Despite over 400,000 dead and ongoing ground and air campaigns inside the country by the U.S., Russia and several others, 51 U.S. diplomats are publicly demanding the Obama administration launch strikes directly against Bashir Assad in Syria.
The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1970s with an iron hand, employing secret police and other standard dictator tricks to suppress dissent. Things got so cozy between Syria and the U.S. that in the early days of the war on terror the CIA was sending “suspects” to Syria for some outsourced torture, as nobody can run a secret prison better than Arabs.
Papa Assad passed away and his son Bashir assumed the presidency in 2000. Some ten years later Assad did the same thing most Arab dictators did, including U.S. allies like Egypt, and ordered crackdowns on Arab Spring protesters. The U.S. then decided in an on-again, off-again fashion to “remove” Assad. When no one in the U.S. really liked the sound of that following the disastrous regime changes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, the U.S. attacked Syria anyway in the name of smiting Islamic State [ISIS]. Assad, whatever else he is and he is no doubt a real bastard, is also at war with ISIS. Some 400,000 Syrians have died so far in the civil war.
And there’s a photo above of Secretary of State and Bashir Assad hanging out in better days. Times change, man.
With that as background, 51 mid-level American diplomats took the brave stand of writing a memo (technically known as using the State Department dissent channel.) The memo was promptly leaked to the press.
Oh, a memo calling for more war written by people who wear suits and ties to work (technically known as chickenhawks.)
The memo says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of standoff and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”
Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria, said, “Many people working on Syria for the State Department have long urged a tougher policy with the Assad government as a means of facilitating arrival at a negotiated political deal to set up a new Syrian government.”
Regime change. Bloody change, as it seems odd to imagine Assad would negotiate his own ouster.
What the Memo Left Out
The dissent memo makes no suggestions, actually no mention at all, about who would succeed Assad, or how this regime change would be any different than the failed tries in Iraq, Libya or Yemen, or how ISIS, who also seeks the end of the Assad regime through violence, would not be further empowered, or how the U.S. would get away with airstrikes given the overt Russian support for the Assad regime. Everyone except for those brave memo-ists has seen this movie before.
Also missing from the memo are any notes on what if any military service the 51 signatories have amongst them, or why this call for more blood comes from the State Department and not from the military, whose commanders have raised questions about what would happen in the event that Assad was forced from power. Their questions are likely motivated by the fact that they would be asked to risk their lives to clean the mess.
Finally, no one seems to remember anymore why “we” need to “take out” Assad. He is no doubt a terrible person who kills to protect his power. But leaders like that are not in short supply across the Middle East, in Africa and places like North Korea. It seems a more specific rationale, tied directly to some clear U.S. strategic interest, is needed (remember, Assad is fighting ISIS and has never sought to export terror to the U.S.) Assad also enjoys support inside his country by some minority, who will not go away quietly if he is changed out. See what happened to the Baathists in Iraq, who organized some of the first resistance to the U.S., and went on to help staff up ISIS.
That said, it sure is a nicely-typed memo. Luckily no one in Washington pays much attention anymore to the State Department. So, State, go back to what you do best: hiding emails, and leave this stuff to the adults.
BONUS: Funny thing about that “dissent” memo. It seems that the dissent expressed in fact parallels the feelings of Secretary of State John Kerry, and possible next-president Hillary Clinton, that the U.S. should attack Assad directly. Leave it to State t find a way to change dissent into ass kissing.
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But why is it that those that create refugees are the least likely to help them? The answer lies in empty rhetoric from those who begin America’s wars in the region under the guise of humanitarian intervention itself.
A searing image of a refugee child lying dead on a beach finally alerted the world to a crisis now entering its fifth year. Awareness is never bad, but here it too easily bypasses the question of where all the refugees come from, in favor of a simpler meme. One is reminded of Malala, one story that pushes aside millions.
Such narratives bait a familiar trap: the need to “do something.” That “something” in the Middle East is often the clumsy hand of military intervention under the thin cover of humanitarian rhetoric. Cries answered that way have a terrible history of exacerbating a problem they ostensibly set out to solve.
The scope of the problem is staggering. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than three million Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Inside Syria itself, over 17 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including those internally displaced. Only 350,000 Syrians are estimated to have traveled to Europe. They are the ones you see on television.
In Iraq, some 1.8 million people were displaced between January and September 2014, a declared United Nations emergency, and Iraqis are currently the second-largest refugee group in the world. Yet even now the New York Times speaks of a “new wave” of Iraqi refugees, driven in part by “years of violence and unmet promises for democracy by a corrupt political elite.”
The situation in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere is much the same.
There is a common denominator behind all of these refugee flows: they are, in whole or in part, the product of American “humanitarian interventions.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush declared the goals of the United States in invading Iraq included freeing its people. In case that was not clear enough, in 2007 Bush proclaimed the American military the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Yet by 2007 the number of displaced persons in Iraq had grown by some 50%.
President Barack Obama used similar rhetoric in 2014, when he revived the United States’ war in Iraq in response to a “humanitarian crisis that could turn into a genocide” for the Yazidi people. “One Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said at the time. “Well, today America is coming to help.” A senior administration official went on to explicitly describe the action as a humanitarian effort.
Some 5,000 airstrikes later, that humanitarian effort is now a bloody war with Islamic State, metastasized across multiple nations, exacerbating the refugee flow. For the Yazidis, long-forgotten by Americans as the no longer needed casus belli, the war enveloped them in Islamic State’s slave trade.
The conflict in Syria remains connected to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, in the form of militarized Sunnis, the elimination of any effective border between Iraq and Syria and, of course, Islamic State, birthed in the Iraqi sectarian conflict. American intervention in Syria ratcheted up seemingly on a schedule, all around the theme of saving the Syrian people from their dictator, Bashar al-Assad (similarities to George W. Bush’s 2003 wording in reference to Saddam Hussein are noted.)
After it appeared Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, it was American Secretary of State John Kerry who insisted that it was “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” Airstrikes were forestalled for a time, then popped up in 2014 aimed not at Assad, but at Islamic State. Chaos has gone on to drawn numerous foreign powers into the conflict.
With Libya in 2011, there was again a “humanitarian effort,” lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton sold intervention as a necessity: “Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled. The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” That “doing something” helped push Libya into failed state status, feeding the refugee flow and bleeding conflict into neighboring countries.
It is foolish to claim the United States alone “caused” all of these refugee flows; multiple factors, including the aggressiveness of Islamic State, are in play. But it would be equally foolish to ignore American culpability, directly in Iraq and in Libya, and via arms flows and the fanning of flames, in Syria and Yemen. The common element is a stated intent to make things better. The common result is the opposite.
To many, particularly outside the United States, political rhetoric is just the aural garbage of imperialism. But inside the United States, military “humanitarian” intervention generally enjoys robust support. It may look like a shoddy product to some, but people continue to buy it, and thus it continues to happen. Politicians seem to know how to feed the public’s demands to “do something” triggered by an emotional photograph for their own purposes.
There exists an inverse relationship between those that create refugees and those who help them. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted only 1,500, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.
But that was then, pre-photo.
Post-photo, 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.”
Right on schedule following Kerry’s remarks, President Obama promised, per the New York Times headline, to “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.” With the problem seemingly solved, albeit only 10,000 out of millions, the plight of the refugees disappeared from America’s front pages.
Left unsaid was the emptiness of even such non-military humanitarian rhetoric. President Obama did not mention, nor was he asked about, the reality that refugees to the U.S. are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years (the average out of Syria is two years at present), indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed. 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 left behind.
There also remain voices calling for another escalation of war in the Middle East to deal with the “root causes” of the refugee crisis, loosely defined for now as Islamic State’s continued existence.
There is an immediate need to do more to help the refugees moving into Europe, and those still in the Middle East. That, and that alone, should comprise the “do something” part of a solution. Long term, if the primary response is simply more military intervention in the name of humanitarianism, or more empty promises, the answer is best left as “doing less.”
You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster — a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car — and then add, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Such is the Middle East today. The U.S. is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.
Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that’s on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet’s most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?
1. The Kurds
The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.
In Turkey, the Kurdish-inhabited border area with Iraq has for years been a low-level war zone, with the powerful Turkish military shelling, bombing, and occasionally sending in its army to attack rebels there. In Iran, the Kurdish population is smaller than in Iraq and the border area between the two countries more open for accommodation and trade. (The Iranians, for instance, reportedly refine oil for the Iraqi Kurds, who put it on the black market and also buy natural gas from Iran.) That country has nonetheless shelled the Kurdish border area from time to time.
The Kurds have been fighting for a state of their own since at least 1923. Inside Iraq today, they are in every practical sense a de facto independent state with their own government and military. Since 2003, they have been strong enough to challenge the Shia government in Baghdad far more aggressively than they have. Their desire to do so has been constrained by pressure from Washington to keep Iraq whole. In June, however, their military, the Peshmerga, seized the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern cities in the face of the militants of the Islamic State (IS). Lacking any alternative, the Obama administration let the Kurds move in.
The Peshmerga are a big part of the current problem. In a near-desperate need for some semi-competent proxy force, the U.S. and its NATO allies are now arming and training them, serving as their air force in a big way, and backing them as they inch into territory still in dispute with Baghdad as an expedient response to the new “caliphate.” This only means that, in the future, Washington will have to face the problem of how to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle if the Islamic State is ever pushed back or broken.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and now under the control of the Islamic State, is the most obvious example. Given the woeful state of the Iraqi army, the Kurds may someday take it. That will not go down well in Baghdad and the result could be massive sectarian violence long after IS is gone. We were given a small-scale preview of what might happen in the town of Hassan Sham. The Kurds took it back last month. In the process, some Shia residents reportedly sided with their enemies, the Sunni militants of IS, rather than support the advancing Peshmerga.
Worst-case scenario: A powerful Kurdistan emerges from the present mess of American policy, fueling another major sectarian war in Iraq that will have the potential to spill across borders. Whether or not Kurdistan is recognized as a country with a U.N. seat, or simply becomes a Taiwan-like state (real in all but name), it will change the power dynamic in the region in ways that could put present problems in the shade. Changing a long-held balance of power always has unintended consequences, especially in the Middle East. Ask George W. Bush about his 2003 invasion of Iraq, which kicked off most of the present mess.
You can’t, of course, talk about the Kurds without discussing Turkey, a country caught in a vise. Its forces have battled for years against a Kurdish separatist movement, personified by the PKK, a group Turkey, NATO, the European Union, and the United States all classify as a terrorist organization. Strife between the Turks and the PKK took 37,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s before being reduced from a boil to a simmer thanks to European Union diplomacy. The “problem” in Turkey is no small thing — its Kurdish minority, some 15 million people, makes up nearly 20% of the population.
When it comes to taking action in Syria, the Turks exist in a conflicted realm because Washington has anointed the Kurds its boots on the ground. Whatever it may think it’s doing, the U.S. is helping empower the Kurdish minority in Syria, including PKK elements arrayed along the Turkish border, with new weapons and training.
The Turkish ruling party has no particular love for those who run the Islamic State, but its loathing for Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is such that its leaders have long been willing to assist IS largely by looking the other way. For some time, Turkey has been the obvious point of entry for “foreign fighters” en route to Syria to join IS ranks. Turkey has also served as the exit point for much of the black-market oil — $1.2 to $2 million a day — that IS has used to fund itself. Perhaps in return, the Islamic State released 49 Turkish hostages it was holding, including diplomats without the usual inflammatory beheading videos. In response to U.S. requests to “do something,” Turkey is now issuing fines to oil smugglers, though these have totaled only $5.7 million over the past 15 months, which shows the nature of Turkey’s commitment to the coalition.
The situation in the IS-besieged town of Kobani illustrates the problem. The Turks have refused to intervene to aid the Syrian Kurds. Turkish tanks sit idle on hills overlooking the hand-to-hand combat less than a mile away. Turkish riot police have prevented Turkish Kurds from reaching the town to help. Turkish jets have bombed PKK rebels inside Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
American bombs can slow IS, but can’t recapture parts of a city. Short of destroying Kobani by air to save it, U.S. power is limited without Turkish ground forces.
On the other hand, Washington’s present policy essentially requires Turkey to put aside its national goals to help us achieve ours. We’ve seen how such a scenario has worked out in the past. (Google “Pakistan and the Taliban.”) But with Kobani in the news, the U.S. may yet succeed in pressuring the Turks into limited gestures, such as allowing American warplanes to use Turkish airbases or letting the U.S. train some Syrian rebels on its territory. That will not change the reality that Turkey will ultimately focus on its own goals independent of the many more Kobanis to come.
Worst-case scenario: Chaos in Eastern Turkey’s future, while the sun shines on Assad and the Kurds. An influx of refugees are already taxing the Turks. Present sectarian rumblings inside Turkey could turn white hot, with the Turks finding themselves in open conflict with Kurdish forces as the U.S. sits dumbly on the sidelines watching one ally fight another, an unintended consequence of its Middle Eastern meddling. If the buffer zone comes to pass, throw in the possibility of direct fighting between the U.S. and Assad, with Russian President Vladimir Putin potentially finding an opening to reengage in the area.
Think of Syria as the American war that never should have happened. Despite years of calls for U.S. intervention and some training flirtations with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama administration had managed (just barely) to stay clear of this particular quagmire. In September 2013, President Obama walked right up to the edge of sending bombers and cruise missiles against Assad’s military over the purported use of chemical weapons. He then used an uncooperative Congress and a clever Putin-gambit as an excuse to back down.
This year’s model — ignore Assad, attack IS — evolved over just a few weeks as a limited humanitarian action morphed into a fight to the finish against IS in Iraq and then into bombing Syria itself. As with any magician’s trick, we all watched it happen but still can’t quite figure out quite how the sleight of hand was done.
Syria today is a country in ruins. But somewhere loose in that land are unicorns — creatures often spoken of but never seen — the Obama administration’s much publicized “moderate Syrian rebels.” Who are they? The working definition seems to be something like: people who oppose Assad, won’t fight him for now, but may in the meantime fight the Islamic State, and aren’t too “fundamentalist.” The U.S. plans to throw arms and training at them as soon as it can find some of them, vet them, and transport them to Saudi Arabia. If you are buying stock in the Syrian market, look for anyone labeled “moderate warlord.”
While the U.S. and its coalition attacks IS, some states (or at least wealthy individuals) in that same band of brothers continue to funnel money to the new caliphate to support its self-appointed role as a protector of Sunnis and handy proxy against Shia empowerment in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden recently called out some of America’s partners on this in what was billed as another of his famous gaffes, requiring apologies all around. If you want to see the best-case scenario for Syria’s future, have a look at Libya, a post-U.S. intervention country in chaos, carved up by militias.
Worst-case scenario: Syria as an ungoverned space, a new haven for terrorists and warring groups fueled by outsiders. (The Pakistani Taliban has already vowed to send fighters to help IS.) Throw in the potential for some group to grab any leftover chemical weapons or SCUD-like surface-to-surface missiles from Assad’s closet, and the potential for death and destruction is unending. It might even spread to Israel.
Israel’s border with Syria, marked by the Golan Heights, has been its quietest frontier since the 1967 war, but that’s now changing. Syrian insurgents of some flavor recently seized border villages and a crossing point in those heights. United Nations peacekeepers, who once patrolled the area, have mostly been evacuated for their own safety. Last month, Israel shot down a Syrian plane that entered its airspace, no doubt a warning to Assad to mind his own business rather than a matter of military necessity.
Assumedly, the Obama administration has been in behind-the-scenes efforts, reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi SCUDS began raining down on Israeli cities, to keep that country out of the larger fight. It is not 1991, however. Relations between the U.S. and Israel are far more volatile and much testier. Israel is better armed and U.S. constraints on Israeli desires have proven significantly weaker of late.
Worst-case scenario: An Israeli move, either to ensure that the war stays far from its Golan Heights frontier or of a more offensive nature aimed at securing some Syrian territory, could blow the region apart. “It’s like a huge bottle with gas surrounded by candles. You just need to push one candle and everything can blow up in a minute,” said one retired Israeli general. Still, if you think Israel worries about Syria, that’s nothing compared to how its leadership must be fuming over the emergence of Iran as an ever-stronger regional power.
What can go wrong for Iran in the current conflict? While in the Middle East something unexpected can always arise, at present that country looks like the potential big winner in the IS sweepstakes. Will a pro-Iranian Shia government remain in power in Baghdad? You bet. Has Iran been given carte blanche to move ground forces into Iraq? Check. Will the American air force fly bombing runs for Iranian ground troops engaged in combat with IS (in a purely unofficial capacity, of course)? Not a doubt. Might Washington try to edge back a bit from its nuclear tough-guy negotiations? A likelihood. Might the door be left ajar when it comes to an off-the-books easing of economic sanctions if the Americans need something more from Iran in Iraq? Why not?
Worst-case scenario: Someday, there’ll be a statue of Barack Obama in central Tehran, not in Iraq.
Iraq is America’s official “graveyard of empire.” Washington’s “new” plan for that country hinges on the success of a handful of initiatives that already failed when tried between 2003-2011, a time when there were infinitely more resources available to American “nation builders” and so much less in the way of regional chaos, bad as it then was.
The first step in the latest American master plan is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, which the U.S. dreams will drive a wedge between a rebellious and dissatisfied Sunni population and the Islamic state. After that has happened, a (re)trained Iraqi army will head back into the field to drive the forces of the new caliphate from the northern parts of the country and retake Mosul.
All of this is unrealistic, if not simply unreal. After all, Washington has already sunk $25 billion dollars into training and equipping that same army, and several billion more on the paramilitary police. The result: little more than IS seizing arsenals of top-notch Americans weaponry once the Iraqi forces fled the country’s northern cities in June.
Now, about that inclusive government. The United States seems to think creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a fantasy football team. You know, win some, lose some, make a few trades, and if none of that works out, you still have a shot at a new roster and a winning record next year. Since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, nothing much has really changed at the top. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
As for the Sunnis, American strategy rests on the assumption that they can be bribed and coerced into breaking with IS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine, unless they lack all memory. As with al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2007, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them. (General John Allen, now coordinating America’s newest war in Iraq, was a key figure in brokering that “awakening.”) America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked “exit.” The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? In addition, this one appears to have a particularly counterproductive wrinkle from the American point of view. According to present plans, the U.S. is to form Sunni “national guard units” — up-armored Sunni militias with a more marketable name — to fight IS by paying and arming them to do so. These militias are to fight only on Sunni territory under Sunni leadership. They will have no more connection to the Baghdad government than you do. How will that help make Iraq an inclusive, unitary state? What will happen, in the long run, once even more sectarian armed militias are let loose? What could possibly go wrong?
Despite its unambiguous history of failure, the “success” of the Anbar Awakening remains a persistent myth among American conservative thinkers. So don’t be fooled in the short term by media-trumpeted local examples of Sunni-Shia cooperation against IS. Consider them temporary alliances of convenience on a tribe-by-tribe basis that might not outlast the next attack. That is nowhere near a strategy for national victory. Wasn’t then, isn’t now.
Worst-case scenario: Sunni-Shia violence reaches a new level, one which draws in outside third parties, perhaps the Sunni Gulf states, seeking to prevent a massacre. Would the Shia Iranians, with forces already in-country, stand idle? Who can predict how much blood will be spilled, all caused by another foolish American war in Iraq?
7. The United States
If Iran could be the big geopolitical winner in this multi-state conflict, then the U.S. will be the big loser. President Obama (or his successor) will, in the end, undoubtedly have to choose between war to the horizon and committing U.S. ground forces to the conflict. Neither approach is likely to bring the results desired, but those “boots on the ground” will scale up the nature of the ensuing tragedy.
Washington’s post-9/11 fantasy has always been that military power — whether at the level of full-scale invasions or “surgical” drone strikes — can change the geopolitical landscape in predictable ways. In fact, the only certainty is more death. Everything else, as the last 13 years have made clear, is up for grabs, and in ways Washington is guaranteed not to expect.
Among the likely scenarios: IS forces are currently only miles from Baghdad International Airport, itself only nine miles from the Green Zone in the heart of the capital. (Note that the M198 howitzers IS captured from the retreating Iraqis have a range of 14 miles.) The airport is a critical portal for the evacuation of embassy personnel in the face of a future potential mega-Benghazi and for flying in more personnel like the Marine Quick Reaction Force recently moved into nearby Kuwait. The airport is already protected by 300-500 American troops, backed by Apache attack helicopters and drones. The Apache helicopters recently sent into combat in nearby Anbar province probably flew out of there. If IS militants were to assault the airport, the U.S. would essentially have to defend it, which means combat between the two forces. If so, IS will lose on the ground, but will win by drawing America deeper into the quagmire.
In the bigger picture, the current anti-Islamic State coalition of “more than 60 countries” that the U.S. patched together cannot last. It’s fated to collapse in a heap of conflicting long-term goals. Sooner or later, the U.S. is likely to once again find itself alone, as it eventually did in the last Iraq war.
The most likely outcome of all this killing, whatever the fate of the Islamic State, is worsening chaos across Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, including possibly Turkey. As Andrew Bacevich observed, “Even if we win, we lose. Defeating the Islamic State would only commit the United States more deeply to a decades-old enterprise that has proved costly and counterproductive.” The loss of control over the real costs of this war will beg the question: Was the U.S. ever in control?
In September, Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, or bombed since 1980. During these many years of American war-making, goals have shifted endlessly, while the situation in the Greater Middle East only worsened. Democracy building? You’re not going to hear that much any more. Oil? The U.S. is set to become a net exporter. Defeating terrorism? That’s today’s go-to explanation, but the evidence is already in that picking fights in the region only fosters terror and terrorism. At home, the soundtrack of fear-mongering grows louder, leading to an amplified national security state and ever-expanding justifications for the monitoring of our society.
Worst-case scenario: America’s pan-Middle Eastern war marches into its third decade with no end in sight, a vortex that sucks in lives, national treasure, and Washington’s mental breathing room, even as other important issues are ignored. And what could possibly go wrong with that?
The oft-repeated pop psychology definition of mental illness– doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results– pretty much sums up America’s limp efforts at reconstruction, nation building, hearts and minds, counterinsurgency, whatever tag you choose.
Efforts failed spectacularly and expensively in Iraq and (ongoing) in Afghanistan, and just as significantly, though more quietly, in Libya. With Obama having morphing into McCain like an old werewolf movie scene and calling for more wrath in Syria or wherever, it is obvious that the U.S. intends to stay in the nation building business.
The Return of the Jedi
One guy with some experience in the trade thinks he has a better idea of how to do this. Stuart Bowen was the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and produced a series of reports that year-by-year carefully documented America’s failure in Iraq to reconstruct much of anything. Whereas in my own book, We Meant WellI sought to document such failures on the local scale, Bowen’s assessments were Jedi-like, sweeping and Iraq-wide. Through the seemingly endless years of that war, Bowen shouted into the darkness about the waste, fraud and corruption in Iraq. His organization actively sought criminal prosecutions of those doing the wasting and the corrupting. This guy was born with both fists up, and good for him about that.
In a working document Bowen’s office shared with me, the story is this:
Who should be accountable for planning, managing, and executing stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs)? The U.S. government’s existing approach provides no clear answer. Responsibilities for SROs are divided among several agencies, chiefly the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development. As a result, lines of responsibility and accountability are not well-defined.
The lack of an established SRO management system forced the U.S. government to respond to challenges in Iraq through a series of ad hoc agencies that oversaw stabilization and reconstruction activities with—unsurprisingly—generally unsatisfactory outcomes.
A New Hope
Bowen suggest a new solution, comprising a collection of targeted operational reforms and the creation of an integrated management office— the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO)— that would be accountable for planning and executing SROs. You can read more details about his proposed new agency.
As almost an air-tight endorsement of the idea, both State and Defense oppose it. Bowen explained that both agencies believe that the existing management structure, which diffuses duties between and among varying agencies, is preferable to implementing a new, consolidated system. State believes that SRO problems chiefly arise from insufficient resources and not management weaknesses (Note: A lack of money, and not management problems, is State’s default answer to nearly everything from failure in Iraq to failure in Benghazi).
The Empire Strikes Out
While the reality is that just about nobody in Congress will support creation of a new government entity in the current political climate, the Obama Administration remains hell-bent to do some more nation building. If nothing new is tried (that mental illness definition again!) nothing new will happen. Failure is assured. Again. Bowen’s idea is worth looking into as a possible way to break the loop.
At the same time, a new organization sitting around the table with no purpose other than to tuck into reconstruction may be more dangerous that you think. The bureaucratic rules of evolution that govern Washington say any organization, once spun up, will seek more resources and more reasons to continue to exist. Would having a new office for SRO work simply create another strong voice inside government in favor of more SRO operations?
The jury is still out on how best to proceed. The best way to win at Fight Club is not to get into it in the first place. Is it too much to dream that maybe the U.S. will just stop invading and intervening abroad, and perhaps create an office designated to reconstructing America instead?
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones. Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.
At every significant moment in those years, our presidents opted for more, not less, violence, and our Congress agreed — or simply sat on its hands — as ever more moral isolation took the place of ever less diplomacy. Now, those same questions loom over Syria. Facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama appears to be grasping — without any sense of irony — at the straw Russian President Vladimir Putin (backed by China and Iran) has held out in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff proposal that put the White House into a corner. After claiming days ago that the U.N. was not an option, the White House now seems to be throwing its problem to that body to resolve. Gone, literally in the course of an afternoon, were the administration demands for immediate action, the shots across the Syrian bow, and all that. Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief that it may not be forced to take a stand. The Senate has put off voting; perhaps a vote in the House will be delayed indefinitely, or maybe this will all blow over somehow and Congress can return to its usual partisan differences over health care and debt ceilings.
And yet a non-vote by Congress would be as wrong as the yes vote that seems no longer in the cards. What happens, in fact, if Congress doesn’t say no?
A History Lesson
The “Global War on Terror” was upon us in an instant. Acting out of a sense that 9/11 threw open the doors to every neocon fantasy of a future Middle Eastern and global Pax Americana, the White House quickly sought an arena to lash out in. Congress, acting out of fear and anger, gave the executive what was essentially a blank check to do anything it cared to do. Though the perpetrators of 9/11 were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda itself sought refuge in largely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. So be it. The first shots of the War on Terror were fired there.
George W. Bush’s top officials, sure that this was their moment of opportunity, quickly slid destroying al-Qaeda as an organization into a secondary slot, invaded Afghanistan, and turned the campaign into a crusade to replace the Taliban and control the Greater Middle East. Largely through passivity, Congress said yes as, even in its earliest stages, the imperial nature of America’s global strategy revealed itself plain as day. The escape of Osama bin-Laden and much of al-Qaeda into Pakistan became little more than an afterthought as Washington set up what was essentially a puppet government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, occupied the country, and began to build permanent military bases there as staging grounds for more of the same.
Some two years later, a series of administration fantasies and lies that, in retrospect, seem at best tragicomic ushered the United States into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its autocratic leader and our former staunch ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, ruled a country that would have been geopolitically meaningless had it not sat on what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called “a sea of oil” — and next to that future target of neocon dreams of conquest, Iran. Once again, Congress set off on a frenzied rush to yes, and a second war commenced out of the ashes of 9/11.
With the mighty American military now on their eastern and western borders and evidently not planning on leaving any time soon, Iranian officials desperately sought out American diplomats looking for some kind of rapprochement. They offered to assist in Afghanistan and, it was believed, to ensure that any American pilots shot down by accident over Iranian territory would be repatriated quickly. Channels to do so were reportedly established by the State Department and it was rumored that broader talks had begun. However, expecting a triumph in Iraq and feeling that the Iranians wouldn’t stand a chance against the “greatest force for liberation the world has ever known” (aka the U.S. military), a deeply overconfident White House snubbed them, dismissing them as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Congress, well briefed on the administration’s futuristic fantasies of domination, sat by quietly, offering another passive yes.
Congress also turned a blind eye to the setting up of a global network of “black sites” for the incarceration, abuse, and torture of “terror suspects,” listened to torture briefings, read about CIA rendition (i.e., kidnapping) operations, continued to fund Guantanamo, and did not challenge the devolving wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Its members sat quietly by while a new weapon, armed drones, at the personal command of the president alone, crisscrossed the world assassinating people, including American citizens, within previously sovereign national boundaries. As a new president came into office and expanded the war in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone attacks, made war against Libya, did nothing to aid the Arab Spring, and allowed Guantanamo to fester, Congress said yes. Or, at least, not no, never no.
The World Today
Twelve years later, the dreams of global domination are in ruins and the world America changed for the worse is a very rough place. This country has remarkably few friends and only a handful of largely silent semi-allies. Even the once gung-ho president of France has been backing off his pledges of military cooperation in Syria in the face of growing popular opposition and is now calling for U.N. action. No longer does anyone cite the United States as a moral beacon in the world. If you want a measure of this, consider that Vladimir Putin seemed to win the Syria debate at the recent G20 summit as easily as he now has captured the moral high ground on Syria by calling for peace and a deal on Assad’s chemical weapons.
The most likely American a majority of global citizens will encounter is a soldier. Large swaths of the planet are now off-limits to American tourists and businesspeople, far too dangerous for all but the most foolhardy to venture into. The State Department even warns tourists to Western Europe that they might fall victim to al-Qaeda. In the coming years, few Americans will see the pyramids or the ruins of ancient Babylon in person, nor will they sunbathe, among other places, on the pristine beaches of the southern Philippines. Forget about large portions of Africa or most of the rest of the Middle East. Americans now fall victim to pirates on the high seas, as if it were the nineteenth century all over again.
After 12 disastrous years in the Greater Middle East, during which the missiles flew, the bombs dropped, doors were repeatedly kicked in, and IEDs went off, our lives, even at home, have changed. Terrorism, real and imagined, has turned our airports into giant human traffic jams and sites of humiliation, with lines that resemble a Stasi version of Disney World. Our freedoms, not to speak of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, have been systematically stripped away in the name of American “safety,” “security,” and fear. Congress said yes to all of that, too, even naming the crucial initial piece of legislation that began the process the PATRIOT Act without the slightest sense of irony.
When I spoke with Special Forces personnel in Iraq, I was told that nearly every “bad guy” they killed or captured carried images of American torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib on his cellphone — as inspiration. As the victims of America’s violence grew, so did the armies of kin, those inheritors of “collateral damage,” seeking revenge. The acts of the past 12 years have even, in a few cases, inspired American citizens to commit acts of homegrown terrorism.
Until this week, Washington had abandoned the far-from-perfect-but-better-than-the-alternatives United Nations. Missiles and bombs have sufficed for our “credibility,” or so Washington continues to believe. While pursuing the most aggressive stance abroad in its history, intervening everywhere from Libya and Yemen to the Philippines, seeking out monsters to destroy and, when not enough could be found, creating them, the United States has become ever more isolated globally.
The horror show of the last 12 years wasn’t happenstance. Each instance of war was a choice by Washington, not thrust upon us by a series of Pearl Harbors. Our Congress always said yes (or least avoided ever saying no). Many who should have known better went on to join the yes men. In regard to Iran and George W. Bush, then-candidate for president Senator Joe Biden, for instance, said in 2007, “I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years. I teach separation of powers in constitutional law. This is something I know. So I brought a group of constitutional scholars together to write a piece that I’m going to deliver to the whole United States Senate pointing out that the president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war against a country of 70 million people unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him. The House obviously has to do that, but I would lead an effort to impeach him.”
Only a year ago, Biden criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being too anxious to go to war with Syria. That country, Biden said, “is five times as large geographically [as Libya], it has one-fifth the population… It’s in a part of the world where they’re not going to see whatever would come from that war. It’ll seep into a regional war… If in fact it blows up and the wrong people gain control, it’s going to have impact on the entire region causing potentially regional wars.”
Biden has been missing from the public eye this week. His last public statement on Syria was in late August. Monday, while Susan Rice begged for war and Obama taped multiple TV interviews, the vice president was in Baltimore handing out federal grant money to improve the port. Silence in the face of a car wreck isn’t golden, it’s deadly. Good God, man, hit the brakes before we kill someone!
What If Congress Says Yes?
Some in Congress now are talking about a new resolution that would pre-authorize the administration to launch “fallback airstrikes” — that is, its desired attack on Syria — after some sort of deadline passed for U.N. action, Syrian action, or perhaps just another mythical red line was crossed. Should Congress say yes yet again to such a scheme or anything like it, nothing will change for the better, and much is likely to change for the worse.
An attack on Syria will demand a response; war works that way, no matter how “surgical” the strikes may be. Other countries, and even terrorists, also tend to imagine that, in such situations, their “credibility” is at stake. Fearing reprisals, the U.S. has already preemptively withdrawn its diplomats from a consulate in Turkey near the Syrian border, and from Lebanon. Security has increased in Iraq, with the already fortress-like U.S. embassy there bracing for attacks, allegedly already being planned by Iranian-sponsored sappers.
Be assured of one thing: bombs and missiles falling in Syria will cause “collateral damage,” newspeak for images splashed across the globe of Muslim women and children killed by American weaponry. History has ensured that borders in the Middle East are arbitrary and easily enough ignored. As the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq sparked a metastasizing regional Sunni-Shia civil war, so a new intervention in the latest version of that war will lead to further, possibly devastating, and certainly divisive consequences in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. Think of this as a grim domino theory for the new century.
Should a desperate Assad regime in Syria, or an Iranian proxy from Lebanon, retaliate against Israel, the U.S. could wake up to find itself in the middle of a far larger war. Who knows then what a Russia already moving naval forces into the Mediterranean and with a naval base in Syria itself might do, perhaps citing the need to maintain Putin’s “credibility”?
Even the most optimistic pundits do not believe a single set of strikes over a limited number of days will have much strategic effect. And what if, after giving up some or all of his chemical weapons, Assad just makes or buys more? The famous comment of General David Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq — “Tell me how this ends” — would need answering again. We didn’t like the answer the last time and we won’t like it this time.
Of course, something like half of the anti-Assad rebels fight for Islamic fundamentalist outfits. If, however unmeant, the U.S. essentially becomes the air force over Syria for al-Qaeda-branded and other jihadist outfits, unleashing them to take further territory, that would undoubtedly create even more unsettled and unsettling conditions across the region. A rebel victory, aided by U.S. strikes, would certainly give al-Qaeda the sort of sovereign sanctuary the U.S. has been fighting to eliminate globally since the Clinton administration. No serious scenario has been offered in which the civil war in Syria would begin to abate thanks to U.S. bombs and missiles.
With or without an attack, some things will remain constant. Israel destroyed Syria’s nascent attempts to build nuclear weapons and would do so again if needed. Iran has played a clever game in the regional proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere — they won in Iraq — and will continue to do so. Since the 1970s, Syria has had stocks of chemical weapons that the Assad regime manufactured itself and has never used them against the United States or any other country, nor have they in 40 years transferred those weapons to any terrorists. There is no reason to believe that will change now, not even as a way to strike back should the U.S. attack first (though the fate of those weapons, should Assad fall under U.S. attacks, no one can possibly know.)
With a U.S. president willing, for the first time in decades, to hand over some part of his decision-making powers to Congress (though he dubiously maintains that it would still be constitutional for him to launch strikes against Syria on his own), the Senate and House of Representatives have a chance to courageously re-insert themselves in war policy. Alternatively, they can once again assure themselves of a comfortable irrelevance. On one thing Obama is certainly right: the world is indeed watching the unfolding spectacle.
What If Congress Says No?
If Congress says no to an attack on Syria, the U.S. may for the first time in 12 years have the chance to change the world for the better. Though this is not an overly dramatic statement, it’s also true, as every diplomat knows, that it’s easier to break things than fix them.
The world would at least have seen Washington step back after its citizenry told their government that enough is enough. The world would see an America which, in a modest but significant way, was beginning to genuinely absorb the real lessons to be drawn from our post-9/11 actions: that endless war only fuels more war, that living in a world where foreigners are seen mainly as targets brings no peace, that lashing out everywhere means no safety anywhere.
In the wake of a non-attack on Syria, parts of the world might be more open to the possibility that the United States could help open new paths, beginning with a tacit acknowledgement that we were wrong. Nothing can erase the deeds of the past years or those long memories common not just in the Middle East, but to humanity more generally. Certainly, what we did is likely to haunt us for generations. But when in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging. Via Congress, the U.S. can take a small first step toward becoming an “indispensable nation” in more than our own minds.
If Congress says no on Syria, it will, just as the president warns, also be sending a message to Iran — not, however, that the United States lacks the resolve to fight. It seems unlikely, given the past 12 years, that anyone doubts this country’s willingness to use force. A clear no from Congress would, in fact, send a message of hope to Iran.
It was only in June that Obama claimed Iran’s election of a moderate as president showed that Iranians want to move in a different direction. “As long as there’s an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t proceed,” Obama said. “The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything anytime anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
Diplomacy is often a series of little gateway-like tests that, when passed, lead two parties forward. A no on Syria would be such a step, allowing Iran and the United States a possible path toward negotiations that could someday change the face of the Middle East. Only three months ago, Obama himself endorsed such a plan. If Congress says no, it won’t destroy credibility with the Iranians; it’s likely, in fact, to enhance it. This decision by Congress could empower both parties to proceed to the negotiating table in a more hopeful way. A yes from Congress, on the other hand, could sideline Iranian moderates and slam the door shut on discussions for a long time.
It is clear that partisan politics will play a significant role in Congress’s decision. That body is fundamentally a political animal, and the House, of course, faces midterm elections in little more than a year. Still, that’s not a terrible thing. After all, for the first time in a long while, when it comes to foreign policy, House members are openly speaking about the influence that a wave of constituent opposition to a Syrian intervention is having on them. They appear to be hearing us speak, even if the impulse isn’t just to do the right thing, but to garner votes in 2014.
Should Congress say no, it seems unlikely that a president, isolated at home and abroad, will go to war. Some of Obama’s top aides have already been signaling that reality. Despite macho talk in the upper echelons of his administration on his right to ignore Congress, as a constitutional scholar and a savvy politician he would be unlikely to risk the demands for his impeachment and the spectacle of a Constitutional crisis by launching Syrian strikes in the wake of a no vote. All the noise about not backing down and his credibility suffering a catastrophic blow should be taken as so much pre-vote political saber rattling. The president may make foolish decisions, but he certainly is no fool.
By saying no, not again, not this time, the current group of gray men and women who largely make up our Congress have the chance to join some of the giants who have thundered in those chambers in the past. At this moment, that body has the opportunity to choose a new meaning for future anniversaries of 9/11. It could be the day that life went on just as disastrously as previously — or it could be the day that changed everything, and this time for the better.
(Follow me on Twitter as @wemeantwell or I’ll just keep repeating myself here)
US isn’t the world’s policeman Obama says. No, we’re the world’s George Zimmerman.
The question no journalist will ask Obama: Mr. President, if you use the military again, tell me how this ends?
And by the way, what wars had Obama ended? Even the end of the Iraq war was negotiated by Bush. (Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, AFRICOM)
Our US military pinpricks are really BIG.
The policy on Syria is in such disarray that it’s obvious Kerry is just making things up as he goes along.
No truth to the rumor that Colin Powell will speak alongside Obama to make the case for war.
Scary White House videos from Syria were on YouTube, but now “significant” as intel community gives stamp of “authenticity”
How’d that last Middle East thingie work out for ya? Marines moved closer to Libya as 9/11 anniversaries approach.
Iran warned the U.S. twice in 2012 that Syrian rebels the U.S. supports have chemical weapons of their own.
Russia proposes Syria turn over chem weapons to avoid war. Predicting U.S. will claim Syria can’t be trusted in 5, 4, 3, 2…
Pathetic: Susan Rice citing Bush officials who sold the WMD scam to Americans on Iraq as supporters of Syria strikes.
When Obama said “There is no NSA spying on Americans,” he lied. But it’s cooool if you trust him on #Syria …
When Obama talks about the dead children in Syria, do ask him why Syria is a crisis but North Korean labor camps are not even mentioned.
日本の歴史の本で発見：”パールハーバー：。ただ空爆、地上の歩兵を持つ” (Found in the Japanese archives: “Pearl Harbor: Just an airstrike, with no boots on the ground.”)
WaPo (slogan: Obama’s Stenographer) fans flames quoting unnamed source (Israel) about new threat– Syria bioweapons!
Because it’s the morally right thing to do: France says it won’t act alone on Syria, waits for the UN.
Obama: the world cannot remain silent on Syria. Meanwhile, the world disagrees and remains silently unconvinced.
The world has set a red line, he says, but somehow he’s the only one in the world talking about it.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, nor a policy. We do not need another war in the Middle East.
Happened to be reading the chem weapons treaty. Says disputes settled by the UN. Nowhere does it say US’ obligation.
Hagel either lied or was stirring up propaganda: Russia does not supply Syria with chemical weapons.
Other popular international norms: don’t torture, don’t render, don’t violate sovereignty by drone, don’t indefinitely imprison people without trial.
Obama in Egypt: OK to kill your own people. Obama in Syria: Killing your own people means war.
Assad helped the U.S. torture rendered CIA prisoners.
Some brown-skinned dude called me a sissy in the bar, so I beat him to ensure my credibility. Not related to Syria in any way.
If I hear anyone, ever, say “boots on the ground” again, I will puke. Deal with it: It’s US infantry dying on another MidEast battlefield.
Watching Kerry make things up on the spot today, one can’t help but wonder at what point those pharmaceutical grade hallucinogens kicked in.
Kerry says multiple Arab nations support US attack on Syria, says can’t name countries in unclassified setting because “It’s complicated.”
Party Outta Bounds in Pyongyang Ya’all: Kerry says failure to bomb #Syria will cause celebration in North Korea.
Kerry gives weasel answer on “boots on the ground” ’cause a) special forces likely already on ground and b) more troops may go in to seize chemical weapons.
Just called my Congressional reps’ offices to tell them vote no on Syrian attack. Call your reps today.
Syria, thank you for calling. Your attack is important to us. Please stay on the line, and our cruise missiles will be with you shortly.
What is wrong with these people– Kerry says Syria is now a “Munich moment.”
I took a nap and now the war with Syria isn’t about sending a message to Assad anymore? It’s now about sending a message to Iran?
Legal basis for attacking Syria? If the president does it of course it is legal.
Kucinich: “Syria Strike Would Make U.S. Al Qaeda’s Air Force.” Well, there’s something we can all get behind.
Once-great BBC ran Syrian-rebel supplied propaganda photo– actually taken years ago in Iraq– to stir up war fever.
UN says will take weeks to analyze Syria samples for evidence of chem weapons; Kerry says US already has proof.
Mix n’ Match: Obama’s strategy stands in contrast to 2011, when he sought UN authorization for Libya but not approval of Congress.
Kerry: “Assad regime’s chem attack is a crime against conscience, humanity, the norm of int’l community.” AS ARE DRONES AND GITMO.
If the US is sincere about a humanitarian response, send doctors to the refugee camps and nerve gas antidote and gas masks to Syria.
Don’t you wish Nobel Peace prizes came with an expiration date after which they self-destruct?
Mr. President, we’re going to have to convince the American people about this war with Syria. Our polling shows more support for nuking Miley Cyrus the next time she twerks on TV than for your policy.
She does have a sweet little–
We have the Congressional midterms coming up, and Boehner is up my ass about defunding my healthcare legacy. I need this vote, or Hillary’s gonna kill me.
Right, right, sir.
(Licking of chops heard)
Kill them! Kill them all!
Easy Susan, I promise you’ll see the post-attack color close up photos first, then you pass them to McCain like always.
Yes, It likes the Precious Photos, It likes them.
Somebody get her some water or something?
So what’s our reason for Syria?
Hey, do we still have to put five bucks in the tip jar if we say ‘Slam Dunk’?
Seriously now people, we are committing American lives at risk here.
(General laughter in room)
OK, OK. We go to war in Iran–
OK, war in Syria because of a red line.
Is that the same as a line in the sand?
No, ours is red. Very different.
Good one, sir.
Well, Americans have not been hooked tight enough by the red line. We need another reason.
OK, evil dictator, killing his own people, yadda yadda.
That has some traction, but roughly half of the dead in Syria were killed by ‘our own’ rebels, and those were their own people too. What else?
(General laughter in room)
I think U.S. credibility went down the freaking toilet when you promised to close Gitmo and didn’t.
Shut up Chuck. Nobody asked you.
Goddammit, I served in Vietnam.
Yeah, so did John Kerry and Colin Powell, and you don’t see them whining.
So why don’t we just go old-school and say the Syrians attacked us in the Gulf of Tonkin?
Would that work?
Dammit, I had friends killed in Vietnam because of that lie.
I think one of my frat brothers’ dad got greased in Laos. Is that over there too?
Also, I read somewhere that we used napalm, white phosphorus and Agent Orange over there. Are those chemical weapons?
Yeah, but that’s history.
Not to the victims and their malformed children still alive, nor to the loved ones still mourning their dead at America’s hand.
O.K., back on track, how about, um, violation of international law?
(General laughter in room)
Maybe with our drones, ongoing indefinite imprisonment at Gitmo, torture, renditions, black sites, NSA spying on foreign heads of state, bringing down a sovereign leader’s plane because we thought that son-of-a-bitch Snowden was on board, pushing international law too hard might not be the best thing.
Yeah, especially since until around 2006 we were rendering prisoners into Assad’s Syria for out-sourced torture.
OK, back to Iran. We bomb the hell out of Syria to send a message to Iran.
That they can’t support evil regimes.
But the Iranians have been supporting bad guys in Lebanon forever, these days the Taliban in Afghanistan, and basically control our allies in free Iraq. Hell, they even sent Qods force guys into Iraq to kill our own troops. Not sure here why Syria, now, is the place for a message.
So what do we have left?
I’d say we just keep saying ‘WMD, WMD’ over and over again until Americans beg Congress for a military strike on Syria.
I like that a lot. Any opposition? No? OK then, we go with WMD scare tactics.
Might as well.
Agreed. It worked last time.
O.K., thanks everyone. And thank you gentlemen for coming back to Washington to help see this through. John, would you be kind enough to walk W., Dick and Condi out please?
This article also appeared on the Huffington Post
Hah! You just crossed my red line with your chemical weapon eyes, clearing the way to me cruise missile you!
But enough about me. Like me, I am sure that you are overjoyed at the prospect of the U.S. inserting itself even deeper into another MidEast civil war (I think it is still Syria at present but the U.S. could have invaded another place between the time this was written and when you are reading it.)
The United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the U.K. has not supported U.S. military action. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?
Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect women and children? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.
Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.
So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:
The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.
The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.
Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.
The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:
Is it Iraq again? That went well.
Does it have oil?
Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)? Even John Boehner made sense on this question.
Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators?
Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?
Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda, won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?
What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?
Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
BONUS: The U.S.’ use of white phosphorus and tear gas against civilian areas in Fallujah during the liberation of Iraq, and the use of depleted uranium munitions during the Iraq and Afghan crusades clearly do not in any way constitute the use of chemical weapons. Nor did Agent Orange and napalm in Vietnam.
Now at the Washington Institute, a “think” tank, Jeffrey surveyed the current crumbling scene in Iraq from his office window (May is already boiling, and April was the bloodiest month there since 2008, with 712 killed, 1,633 wounded in sectarian violence) and wildly uncorked this remark:
Obama should also signal his willingness to consider new approaches to Iraq if the Maliki government continues its campaign against the Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations.
[Jon Stewart-type mug face to camera look now]
OMG! A willingness, really? And to consider? And the stinger, a new approach?!?
Utter bullshit. All the impact of a David Bowie-Justin Bieber slap fight.
Heavens me, Prime Minister Maliki must be a’ quaking in his sandals. Maliki watched in 2010 as the U.S. stood aside and allowed Iran to broker the election that put him in power. He tried to arrest his Sunni VP practically hours after the last US troops left Iraq. He has seen the U.S. do nothing as he seeks to crush violently the Sunni and Kurd minorities over an extended period of time, including during Ambassador Jeffrey’s own lame tenure. Maliki has allowed Iran to tranship weapons into Syria across Iraq while the U.S. dithered from some dark corner.
Maliki knows a defeated nation when he sees one. This is how America loses wars, former Ambassador Jeffrey.
U.S. completes half a regime change, over-throwing a stable government but fails to emplace a new government. Chaos results.
Balance of power in Middle East upended, Iran ascendant.
Weapons pour from Iran through Iraq into, among other places, Syria and Lebanon.
Americans get killed.
on of Terror. Repeat as necessary.
U.S. completes half a regime change, over-throwing a stable government but fails to emplace a new government. Chaos results.
Weapons pour out of Libya into, among other places, Syria and Mali.
Americans get killed.
Mali has a military coup but fails to emplace a stable government. Chaos results.
Americans and other foreigners are taken hostage in Algeria (asymmetrical war, look it up).
U.S. considers how to intervene militarily.
War on Terror. Repeat as necessary.
That’s not an angry screed, correct? Now, you kids get off my lawn, and turn that damn music down!!!!!!
Hello? FBI? CIA? Diplomatic Security? You have a leak. A source inside the State Department leaked a SECRET cable to reporter Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy.com, and Rogin published details of the cable on the web site. This is exactly what Bradley Manning and Julian Assange did on Wikileaks, so hurry!!!!!!!!!
It is true. You can read the details of what Rogin claims is an actual Secret State Department cable right now online. Except for the Internet, you would otherwise need to work for the State Department or in the intelligence community to see this kind of information. Or maybe be Julian Assange.
Actually, there is no rush. The cable purports to be “evidence” that the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against its insurgents and was clearly and obviously leaked by the Obama team as a trial balloon. You see, Obama needs to test public opinion and/or prep public opinion on some sort of more bloody and “robust” intervention into Syria. Leaking the cable is one way to do that– find a sympathetic writer who will publish the information as an exclusive without committing too much actual journalism by asking questions like “Mr. or Ms. Leaker Person at the State Department, exactly why did you risk your career and indeed confinement in Federal prison to pass a secret level document to a popular web site? Aren’t you aware that Bradley Manning is facing execution for just such a thing?”
(And the cable is crap. Interviews in Turkey with Syrian defectors [facilitated by BASMA, an NGO the State Department hired as one of its ‘implementing partners’ inside Syria. BASMA connected State with willing witnesses] who are trying desperately to get the U.S. drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict for their own benefit. And yes this is exactly what happened with self-serving Iraqi defectors in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion).
So anyway Josh Rogin fans, I doubt he is in danger of arrest. In America, sharing secret documents is a crime only when it isn’t the president doing it.
Better check the weather report to see if it is below freezing in hell, because a) Hillary just said some things that are intelligent and to the benefit of the U.S. and b) no matter how many beers I have cannon-balled this afternoon, I still agree with her and c) OMG.
Madame Clinton, no doubt under the influence of some freakishly diabolical inhaled hallucination agent, said in actual human words:
The U.S. must adopt a sophisticated approach in choosing who to support within Syria for fear of repeating mistakes the U.S. made after invading Iraq in 2003. Supporting the opposition must be paired with endorsing local councils committed to “continuity” and “Syrian governmental institutions,” to ensure these institutional forces don’t collapse. We know from our Iraq experience that can be extremely dangerous.
Clinton went on to add that U.S. hesitancy to get more involved militarily and politically is at least partially because “there are so many interests by all the players, many of which are contradictory.”
OMG. This almost suggests that Clinton has “learned a lesson from history,” that looking at the horrific nightmare created in Iraq has somehow informed her as to how to proceed in a future endeavor. “Learning from one’s mistakes” is commonly held to be a sign of sentient intelligence, an indication of higher brain functionality.
Now, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We know that shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles have magically appeared in Syria this month, a possible game-changer in the same way that U.S.-supplied shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles significantly influenced the outcomes in Libya and 1980’s Afghanistan, not that the U.S. had anything to do with supplying said shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles to Syrian fighters. No, no, that would be wrong. Old Blood ‘n Guts Hils also joined in the chorus of threats if Assad uses chemical weapons, telling us all that “Suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”
We’ll stick to the bright side of life for today, hoping that Clinton’s thoughts are somewhat sincere and representative of the White House’s broader position on Syria (she did drop another sad hint that she is running for president in 2016). Tearing apart the fiber of the Middle East certainly seemed like a good idea when we invaded Iraq in 2003, and when Hillary lustily celebrated the sodomizing of Qaddafi in 2009, and so on, so it is such a nice thing that she wishes to avoid the same scenario today. Yea for progress!
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted Wednesday that the U.S. government has been working to establish a new council to represent the Syrian opposition, to be unveiled in Qatar at a major conference next week. The previous U.S.-organized group, the Syrian National Congress (SNC) is no longer to America’s satisfaction, hence the new group. Ambassador Robert Ford, who had a hand in the Iraq debacle, is back in the saddle putting things together for the Syrians.
After Clinton spoke, at the State Department press briefing, Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner pushed back against reporters’ assertions that the State Department was trying to choose Syrian opposition leaders for the Syrians rather than let them pick their own leaders. “We’re not giving them a list… We have recommended names and organizations that we have been working with,” Toner said.
Mmmm yes, nation building. We’ve done so well with that in Iraq and Afghanistan, so why not Syria? Why, most countries in the world would prefer if the US simply chose, oh, sorry, recommended, their leaders for them.
The fact that the U.S. has dictated that one group, the SNC, be dropped, and another formed on a U.S.-timetable for unveiling at a U.S. event in– where? Qatar? should not be misinterpreted as the U.S. telling anyone what to do. Indeed, it is just like the Continental Congress, where the “right” colonial Americans selected by the Spanish met in Turkey to form a new government.
Yes, things should work out just fine here, just as they did when we last tried this: in
Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.
Whoever the hell is now a “leader” among the thugs and al Qaeda wanna-be’s in Syria has stated that once his guys kill off most of the other guys and thus free Syria, he wants the west to drop a load of cash on him, a new Marshall Plan.
“In the aftermath of the destruction we are convinced Syria needs a Marshall-style plan to ensure it stands again on solid financial and economic ground,” the thug said. “Without real comprehensive development, we will open up the opportunity for the growth of all kinds of extremism.”
The US loves spending money overseas on reconstructing things. We spent $44 billion on Iraq and are over $70 billion in Afghanistan. I’m sure whomever is in the White House when the bank vault is opened to Syria will be tickled pink to reconstruct them too. Using your money, ‘natch.
By the way, the Marshall Plan cost $12.7 billion in 1947 bucks, with its 2008 inflation adjusted cost of $115.3 billion.
I think we should reconstruct America.
So please say this to every politician and political candidate you run across:
For me to give you my vote, do this: for every school, home and road we built in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Syria), build two here at home. For every soldier, hire the same number of people here at home to do the work, at the same pay and the same benefits. Buy all the materials as local as you can.
When the politician says we can’t pay for that, tell’em to pay for it exactly the same way they paid for it when it was happening overseas. When they say we can’t do that because it’s unfair, or unequal or socialism, tell’em to do it here for whatever the hell reason justified it over there. When they say we had to spend the money abroad to defend America, just smile at ‘em and say that building jobs in America defends America better than any killing abroad does. Make them respond to all that. Create jobs, and we’ll see from there.
While Barack “Blood on My Hands Ya’ll” Obama bullied his way through the United Nations, basically saying he was too busy ordering drone strikes with his new NSA-supplied iPhone app to meet with any world leaders, and making a speech demanding regime change Armageddon style in Syria, Russia’s bare chested leader… made… sense.
Putin said things like: “Violence only begets violence,” and that the international community should operate as a united front to soothe the tensions in the Mideast. Looking at how well things have worked out in Iraq, Libya and in Syria, Putin claimed that bloody regime change only fuels further unrest.
Putin also said that attempts to circumvent U.N.-led diplomatic efforts would prove destructive. “Such action is fraught with potential for destabilization and chaos. Life has recently given us proof that this is correct. It is time for us to draw lessons from what is happening.”
FYI: Estimate are that at least 30,000 people have been killed since the Syrian revolt began and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, many fleeing to neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan. Iraq took some 100,000 lives in its US-sponsored regime-change-a-poolza, and they still aren’t done counting heads (when they can be located) in Libya.
It is way whack ya’ll when Bond-villain in waiting Putin makes more sense than our Nobel Peace Prize winning president.
I was interviewed last night by BBC Radio regarding the sad news that an Iraqi court sentenced fugitive former Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to death for his involvement in the killing of two people.
The news is sad not because Hashimi is likely innocent; almost all of the Iraqi leaders have blood on their hands (anybody think Sadr hasn’t whacked a couple of guys in his time?) The sad side is that this move represent a clear marker point for when historians will acknowledge the unambiguous and utter failure of the US to establish the rule of law in Iraq despite nine years of playing at it. Prime Minister Maliki began consolidating his power literally within hours of the last US troops leaving Iraq and has never slowed down. Announcing his government’s intent to “legally” kill off his Sunni opponent is simply another step beyond hope for a peaceful solution in Iraq. Oh, and some 92 people were killed across the country this same day by various suicide bombers and what have you. As best anyone knows, Hashimi is hiding out in Turkey waiting for the Apocalypse.
And just to make sure it remains a valid player in the rough and tumble world of Iraqi politics, on the day of Hashimi’s death sentence, and following the killings of 92 Iraqis, the US Embassy in Baghdad released this Tweet:
The other news from Iraq involves Syria.
The New York Times dutifully tells us that Iran is shipping military equipment to Syria over Iraqi airspace in a new effort to bolster the embattled government of President Assad of Syria. The Obama administration is pressing Iraq to shut down the air corridor, raising the issue with Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq. This has all been going on for some time now, with the US making its pleas quietly (“soft power”) but Obama, by going public, imagines he is turning up the heat.
Why, this is so important that Joe Biden is in charge. Uncle Joe discussed the Syrian crisis in a phone call with Maliki in mid-August. The White House has declined to disclose details, but an American official who would not speak on the record told the NYT that Biden had “registered his concerns” over the flights.
Ooooooooh you’re in trouble now. We’ve “registered our concerns.” Watch out, next we’ll “view you with increasing concern.”
That yawning sound you hear is from Baghdad. The Iraqis in general and PM Malaki in particular could care less what America thinks. Might have something to do with those nine years of failed occupation and reconstruction that turned his country into a crappy version of a used car junk yard, but what do I know.
So yes, yes, another round in the US-Iran proxy war. I wrote about this w-a-y back in November 2011.
The US is only now starting to publicly admit one of the many costs of losing the Iraq war, an empowered Iran bordered by at best a passive Iraq, more likely an allied Iraq. Never one to consider secondary or tertiary effects of failed empire, the US now cannot back away. Whatever forms of quiet persuasion the US thought would be effective in separating Maliki from his Iranian support have clearly failed, hence the (first?) public denunciations. What’s left to lose?
Once again the US kicked over another MidEast ant hill (Syria) without any clear idea what the end game would be. Sorry Syrian peoples! Iran has pushed into the gap, its efforts made easier with Iraq allowing transshipment of arms. Of course the US is only publicly talking about overflights, but there is an awful lot of Iranian truck traffic into Iraq and the Iraq-Syrian border is wholly porous.
I think we are seeing the first public admittance of failure in Iraq, albeit with an anti-Iran twist. But as I wrote in November 2011, this is nothing new. It just stinks more now for the extra time out in the sunlight.
Remember when the State Department, and the United Nations, had something to do with diplomacy and treaties and peaceful resolution of conflicts?
Susan Rice doesn’t.
On Der Twitter:
Rice has a Facebook page, so feel free to leave a bloody hand print or a comment there. She is a bubbly sort. Perky. Why here, on August 8, she Facebooked:
Tonight, less than a year after the end of Qadhafi’s brutal reign, Libya seats its newly elected Congress. Another step forward.
Luckily I was able to link her social media ejaculation to her own State Department’s travel advice on Libya:
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Libya.
Libya’s General National Congress replaced the Transitional National Council in August 2012 and will lead the country until elections are held on the basis of a new constitution. Despite this progress, violent crime continues to be a problem in Tripoli, Benghazi, and other parts of the country. In particular, armed carjacking and robbery are on the rise. In addition, political violence, including car bombings in Tripoli and assassinations of military officers and alleged former regime officials in Benghazi, has increased.
In the almost two years since I left Iraq, and left behind the stories in my book, sadly little has happened that challenges the thesis in We Meant Well, that we failed in the reconstruction of Iraq and through that failure, lost the war. The last US troops gratefully departed Iraq in 2011. The cost of the war is thus calculable, finite in its grimness, hard to look at like staring into that desert sun: 4484 Americans dead, over 100,000 Iraqis dead, tens of thousands wounded, thousands without limbs, thousands more whose minds were destroyed by what they saw and did as surely as any IED would shred their flesh.
The Iraq we created with our war is a mean place, unsafe and unstable. Life goes on there, as it does, surely, but a careful reading of the international news shows the ongoing angry symphony of suicide bombers and targeted killings continues, just continues.
Oh, but it was worth it (we got rid of an evil dictator, Iraq is free, oil, whatever). Proof that that is wrong: Iraqi maternity hospitals are seeing a new born trend: children given “neutral” names that don’t reveal their family’s religious or political affiliations. Because in Iraq, having the wrong name in the wrong place can still get you killed. The office at the entrance to the Salam Hospital in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul is full of people. This is the office where births are registered and it’s located next to the delivery and operating rooms, near the main entrance. A male clerk there is doing his routine work: he receives forms on which new born babies’ times of birth, sex, fathers and intended names are written. And this clerk has noticed a significant trend: parents are giving their newborns names that don’t give away which sect of Islam their family belongs to, Shiite or Sunni Muslim. They’re calling their children names that are either neutral – so it’s impossible to say whether the child’s family is Shiite or Sunni – or they’re being christened with totally new monikers that have no such history, the clerk says.
“The people are using these new names to protect the next generation from a civil war,” a local writer says. “Many murders have been motivated by sectarian motives and, according to police records, a lot of people died because their names revealed their sectarian allegiances.”
There remains our legacy, and while the US public may have changed the channel to a more exciting show in Syria or Iran, the Iraqis are held in amber.
The US can’t contain its glee over the ongoing chaos and destruction in Syria. A massive bombing that killed senior officials, an act that would have instantly been labeled terrorism anywhere else, was delightfully lightly commented on by the White House. Atrocities are occurring on all sides (it is too complex to simply refer to the ongoing free-for-all as “both” sides, as if this was a sporting match) but the US seems to single out nasty things done by the government while downplaying those by the other side(s), including a growing who’s who of Middle East terror groups.
While more-or-less openly supporting chaos, the US still feels the need on a random summer Friday to play at the same tired rhetoric of “democracy and freedom” (“daf”) that it trots out now and then. Today’s trotter is US ambassador to Syria in exile Robert Ford. Ford is an old State Department hand, with plenty of mileage in the Iraq fiasco to his credit, and rumored in fact to be the next ambassador nominee to Iraq.
Ford’s address “to the Syrian people” takes place in English and on Facebook for some reason. He is not Lincoln or Pericles. While it is barely worth the effort itself of the mouse click, the comments below it, many purportedly from Syrians, are worth your time.
One writes “Our memory is LONG LONG LONG Mr. Ford, who the hell do you think you are messing with?” while another is more to the point in saying “piss off Ford.”
Read the whole thing yourself now on freaking Facebook and of course feel free to comment yourself.
Bonus: It appears that most Americans are ignoring this “address” by Ford, confusing “Syria” with Siri the Apple robot voice or Suri, Tom Cruise’s child.
Full Disclosure: Yeah, OK, I commented appropriately on Facebook. Also, Ford was Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad while I served in Iraq, and almost fired me over the idiotically wasteful “Sheep for Widows” project I opposed, as outlined in my book.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released July 16 shows that overall more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. What should be staggering news pointing out a crisis in government is in fact barely worth a media mention in that State’s lack of personnel is silently tracking its increasing irrelevance to the United States, sliding into the role of America’s Concierge abroad.
Numbers are Much Worse Than at First Glance
In fact, broken down, it is much worse. At the senior levels, the alleged leaders of America’s diplomacy, the number is 36 percent vacant or filled with “stretch” assignments, people of lower rank and experience pressed into service. At the crucial midranks, the number is 26 percent. Entry level jobs are at 28 percent, though it is unclear how some of those can be filled with stretch assignments since they are already at the bottom.
In fact though, it is much worse. Within State’s Foreign Service ranks, there exists the Consular Bureau and everyone else. Consular stands quite separate from the other Foreign Service Officers in that Consular employees have very specific worker bee jobs processing passports and visas and are not involved in the “traditional” diplomatic tasks we know and love such as maintaining inter-government relations, writing reports, negotiating treaties, rebuilding Afghanistan and all that. Many of these jobs are filled because they have to be, cash cow that issuing visas is for increasingly foreign tourism dependent third world America. That means broken down by function, it is likely that there are even larger gaps in vacancies in traditional diplomatic roles than even the sad percentages suggest.
These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008. GAO says in its report that “Although the State Department is attempting to compensate by hiring retirees and placing current civil service employees in Foreign Service jobs, it ‘lacks a strategy to fill those gaps.’”
(State has 10,490 Civil Service employees and was only able to convert four employees to the Foreign Service. That’s a 0.03813 percent conversion rate to help bridge the gap, so much for that idea. Want another perspective? Here’s why some Civil Servants might pass on the chance to become FSOs.).
In response to GAO, State said it agreed that its workforce planning should be updated to include a strategy to address staffing gaps and a plan to evaluate the strategy.
State’s somnolent response to what should be a crisis call (anyone wish to speculate on what the response might be to a report that the military is understaffed by 36 percent at the senior levels?) tells the tale. It really doesn’t matter, and even State itself knows.
What vibrant it-really-matters institution could persist with staffing gaps over time as gaping as State’s? Seriously friends, if your organization can continue to mumble along with over one out of four slots un/underfilled, that kinda shows that you don’t matter much.
And such is now the case with the US Department of State.
The Militarization of Foreign Policy
The most obvious sign of State’s irrelevance is the militarization of foreign policy. There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has about 22,000. The Department of Defense (DOD) has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the US.
At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. The most recent round of bloodletting saw State lose some $8 billion while DOD gained another $5 billion. The found fiver at DOD will hardly be noticed in their overall budget of $671 billion. The $8 billion loss from State’s total of $47 billion will further cripple the organization. The pattern is familiar and has dogged State-DOD throughout the war of terror years. No more taxi vouchers and office supplies for you! What you do get for your money is the militarization of foreign policy.
As Stephen Glain wrote in his book, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, the combatant commands are already the putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial affairs in their regions. Local leaders receive them as powerful heads of state, with motorcades, honor guards and ceremonial feats. Their radiance obscures everything in its midst, including the authority of US ambassadors.
Glain’s point is worth quoting at length:
This yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources [though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1], however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him.
While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. “When we spoke, we had more clout,” according to Anthony Zinni. “There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.”
America’s Concierge Abroad
The increasing role of the military in America’s foreign relations sidelines State. The most likely American for a foreigner to encounter in most parts of the world now, for better or worse, carries a weapon and drives a tank.
Among the many disclosures made in the alleged 250,000 alleged State Department alleged documents dumped on to Wikileaks was the uber revelation that most of State’s vaunted reporting on foreign events is boring, trivial and of little practical value (though well-written and punctuated properly). Apart from a few gossipy disclosures about foreign leaders and sleazy US behind-the-scenes-deals with crappy MidEast dictators, there were few dramatic KABOOMs in those cables. Even now State is struggling in the Bradley Manning trial to demonstrate that actual harm was done to national security by the disclosures.
Lop off a quarter or so of the Foreign Service for Consular work, which hums by more or less independent of the rest of the State Department.
That leaves for the understaffed Department of State pretty much only the role of concierge. America’s VIPs and wanna be VIPs need their hands held, their security arranged, their motorcades organized and their Congressional visits’ hotels and receptions handled, all tasks that falls squarely on the Department of State and its embassies abroad. “Supporting” CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on semi-official shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling, VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over, and demands for this and that by so-called important people that rivaled rock star concert riders— no green M&Ms!
Best Cappuccino in Tripoli
Take another look at the photo above, of old man McCain visiting our embassy in Libya. The cut line read “US Amb. to #Libya Chris Stevens – one of America’s finest diplomats also makes one of the best cappuccinos in #Tripoli.”
McCain meant the comment as a compliment, and looking at the ambassador’s face, he is quite pleased with himself to be serving coffee to the Senator. Can anyone imagine a similar photo from Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa showing a Marine general in a similar stance?
No, you can’t.
Understaffed, with roughly a quarter of its jobs unfilled and no plan to do anything about it, fits the State Department just fine. It is, sadly, a perfect example of an evolutionary process of government right-sizing, fitting the resources well to the actual job. RIP State, you rest now, it’s almost over.
Well, she sounds like a candidate. Hillary said this recently, and I could not agree with her more on priorities:
Rather than spending money on implements of war, feed your people, provide education and health care.
The problem of course was that Dear Hillary was talking through the media to the Dear Leader in North Korea. While America slides endlessly into its Wiemar state, Clinton is all full of good advice for North Korea.
The bad news is that she once again coupled her good advice with the same old passive-aggressive crap that the US seems to peddle as a foreign policy. Hils just couldn’t stop herself from adding “Kim Jung Un has a choice to make– become a transformative leader or continue the Communist nation’s existing policies, which would lead to its demise.”
Yawn. On Syria, Clinton said “Assad’s days are numbered,” and “the sand is running out of the hourglass.” With Iran, it was “We want them to take concrete steps,” and “I am convinced that one of the reasons that Iran came back to the negotiating table was because of the success of our pressure strategy.” On Libya, it was famously “We came, we saw, he died.”
We keep the old myth alive that America is some special place, but in fact we’re like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself yelling at the kids to get off the lawn. In my town, that was Mr. Voriseky. He’d always be upset about anyone stepping on his grass, or a ball in his yard. Sometimes he’d come out shouting with a baseball bat, or, in some versions, a shotgun (though repeated by generations of high school kids no one ever actually saw a gun, though many older brothers’ friends’ friends did). Nobody respected old man Voriseky, even after we found out he was in the war or was some survivor of something or whatever. We stayed off his lawn because he had that bat, nothing more.
What’s so surprising is how quickly it all happened. American went from big empty space to king of the world in a handful of generations, rode the wave for only two or three and now this. The generations that lived this dream we keep hearing about could fit into a weekend family reunion but we keep talking about them like they lasted longer than the dinosaurs. People stay away because of the big bat but it isn’t respect and doesn’t last after the old man turns his back, cursing, and goes back inside to Family Feud reruns.
Hillary, haven’t you heard? No one is listening.
The White House said Tuesday the thought of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad chortling over his iTunes collection while his people were being slaughtered was “sickening.” Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney was responding to reports in the Guardian newspaper about Assad’s purported emails, which lifted the lid on the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the Syrian leader and his wife.
It’s really sickening if you think about it that a man who is overseeing the slaughter of his own people is chortling about evading sanctions and getting an iTunes account.
Good for you Jay. Good for you. Probably got a high five from the boss for that zinger.
On the other hand, back in October, I wrote on this blog:
Here is your Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary is America’s top diplomat. She practices diplomacy, which in one sense as been defined as “the employment of tact to gain strategic advantage or to find mutually acceptable solutions to a common challenge, one set of tools being the phrasing of statements in a non-confrontational, or polite manner.” Now, here is our diplomat talking about the death of Qaddafi. She says “we came, we saw, he died” and then laughs about that with some robo journalist.
For all those who write in complaining that I am at times crude or offensive, chortling over anyone’s death is a disgrace. What’s next, displaying the skulls of our enemies in the Foggy Bottom lobby? Oh my god America, what have we become?
In return for my chortling reference, the State Department is seeking to fire me. Here’s the charge:
Like all else in Washington, I guess it is all about who you know. Now, let’s all have a hearty chortle over some amusing tidbit in the news…
Remember diplomacy, when the US once did stuff with other countries other than invade them and fly drone missions to kill their citizens (and our own) ’cause we can? When our State Department did not try to out macho the Department of Defense and the Patriots linebackers in its public statements?
Fred “Blood on a Knife’s Edge” Hoff, the State Department’s point manly-man on Syria (World’s Longest Official Title: Special Coordinator for Regional Affairs at the Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace) does not remember. In an interview, Fred “Big Balls” Hof, called Syrian leader Assad a “dead man walking,” and in a somewhat weird mix of things, referred to Syria as turning into “Pyongyang in the Levant.”
‘Dude might as well have been makin’ prison rape jokes ’bout Assad, calling da’ bitch out for some. Yo’ Dog and Chuck, yens are our new diplomats, so negotiate THIS chunky piece o’ freedom motherf*cker. Word.
In an apparently equally cheesy bid to promote defections, Fred “the Stud” Hof warned Syrian troops and Assad’s top aides that Assad may be setting them up for possible war crimes by claiming that the army was not his to command. “It’s difficult to imagine a more craven disclaimer of responsibility,” Hof told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Perhaps it is a rehearsal for the time when accountability will come… your president will place the blame for crimes committed squarely on you.”
One assumes then that Assad and other Syrian leaders will not be offered visas to the US for “medical treatment” as the US did with the latest pal dictator to not be held accountable for his crimes, Yemen’s Saleh.
Hof “the Hit Man” follows his boss, Hillary “Cutter” Clinton in employing street tough talk about world leaders the US wishes dead, or the US Embassy in Kabul chortling over Taliban deaths on Twitter.
This isn’t about Assad being a good guy, it is about us, the US, needing to act like a mature adult to have a chance at reclaiming any respect in the world, ’cause nobody likes a bully and nobody comes to aid a bully when his victims turn on him.
The Neocon script for Iraq was clear that the flood of crude oil out of a free Iraq would pay for the war, both in actual costs and as a reward for having the courage to invade. Yeah, I know, that did not work out.
I wrote previously about twelve reasons why Iraq will not be a major oil exporter anytime soon. Let’s have another look at reason no. 7:
Oil Guy said the pipeline to Syria was built “back in the day” and looks like Swiss Cheese, full of holes (and a Scooby snack for the allusion!) The pipeline into Turkey is a bit better but can only handle about twenty percent of the oil, and has not had a full pressure test since 1991. That means eighty percent has to be piped down to the one deep water port Iraq has and shipped out through the Gulf by tanker. Somebody (such as Oil Guy) needs to first build all the piping and terminals and shipping stuff which are not there right now. Of course, that builder needs to be careful, because most of the countries in the neighborhood get their fresh water via desalinization plants that draw from the Gulf. An oil spill in an Iraqi port hastily thrown together would create an ecological and political disaster across the entire region that would make the BP Louisiana Gulf fiasco seem like just more spilled milk no one should cry over…
Unfortunately, today’s news confirms the sad state of Iraq’s oil infrastructure:
Iraq’s oil exports through the main oil pipeline, carrying Iraqi crude through Turkey, have stopped entirely, due to leakage, caused by erosion of the of the main line close to Salahal-Din Province, a source at Iraq’s North Oil Company in Kirkuk reported on Thursday. “Oil exports stopped from Kirkuk since Wednesday morning, across the Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline, because of a case of leakage of crude oil from the main line,” the source told Aswat al-Iraq news agency.
This is not the only recent incident.
An explosion at Iraq’s biggest oil field earlier in September sparked a massive fire that partially halted crude production. The blast, which left at least 15 people injured, occurred at a gas compressor at the Rumaila oil field, which runs along Iraq’s border with Kuwait. A maintenance team was changing equipment on the compressor when the explosion happened, causing the fire.
Still wondering why Iraq’s oil output in 2011 is roughly the same as it was in 2003? Best read the entire article.
When it comes to protecting the rights of bloggers in places like Syria and China, the State Department has no end of energy. Democracy, State says, demands an open and free exchange of ideas, even when they are critical of the government. Rock the power! in those dirty places abroad.
However, when it comes to stifling free speech among its own employees, the State Department seems also to have no end of energy. The Department asserts:
Publicly available Internet communications on matters of official concern, including blog postings, must be reviewed by the employee’s agency. 3 FAM 4172.1-3(A)1. See also 5 FAM 792.2b and 5 FAM 792.3d. Thus, there can be no question that employees must submit blog postings for review if they address matters of official concern.
This of course is a pretty big job, reviewing the blog postings, Tweets, Facebook updates, MySpace posts, IMs, texts, chat room lines, bulletin board contributions and listservs of thousands of employees worldwide, 24/7.
Just as an example, one of the Department’s own websites links directly to dozens of private blogs (but not this one!) by Foreign Service Officers and others. These sites contain pages of postings, which apparently the State Department is committed to monitoring. While there are quite a variety of opinions expressed, they are no doubt all approved as required. An even longer list is online, suggesting daily blog posts in the thousands need to be vetted.
Anything less than 100 percent vigilance would be a) selective enforcement (i.e., prejudicial enforcement aimed only at free speech the Department disagrees with and seeks to punish or restrain) and b) risk allowing some snippet of unfettered speech to slip through that could destroy the foreign policy space-time continuum as we know it. In its own words, the purpose of State Department review of all of these blog posts is to screen out statements which “could cause serious damage to US foreign policy, and in particular US diplomatic efforts and military activities.” Heavy Doc, heavy.
One blog about the Foreign Service, Diplopundit, tracks other Statey blogs that have been forced to stop publishing by the Department. State unleashes senior Deputy Assistant Secretaries to quietly threaten the careers of bad bloggers and, if that does not work, invokes its internal discipline system as if the blogs contained the nuclear launch codes, passwords to the Wikileak servers and Hillary’s Victoria Secret orders all in one.
Who knows how many thousands of people must work in Foggy Bottom’s Ministry of Truth just to keep up with the flood of blog postings needing to be reviewed. It is even more amazing that somehow the hundreds of blogs keep publishing articles every day, despite the mandatory review process which can take up to 30 days (State claims “30 days” means thirty business days, so it is really close to six weeks of human time.)
A weaker mind might assume that State does indeed selectively enforce its rules, whacking hard blogs that speak out, while avoiding applying pressure to nice blogs that tow the party line. Why, one could even think that discipline was selectively used to make an example out of FSOs who say things that while true, leave senior officials more than upset.
If only State could spare a couple of drones from the censorship department to help out over in contracting oversight, things might be better off.
It seems that the State Department has only now gotten around to noticing an analyst who may have helped award millions in contracts to a company run by her husband and daughter. The analyst helped her husband’s company win 43 taxpayer-funded contracts in recent years, while she and her husband kept their relationship secret from the State Department.
You are, as an organization, the product of what you do, what you choose to do with your resources. In tough, tough budget times, State chooses to aggressively and selectively police its bloggers, while casually allowing spectacular contracting fraud to pass unnoticed.
Hopefully as Congress sits down to make its budget cuts, they will take this into consideration.
See Part One if you missed it…
Oil Guy said the pipeline to Syria was built “back in the day” and looks like Swiss Cheese, full of holes (and a Scooby snack for the allusion!) The pipeline into Turkey is a bit better but can only handle about twenty percent of the oil, and has not had a full pressure test since 1991. That means eighty percent has to be piped down to the one deep water port Iraq has and shipped out through the Gulf by tanker. Somebody (such as Oil Guy) needs to first build all the piping and terminals and shipping stuff which are not there right now. Of course, that builder needs to be careful, because most of the countries in the neighborhood get their fresh water via desalinization plants that draw from the Gulf. An oil spill in an Iraqi port hastily thrown together would create an ecological and political disaster across the entire region that would make the BP Louisiana Gulf fiasco seem like just more spilled milk no one should cry over…
Umm Qasr is Iraq’s only deep water port. It represents the door in for the massive amount of heavy equipment needed to extract the oil and the door out for the oil on its way to the world. The place is in terrible condition, reported to be the worst port in the Middle East. Umm Qasr is now prioritized for grain imports, needed to feed the population. Grain unloading will need to stop before oil equipment can be moved through the limited terminal space. Iraq charges some of the world’s highest port fees as well, close to $8000 for services that cost no more than $1000 anywhere else on the planet. Bribery and corruption are rumored to be nasty business (the use of the word “rumored” here by Oil Guy means “absolutely taking place.”) The Ministry of Oil is supposedly trying to negotiate a deal to bring in the extraction gear overland through Kuwait, but given that Kuwait is an oil competitor and cranky about Iraq invading it in 1991 (and still not having paid its reparations), that may not work out well. Of course the future is always bright, as Iraq has big plans to build a new port at the town of Fao; construction has only just started.
You’d think oil and water don’t mix, and they don’t. However, one good way to get oil out of the ground is to pump fresh water under it, forcing the oily goodness upward. Turns out, said Oil Guy, that you need fresh water to do this because salt water clogs up the sand and does not work as well. Iraq or Oil Guy will need to build whopper-sized desalinization plants, because the supply of fresh water is decreasing as Syria, Turkey and Iran build dams that choke off the Tigris, Euphrates and other rivers that supply Iraq with its fresh water. If the oil companies decide to go with salt water, then lengthy pipelines and pumping stations which use a lot of electricity are needed instead. These would take a few years to construct.
Iraq has an acute shortage of electricity, and a shaky, inefficient grid to move the power around. Oil work, especially all the pumping needed to shoot the oil from the extraction site to the port, needs megawatts of power that currently do not exist in Iraq and will need to be found. Everybody argues over the numbers, but we’ll go with Iraq being able to generate 4500 megawatts on demand in 2002, 4000 megawatts after the invasion, down to 3600 megawatts at present as the infrastructure degrades. Whatever the exact numbers, the curve is downward, while demand increases require it to trend upward for any hope of success. Iraq’s Minister of Electricity resigned in June 2010, a move prompted by several days of violent demonstrations in the south spurred by electricity shortages. His acting replacement, The Minister of Oil, has so far failed to achieve any growth in domestic electrical output. He has, however, increased the import of electricity, seventy-eight percent of which is now coming from Iran.
Most of Iraq’s oil is in so-called “green” virgin fields, untapped. No one has done the thorough geological work that is needed, plus test wells, delineation wells (Snack!) and the like. This will take two or three years. The rest of the infrastructure needs Bob the Builder time as well so it might be four or five years before the oil starts to flow. Even some of the smaller “brown” fields that have been tapped since the 1920’s will need several years’ of work to bring into flower.
OPEC was founded in Baghdad in September 1960 and Iraq served in a leadership role for the group until the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Sentimentality, however, counts for little in the oil world. As Iraq cranks up its oil production, it stands to rival Saudi Arabia as a supplier to the world (US and China). More oil typically means lower prices (capitalism again) and it is possible OPEC, to include Iran, is not going to be happy to see the market flooded and oil prices drop so Iraq can be a happier place. Iraq will argue it should be allowed to over produce to make up for lost time, and the US would welcome the extra production to negate loses on the world market caused by its Iranian sanctions, but it is unclear Iraq’s neighbors will be so generous, especially as mini-revolutions spark up around the region; not a good time to mess with the economy. In December 2009 Iran may have been testing out a preemptive warning shot when it sent troops across the border to briefly occupy an Iraqi well head in Fakka. Given the naughty role other OPEC neighbors such as Syria and Saudi Arabia even now play in the shadows of Iraqi politics and security, this might turn out badly (violence).
One pundit argues that the war was all about oil, so much so that the original name was Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL), only later changed to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Only his argument is that the goal was to seize and then sideline Iraq’s reserves to keep the market price high for a barrel of that sweet, sweet black gold.
Kuwait is already lining up for a fight. Kuwait will attempt to seize Iraqi oil assets abroad when international legal protections end on June 30 – a move that will create problems for the international oil companies that are paid by Iraq in crude in lieu of (unavailable) hard currency. Kuwait seeks to enforce a 2006 British Court ruling against Iraqi Airways, for stealing $1.2 billion worth of equipment during the first Gulf War. Good times ahead.
So given all these things to do before they get totally oil drunk rich, you’d think Iraq would be out there getting crazy on oil work, staying up late and working weekends. They are not.
In 2009 the Ministry of Oil spent only $391 million dollars out of an allocated budget of $1.4 billion. Capital spending on oil represented twenty-seven percent of the country’s budget, not bad until you see that even the “Other” category in the budget was twenty-one percent. The Ministry of Finance is having a hard time coordinating all this money, having been suicide bombed three times since August 2009. Oil Guy said he had been to their most recent temporary offices (a brave man, and another Scooby snack!) and they had plastic garbage bags filled with unpaid invoices piled up. They were months behind on accounting and have no idea what their revenues and expenses might be. The country is run literally on paper ledger-based accounting systems. To make things worse, oil output in June 2010 actually fell over the previous month’s total. Fast forward: In March 2011, Iraq’s oil exports dropped two percent compared to the previous month.
So who cares, right? Iraq has gotten along being poor for awhile now and while it has not been pretty, it has remaining stable. We in the West have all mumbled along without Iraqi oil for like, dude, forever, and drive rainbow-powered Prius’ and have solar powered iPads. Cool, we don’t need the oil. But Iraq does. It really needs the oil really badly because Iraqis continue to have babies.
Iraq has a population of about thirty million people, with a median age of twenty years old. The population growth rate is 2.5 percent (neighbor Iran by comparison has a population growth rate of less than one percent). Iraq is going to see a huge population bulge and needs to create some 250,000 jobs a year every year for awhile to accommodate all these people. The oil industry is not labor intensive; oil can produce enormous wealth but not so many jobs. Iraq’s financial future is based on becoming something of an oil welfare state, using the oil revenues to fund education (the last comprehensive budget allotted only four percent to education), infrastructure and jobs for its growing population. People without work tend to drift, and in a country where the oil deposits are not equally distributed and where folks seemingly join up with insurgent groups like we patronize drive-throughs for burgers, that is a bad recipe.
By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: (allegedly, cough, cough) Iranian-made IEDs. These shaped lens explosively formed penetrating devices fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. You found Iranian products in the markets, and the tourism business around significant Shia shrines was run by and for Iranians. They were at minimum fighting a proxy war in Iraq, and that war was very, very real for me.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, said a famous philosopher. The advice never applied more than to the 1980’s hottest couple, Dapper Don Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein (note for young people: the US and Iraq were BFFs then; yeah, it is confusing, roll with it).
Saddam, seeking to impress The Donald, gave him a VHS tape (note for young people: VHS is what DVDs were in the dark times before your birth). The tape shows retro-hot female Syrian soldiers killing live snakes by biting them, while Syrian dictator Papa Assad watches. The snakes are then BBQ’ed and eaten. The female soldiers go on to stab puppies to death for the crowd’s approval; the puppies are not eaten, at least on screen.
See the 1983 puppy killing video here.