Islamic State movement was, of course, part and parcel of that falling-apart process.
After the Iraqi government stopped making the payments to Sunni tribal groups first instituted by the Americans, those tribes felt betrayed. Still occupying Iraq, those Americans did nothing to help the Sunnis. History suggests that much of Sunni thinking in the region since then has been built around the motto of “won’t get fooled again.”
So it is unlikely in the extreme that local Sunnis will buy into basically the same deal that gave them so little of lasting value the previous time around. This is especially so since there will be no new massive U.S. force to act as a buffer against resurgent Shia militias. Add to this mix a deep Sunni conviction that American commitments are never for the long term, at least when it comes to them. What, then, would be in it for the Sunnis if they were to again throw in their lot with the Americans? Another chance to be part of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that seeks to marginalize or destroy them, a government now strengthened by Iranian support, or a Syria whose chaos could easily yield a leadership with similar aims?
In addition, a program to rally Sunnis to take up arms against the Islamic State presumes that significant numbers of them don’t support that movement, especially given their need for protection from the depredations of Shia militias. Add in religious and ethnic sentiments, anti-western feelings, tribal affiliations, and economic advantage — it is believed that IS kicks back a share of its oil revenues to compliant Sunni tribal leaders — and what exactly would motivate a large-scale Sunni transformation into an effective anti-Islamic State boots-on-the-ground force?
Not that they get mentioned all that often, being closely associated with acts of brutality against Sunnis and heavily supported by Iran, but Iraq’s Shia militias are quietly seen by some in Washington as a potent anti-IS force. They have, in Washington’s mindset, picked up the slack left after the Iraqi Army abandoned its equipment and fled the Islamic State’s fighters in northern Iraq in June 2014, and again in the Sunni city of Ramadi in May 2015.
Yet even the militia strategy seems to be coming undone. Several powerful Shia militias recently announced, for instance, their opposition to any further deployment of U.S. forces to their country. This was after the U.S. Secretary of Defense unilaterally announced that an elite special operations unit would be sent to Iraq to combat the Islamic State. The militias just don’t trust Washington to have their long-term interests at heart (and in this they are in good company in the region). “We will chase and fight any American force deployed in Iraq,” said one militia spokesman. “We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting.”
Refusing to Recognize Reality
The Obama/Clinton/Sanders/Cruz/Rubio/Pentagon/et al. solution — let someone else fight the ground war against IS — is based on what can only be called a delusion: that regional forces there believe in American goals (some variant of secular rule, disposing of evil dictators, perhaps some enduring U.S. military presence) enough to ignore their own varied, conflicting, aggrandizing, and often fluid interests. In this way, Washington continues to convince itself that local political goals are not in conflict with America’s strategic goals. This is a delusion.
In fact, Washington’s goals in this whole process are unnervingly far-fetched. Overblown fears about the supposedly dire threats of the Islamic State to “the homeland” aside, the American solution to radical Islam is an ongoing disaster. It is based on the attempted revitalization of the collapsed or collapsing nation-state system at the heart of that region. The stark reality is that no one there — not the Gulf states, not the Kurds, not the Turks, not the Sunnis, nor even the Shia — is fighting for Iraq and Syria as the U.S. remembers them.
Unworkable national boundaries were drawn up after World War I without regard for ethnic, sectarian, or tribal realities and dictatorships were then imposed or supported past their due dates. The Western answer that only secular governments are acceptable makes sad light of the power of Islam in a region that often sees little or no separation between church and state.
Secretary of State John Kerry can join the calls for the use of “indigenous forces” as often as he wants, but the reality is clear: Washington’s policy in Syria and Iraq is bound to fail, no matter who does the fighting.
What is the price of America’s war against Islamic State? Higher than you think.
Last week saw the first American ground combat death in Iraq since 2011. Sadly, such deaths are a price always paid in war. The cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.
But costs should also be measured in the chaos the war has spawned, and in the additional problems for American foreign policy it has created.
Vast areas of Syria have been reduced to rubble, and refugee flows have created a humanitarian disaster; more than 240,000 people have died in the conflict, and nearly 12 million people – half the country’s population – have been driven from their homes. Whereas at one point an American goal was to depose Bashar Assad because he (only) was bombing his own people, those same people now suffer attacks from the air and the ground by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, and Islamic State and its cohorts.
The de facto strategy seems to be evolving into a Vietnam War-era “destroying Syria in order to save it.” The reconstruction of Syria will be expensive, though it is unclear who will pay that bill. But allowing the country to become a failed state, a haven for terror groups like Sudan in the 1990s and Afghanistan post-9/11, will be even more expensive.
The price being paid, however, extends beyond Syria’s borders.
NATO ally Turkey has long supported Islamic State, leaving its border with Syria open as a transit point, and allowing Islamic State to broker oil on the black market. Turkey’s actions are intimately tied to its violent history with the Kurds. A weak Islamic State empowers the Kurds. Initial American efforts to enlist Turkey into the Islamic State fight thus met with little success.
That appeared to change in August 2015, when Washington reached a deal allowing it to fly strike missions against Syria from inside Turkey. However, there appeared to be a quid pro quo: on the same day Turkey announced it would help fight Islamic State, it also began an air campaign against Kurdish groups tied to the only effective fighting force the United States has so far found – the unicorn – the peshmerga.
The Kurds’ vision for their nation extends beyond their confederacy in Iraq, into Turkey and Syria. It endangers whatever hopes America may still have for a united Iraq. It also ensures Kurdish national ambitions denied since the end of World War I will need to be addressed alongside any resolution in Syria, as Kurdish forces occupy areas in the north of that country. That’s a tall diplomatic order.
The fight against Islamic State is also playing out elsewhere in Iraq, as the United States has had to accept Iranian leadership, special forces, and weapons inside same the nation Americans died “saving” only a few years ago. The growing Iranian influence is closely coupled with American acceptance of Shi’ite militias now in the field, after the Iraqi Army ran away from Islamic State.
The government in Iraq today is a collection of mostly Shi’ite factions, each with one of those militias on call. With a weak prime minister, and with Islamic State for the time being pushed back from the gates of Baghdad, the Shi’ites are free to maneuver for power. A price to be paid for the conflict with Islamic State could easily be a civil war inside a civil war.
And of course there is Russia, who, under the loose cover of fighting Islamic State, quickly re-established itself as a military force in the heart of the Middle East. It is difficult to imagine them leaving. Until now, the United States has had a relatively free hand in the region as no one had the military power to seriously challenge an American move. That has changed. Any significant change in Syria is now subject to a Putin veto.
Meanwhile, despite the costs, Islamic State remains as strong as it has ever been, with American actions serving as its best recruitment tool.
“Defeating Islamic State” is far too simplistic for a regional strategy. And who can really afford that?
What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history?
Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”
Let the History Begin
In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.
Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.
The Precipitating Event
Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.
There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.
Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!
The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).
Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.
And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.
Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.
The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.
The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.
In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.
Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.
As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”
In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.
Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.
Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.
An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.
Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers.
The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.
The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.
World War I
As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)
Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?
As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.
What Is This All About Again?
What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.
The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?
The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.
Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.
Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.
Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?
Shaker Aamer was just released, after 13 years in captivity, from Guantanamo, and returned to Britain. His wife lives there, and he has permanent residence there. He was never charged with anything by the United States, simply kept. Here is what was done to him over the course of his 13 years at Gitmo.
Bush denied, and Obama helped hide, the nasty stuff even existed, then used an ever-so-compliant media to call it all necessary for our security and very survival, then shaping dumb-cow public opinion with ersatz terms like enhanced interrogation to keep the word torture out of the discourse, then having the CIA destroy videos of the brutality, then imprisoning officials, such as John Kiriakou, who sought to expose it all, then refusing to hold hearings or conduct investigations, then employing black ops to try and derail even a cursory Senate report and finally allowing the torturers at the CIA themselves the final word on the watered-down public version of a Senate report on torture.
The Torture of Shaker Aamer by the United States
Yet, like a water leak that must find it’s way out from inside the dark place within your walls, some things become known. Now, we can read a psychiatrist’s report which includes, in detail, the torture enacted on just one prisoner of the United States, Shaker Aamer.
The once-U.S. ally Northern Alliance captured Aamer in Afghanistan and sold him to the United States as an al Qaeda member. Who knows at this point who Aamer was at that time, or what he did or did not do. If you think any of that matters, and perhaps justifies what was done to him, stop reading now. This article cannot reach you.
What was Done to One Human
In his own words, Aamer describes the casual way his Western jailers accepted his physical presence, and skinny confessions made under Afghan torture, as all the proof necessary to imprison him in U.S. custody from 2002 until 2015. The U.S. created a world of hell that only had an entrance, not caring to conceive of an exit. In no particular order (though the full report dispassionately chronicles every act by time and location), the United States of America did the following to Aamer:
— On more than one occasion an official of the United States threatened to rape Aamer’s five year old daughter, with one interrogator describing in explicit sexual detail his plans to destroy the child;
— “Welcoming Parties” and “Goodbye Parties” as Aamer was transferred among U.S. facilities. Soldiers at these “parties” were encouraged and allowed to beat and kick detainees as their proclivities and desires dictated. Here’s a video of what a beating under the eyes of American soldiers looks like.
— Aamer was made to stand for days, not allowed to sleep for days, not allowed to use the toilet and made to shit and piss on himself for days, not fed or fed minimally for days, doused with freezing water for days, over and over again. For 13 years.
— Aamer was denied medical care as his interrogators controlled his access to doctors and made care for the wounds they inflicted dependent on Aamer’s ongoing compliance and repeated “confessions.”
— Aamer was often kept naked, and his faith exploited to humiliate him in culturally-specific ways. He witnessed a 17-year-old captive of America sodomized with a rifle, and was threatened with the same.
— At times the brutality took place for its own sake, disconnected from interrogations. At times it was the centerpiece of interrogation.
— The torture of Aamer continued at Gitmo, for as an occasional hunger striker he was brutally force-fed.
The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. Torture is invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control, not gathering information. Even when left alone (especially when left alone) the torture victim is punished to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror.
And there you have the take-away point, as briefers in Washington like to say. The real point of the torture was to torture. Over twelve years, even the thinnest rationale that Aamer was a dangerous terrorist, or had valuable information to disclose, could not exist and his abusers knew it. The only goal was to destroy Shaker Aamer.
The combination of raw brutality, the careful, educated use of medical doctors to fine-tune the pain, the skills of psychiatrists and cultural advisors to enhance the impact of what was done worked exactly as it was intended. According to the psychiatrist who examined Aamer in detail at Guantanamo, there is little left of the man. He suffers from a broad range of psychiatric and physical horrors. In that sense, by the calculus his torturers employ, the torture was indeed successful.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed at great cost, al Qaeda has been reborn in Africa and greater parts of the Middle East and the U.S. has willingly transformed itself into at best a bully abroad, and a police state at home. But no mind; the full force and credit of the United States of America destroyed Shaker Aamer as revenge for all the rest, bloody proof of all the good we failed to do.
Never Again, Always Again
Despite the horrors of World War II, the mantra– never again– becomes today a sad joke. The scale is different this time, what, 600? 6000? men destroyed by torture not six million, but not the intent. The desire to inflict purposeful suffering by government order, the belief that such inhuman actions are legal, even necessary, differs little from one set of fascists to more modern ones. Given the secrecy the Nazis enjoyed for years, how full would the American camps be today? Kill them all, and let God sort them out is never far from the lips.
Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. The ghosts don’t disappear the way the flesh and bone can be made to go away.
The people who did this, whether the ones in the torture cell using their fists, or the ones in the White House ordering it with their pens, walk free among us. They’ll never see justice done. There will be no Nuremberg Trials for America’s evils, just a collapsing bunker in Berlin. But unlike Shaker Aamer, you are sentenced to live to see it forever in your nightmares.
When I was a kid, three presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.
I was a teenager during the Cold War, and several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, invade Cuba, fight in odd little places and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.
The next president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
The one after him told us that because a group of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there. But we believed. It was a lie.
After that we were told that Saddam Hussein threatened every one of us with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.
In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.
In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple act of humanness that only the United States could conduct, and then leave. We believed. It was a lie.
Now we are told by that same president that Americans will again fight on the ground in Iraq, and Syria, and that Americans have and will die. He says that this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland.
We want to believe, Mr. President. We want to know it is not a lie.
So please address us, explain why what you are doing in Iraq is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time — because history says you lie.
The world finally noticed that one Syrian refugee kid drowned on a beach, after failing to notice the Middle East refugee crisis has been an ongoing disaster for almost five years now.
Same for the U.S.; Obama just announced he wants America to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, so this is all fixed now, we can go back to Miley and Katy, right? No.
The Day Before
Here was the state of affairs as of the day before Obama’s announcement.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted 1,500, with formally announced plans to take in only another 1,800 by next year, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.
With no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”
Many in Washington likely felt that was enough. A token increase, some nice, high-flying language, a little sprinkle of freedom and respect. I think we’re done here.
The Day After
But, after seeing that it was a slow week and the media was still showing sad pictures of refugees on the TV box, it seemed more (rhetoric) was needed. So, on September 10, President Obama announced, per the New York Times headline, he will “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.”
Well, that’s good, right? I mean, the estimates are that there are some four million Syrian refugees already out there, with another 10 million internally displaced, so even if it is 10,000 that’s hardly anything but still, better than nothing.
What He Said, What He Meant
Maybe. But let’s dig down one level deeper.
To be precise, Obama did not say the U.S. is taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in FY2016. He did not say if the 10k were part of the U.S.’ overall 70k refugee cap, or in addition to it, meaning other refugees could be left behind to favor the flavor-of-the-moment out of Syria. Obama also did not explain that the United States processes refugees abroad (if the person is somehow in the U.S. physically, that’s asylum, different thing, done while the person is in the U.S.)
Actually, have a look at the exact wording from the White House spokesperson (emphasis added): “The president has… informed his team that he would like them to accept, at least make preparations to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.”
Refugees are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years, indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed; there remains great fear in the U.S. government about terrorists sneaking into refugee flows, and so if a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been stuck left behind.
As Representative Peter King said “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists. We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”
There are also medical and other checks before a refugee is approved. With all the variables, there is no average processing time, but post-9/11 we can say the average is s-l-o-w. In the world of suffering, slow can often mean death.
It appears the White House is taking full advantage of the media’s ignorance of how refugee processing works to create the appearance of doing something when little of a practical nature is being done, all sizzle and no meat. There is little help coming from the United States for any significant number of Syrian refugees. Sorry guys!
Before he was assassinated by a United States government drone under orders from Obama and in contemptuous disregard for the Bill of Rights, Fifth and Sixth Amendments, Anwar al-Awlaki was an American Citizen.
I have written a fair amount about his death, one small piece of which was picked up by the New York Times Sunday Magazine:
You can bomb a thing into oblivion, but you cannot blow up an idea. An idea can only be defeated by another, better idea. So killing al-Awlaki had no more chance of truly silencing him than turning off the radio and hoping the broadcast never exists elsewhere. In an environment where martyrdom is prized, America might begin to turn around its failures first by creating fewer martyrs.
More on al-Awlaki elsewhere on this blog…
In one form or another, the U.S. has been at war with Iraq since 1990, including a sort-of invasion in 1991 and a full-scale one in 2003.
During that quarter-century, Washington imposed several changes of government, spent trillions of dollars, and was involved in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. None of those efforts were a success by any conceivable definition of the term Washington has been capable of offering.
Nonetheless, it’s the American Way to believe with all our hearts that every problem is ours to solve and every problem must have a solution, which simply must be found. As a result, the indispensable nation faces a new round of calls for ideas on what “we” should do next in Iraq.
With that in mind, here are five possible “strategies” for that country on which only one thing is guaranteed: none of them will work.
1. Send in the Trainers
In May, in the wake of the fall of the Sunni city of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) fighters, President Obama announced a change of course in Iraq. After less than a year of not defeating, degrading, or destroying the Islamic State, the administration will now send in hundreds more military personnel to set up a new training base at Taqaddum in Anbar Province. There are already five training sites running in Iraq, staffed by most of the 3,100 military personnel the Obama administration has sent in. Yet after nine months of work, not a single trained Iraqi trooper has managed to make it into a combat situation in a country embroiled in armed chaos.
The base at Taqaddum may only represent the beginning of a new “surge.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has begun to talk up what he calls “lily pads,” American baselets set up close to the front lines, from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces. Of course, such lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, waiting for a hungry Islamic State frog.
Leaving aside the all-too-obvious joke — that Dempsey is proposing the creation of a literal swamp, a desert quagmire of the lilypad sort — this idea has been tried. It failed over the eight years of the occupation of Iraq, when the U.S. maintained an archipelago of 505 bases in the country. (It also failed in Afghanistan.) At the peak of Iraq War 2.0, 166,000 troops staffed those American bases, conducting some $25 billion worth of training and arming of Iraqis, the non-results of which are on display daily. The question then is: How could more American trainers accomplish in a shorter period of time what so many failed to do over so many years?
There is also the American belief that if you offer it, they will come. The results of American training so far, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear recently, have fallen far short of expectations. By now, U.S. trainers were to have whipped 24,000 Iraqi soldiers into shape. The actual number to date is claimed to be some 9,000 and the description of a recent “graduation” ceremony for some of them couldn’t have been more dispiriting. (“The volunteers seemed to range in age from late teens to close to 60.” Given how much training the U.S. has made available in Iraq since 2003, it’s hard to imagine that too many young men have not given the option some thought. Simply because Washington opens more training camps, there is no reason to assume that Iraqis will show up.
Oddly enough, just before announcing his new policy, President Obama seemed to pre-agree with critics that it wasn’t likely to work. “We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits,” he said at the close of the G7 summit in Germany. “It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.” Obama was on the mark. At the al-Asad training facility, the only one in Sunni territory, for instance, the Iraqi government has not sent a single new recruit to be trained by those American advisers for the past six weeks.
And here’s some bonus information: for each U.S. soldier in Iraq, there are already two American contractors. Currently some 6,300 of them are in the country. Any additional trainers mean yet more contractors, ensuring that the U.S. “footprint” made by this no-boots-on-the-ground strategy will only grow and General Dempsey’s lilypad quagmire will come closer to realization.
2. Boots on the Ground
Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most vocal proponent of America’s classic national security go-to move: send in U.S. troops. McCain, who witnessed the Vietnam War unfold, knows better than to expect Special Forces operatives, trainers, advisers, and combat air traffic controllers, along with U.S. air power, to turn the tide of any strategic situation. His response is to call for more — and he’s not alone. On the campaign trail recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for instance, suggested that, were he president, he would consider a full-scale “re-invasion” of Iraq. Similarly, General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, urged the sending in of many boots: “I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”
Among the boots-on-the-ground crowd are also some former soldiers who fought in Iraq in the Bush years, lost friends, and suffered themselves. Blinking through the disillusion of it all, they prefer to believe that we actually won in Iraq (or should have, or would have, if only the Bush and Obama administrations hadn’t squandered the “victory”). Needed now, they claim, are more U.S. troops back on the ground to win the latest version of their war. Some are even volunteering as private citizens to continue the fight. Can there be a sadder argument than the “it can’t all have been a waste” one?
The more-troops option is so easy to dismiss it’s hardly worth another line: if over eight years of effort, 166,000 troops and the full weight of American military power couldn’t do the trick in Iraq, what could you possibly expect even fewer resources to accomplish?
3. Partnering with Iran
As hesitancy within the U.S. military to deploy ground forces in Iraq runs into chicken-hawk drum-pounding in the political arena, working ever more closely with Iran has become the default escalation move. If not American boots, that is, what about Iranian boots?
The backstory for this approach is as odd a Middle Eastern tale as you can find.
The original Obama administration plan was to use Arab, not Iranian, forces as proxy infantry. However, the much-ballyhooed 60-nation pan-Arab coalition proved little more than a short-lived photo op. Few, if any, of their planes are in the air anymore. America flies roughly 85% of all missions against Islamic State targets, with Western allies filling in a good part of the rest. No Arab ground troops ever showed up and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington has, of course, been in a Cold War-ish relationship with Iran since 1979 when the Shah fell and radical students took over the American Embassy in Tehran. In the 1980s, the U.S. aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, while in the years after the invasion of 2003 Iran effectively supported Iraqi Shiite militias against American forces occupying the country. Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, currently directing his country’s efforts in Iraq, was once one of the most wanted men on America’s kill list.
In the wake of the 2014 Islamic State capture of Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities, Iran ramped up its role, sending in trainers, advisers, arms, and its own forces to support the Shiite militias that Baghdad saw as its only hope. The U.S. initially turned a blind eye on all this, even as Iranian-led militias, and possibly the Iranians themselves, became consumers of close American air support.
In Washington right now, there is a growing, if quiet, acknowledgment that Iranian help is one of the few things that might push IS back without the need for U.S. ground troops. Small but telling escalations are occurring regularly. In the battle to retake the northern Sunni city of Tikrit, for example, the United States flew air missions supporting Shiite militias; the fig leaf of an explanation: that they operated under Iraqi government, not Iranian, control.
“We’re going to provide air cover to all forces that are under the command and control of the government of Iraq,” a U.S. Central Command spokesperson similarly noted in reference to the coming fight to retake the city of Ramadi. That signals a significant shift, former State Department official Ramzy Mardini points out. “The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against IS.” Such thinking may extend to Iranian ground troops now evidently fighting outside the strategic Beiji oil refinery.
Things may be even cozier between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias than we previously thought. Bloomberg reports that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both already using the Taqaddum military base, the very place where President Obama is sending the latest 450 U.S. military personnel.
The downside? Help to Iran only sets up the next struggle the U.S. is likely to bumble into due to a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. Syria, perhaps?
4. Arm the Kurds
The Kurds represent Washington’s Great Hope for Iraq, a dream that plays perfectly into an American foreign policy trope about needing to be “liked” by someone. (Try Facebook.) These days, glance at just about any conservative website or check out right-wing pundits and enjoy the propaganda about the Kurds: they are plucky fighters, loyal to America, tough bastards who know how to stand and deliver. If only we gave them more weapons, they would kill more Islamic State bad guys just for us. To the right-wing crowd, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of Winston Churchill in World War II, crying out, “Just give us the tools and we’ll defeat Hitler!”
There is some slight truth in all this. The Kurds have indeed done a good job of pushing IS militants out of swaths of northern Iraq and were happy for U.S. assistance in getting their Peshmerga fighters to the Turkish border when the locus of fighting was the city of Kobane. They remain thankful for the continuing air support the U.S. is providing their front-line troops and for the limited weapons Washington has already sent.
For Washington, the problem is that Kurdish interests are distinctly limited when it comes to fighting Islamic State forces. When the de facto borders of Kurdistan were directly threatened, they fought like caffeinated badgers. When the chance to seize the disputed town of Erbil came up — the government in Baghdad was eager to keep it within its sphere of control — the Kurds beat the breath out of IS.
But when it comes to the Sunni population, the Kurds don’t give a hoot, as long as they stay away from Kurdistan. Has anyone seen Kurdish fighters in Ramadi or anywhere else in heavily Sunni al-Anbar Province? Those strategic areas, now held by the Islamic State, are hundreds of actual miles and millions of political miles from Kurdistan. So, sure, arm the Kurds. But don’t expect them to play a strategic role against IS outside their own neighborhood. A winning strategy for the Kurds involving Washington doesn’t necessarily translate into a winning strategy for Washington in Iraq.
5. That Political Solution
Washington’s current man in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Abadi, hasn’t moved his country any closer to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. In fact, because Abadi has little choice but to rely on those Shiite militias, which will fight when his corrupt, inept army won’t, he has only drawn closer to Iran. This has ensured that any (American) hope of bringing Sunnis into the process in a meaningful way as part of a unified government in a unified state will prove to be a pipe dream.
A balance of forces is a prerequisite for a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish federal Iraq. With no side strong enough to achieve victory or weak enough to lose, negotiations could follow. When then-Senator Joe Biden first proposed the idea of a three-state Iraq in 2006, it just might have been possible. However, once the Iranians had built a Shiite Iraqi client state in Baghdad and then, in 2014, unleashed the militias as an instrument of national power, that chance was lost.
Many Sunnis see no other choice but to support the Islamic State, as they did al-Qaeda in Iraq in the years after the American invasion of 2003. They fear those Shiite militias — and with good reason. Stories from the largely Sunni city of Tikrit, where militia-led forces defeated Islamic State fighters, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” In the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar, there were reports of ethnic cleansing. Similarly, the mainly Sunni population of the city of Nukhayb, which sits at a strategic crossroad between Sunni and Shiite areas, has accused the militias of taking over while pretending to fight the extremists.
There remains great fear in Sunni-dominated Anbar of massacres and “cleansing” if Shiite militias enter the province in force. In such a situation, there will always be a place for an al-Qaeda, an Islamic State, or some similar movement, no matter how brutal, to defend the beleaguered Sunni population. What everyone in Iraq understands, and apparently almost everyone in America does not, is that the Islamic State is a symptom of civil war, not a standalone threat.
One lingering hope of the Obama administration has no support in Baghdad and so has remained a non-starter: defeating IS by arming Sunni tribes directly in the style of the “Anbar Awakening” movement of the occupation years. Indeed, the central government fears arming them, absent a few token units to keep the Americans quiet. The Shiites know better than most what an insurgency can do to help defeat a larger, better-armed, power.
Yet despite the risk of escalating Iraq’s shadow civil war, the U.S. now is moving to directly arm the Sunnis. Current plans are to import weapons into the newest lilypad base in Anbar and pass them on to local Sunni tribes, whether Baghdad likes that or not (and yes, the break with Baghdad is worth noting). The weapons themselves are as likely to be wielded against Shiite militias as against the Islamic State, assuming they aren’t just handed over to IS fighters.
The loss of equipment to those militants is no small thing. No one talking about sending more new weaponry to Iraq, no matter who the recipient is, should ignore the ease with which Islamic State militants have taken U.S.-supplied heavy weapons. Washington has been forced to direct air strikes against such captured equipment — even as it ships yet more in. In Mosul, some 2,300 Humvees were abandoned to IS fighters in June 2014; more were left to them when Iraqi army forces suddenly fled Ramadi in May. This pattern of supply, capture, and resupply would be comically absurd, had it not turned tragic when some of those Humvees were used by IS as rolling, armored suicide bombs and Washington had to rush AT-4 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi army to destroy them.
The Real Reason Nothing Is Going to Work
The fundamental problem underlying nearly every facet of U.S. policy toward Iraq is that “success,” as defined in Washington, requires all the players to act against their own wills, motivations, and goals in order to achieve U.S. aims. The Sunnis need a protector as they struggle for a political place, if not basic survival, in some new type of Iraq. The Shiite government in Baghdad seeks to conquer and control the Sunni regions. Iran wants to secure Iraq as a client state and use it for easier access to Syria. The Kurds want an independent homeland.
When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter remarked, “What apparently happened [in Ramadi] was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” what he really meant was that the many flavors of forces in Iraq showed no will to fight for America’s goals. In the Washington mind-set, Iraq is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving problems that were either created by or exacerbated by the U.S. in the first place, even as America once again assumes an ever-greater role in that country’s increasingly grim fate.
For America’s “plan” to work, Sunni tribesmen would have to fight Sunnis from the Islamic State in support of a Shiite government that suppressed their peaceful Arab-Spring-style protests, and that, backed by Iran, has been ostracizing, harassing, and murdering them. The Kurds would have to fight for an Iraqi nation-state from which they wish to be independent. It can’t work.
Go back to 2011 and it’s unlikely anyone could have imagined that the same guy who defeated Hillary Clinton and gained the White House based on his opposition to the last Iraq War would send the U.S. tumbling back into that chaotic country. If ever there was an avoidable American crisis, Iraq War 3.0 is it. If ever there was a war, whatever its chosen strategies, in which the U.S. has no hopes of achieving its goals, this is it.
By now, you’re undoubtedly shaking your head and asking, “How did this happen?” Historians will do the same.
Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.
But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.
In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.
Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.
After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.
It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.
It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.
This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.
The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.
In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.
We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.
Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.
Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.
In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics
One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.
While hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Washington and at Camp David last week, Obama faced a hard sell: assuring the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that the United States has an Iran policy that encompasses their security needs.
He also tried to encourage the six countries to work together for their own collective security, but in a way that dovetails with American strategic goals.
It did not work.
Only two of the six GCC nations even bothered to send heads of state. Three of the missing leaders pleaded health issues as their excuses to stay home; Saudi Arabia said its ruler, King Salman, didn’t travel due to humanitarian commitments to Yemen. The Saudi snub in particular reflects the concern, among America’s Sunni Arab allies, that the United States isn’t taking a hard enough stance toward Iran and its proxies.
The Saudis’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is ready to oppose Iranian-proxy forces even as rapprochement moves forward is clearly seen in Yemen. After tamping down the Arab Spring in Sana’a and easing a sympathetic government into power with Saudi support, America militarized Yemen. This approach was intended to be a model for a new “small footprint” strategy, where a compliant local government would be paired with drones and Special Forces to conduct joint strikes against Islamic militants fueled by intelligence from the United States. Obama cited Yemen as a successful example of this strategy as recently as September 2014. Yet the dissolution of that country, and the chaos that followed a tail-between-the-legs evacuation of American diplomats and Special Forces, instead planted an Iranian-supported rebellion on Saudi Arabia’s border.
When Washington did not decisively move to counter Iranian gains in Yemen, the Saudis lashed out in late March of this year. The recent Saudi royal succession, which concentrated power in a smaller circle, may have also put pressure on the new king to act aggressively. Though the Saudi attacks in Yemen are tactically aimed at securing its southern border, strategically they send a message to Iran to step back. They signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia wants Washington to become more engaged in the situation and perhaps use air strikes and covert forces, similar to what it is doing in other parts of the Middle East.
Increasing hostilities, including the Saudi use of American-supplied cluster bombs, forced Obama into that rock-and-a-hard-place that increasingly defines Washington’s policy in the region. He needed to ensure Saudi military action did not bleed over into open conflict with Iran, while demonstrating the United States would stand up for its allies. Obama’s tepid answer — saber rattling in the form of an aircraft carrier moved into the area — seemed to back down the Iranians for now, but said very little about long-term strategy.
The Saudis demonstrated in Yemen what might be called unilateral collective defense; though they could not assemble a robust pan-Arab force and have conducted most of the bombing themselves, they acted with regional assistance in the form of limited air strikes, reconnaissance help and statements of support. This is very much at odds with Washington’s idea of what pan-Arab collective defense should look like. After all, how far can relations with Iran progress — never mind the goal of regional stability — when America’s allies start new wars against Iranian proxies?
No matter who showed up for last week’s conference, Obama could only propose his own version of collective defense, a region-wide missile defense system. This was a significant step down from the NATO-like agreement with the United States the GCC would have prefered. (Stated plans to create an “Arab NATO” are still in process.) Obama included new arms sales to GCC states that, while afraid of Iran, still remain wary of one another. The United States wants to be the glue that holds the arrangement together. That would seem to be an optimistic goal since American glue failed to hold together any substantive pan-Arab force in Iraq and Syria, and tens of billions of dollars in arms sales over the years apparently have not been reassuring enough.
If Washington doesn’t reassure the GCC countries that it will oppose Iran in proxy wars across the region, expect more independent action from America’s allies in the Gulf. America cannot walk away from these countries; oil, long-standing alliances and U.S. strategic facilities and bases housed across the GCC are factors. This may lead to Washington finding itself dragged into any number of fights it does not want, or stuck playing intermediary between the Saudis and Iran, as it is now doing to help broker a short cease-fire in Yemen. Think Syria next, where the Saudis are already working on a deal with Turkey that is at odds with American policy.
Obama and the GCC nations concluded last week’s meetings with little resolved, even as all sides know they must ideally find some resolution ahead of the June 30 deadline for the U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty.
The old order is in flux. Iran is no doubt watching traditional allies snap at each other over its ascendancy with some satisfaction; discord only plays to its advantage. All three sides — the United States, the GCC and the Iranians — are watching the clock. What will be their next moves if time runs out?
The U.S. is running around in circles in the Middle East, patching together coalitions here, acquiring strange bedfellows there, and in location after location trying to figure out who the enemy of its enemy actually is. The result is just what you’d expect: chaos further undermining whatever’s left of the nations whose frailty birthed the jihadism America is trying to squash.
And in a classic tale of unintended consequences, just about every time Washington has committed another blunder in the Middle East, Iran has stepped in to take advantage. Consider that country the rising power in the region and credit American clumsiness for the new Iranian ascendancy.
Today’s News — and Some History
The U.S. recently concluded air strikes in support of the Iraqi militias that Iran favors as they took back the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Washington began supplying intelligence and aerial refueling on demand for a Saudi bombing campaign against the militias Iran favors in Yemen. Iran continues to advise and assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would still like to depose and, as part of its Syrian strategy, continues to supply and direct Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group the U.S. considers a terror outfit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has successfully negotiated the outlines of an agreement with Iran in which progress on severely constricting its nuclear program would be traded for an eventual lifting of sanctions and the granting of diplomatic recognition. This is sure to further bolster Tehran’s status as a regional power, while weakening long-time American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.
A clever pundit could undoubtedly paint all of the above as a realpolitik ballet on Washington’s part, but the truth seems so much simpler and more painful. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. policy in the region has combined confusion on an immense scale with awkward bursts of ill-coordinated and exceedingly short-term acts of expediency. The country that has most benefited is Iran. No place illustrates this better than Iraq.
Iraq Redux (Yet Again)
On April 9, 2003, just over 12 years ago, U.S. troops pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolically marking what George W. Bush hoped was the beginning of a campaign to remake the Middle East in America’s image by bringing not just Iraq but Syria and Iran to heel. And there can be no question that the invasion of Iraq did indeed set events in motion that are still remaking the region in ways once unimaginable.
In the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Arab Spring blossomed and failed. (The recent Obama administration decision to resume arms exports to the military government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt could be considered its coup de grâce.) Today, fighting ripples through Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, and other parts of the Greater Middle East. Terrorists attack in once relatively peaceful places like Tunisia. There is now a de facto independent Kurdistan — last a reality in the sixteenth century — that includes the city of Kirkuk. Previously stable countries have become roiling failed states and home to terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the U.S. military rolled across the Iraqi border in 2003.
And, of course, 12 years later in Iraq itself the fighting roars on. Who now remembers President Obama declaring victory in 2011 and praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but as with Vietnam decades earlier, the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for the dream of a successful Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.
You know what happened next. Unlike in Vietnam, Washington did go back, quickly turning a humanitarian gesture in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people from destruction at the hands of the Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 62 nations was formed. (Where are they all now while the U.S. conducts 85% of all air strikes against IS?) The tap on a massive arms flow was turned on. The architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq and a leaker of top secret documents, retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus, was brought back in for advice. Twenty-four-seven bombing became the order of the day and several thousand U.S. military advisors returned to familiar bases to retrain some part of an American-created army that had only recently collapsed and abandoned four key northern cities to Islamic State militants. Iraq War 3.0 was officially underway and many pundits — including me — predicted a steady escalation with the usual quagmire to follow.
Such a result can hardly be ruled out yet, but at the moment it’s as if Barack Obama had stepped to the edge of the Iraqi abyss, peered over, and then shrugged his shoulders. Both his administration and the U.S. military appear content for the moment neither to pull back nor press harder.
The American people seem to feel much the same way. Except in the Republican Congress (and even there in less shrill form than usual), there are few calls for… well, anything. The ongoing air strikes remain “surgical” in domestic politics, if not in Iraq and Syria. Hardly noticed and little reported on here, they have had next to no effect on Americans. Yet they remain sufficient to assure the right wing that the American military is still the best tool to solve problems abroad, while encouraging liberals who want to show that they can be as tough as anyone going into 2016.
At first glance, the American version of Iraq War 3.0 has the feel of the Libyan air intervention — the same lack of concern, that is, for the long game. But Iraq 2015 is no Libya 2011, because this time while America sits back, Iran rises.
The Middle East was ripe for change. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last major transformational event in the area was the fall of that classic American stooge, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. Otherwise, many of the thug regimes in power since the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, had stayed in place, and so had most of the borders set even earlier, in the aftermath of World War I.
Iran should send America a fruit basket to thank it for setting the stage so perfectly for its ascent. As a start, in 2003 the United States eliminated Iran’s major border threats: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the west and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the east. (The Taliban are back of course, but diligently focused on America’s puppet Afghan government.) The long slog of Washington’s wars in both those countries dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for yet more of the same, and cooled off Bush-era plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. (After all, if even Vice President Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran before leaving office in 2008, who in 2015 America is going to do so?)
Better yet for the Iranians, when Saddam was hanged in 2006, they not only lost an enemy who had invaded their country in 1980, launching a bitter war against them that didn’t end for eight years, but gained an ally in the new Iraq. As U.S. influence withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi elections to produce a broadly representative government, Iran stepped in to broker a thoroughly partisan settlement leading to a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad bent on ensuring that the country’s minority Sunni population would remain out of power forever. The Obama administration seemed nearly oblivious to Iran’s gains in Iraq in 2010 — and seems so again in 2015.
Iran in Iraq
In Tikrit, Iranian-led Shia forces recently drove the Islamic State from the city. In charge was Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Qods Force (a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), who had previously led the brutally effective efforts of Iranian special forces against U.S. soldiers in Iraq War 2.0. He returned to that country and assembled his own coalition of Shia militias to take Tikrit. All of them have long benefited from Iranian support, as has the increasingly Shia-dominated Iraqi army.
In addition, the Iranians seem to have brought in their own tanks and possibly even ground troops for the assault on the city. They also moved advanced rocket systems into Iraq, the same weapons Hamas has used against Israel in recent conflicts.
Only one thing was lacking: air power. After much hemming and hawing, when it looked like the assault on Tikrit had been blunted by well-dug-in Islamic State fighters in a heavily booby-trapped city, the Obama administration agreed to provide it.
On the U.S. side, the air of desperation around the decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit was palpable. You could feel it, for instance, in this statement by a Pentagon spokesperson almost pleading for the Iraqi government to favor Washington over Tehran: “I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against IS. Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition.”
Imagine if you had told an American soldier — or general — leaving Iraq in 2011 that, just a few years later in the country where he or she had watched friends die, the U.S. would be serving as Iran’s close air support. Imagine if you had told him that Washington would be helping some of the same Shia militias who planted IEDs to kill Americans go after Sunnis — and essentially begging for the chance to do so. Who would’ve thunk it?
The Limits of Air Power 101
The White House no doubt imagined that U.S. bombs would be seen as the decisive factor in Tikrit and that the sectarian government in Baghdad would naturally come to… What? Like us better than the Iranians?
Bizarre as such a “strategy” might seem on the face of it, it has proven even stranger in practice. The biggest problem with air power is that, while it’s good at breaking things, it isn’t decisive. It cannot determine who moves into the governor’s mansion after the dust settles. Only ground forces can do that, so a victory over the Islamic State in Tikrit, no matter what role air strikes played, can only further empower those Iranian-backed Shia militias. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that this is the nature of air power, which makes it all the more surprising that American strategists seem so blind to it.
As for liking Washington better for its helping hand, there are few signs of that. Baghdad officials have largely been silent on America’s contribution, praising only the “air coverage of the Iraqi air force and the international coalition.” Shia militia forces on the ground have been angered by and scornful of the United States for — as they see it — interfering in their efforts to take Tikrit on their own.
The victory in that city will only increase the government’s reliance on the militias, whom Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now refers to as “popular volunteers,” rather than the still-limited number of soldiers the Americans have so far been capable of training. (The Pentagon might, by the way, want to see if Iran can pass along any training tips, as their militias, unlike the American-backed Iraqi army, seem to be doing just fine.) That also means that the government will have no choice but to tolerate the Shia militia atrocities and acts of ethnic cleansing that have already taken place in Sunni Tikrit and will surely follow in any other Sunni areas similarly “liberated.” Claims coming out of Washington that the U.S. will be carefully monitoring the acts of Iraqi forces ring increasingly hollow.
What Tikrit has, in fact, done is solidify Iran’s influence over Prime Minister al-Abadi, currently little more than the acting mayor of Baghdad, who claimed the victory in Tikrit as a way to increase his own prestige. The win also allows his Shia-run government to seize control of the ruins of that previously Sunni enclave. And no one should miss the obvious symbolism that lies in the fact that the first major city retaken from the Islamic State in a Sunni area is also the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
The best the Obama administration can do is watch helplessly as Tehran and Baghdad take their bows. A template has been created for a future in which other Sunni areas, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and Sunni cities in Anbar Province will be similarly retaken, perhaps with the help of American air power but almost certainly with little credit to Washington.
Iran in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen
Tehran is now playing a similarly important role in other places where U.S. policy stumbles have left voids, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In Syria, Iranian forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Qods Force, and their intelligence services, advise and assist Bashar al-Assad’s military. They also support Hezbollah elements from Lebanon fighting on Assad’s side. At best, Washington is again playing second fiddle, using its air power against the Islamic State and training “moderate” Syrian fighters, the first of whom refused to even show up for their initial battle.
In Yemen, a U.S.-supported regime, backed by Special Forces advisers and a full-scale drone targeted assassination campaign, recently crumbled. The American Embassy was evacuated in February, the last of those advisers in March. The takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and later significant parts of the rest of the country by the Houthis, a rebel Shiite minority group, represents, in the words of one Foreign Policy writer, “a huge victory for Iran… the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos.”
The panicked Saudis promptly intervened and were quickly backed by the Obama administration’s insertion of the United States in yet another conflict by executive order. Relentless Saudi air strikes (perhaps using some of the $640 million worth of cluster bombs the U.S. sold them last year) are supported by yet another coalition, this time of Sudan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni powers in the region. The threat of an invasion, possibly using Egyptian troops, looms. The Iranians have moved ships into the area in response to a Saudi naval blockade of Yemen.
No matter what happens, Iran will be strengthened. Either it will find itself in a client relationship with a Houthi movement that has advanced to the Saudi border or, should they be driven back, a chaotic state in Yemen with an ever-strengthening al-Qaeda offshoot. Either outcome would undoubtedly discombobulate the Saudis (and the Americans) and so sit well with Iran.
To make things even livelier in a fragmenting region, Sunni rebels infiltrating from neighboring Pakistan recently killed eight Iranian border guards. This probably represented a retaliatory attack in response to an earlier skirmish in which Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed three suspected Pakistani Sunni militants. Once started, fires do tend to spread.
For those keeping score at home, the Iranians now hold significant positions in three Middle Eastern countries (or at least fragments of former countries) in addition to Iraq.
Iran Ascending and the Nuclear Question
Iran is well positioned to ascend. Geopolitically, alone in the region it is a nation that has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically stable and religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, Iran has seen evolving democratic electoral transitions at the secular level. Politically, history is on Iran’s side. If you set aside the 1953 CIA-backed coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the U.S.-backed Shah in power for a quarter of a century, Iran has sorted out its governance on its own for some time.
Somehow, despite decades of sanctions, Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, has managed to hold its economy together, selling what oil it can primarily to Asia. It is ready to sell more oil as soon as sanctions lift. It has a decent conventional military by local standards. Its young reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. Unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one — 36 years ago.
Recently, the U.S., Iran, and the P5 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) reached a preliminary agreement to significantly constrain that country’s nuclear program and lift sanctions. It appears that both the Obama administration and Tehran are eager to turn it into an official document by the end of June. A deal isn’t a deal until signed on the dotted line, and the congressional Republicans are sharpening their knives, but the intent is clearly there.
To keep the talks on track, by the end of June the Obama administration will have released to the Islamic Republic a total of $11.9 billion in previously frozen assets, dating back to the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In addition to the straight-up flood of cash, the U.S. agreed that Iran may sell $4.2 billion worth of oil, free from any sanctions. The U.S. will also allow Iran approximately $1.5 billion in gold sales, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.” Put another way, someone in Washington wanted this badly enough to pay for it.
For President Obama and his advisers, this agreement is clearly a late grasp (or perhaps last gasp) at legacy building, and maybe even a guilty stab at justifying that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The urge to etch some kind of foreign policy success into future history books that, at the moment, threaten to be grim reading is easy enough to understand. So it should have surprised no one that John Kerry, Obama’s once globetrotting secretary of state, basically took up residence in Switzerland to negotiate with the Iranians. He sat at the table in Lausanne bargaining while Tikrit burned, Syria simmered, his country was chased out of Yemen, and the Saudis launched their own war in that beleaguered country. That he had hardly a word to say about any of those events, or much of anything else going on in the world at the time, is an indication of just how much value the Obama administration puts on those nuclear negotiations.
For the Iranians, trading progress on developing nuclear weapons for the full-scale lifting of sanctions was an attractive offer. After all, its leaders know that the country could never go fully nuclear without ensuring devastating Israeli strikes, and so lost little with the present agreement while gaining much. Being accepted as a peer by Washington in such negotiations only further establishes their country’s status as a regional power. Moreover, a nuclear agreement that widens any rift between the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis plays to Tehran’s new strength. Finally, the stronger economy likely to blossom once sanctions are lifted will offer the nation the possibility of new revenues and renewed foreign investment. (It’s easy to imagine Chinese businesspeople on Orbitz making air reservations as you read this.) The big winner in the nuclear deal is not difficult to suss out.
What Lies Ahead
In these last months, despite the angry, fearful cries and demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudi royals, and neo- and other conservatives in Congress, Iran has shown few signs of aspiring to the sort of self-destruction going nuclear would entail. (If Iran had created a bomb every time Netanyahu claimed they were on the verge of having one in the past two decades, Tehran would be littered with them.) In fact, trading mushroom clouds with Israel and possibly the U.S. never looked like an appealing goal to the Iranian leadership. Instead, they preferred to seek a more conventional kind of influence throughout the Middle East. They were hardly alone in that, but their success has been singular in the region in these years.
The U.S. provided free tutorials in Afghanistan and Iraq on why actually occupying territory in the neighborhood isn’t the road to such influence. Iran’s leaders have not ignored the advice. Instead, Iran’s rise has been stoked by a collection of client states, aligned governments, sympathetic and/or beholden militias, and — when all else fails — chaotic non-states that promise less trouble and harm to Tehran than to its various potential enemies.
Despite Iran’s gains, the U.S. will still be the biggest kid on the block for years, possibly decades, to come. One hopes that America will not use that military and economic strength to lash out at the new regional power it inadvertently helped midwife. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a great irony, a great tragedy, and a damn waste of American blood and resources.
“The card was from Lesotho, a country I learned which was one of them African nations you never hear about. The Lesothoians wrote ‘Thanks for Not Invading Us’ and claimed to be one of the last places on earth that had not been invaded by the United States, either on foot or by drone or via our sneaky Pete special forces. Got me to thinking, so I called up Barack. We talk from time to time, usually when he can’t find something around the White House and needs my help.”
“It was George’s call that made me get out the map,” said Obama. “I didn’t want to bother the Joint Chiefs, and the CIA was tied up with new prisoners, so I just used one of Sasha’s from school. Turns out George was right, there was a country called Lesotho– it was even on Wikipedia— and as best I could tell the U.S. had not ever invaded it. I made a quick call to the Pentagon and they said they weren’t sure if it was a country, but they were sure we had not invaded it. The guy over there asked me if I wanted to invade it, he’d get things started, but I said I’d want to think about it.”
“So Barack called me back, and as we were talking we realized between the two of us we had invaded, droned, sent Special Forces, set up secret prisons, had CIA sites and what have you just about everywhere else in the world. You know, there after 9/11 I kinda let Dick Cheney run things for awhile, and he may have done a lot of it but darn it, it turns out I signed off on a bunch of them myself. You don’t think of it as you do them one-by-one but over time the countries really add up.”
“Once I started making my own list,” continued Obama, “it was damn near everywhere.”
“Everywhere,” said Bush, “‘Cept maybe that Lesotho place.”
“I was faced with a real quandary,” continued Obama. “But then George and I got to talking.”
“Turns out,” said Bush, “between the two of us we had damn near bankrupted the U.S. with wars every freaking place, but Lesotho. I logged on my secret worldwide cabal account, and sure enough, almost all of the U.S. tax money had been transferred into my Rothschild MegaFund, in Chinese currency no less. Since I was online anyway– damn AOL account is so slow and I hate that modem sound– I started reading these ‘blogs’ and message boards and it turns out most people around the world hate the U.S. Nobody told me.”
“George was right. The Secret Service doesn’t let me get online much, but I kept this kinda secret account from Michele running off Hillary’s old server she said she didn’t need anymore, so I could, um, look at, um, nature photography sites, and people really did hate us. Pretty much everyone except Lesotho.”
“So me and Barack put two and two together. We made a list of all the places the U.S. had messed up since 9/11 and then sent a note to the Pentagon and Langley recalling every soldier, spook, analyst, torturer, diplomat and all the rest. Everybody– just brought them all back to the U.S. in one awesome Executive Order.”
“Should I tell him George?”
“Nah, it’s a surprise… oh hell, go ahead Barack.”
“We didn’t recall any Americans. I just ordered a nuke strike on Lesotho. April Fool!”
Claiming the change is a “one and done” strategy, everybody in the Government of the United States today declared that sharia law would now control most of Americans’ lives.
“When you think about it, we were basically already there,” said former State Department spokesdrone Jen Psaki, wearing a hijab as she briefed reporters in her new role as Iman of Total Bullsh*t. “This is really just a minor administrative change.”
Effective immediately, pretty much the laws of Indiana will now govern the other 49 states. Under a new interpretation of “religious freedom” as well as a novel application of the Second Amendment, white, straight, Christian Americans may stone to death anyone they do not like (aka, “infidels.”) “That’s right Believers,” continued Psaki, “you can legally now march down to the local gay bar, synagogue or that place the black guys hang out in the parking lot, and throw rocks at them until they are dead. In fact, it is kind of a new obligation of citizenship!”
“You may also smite them, or cause their garments to rend,” added Psaki.
States with the death penalty breathed a sigh of relief. “We were down to our last fifth of lethal drug cocktail here in Texas, and frankly, weren’t sure how we were gonna be able to execute the 10 or 12 completely innocent people of color we have now on death row. So this sharia law thing is a real life saver for us!” claimed one Texan prison warden whilst pleasuring himself at the thought.
The phrase “right to life” has also been reconfigured to mean “right to be a white person of the ‘right’ religion.” Initially many Republican lawmakers wanted to limit this to males, and in some cases, young, hairless males who are into “exploring,” but after the basic facts of life were explained to them, the Republicans reluctantly expanded partial rights to white women, as well as “a few hot Asian babes” at the insistence of Vice President Joe Biden.
In a last minute amendment to the “It’s Not Sharia Law, So You Don’t Need to Read This Whole Thing Before You Vote on It” bill that created sharia law in the U.S., Once-and-Future Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton was declared an honorary male for statistical purposes.
One part of sharia that will not be implemented in the United States is fasting. “Traditional sharia includes a lot of fasting,” said spokes-iman Psaki. “Obviously this will not work in America. Yes, we were lobbied hard by the fast food industry; and hey, if the Dunkin’ Donuts guys are listening, thanks for the Lard Lad cream-filled! But at the end of the day, America was not going to give up the obesity crown to the Russians. Some things are sacred.”
Reached while praying to the God of the Underworld and All Things UnHoly, Satan, President Barack Obama chuckled. “For years those boneheads have been calling me a Muslim when I actually worship the Dark Lord. And still none of them saw this sharia law sh*t coming! LMAO! I’m so outta here in about a year and a half, bitches.”
The new $20 bills, with Bill O’Reilly’s face on the front, should be entering circulation as you read this. Inshallah!
Hot on the high heels of the Clinton email atrocity, where one individual determined for her own campaign and indeed for all of history which parts of her work as a taxpayer-paid government official would be forever sent down the Memory Hole, the White House announced it is deleting a federal regulation that subjects its Office of Administration to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), making official an unofficial policy under Presidents Bush and Obama to simply reject requests for records to that office.
And in case you proles still have not got it, the White House announcement comes in the middle of “Sunshine Week,” an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information.
And in case you proles really still have not gotten the message, the White House made the announcement on March 17, National Freedom of Information Day.
And in case you proles really, really still have not gotten the message, the Office of Administration handles, among other things, White House record-keeping duties like the archiving of emails and White House visitor logs. The impact of this action is thus significant — the public will have no means to seek disclosure of what is written inside the White House among public servants nor information on who visits the White House.
The White House said the “cleanup” of FOIA regulations is consistent with court rulings which hold that the office is not subject to the transparency laws such as FOIA. The government’s senior adviser for Open Government defended the policy by citing multiple instances of transparency.
The defense is more Newspeak. The problem with those “multiple instances” is that they were all voluntary, the release of information the government wished to release. The key to the Freedom of Information Act was that it could once compel the government to release information it did not otherwise want to release. That now, in Post Constitutional America, is gone.
Get it now?
But hey, did you know we won the war in Afghanistan this past weekend? Or, at least we ended the war in Afghanistan this weekend? It is true. America’s longest war, clocking in at more than 13 years, (fun fact: the U.S. involvement in WWII, when we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese, only lasted three and a half years), is over.
Live from Hawaii
Seriously. While you were eating your Christmas roast beast, Your President was in Hawaii. From that forward deployment, Obama announced that “thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion… We are safer, and our nation is more secure, because of their service. [We] have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country’s history.”
USA! USA! USA!
Now, there is no journalism without fact-checking, so let’s dig in on the president’s statement. Afghanistan no longer is under threat from the Taliban, and all terrorism has been taken care of. Instead of an economy based on corruption, smuggling and opium production, Afghanistan is a thriving consumer society. Women walk the streets in mini-skirts, and elections happen without incident. An American can stroll among Kabul’s cafes and quaint bazaars with his head held high and his safety guaranteed by grateful Afghans. America and its allies’ investment of over 3,400 lives and four trillion dollars has paid off. Also, all the dead Afghans, whatever.
Oh, wait, none of that is true.
It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over
And for a war that is over, the U.S. has over 10,000 troops stationed and still fighting in Afghanistan under a legacy defined as a “transition from a combat mission to a ‘noncombat mission in a combat environment’ with a definition that “remains as unclear as Afghanistan’s future.”
The Taliban have obviously not heard all the good news out of Hawaii. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid characterized a hand-over event in Kabul as a “defeat ceremony” and added “We will fight until there is not one foreign soldier on Afghan soil and we have established an Islamic state.”
Despite such gloom, it is obvious that America’s accomplishments in Afghanistan rank alongside its accomplishments in Iraq.
“The time has come to act,” said President Obama today after previously asserting robustly that it was previously not the time to act. “And so, I have ordered airstrikes commencing immediately on ebola. We won’t stop until we have degraded, some other d-word I forgot and ultimately destroyed ebola.”
A White House source named Susan Rice, who asked not to be named because everytime she speaks on the record bad things happen to her, told members of the press Obama made the decision after conferring long into the night with his closest advisor, himself. “Barack told me that when times are tough you go with what you know, and for every crisis since near day one of this presidency, when something went wrong overseas our go-to response has been airstrikes. Libya, Iraq, Syria, wherever. OK, maybe not Benghazi. So, once we saw this piece last night on Colbert saying ebola was sort of a problem, the president ordered the attacks.”
“Not a big deal anymore really, we have an online form for it now he just fills out. Hit submit and boom, death from above b*itches! God I love it so!” said Ambassador Rice, drooling, as she was led from the room to be put down.
When asked how airstrikes would be able to defeat a virus, a White House spokesperson was quick to respond “Why’d you even ask that question– don’t you support the troops? We have been using airstrikes to defeat an idea, terrorism, and that’s worked out. I am told by experts– top men– that a virus is actually physically larger than an idea, so this should be a walk in the park for our brave military personnel.”
Other measures the president has undertaken include carpet bombing the city of Dallas, where America’s two indigenous ebola cases began. “At first I was kinda worried about dropping napalm on American folks,” said the president in an exclusive interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who repeatedly licked the soles of the chief executive’s feet during the session. “But you know, pretty much no other folks outside Texas give a crap what happens to Texas folks, so it seems to have worked out. And it’s not like the state was going to vote Democrat anyway.” Obama pointed to his own eyes, then out the window, saying aloud “I’m watching you Missouri. Clean up that Ferguson thing or we just might find us some ebola in the ash tray of your car and have to clean it up with a couple of smart bombs, ya’ hear?”
Several doctors contacted for comment expressed skepticism about the president’s plan to bomb ebola, but admitted if they could not get their own professional health staff to wash their hands and stop getting on airplanes after caring for infected patients, well, why not try it his way.
Military leaders, reached in bunkers just outside Baghdad where they were placing bets on whether they would die next week at the hands of an ISIS assault or the Iraqi Army mishandling its own weapons, simply sighed and reminded this reporter that “when that ebola thing goes south like this stupid motherf*cker of a war will, don’t you blame us.”
The ebola virus was last seen dancing a merry jig, laughing to itself about how easy it was to draw the U.S. deeper into its quagmire. “Excellent, excellent,” it was heard to mutter.
While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.
The Korean Central News Agency Schools You
North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.
So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:
Model for Human Rights
As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See “a shining city on a hill” claims by presidents from Obama back]
Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]
At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]
The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]
The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low– the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]
All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here’s a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]
The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don’t make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]
Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here’s the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here’s one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]
The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]
Hail to the Chief
Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.
About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.
Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.
(Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)
(North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)
1) “Inclusive” Government
A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.
The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.
2) For-Show Sunnis
Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.
Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.
Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.
One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.
Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.
Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.
Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.
5) U.S. Bombing
More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.
More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.
Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.
6) That Coalition
If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.
Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.
Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.
But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.
Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.
While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.
What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.
“Dude, I grew up on the classic U.S. sound, you remember, democracy, equality, promotion of freedom. My favorite was ‘The Peace Corps,’ but ‘We Won’t Invade You This Month’ got me through some rough times in college. But this new stuff, meh,” said one long-time fan, sweeping aside his gray ponytail.
“We Will Bomb You, Because” opened big inside the United States, where the United States still enjoys a steady following. A recent track, “Who Cares What You Think, Featuring al Qaeda,” saw over one million downloads its first week alone. “The addition of al Qaeda to the tune pumped new life into an old franchise,” stated Rolling Stone in its review, “but subsequent attempts to roll in ISIS and Khorasan just did not work when al Qaeda balked at joining the U.S. in touring the new material. “Just isn’t the same,” said Stone. “America has gone to the well too many times with the same material. They’re just phoning this new wave of terror stuff in.”
When reached for comment, lead singer of the United States Barack Yeezus Obama remained hopeful. “Any time the group moves in a new direction, you risk losing some old time fans. We saw that just after we dropped the “NSA” album. But many times the old timers just give up and come to reluctantly accept what you are shoveling out, and of course new material also brings in new fans.”
“For example,” chimed in backup singer George The W Bush, “look at what happened with our seminal ‘It’s 9/11, Bitch’ multi-platinum work. Not only did we rope in millions and millions of fans worldwide, but after sales tapered off following the disastrous Iraq tour, our old fans sucked it up and started taking their shoes off at the airport without a complaint. We even spun off the mega-platinum group DHS from all that. And when a small group of former fans started making too many negative comments online, we just had them tortured and imprisoned indefinitely. Let’s see Beyonce do that.”
“And,” said Obama hopefully, “the recent tours in Yemen and Somalia have been huge successes. We have high hopes for Syria and the new material as well. We da’ bomb ya’all!”
The band also acknowledged the growing popularity of long-time rival group Iran, but shrugged off any notion that the United States would not continue to dominate the market in the long-run.
A spokesperson for the United States did quietly add that the group is not totally unaware of its falling image abroad. She hinted that the current tour will work in additional classic material, and a greatest hits collection will be out in time for Christmas. The United States plans also to donate a percentage of sales to the Wounded Warrior charity.
“You gotta give back,” said the spokesperson.
Barack Obama told Americans every worker deserves to know “if you lose your job, your country will help you train for an even better one.” A nice sentiment,and politically safe; it’s just the wrong answer. Those “better jobs” don’t exist, and training doesn’t create jobs. Despite all that, every year the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on job training, with little impact. What’s the right answer?
In 2007 then-candidate Obama visited Janesville, Wisconsin, location of the oldest General Motors plant in America. Echoing his current promise to support unemployed Americans with job training, Obama proclaimed “I believe that, if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years.” However, two days before Christmas and just about a month before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because most residents either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. Congress paid for a $2 million retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools, a century ago, to teach new immigrants the skills they needed to work at GM.
This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs for the most part simply became trained unemployed people, rather than untrained ones. Having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” or training in new welding techniques did not automatically lead to a job in those fields. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees (the United States graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014.) Of those that completed some form of training, nearly 40 percent did not find work. And those in Janesville who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36 percent. A look at Craigslist job ads for the town shows one ad for heating and ventilation work, with a demand for three years experience. Under “General Labor” the work is for janitors, newspaper delivery and things like light manufacturing at $8.50 an hour.
Obama’s calls for job training also belies the fact that the government already spends approximately $18 billion a year to administer 47 job training programs. The actual value of those programs remains unclear. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only five programs assessed whether people who found jobs did so because of the program and not some other cause. In addition, the GAO learned that almost all training programs overlap with at least one other training program. “Federal job training sounds like something that should boost the economy,” writes the Cato Institute, “but five decades of experience indicate otherwise.”
The panacea myth of job training crosses party lines. The GAO reported that in 2003, under the George W. Bush administration, the government spent $13 billion on training, spread across 44 programs. Job training may again be on the GOP agenda, even if the parties differ on the details. Politically, some sort of job training just sounds good. The problem is that it won’t really help America’s 10.5 million unemployed.
So the $18 billion question is: if training is not the answer, what is?
Jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage. The 2008 recession wiped out primarily high and middle wage jobs, with the strongest employment growth in the recovery taking place in low wage employment, to the point where the United States has the highest number of workers in low wage jobs of all industrialized nations.
There are many possible paths to better-paying jobs in America whose spending power can spark a “virtuous cycle.” That would mean more employment leading to more spending and more demand, followed by more hiring. One kickstarter is simply higher wages in the jobs we do have. For example, recent Department of Labor studies show that the 13 states which raised their minimum wages added jobs (at higher wages of course) at a faster pace than those that did not. On a larger, albeit more contentious scale, are options such as a WPA-like program, changes to tax and import laws to promote domestic manufacturing, infrastructure grants and the like. There’s $18 billion to work with for a start.
No matter the path forward, the bottom line remains unchanged: Training does not create jobs. Jobs create the need for training. Anything else is just politics.
Meanwhile, 71 percent of Americans now support airstrikes in Iraq, and 65 percent in Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that the formation of a new Iraqi government was “a major milestone” for the country.
Kerry told reporters at the State Department that the government formed on Monday in Baghdad had “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq, a united Iraq and give those communities a chance to build a future that all Iraqis desire.”
Kerry did not mention that divisive former Prime Minister Maliki, who was Washington’s man in Baghdad since 2006 tasked with uniting Iraq, stays on in the new government as Vice President. Kerry also did not mention that the job of uniting Iraq has been on various U.S.-supported Prime Ministers’ and other Iraqi officials’ to-do lists since 2003, never mind the eventual point of the nine year American Occupation and 4600 American deaths.
But Kerry did say the week’s events are a major milestone. That’s the same as the turning point so often mentioned before about Iraq, right? Let’s look back:
“This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003
“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003
“That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004
“Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004
“A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004
“Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004
“Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005
“The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005
“On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005
“I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005
“The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005
“2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005
“We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006
“We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006
“This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006
“When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006
“Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007
“This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007
“Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008
“The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008
“Iraq’s ‘Milestone’ Day Marred by Fatal Blast,” Washington Post, July 2009
“Iraq vote “an important milestone,” Obama, March 2010
“Iraq Withdrawal Signals New Phase, But War is Not Over,” ABC News, August 2010
“Why the Iraq milestone matters,” Foreign Policy, August 2010
“Iraq Milestone No Thanks to Obama,” McCain, September 2010
“Hails Iraq ‘milestone’ after power-sharing deal, ” Obama, November 2010
“Week’s event marks a major milestone for Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012
“National elections ‘important milestone’ for Iraq,” Ban Ki Moon, April 2014
“Iraq PM nomination ‘key milestone,'” Joe Biden, August 2014
Obama said a week ago he did not have a strategy to combat ISIS, and that now he does. He was right the first time.
The United States ignored ISIS for months. Then out of nowhere a complex situation morphed into a struggle to save the Yazidis from so-called genocide, requiring special forces and air strikes. The Yazidis disappeared from view, perhaps saved, certainly no longer needed as an emotional excuse to re-enter a war we had been told ended for America in 2011.
ISIS beheaded journalist James Foley’s and another tail wagged its dog as surveillance flights commenced over Syria. It was a year ago that Obama asked Congress to approve air strikes there. They didn’t, largely in reply to a war-weary public. With the the subsequent beheading of another American journalist, an attack is back on deck.
So finally action to dethrone Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, himself once accused of near-genocide by the United States? No. Now as we fight ISIS together, Assad has been rebranded. The issue of how action against ISIS will only strengthen Assad is set aside. Assad is supported by the Russians, whose interests in Syria are thus tacitly upheld by Washington even as a mini-Cold War rises in the Ukraine from the ashes of the last great struggle the United States claimed to have won.
In Libya, site of a much-trumpeted Obama-Clinton lite-war success once upon a time, Islamic militants took over the abandoned American embassy and published photos of themselves swimming in the mission’s pool.
The United States issued Maliki’s replacement the same to-do list the United States issued Maliki since 2006– unite Iraq, and make it snappy, even as more troops are sent in. The blind man in the dark search for moderate Sunnis in Iraq to create a political solution will likely work out as well as it has in Syria. Iran, who won the 2003-2011 Iraq War with the installation of a pro-Tehran Shia government in Baghdad, is holding on to its victory, now with United States air power on its side.
Only a few weeks ago the United States feared the Kurds might take advantage of the chaos in Iraq and declare themselves an independent nation. One strategy to forestall this was to choke off “illegal” Kurdish oil exports (on paper, Iraq’s oil profits are shared among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, though the Shia government in Baghdad has not fairly divided the money.) In July, a court decision in Texas led to United States Marshals seizing $100 million worth of Kurdish crude. The Kurds are presently in such need of United States military help that they have shut up (for now) about independence. So, on August 25, the Texas court threw out the seizure order so as to allow the oil to be delivered. The Kurds also appear to have resumed direct oil sales to Israel. Independent sales weaken the central Baghdad government the United States claims to support, strengthen de facto Kurdish independence the United States does not want, and create a model for a someday autonomous Sunni state that learns to manipulate its own limited oil reserves.
Ahead is a United States-brokered linking of Iraqi Kurd fighters with Syrian Kurd fighters, aimed at ISIS. This is of great concern to NATO-ally Turkey, who fears a pan-national Kurdish state.
Lastly, there are all those weapons the United States continues to scatter into the conflict. The fact that many of the current air strikes into Iraq are aimed at our own military equipment previously given to the Iraqi Army might in itself give pause to sending over more stuff. The shoulder-fired anti-air missiles ISIS captured inside Syria to use against American warplanes may have been slipped into “moderate” Syrian hands by the CIA, or were just picked up on the open market as weapons flooded out in the post-Qaddafi chaos the United States midwifed in Libya.
Digging It Deeper
Grasping at expediency is not a policy. Shifting to the greater-evil-of-the-day is a downward spiral. Not being able to articulate an end-game is a poor start. Obama did not create all these problems, but he certainly has done his part to make them worse.
A canon of diplomacy is that nations act in their own self-interest. America is once again exceptional, as the Obama Doctrine for foreign policy reveals itself: There is no hole that can’t be dug deeper.
For if Iran is the 500 pound gorilla in the room with Iraq, it is the 800 pound monster in the Middle East. No real stability can be achieved without Iran. It is time for the president to go to Tehran.
Boots on the Ground
For all the talk about boots on the ground for America’s air offensive in Iraq and Syria, Obama ignored the ground truth: Iranian forces are already there. The Iranians also command enough attention in Baghdad to significantly enable or stall filling the cabinet positions of Defense and Interior (Maliki held both portfolios personally) that are key components of any sort of “inclusive” government. Tehran’s real advantage? Everyone in Iraq remembers it is the Iranians who never really withdrew after 2011.
The Iranians truly understand the cross-border nature of the Middle East. An Iran that works closely with America will yield some version of stability in Iraq, affect the war in Syria (Iran, through its many proxies, including Hezbollah, has supported Assad by fighting his Sunni rebel enemies, moderate and radical alike), perhaps reduce pressure on Israel, and could calm the entire region by acting less bellicose toward a less bellicose United States. This would enable the comprehensive actions needed in the Middle East to slam shut the doors the United States blew open in 2003. Obama’s Iraq plan has already failed in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia to produce any but the most fleeting “successes.” The Brits and Germans won’t fight in Syria, and Turkey is reluctant to go in deeper, weakening any talk of coalitions. As Obama becomes the fourth president in a row to order war in Iraq, a new solution is needed.
Obama Should Go to Tehran
There is little to lose. After the midterms, he will be a true lame duck. Candidates can run against his failure, or bask in his success. With a dramatic gesture, Obama can start the process of re-balancing the Middle East. Too many genies are out of the bottle to put things back where they were.
Tough realities will need to be acknowledged regarding nukes. Having watched America’s serial wars across the region, and the sort of odd deference shown to North Korea after it went nuclear, the Iranians will never back away completely. Tehran also watched closely what happened in Libya. Qaddafi gave up his nukes and ended up dead, while the Secretary of State laughed about it on TV. Obama cannot move forward without accepting that he cannot paint himself into a corner over Persian nukes. Israel has had the Bomb for a long time without creating a Middle East arms race. Let the Iranians stay comfortable, albeit in the threshold stage of nuclear weaponry.
To begin, follow the China model — set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Offer to bring Iran into the world system, slowly, and see if they don’t follow. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with. Iran has reasons to play. Regional stability can benefit its own goals. Removal of sanctions can grow its economy, and allow it to sell oil in global markets. Calmer borders allow Iran to focus limited resources on domestic problems.
Change in Iran, like anywhere, has to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonald’s. Despite some tough talk aimed at both sides’ domestic constituencies, America and China are trading partners, and have shared interests in regional stability. In a way, as China was to the Soviet Union, Iran can counter-balance undue Saudi influence on American actions. There will be friction, but it can be managed, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.”
Islamic nationalism is a powerful force in the Middle East, and the defining mover of world events in our time. It is not going away. American attempts to create “good” governments failed in the Middle East. The new world order created a place for countries that are not a puppet of the United States, and not always an ally, but typically someone the nation can work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s statesmanship, and a chance at stability in the Middle East. Perhaps even a chance for a beleaguered and exhausted American president to finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize.