• Archive of "Syria" Category

    Biden’s Foreign Policy; the Biden Doctrine

    January 22, 2024 // 4 Comments »

    Joe Biden ordered airstrikes on Iraq, against Iranian-backed militants, in retaliation for recent attacks by those militants that severely injured three American soldiers. Joe didn’t consult with Congress or anyone else before ordering the strikes, and no declaration of war exists of course. Yet no one believes the militias, following their spanking, will disappear or stop harming Americans.

    That sums up the Biden Foreign Policy, call it a doctrine if you’d like: a series of geopolitically unsuccessful, inconsequential, mostly reactive unilateral actions, with no end game. Underlying it all is the sense that no one is particularly frightened, respectful or wary of American power anymore. Let’s see how this worked on a global scale over the last three bloody years.

    The disastrous evacuation of Kabul in August 2021 should have warned all of us we were dealing with foreign policy amateurs. The rush for the last planes was an expected unexpected event. Yet the Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February with high-value personnel, nor did it negotiate ahead of time for third country landing rights. Mistakes made as long ago as Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, yet Biden did not kick start processing SIV visas for translators and others until literally the last flights were scheduled out. The entire evacuation appeared as an unplanned free fall, just “land some planes and see if that works.” No endgame really, simply a unilateral decision to cap the evacuation off at a certain point in time and declare it over no matter who was or was not saved.

    Ukraine is some yellowed vision of cold war. The Biden plan was based on a Wonka-like act of imagination, that U.S. arms wielded by amateur fighters backed up by intelligence, space-based targeting, and special forces infiltrated on the ground would hastily defeat a determined opponent (See Afghanistan, failure of the same strategy, 2001-2003.) When the miracle cure strategy failed, there was no Plan B except to continue to pour arms in to a war that had no clear end game, that was not winnable, only sustainable. Meanwhile, Biden restrictions on domestic mining mean the United States is the largest purchaser of Russian enriched uranium. If the Russians are scared of American power they hide that well.

    The results have not been better elsewhere. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine preceeded what one pundit described as “the 2023 brazen Chinese spy balloon’s uncontested trajectory over the United States, the recent Hamas invasion of Israel, the serial Iranian-fueled terrorist attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq and Syria, and the terrorist Houthis’ veritable absorption of the Red Sea. America’s enemies had become opportunistic, not deterred.” Biden took the bait at each open-ended opportunity, and now Joe is dangerously close to letting Gaza and Yemen spiral into a global conflict.

    And so another “coalition” fight, this time in Ukraine with NATO, ended up a U.S. primary struggle. It is NATO mostly walking away from the meat of the Ukraine struggle, and the baby NATO coalition elsewhere of France, Italy, and others that was supposed to control the Red Sea breaking down. It is a thin gruel of happy talk about caring for civilians backed up by unlimited arms to Israel, handled so poorly diplomatically that the U.S. has inherited pariah status globally. The modern version of American power was demonstrated when Egypt snubbed Joe Biden’s visit over the mess in Gaza. The question of Palestine, always simmering, is now another major issue to divide Red and Blue and further polarize society. In addition to receiving $6 billion in frozen oil funds from Biden as a ransom for five American hostages, Iran controls the playbook, attacking with impunity via its proxies across Iraq, Syria, and southern Lebanon; Iran’s partners carried out more than 100 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria and the Red Sea.  They decide if and when the 1:1 conflict with Israel goes regional, and the U.S. will be again forced to react. The Houthis, also Iran-backed, have dragged the U.S. into a broad promise to keep the Red Sea open to shipping, as the world rolls its eyes as Pax Americana once again looks like a punchline. Can anyone say we are still indispensable?

    Another Biden foreign policy disaster has come home, literally, in the immigration crisis. For reasons too vague to enunciate, the Biden administration did away with any semblance of immigration law and flung open the southern border to anyone interested in wandering in. Already more than eight million illegal entrants have come across, with another quarter-million entering each month. As in Ukraine and elsewhere, there is no endgame. When will the border close? How much will caring for the millions cost (New York City has processed more than 160,000 migrants; some 70,000 remain in the city’s care. In Denver, caring for the new migrants has consumed 10 percent of the city’s budget)? The United States has now exceeded, both in real numbers and in percentages, all past numbers of non-native born American residents. What impact on our greater society will such an influx have, especially given how it is targeted at a handful of cities? Will the Russians ever surrender? What about the immigrants?

    Three years ago, there was no war in Ukraine and certainly no U.S. military involvement in the Crimea and Donbas. Israel and Hamas existed in their tinder-like stasis condition, no brutal massacre of 1,600 Jews (30 of whom were Americans) and no invasion of Gaza. Campus protestors limited their protestations that they were not anti-Semitic in their hatred of Israel. Iran and the U.S. cooperated on fighting ISIS in Iraq, uneasy partners for certain but not shooting cousins as now. The Houthi struggle was confined within Yemen’s borders. On the positive side, efforts were being made to watch diplomacy bloom with North Korea, which instead is now test firing missiles aplomb once again. Biden has made no progress on China either to limit their opportunistic stance or reduce their hold over America economically. Biden has largely ignored most of Africa and South America as well as the world’s most populous democracy (and nuclear power) India. It is impossible to call it progress and all too easy to call it sadly the Biden Doctrine.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    A Blank Check Again in the Middle East

    November 16, 2023 // 7 Comments »

    Did anyone ask you (or maybe Congress) if it was OK to go to war again in the Middle East? After literal decades of fighting in that troubled part of the world, it looks like the U.S. is without discussion, never mind vigorous debate, already at war in various sub-theatres of someone else’s conflict. See if anything that’s going on seems like war to you.

    — The U.S. is flying drones over Gaza. The Pentagon says the unmanned aerial vehicle flights began after Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel and are being conducted “in support of hostage recovery efforts.” The drone missions are also providing “advice and assistance” to Israel. A total of seven different aircraft are flying across the region, four of them per day, passing information to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF.) The U.S. is also supplying precision-guided munitions, fighter aircraft, and air defense capabilities, such as interceptors for Israel’s Iron Dome counter-drone systems, to the IDF.

    — U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are in Israel. Officials anonymously told the New York Times several dozen special operators are on the ground working with the FBI, the State Department, and other U.S. government hostage recovery specialists. A senior Pentagon official told the “Forever Wars” blog that SOF are preparing for “contingencies,” which may include the active retrieval of hostages from Hamas. The U.S. previously said it has sent military advisers to help Israel. Christopher Maier, an assistant secretary of defense, indicated other soldiers have also been deployed. “We’re actively helping the Israelis to do a number of things,” Maier said.

    — Two American veteran-run organizations, the Special Operations Association of America (SOAA) and Save Our Allies, sent roughly two dozen volunteers, all former special operators, into Israel and Egypt to support evacuations. Each volunteer was chosen based on having experience working with Egyptians or Israelis. They arrange for local nationals to provide food and medical supplies to trapped Americans, and they have interfaced with the Egyptian military personnel who ultimately have to approve Americans’ departure. The special operations volunteers also coordinate directly with the IDF to ensure Americans are not targeted. They call their work “sheparding” and forswear a kinetic role. SOAA staff are also in Tel Aviv helping to coordinate evacuations. The volunteers’ actions, particularly working with the Egyptian and Israeli forces, come very close to traditional governmental roles, though the groups deny that.

    — Meanwhile, the U.S. has roughly 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq at at least eight bases/facilities doing God-knows-what. An additional 300 troops will soon be dispatched to the Middle East. Thousands of Marines wait off shore.

    — the Pentagon awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to build U.S. troop facilities for a secret base it maintains deep within Israel’s Negev desert, just 20 miles from Gaza. Code-named Site 512, the base is also a radar facility that monitors missile attacks on Israel.

    — American service members stationed in the Middle East have endured at least 27 attacks by Iran-backed terror groups. There have been 16 attacks in Iraq and 11 in Syria.

    — American fighter jets launched two retaliatory airstrikes against locations in eastern Syria on October 26, which were followed by at least six additional small-scale re- retaliatory attacks in the region. A Pentagon spokesperson said the military would “do what we need to do to protect our troops.”

    — The USS Carney, a destroyer in the northern Red Sea, intercepted four land attack cruise missiles and 14 drones launched by pro-Iranian Houthi forces in Yemen. A Pentagon spokesperson said the U.S. is prepared to do whatever is needed “to protect our partners and our interests in this important region.” United States military personnel are deployed to Yemen to conduct operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS. The attack marked the first time ballistic missiles were launched at Israel since Saddam Hussein fired his Scuds in 1991. The action by the Carney represented the first shots by the U.S. military in the defense of Israel in this conflict.

    The ability of the president to make war is a contentious issue that has evolved over the course of American history. The Framers’ intent was to vest the primary power to declare war only in the hands of Congress. This was seen as a way to prevent the president from unilaterally committing the nation to military conflicts, reflecting concerns about an overly powerful executive. The idea didn’t last very long, only until President Thomas Jefferson used military force against the Barbary Pirates without a formal declaration of war. The first official declaration by Congress was not until The War of 1812. Over time, presidents began to assert more authority in matters of war, often without obtaining formal declarations from Congress. The ability to use military force became more flexible, and presidents argued that they had inherent powers as Commander in Chief. Congress approved its last formal declaration of war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

    The Korean War, followed by the Vietnam War, marked a significant turning point in the balance of war powers between the president and Congress. The conflicts, as well as all the brushfire wars of the Cold War, were waged without a formal declaration. In response to growing concerns about presidential war-making authority, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973. This required the President to consult with Congress and seek authorization within 60 days of introducing U.S. armed forces into hostilities or conflicts. It has been near-completely ignored or treated as a technicality, an afterthought. The 9/11 attacks led to the passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which granted the President broad authority to use military force against those responsible for the attacks. This AUMF was used to justify U.S. military actions in various regions, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and literally the whole rest of the world (apply as needed.)

    With all this as background, at what point of involvement in the Israeli conflict will we talk about it? The old “boots on the ground” standard, which was never applied to Syria, Yemen, or Iraq War III anyway? Or, as in Ukraine, will Joe Biden simply lead us into another endless war with nary a word of debate and a blank check from a cowardly Congress and media?

    Leaving aside one’s feelings for or against Israeli actions, either way it is clear America is again at some sort of war in the Mideast. The difference between what is happening now and “war” is more about semantics than it is about combat. The old definition, something about boots on the ground, no longer serves any function in a world where combat is carried out by remote control and gestures such as the deployment of small numbers of special forces are enough to fan a political flame into a literal one. It is long past time we talked about making war.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Lessons Learned: Dead Bodies in Ukraine

    April 22, 2022 // 2 Comments »

     

    It is hard escape the images from the Ukraine but easy not to think about them.

    The bodies themselves are the only truth; for there but for the grace of them goes us. Were they Russian separatists, Ukrainian heroes, people on the way home from work, people far from home or abandoned by even loved ones in their own backyards, strangers in the north to blue water, patriots or fish mongers in the south? How little it matters when they are placed next to each other on the ground but politics, politics always makes for stranger bedfellows now and forever.

    As we make some deal over their deaths, war crimes accusations levied by a nation (it is America) who quit the International Criminal Court in 2002 ahead of the Iraq War and as CYA for Israel being charged for war crimes in the ‘Strip, what say the shadows, the 460,000 dead in that Iraq, never freed, or those 1,353,000 in Vietnam (say that one again, Vietnam, because yes it echoes behind each muddy footprint, down the halls of State and Defense, Vietnam, where the most senior generals learned their craft.) There is truth to the phrase “never again” but it is this truth not that one: we will never (admit to) lose another war which is why more are gonna have to die, because Putin’s win could be seen as again our loss.

    But… but… these in Ukraine are not American deaths, not really dead because of America, so we can point and declare right from wrong, right? Same as we decry those who judge us we shall judge trespasses against them. I saw a little of war, my year in Iraq, a civilian witness, saw more than a lot, saw a lot less than some, but even a little is enough. Because after the first one you can remember bodies become repetitive until all that matters is how many of them their are. The GOAT is six million, anything else something… less, made to matter by evoking the six million, or the 500 from My Lai, or 35,000 from Dresden, or the 800,000 from Stalingrad. Stalingrad taught us to think of “civilians and soldiers” was a joke left from the 19th century when armies walked to a nearby field, war a ritual, that “he who sheds his blood today with me shall be my brother” bullshit that has killed people forever.

    Karl Doenitz, the head of Germany’s U-Boat fleet during World War II stood trial at Nuremberg for war crimes, specifically unrestricted warfare against civilian shipping. Doenitz, in his defense, raised the fact that the Allies practiced much the same style of was at sea, and even sought testimony from U.S. naval personnel. Doenitz raised broad, almost philosophical questions about commerce warfare, including belligerent conduct by armed merchant ships, contraband hidden aboard “civilian” ships, war at sea as a required evil for a nation under blockade, war zones, commerce control, and unneutral service.

    But it was the non-rescue policy for enemy survivors which brought Doenitz to Nuremberg. Doenitz in 1940 issued Standing Order 154 to his U-boats, “Do not pick up survivors and take them with you… The enemy began the war in order to destroy us, so nothing else matters.” and at his trial raised the question of why it was allowable to seek to kill people literally one moment, before their ship sank, but not one moment afterwards. He pointed out weapons were designed not to win wars per se but to destroy people efficiently, as we now know with modern cluster bombs and so-called hyperbaric vacuum bombs in Ukraine. Doenitz was found guilty but his testimony resonated with other combatants. Over 100 senior Allied officers sent letters conveying their disappointment over the verdict. They understood killing was killing and that rules were for the victors to use, later, as politics required, and never wanted to find themselves so entrapped..

    We look at those horrible photos again from Ukraine. Who are the dead? Some are collaborators shot by Ukrainians, some are innocents shot by Russians, some are civilian combatants who nonetheless took up arms for one side or another. Some may even be ethnically cleansed people, or just fake images, or old photos. None of that matters. The media is telling us to react. All that’s left is for someone to find a way to have our computers deliver a little food pellet along with the ultraviolence. It’s just about stim, little jolts to the brain, isn’t it? None of us have any idea who the dead bodies are in Ukraine, and who shot them, and why. We just enjoy the thrill, and the flexibility of creating our own righteous story. But we don’t grieve, we politicize.

    The truth is much more restrained than reality as we understand it at this point in the war. Human Rights Watch documented Russian military forces committing law-of-war violations against civilians in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions of Ukraine. These include one case of rape, and two cases of summary execution, one of six men, the other of one man. There were other non-specific instances of unlawful violence and threats against civilians. Soldiers were also implicated in looting civilian property, including food, clothing, and firewood.

    Yes, that’s the sum of it. One rape, seven executed. No death is to be celebrated or dismissed but a handful of war crimes does not equal a holocaust, a genocide, or what Zelensky is claiming today. Over-stating the actual situation will only serve to make the public numb. The Ukrainians are approaching the jump the shark moment, and since we’re talking about propaganda here not deaths, the phrase is appropriate. Oh my God, HRW says the Russians looted firewood! What horrors will follow?!?

    But in the end there is always the small story, and the big story, often so big it runs over the edges of our monitors so because of its size we don’t see it. We talk about peace, but the only place we all seem to live in some sort of harmony is in the land described by the Panama Papers, countries and statelets that pimp out their economies and legal systems to the global rich (oligarchs and entrepreneurs, it’s just the difference in word choice and how many feet of waterline their yachts have) so that sanctions become  a poor man’s punishment.

    The cover story never really changed. Our parents were told the raison d’etre since at least WWII was to destroy Communism. We were promised once we achieved nuclear parity with the Russians it would all be over, then told once we won the next proxy war (Cuba, Greece, Laos, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Panama, Haiti, Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Syria, Yemen…) things would be right. The bodies, you see, don’t matter. They never really matter in the biggest picture.

       

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Deterrence Works, Propaganda Fails in Ukraine (So Far)

    March 18, 2022 // 7 Comments »

    Deterrence works. Russia’s nukes are the only thing keeping the US from full-out war in Ukraine only six months after retreating from Afghanistan. So far, the unprecedented propaganda effort by the Ukraine and its helpers in the American mass media to drag the US and NATO directly into the fight has failed. But this struggle — for your mind space — is not over.
    To understand what follows, you have to wipe away a lot of bullshit being slung your way. Putin is not insane, not a madman. He is carrying out a rational political-military strategy in Ukraine, seizing Russian-speaking territory such as Donbas, demilitarizing by force the eastern Ukraine, and most of all creating a physical buffer zone between himself and NATO. That zone may end at the Dnieper River with a loop around Odessa, or it may end at the Polish border, depending on how smoothly things go on the ground and on what level of “stay away” message Putin wishes to send to NATO. Putin is not making the first moves toward some greater conquest. All the bad takes saying “if we don’t stop Putin now, he’ll invade Moldova/Estonia/Poland/all Europe just like Hitler” ignores the part about the German military in WWII having some 18 million men under arms. The Russian army today has 1.3 million, the best of which are going to be in Ukraine for awhile.
    Every war has its “is the juice worth the squeeze” question. In other words, is what you can realistically hope to achieve worth the cost of getting it? For Putin, that means solving his border problem at the cost of maybe a few thousand men killed and wounded and another dollop of weak sanctions. He understood the needs of Europe meant sanctions would never harm sales of the fossil fuels which make up most Russian exports. But no Paypal for you, comrade! Putin could also look to history and see how decades of sanctions have not changed much in Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
    Putin most importantly also knew US/NATO would not fight him on the ground for fear of starting a nuclear war. That is exactly what nukes are for, and is the history of the Cold War in a sentence. I have nukes and that allows me to do certain things any way I want because they stay below the threshold of risking atomic war. This is why the US could destroy Quaddafi and Saddam (no nukes to deter) and why the US will never attack North Korea (nukes.) Being a nuclear superpower makes things easier; the US can fight all over Central America and the Middle East, and Russia in the ‘Stans, and none of that is important enough to consider using nukes to stop.
    Putin knows that. Biden knows that, as does NATO. Ukraine, however, is still thinking it can change the game.
    Ukraine knew on Day One no one was coming to its rescue, and its leaders know they don’t have enough men or weapons to defeat the Russians on their own. Their only hope to remain a unified nation (it is easy to imagine a divided Ukraine, Western Zone and Eastern (Russian) Zone as the end game) is outside help. A no-fly zone, some air strikes to blunt Russian advances. Something, anything.
    That’s why every knucklehead in America right now is being blitzed with Ukrainian propaganda, and your brother-in-law is ready to head to Europe with his never-cleaned hunting rifle. The goal is to change public opinion such that a weak guy like Joe Biden starts to doubt himself. Ukrainian lobbyists from K Street take influential Senators to lunch, knowing they’ll return to their offices to find thousands of constituent emails demanding the US “do something.” The goal of Ukrainian propaganda is get Biden to take that Pentagon meeting laying out options for some limited bombing, or to listen to those analysts saying the US could set up a small no-fly zone on Ukraine’s western edge to show the Russians we mean business. Drop in some Special Forces. Something, anything. The goal of the propaganda is to get Biden to sign off on something (hopefully) small enough that it falls below the threshold of provoking a nuclear response. Is it necessary to say that is a very risky and delicate tasking?
    The bad news is Ukrainian propaganda is working. A non-partisan 74 percent of Americans say NATO should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine. And we are just getting started. We’ve had the hero phase with the non-existent Ghost of Kiev and the not surrendering but they surrendered brave Ukrainians, alongside the grandmas and supermodels with guns. We’ve had the Russians are going to kill us all phase, with the faux threat of invasion to the west and the faux scare the Russians were going to create a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident by shelling a power plant. We are currently moving into the not verifiable atrocities phase, where “reports” will claim the Russians are killing children, or using rape as a weapon, or targeting hospitals. Alongside it all is beef cake talk about Zelensky, the likes we haven’t seen since before the cancelations of Andrew Cuomo and Michael Avenatti. The fact-checking mania of Covid is history as America media removes all the filters on pro-Ukrainian content.
    The quality of the propaganda is not important (any pile of scrap metal on snowy ground is breaking news of another Russian helo shot down, even if the metal has “Acme Junk Pile” written on it.) The quantity is important, the attempt to overwhelm American mindspace to the point where logic is shoved into the back corner. There is a growing cottage industry of “experts” explaining how to can go to war without going to THAT kind of war. Dissenting voices are few, and are often labeled as “Putin lovers,” with progressives and Late Night hurling homophobic slurs at them like high school kids.
    It is not like America does not know how to step away from a fight which isn’t ours when we want to. Crimea, Chechnya, Rwanda, Hungary ’56, Czechoslovakia ’68, Afghanistan ’79, even to a certain extent in Syria 2016.
    There are two battles now playing out over Ukraine. The one on the ground, and the one on your social media seeking to drag America into the mud. Only six months after the sad ending in Afghanistan, it is stunning to watch America again contemplate going to war for some abstract purpose far removed from our own core interests. And this time, with the risk of a nuclear exchange to remind us of our mistake, not just an inglorious departure from Kabul.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Hiroshima, Syria, Wherever, What’s Different?

    November 23, 2021 // 2 Comments »

    America doesn’t want to know what happens in its wars. It wants to believe each war starts in righteousness, usually something as lofty a goal as freeing people from oppression or bringing them democracy. It then wants to believe our side is clean, as any force of righteousness must be. And then at some point it wants to forget about it all absent a few Business Class upgrades for soldiers flying home next week over Thanksgiving. But what happens when the truth, the overriding truth bigger than a single atrocity, peaks out from under the heavy cover of lies?

    You may remember America went to war in Syria in 2015 under Barack Obama. What was going to happen next there was a major campaign issue in 2016. The catch-phrase was whether either candidate supported “boots on the ground.” Trump, who did not overtly support that, did it anyway, and under now a third president some 900 Americans are still on the ground in Syria on a mission looking for a strategy. It would be surprising if one out of 100 Americans knew today we were still at war in Syria. Don’t ask Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate in 2016. During a recent Senate hearing on Afghanistan, he declared, “I am relieved that for the first time in 20 years, children being born in this country today are not being born into a nation at war.” It is doubtful Kaine or more than one out of ten thousand when told of the ongoing fight in Syria could explain why.

    So it is surprising to see the New York Times front page an investigation into a more than two year old U.S. air attack in Baghuz, Syria which killed some 80 women and children. Though the entire strike was preserved on drone video, a precise death count is unlikely because the three weapons dropped, totaling over 2,500 pounds of explosives, would have reduced most of the dead to a fine, pink mist. Hard to count that. The amount of explosives used against these undefended human targets in the open was roughly the equivalent of that carried by a B-25 into actual combat during WWII.

    The rest of the Times’ story is much the same story. The 2019 Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war, but was never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. A military legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military moved to conceal what happened. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized, and of course classified. Coalition forces quickly bulldozed the blast site to destroy any possible evidence. A whistleblower in contact with Congress lost his job. The New York Times pieced together what happened, detailed the coverup, and published the story last week. After the Times made its findings known to CENTCOM, a military spokesperson stated “We abhor the loss of innocent life” but stood by the airstrike as justified under whatever rules they were following. It is very unlikely anything more will come of all this.

    There is of course so much to be outraged over here but one realization is that good people were trying to report something very wrong through the chain of command and at every turn were blunted and thwarted. There seems to be no such thing as oversight or accountability. And yep, the whistleblower got burned.

    But the real outrage is the one not acknowledged by the Times. They treat this as if it is all new, headline stuff, the shock of civilian deaths, the coverup, the whistleblower himself the new target. But we refuse in our new righteousness over the cindered bodies of women and children to acknowledge it is closer to the norm than the exception. After nearly 1,000 air strikes in Syria and Iraq in 2019, using 4,729 bombs and missiles, the official military tally of civilian dead for the year was only 22. As a State Department civilian embedded with the military during Iraq War 2.0 I saw many remains of buildings hit by airstrikes. It was very difficult to maintain the illusion that that building, the one with four floors and multiple apartments, had held only insurgents when it was obliterated some night.We choose to only use the word atrocity when we can pin it on a rogue platoon or a sadistic SEAL. But when it all scales up to the use of modern weapons against civilian clusters it turns into some sort of quasi-legal event to be debated and tsk’ed over in the passive voice. Were mistakes made? Can we find a way to reduce it all to some avoidable/unavoidable error, maybe by one pilot or one Special Forces operator who can be punished at little overall cost to the larger organization that put him in the position to screw up?

    We allow the United States to portray its wars as precise and humane because in order to sustain war on an Orwellian scale it is necessary to believe that. We need to believe every report of civilian casualties is investigated and the findings reported publicly, a model of accountability. We believe these things so dearly that we are shocked to read what happened with one airstrike in Syria and rush focus on the coverup not the killing.

    The preferred narrative sounds like a Netflix series log line “One man/A handful of brave reporters knew what was right and risked it all to expose the crime witnessed!” We want to miss the coverup of the coverup, the one that hides what happened in Syria was because we were at war in Syria against a dubious enemy under dubious rules of engagement for a dubious purpose and, to hell with it, people are just gonna die under those circumstances. Same as in Vietnam, same as in Fallujah, same as across dozens of Afghan wedding parties. It is a conversation about the difference between combat and killing. It is the conversation America has avoided since the day it proclaimed itself world policeman and unilaterally declared our right to be right simply because it is us doing it, whatever it might be. Thus in 2021 we still pretend Hiroshima was the exception and not the rule.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Requiem: Is This the Last 9/11 Article?

    October 2, 2021 // 15 Comments »

    Wait, stop. I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we just had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him (read the room, Bruce.) Missing was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years. Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big 2-0, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.
    Part of the reason for the lack of introspection is the MSM went back to the same people who screwed everything up for “takes” two decades later. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I’d like a browser widget that blocks 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the like. The last thing anyone’s life needs right now is to hear David Petraeus’ or Condi Rice’s take on anything.
    Yet as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post created a review of the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — what they generously called works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials. The books included were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and of course journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.
    WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made good reading a decade ago for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So while WaPo’s article does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through it all at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not “Washington Post” books. So the list includes Petraeus’ U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Bible behind the Surge which outlined how nation building was gonna work (update: he was wrong.) But nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMDs and the whole premise of the Iraq War was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan War was reinvented to cover-up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose multiple wars of terror. Ironically, the last official drone strike of the war killed innocent civilians the Pentagon pretended were terrorists.
    I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo’s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later. Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class.
    — Nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the WMDs, etc. and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media/manipulation.
    — They didn’t make mistakes. They lied. They lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMDs, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tilman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. No one was ever punished.
    — On a simple material level, my God what did we waste in lives and money in all the wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the havoc of refugees let loose? And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.
    — American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy has finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally, think Chernobyl) blows up half of Asia.
    — They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based policy on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini-skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; they didn’t want to be British, either.
    — Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago, our bad! but lots of others remember and Gitmo is still open. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little sexy business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.
    — We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
    — America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and many large corporations) monitor your communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics to aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink!
    — We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a demon and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.
    — The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMDs, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated. What part of a doctor’s day is spent dealing with knuckleheads who value their degree from the University of Google more than what he has learned in a lifetime of practice?
    There, that’s it. I predict the 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, remember how much we already seem to have very purposely forgotten.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    What Keeps Canada Safe at Night? Joe Biden?

    March 12, 2021 // 3 Comments »

     

    We know what keeps America safe at night — rough men on the walls stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm, duh. But what about Canada? Or say, Cambodia or Bolivia?

    This is by way of trying to figure out why Joe Biden bombed Syria and derailed the resumption of the Iran nuclear accord, and why he has called off, delayed, or stalled further withdrawals from the places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria along the bloody trail of the old Global War of Terror. Canada (along with Cambodia, Bolivia and most others) never sent any of their rough men to most of those places to begin with, absent Afghanistan where some Canadian forces were deployed until 2014, a long 7 years ago. The peak was only about 2,000 soldiers anyway. Canada maintains a handful of small foreign outposts, mostly to handle logistics. They’re not fighting anyone anywhere.

    The U.S. famously has some 800 bases strewn around the globe, with troops in 150 countries, and boasts its special forces during any given week are deployed in 82 nations. Many of those Sneaky Pete’s are killing people in those places without the knowledge of the “host” country. Last year they operated in 72 percent of the nations on this planet, including 13 African nations. Can you name them? Why were Americans risking their lives in Burkina Faso? So we can sleep better?

     

    Few expected much from Joe Biden foreign policy wise, and he has delivered. About a month into office he bombed Syria. The ostensible justification was the target was not “Syrian” but 22 people associated with Iran. Militias in Iraq allegedly under Iran’s control killed an American contractor in Erbil so the bombing in Syria was retaliation for that. This was not only supposed to be a legal, moral, and ethical act by the Home of Democracy (c), it was supposed to have accomplished something toward Americans being safer. It did not; a U.S. airbase in Iraq was rocketed a few days later.

    Imagine Chinese aircraft flying halfway around the world and killing 22 people in Detroit in retaliation for something that happened in, wherever, Thailand. That OK? Whatever nations are looking to China for “leadership” (one of the things Biden was to restore after Trump broke it) might not be sure. China is an interesting example, because they did not retaliate against the United States for bombing their embassy in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. As in 1988 when an American cruiser shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board, Washington just said it was a mistake so no retaliation was necessary. The world is encouraged to accept America alone does bad things for good reasons. Or no reason at all. Talk about uniqueness.

    If I thought like a Canadian, I would find it difficult to understand why the U.S. has to fight everyone. It is very hard to imagine America has enemies who need killing in 72 percent of the nations on earth. Or maybe not — after decades of invading, bombing, and regime changing, maybe they really do hate us. The relationship between the U.S. bombing people and people not caring for the U.S. seems unclear to Joe Biden and most of his predecessors, however.

    Thinking like an American, the ostensible reason for all this bombing seems to be Hitler. He’s why we couldn’t support Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea and no other president has even tried for 20 years, and why Biden seems reluctant to revive the Iran nuclear accord. In 1938 olde timey British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain got hoodwinked by Hitler. No American president wants to be Neville Chamberlain. So every bad guy in the world, whether Slobo Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, the cabal that runs Iran, Hugo Chavez, Castro even dead, is Hitler.

    It follows every friction point is Munich 1938 and the only way to deal with it without appearing Chamberlain-level weak is to attack just one more country. When actual fighting cannot be on the table, presidents are content with crippling sanctions, a kind of economic Guantanamo, as have been in place against Cuba since about when the Beatles first came to America, before that with North Korea, and since roller disco was popular in the case of Iran.

     

    It works for us, at least as far as politicians are concerned. They don’t look like Neville Chamberlain. They hardly ever suffer any consequences. There is absolutely no demanding of accountability (the new Washington watch word) for any act of war committed by any American president, including those who lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and created a global torture system the actual Hitler would have been happy to have franchised. Foreign policy in general is not a constraint on policymakers, because most of the public doesn’t care about it (quick, find Burkina Faso on a map.) Those that do care usually are pretty supportive of America’s wars, love the troops and all that. Washington and the media help out, spending most of a decade messaging “we have to be at war” post-9/11 for example, and that poo stain doesn’t wash out easy. The thing that finally turned the country against the Vietnam War, the draft of nice white middle class kids, is gone. Also gone are the waves of body bags, as much of modern killing is death from way above.

    The other reasons Joe Biden bombed Syria are equally familiar and equally false. We have backed away from “we need to protect the oil” since the first Bush Gulf War in 1991 though the phrase had a good run. Still out there is some version of “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” No one has invaded the U.S. since 1812, and when push came to shove on 9/11 a bunch of guys with box cutters worked around the $305.4 billion 2001 military budget. People on the left used to talk about “The American Empire” but even that has turned out to be pretty weak; we don’t imperially profit by raping conquered lands as a proper empire does. Where is our Raj? Our Opium War? Our rubber plantations and breadfruit farms? America got no oil from Iraq and no minerals from Afghanistan.

    We instead mostly wreck places (Libya and Vietnam come to mind) and then abandon them, or grab a little land for yet another overseas base. Americans sometimes talk like it’s all a great game of Risk, but war to simply grab resources and territory isn’t how things have worked for a long time. Other justifications? Ask any still living Iraqi how “spreading democracy” worked out. Stopping various genocides comes up from time to time, though when a real one came along in Rwanda the U.S. wasn’t up for it. And, oh yeah, Biden is the leader of the free world. Was there a vote, because if so it’s likely Andrea Merkel would have won. Did American get tasked by all other good countries to protect them, as if Canada couldn’t build a nuke if it wanted one and who is threatening them anyway? The Canadian military could invade Burkina Faso if they wished to. They just don’t wish to.

    The fall back justification since 1945 has been the myth that the U.S. is engaged in some global muscle-tussle to be the most powerfulist place. It used to be just Russia, but lately China seems to be the one we imagine challenging us everywhere while still owning the largest foreign share of American debt and making nearly everything sold in our stores. When was the last time China shot at us, never mind invaded us? Some may even remember we already defeated globalist Russia once before (Google “the Cold War, we won.”)

    Military spending does absorb over half of the federal government’s discretionary budget, meaning more money is spent on the Pentagon than on schools, infrastructure, climate, research, and diplomacy combined, so that may also have something to do with all this. Fun fact: in addition to leading the world in bombing, America is also the leading global arms dealer.

     

    Most of Joe Biden’s foreign policy team are brutalist left-overs from the Obama administration, the one that invaded Libya and set the ball rolling in Syria and Ukraine. They’re needed in 2021 about as much as mimes at a funeral. Head of the gang is Victoria Nuland, who worked to start her own war in Ukraine a few years ago. Supporting her are Tony “Global Policeman” Blinken and Susan Rice, she of invading Libya fame.  Maybe they and the others of the Class of 2016 will finally have those full-on wars  have always wanted but a stronger president like Obama sort of resisted. Bloody Nuland says more wars are basically a requirement. She co-wrote an article titled “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire,” proclaiming “there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.” With policy friends like this, it’s clear why Biden bombed Syria and will do more of that kind of thing as opportunities arise.

    “America is back,” Biden bleats at every opportunity. What that means America is back to business as usual, and that means people abroad are gonna die. Blame Canada.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    No Nuclear Iran; Try Again with the Accord

    February 27, 2021 // 6 Comments »


     (This article ran originally on The American Conservative a week ago, pre-Syria, though I just posted it today here on the blog. It appears Biden didn’t read my advice…)

    As the new administration drags itself into the muck of Obama political cosplay-replay (everything but Joe in blackface) one leftover bit of foreign policy does really deserves a second life: the Iran Nuclear Accords. The events and situations which made steps toward peace a good idea in 2015 make it an even better idea in 2021.

    The United States and Iran have an opportunity to end decades of outright hostility that haven’t produced the right results for either side. The Nuclear Accord would bind the two nations to years of engagement and leave open the door open to a far fuller relationship. Even under minimum standards, the accord would lower the temperature across the Middle East.

    For roughly the last six decades the U.S.-Iranian relationship has been hostile, antagonistic, unproductive, and violent. Untangling all this requires small steps; the Accord may be one of them.

    Begin in 1953 when the CIA helped oust Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh made the mistake of trying to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, then largely controlled by the U.S. and the U.K. Washington installed a puppet leader worthy of the sleaziest of banana republics, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Washington lapped up the Shah’s oil like a hobo who scored a bottle of the good stuff and, in return, sold him the modern weapons he fetishized. Through the 1970s, the U.S. also supplied more nuclear fuel and reactor technology to Iran to build on Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which had kicked off Iran’s nuclear program in 1957.

    Fast forward to 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to seize power through the Islamic Revolution. Iranian “students” channeled decades of rage into a takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. In an event that few Americans of a certain age are likely to forget, 52 American staffers were held hostage there for some 15 months. In retaliation, the U.S. would, among other things, assist Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran in the 1980s, and in 1988, an American guided missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf would by “accident” shoot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board. In 2003, when Iran reached out to Washington following American military successes in Afghanistan, George W. Bush pooed foreign policy the bed, declaring that country part of the “Axis of Evil.”

    Iran responded with a Shiite insurgency against the United States in Iraq. In tit-for-tat fashion, U.S. forces raided an Iranian diplomatic office there and arrested several staffers. The U.S. and Israel gutted Iran’s nuclear program with malware. Washington imposed economic sanctions on the country and its crucial energy production sector. Iran won the U.S.-Iraq War and today runs Iraq as a client state. Under the Trump administration the U.S. killed Iranian general and national hero Qasem Soleimani (the Iranians responded with a missle attack on an American base in Iraq), grew even closer to Iranian enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia, fashioned peace accords with various Iranian rivals, former friends, and Gulf neighbors, and walked away from the 2015 Nuclear Accord.

     

    The current sum of this ugly history is Iran remains isolated globally. At the same time, Iran is in many ways an even more stronger regional power than it was a few years ago. The U.S. eliminated Iran’s border enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and handed the Iraqi oil reserves and pipeline pathway to the sea to Tehran. While the U.S.-Iran proxy war is over in Iraq, it continues in Yemen and Syria; holding the U.S. in place counts as a win for Iran.

    And it’s six years later and the same folks are still in power in Tehran and not going away. Iran is probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically, religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, the country has nonetheless experienced a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. Most significantly, unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.

    And accord or no accord, Iran remains a nuclear threshold state, a very powerful position nearly akin (and in some ways better) than actually having the Bomb. A threshold state holds most or all of the technology and materials needed to make a weapon, but chooses not to take the final steps. Dozens of nations exist in some version of that state, from South Korea to Saudi Arabia. Just exactly how close a country is at any given moment to having a working nuclear weapon is called “breakout time.”

    If Iran were to get too close, with too short a breakout time, or actually went nuclear, a devastating attack by Israel and/or the United States would be inevitabile. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s.  The cyberwar attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges was a clear warning shot to back away from the fire, and a clear message (like the drone killing of Soleimani) that the West has tools beyond what you do. There are limits to this game, it all says, best you understand them. Call it a terrible game of chicken (Iran recently increased the purity of its uranium enrichment and threatens additional steps) and nobody really wins much, but one in which all the players involved always know who has to blink first.

    Iran knows while it cannot get too strong it also cannot become too weak. The example of Qaddafi’s Libya being destroyed after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions, never mind what happened to a non-nuclear Saddam, are all too clear. So think of the 2015 Obama Nuclear Accord as turning the nuclear dial down from 7 to 6, but nothing much more. There was no mechanism in the agreement to denuclearize and neither side intended it to do so. If a new Accord is signed with the same text as the old one Iran will slowly move from its desired current two- to three-month breakout time to a year or more. Iran doesn’t have nukes now, it would not have nukes if there were no accord, and it won’t have nukes with the accord. In other words, the agreement will eliminate weapons of mass destruction that never existed.

    So why bother? Because there are issues far beyond Iranian breakout time that need the world’s attention and a new accord would be the start of the start. It would bind the two nations to years of engagement and leave the door open to a far fuller relationship. It’s how essential diplomacy works. The goal is not to defeat an enemy, find quick fixes, or solve every bilateral issue. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Then on to the next if possible. And for those who don’t yet see the other gorilla in the room, almost all of the above applies to North Korea, except that they managed to actually go nuclear while the U.S. was distracted by its global war on terrorism.

     

    The passage of the last few years, which despite all the incidents, of relative peace between Iran and the U.S. implies a growing maturity in Tehran that suggests it may be ready for a new accord. When I was in Iran a few years ago, the one consistent takeaway from everyone I met with was a failure to understand the role of domestic politics on U.S. foreign policy. There was little sense of the powerful role U.S. domestic politics played in moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, faint awareness of the influence of the evangelical voting bloc. Instead, Washington’s actions are evidence of… everything. Iran is a nation under attack. Zionist banks control the media. There is a dictatorship of the United Nations, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund.

    But the Iranian reaction has sharpened (maybe dulled is a better word) to the point where they maybe — may be — ready to work within the complicated triangle of U.S. domestic policy, U.S. foreign policy, and their own needs for a status quo in the Gulf which would allow some lifting of sanctions. The Iranians did not overreact to the Jerusalem move. They did not press against the tender edges of the accord, when it was in place or not. They did not rise to the constant bait the Trump administration placed in front of them. They waited. They waited for Trump to leave office, they seemingly understood America’s motives are more complex then once thought, they showed they are taking steps toward working inside the current geopolitical system by not seeking to muck it up.

    It is time to talk. People from the Iranian foreign ministry and former diplomats spoke to me of a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why more than 40 years after the Revolution the United States still questions the stability of Iran’s complex democratic theocracy. The anger from Washington, one older diplomat said, was like a phantom itch that people who have lost limbs sometimes experience, left from some past, stuck in the present, an itch there is no way to scratch. “Do you want this to all fail?” he asked, sweeping the room with his arm. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying.”

    It is time to try again. Reviving the Nuclear Accord is the place to start.

     

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    China Policy: Trump vs. Biden

    October 18, 2020 // 1 Comment »

    Despite the campaign’s focus on domestic issues, there is still a world out there the next president will have to deal with. And there’s a very significant policy difference between Trump and Biden to be explored: China.

    First, a quick look back at 2016. What to do about Syria was a major point of contention between candidates Trump and Clinton. Remember how “boots on the ground” was a popular catch phrase and ISIS our bad guys? Clinton was going to war in Syria. Trump wanted no part of it, and proposed a broader change in U.S. foreign policy to not look for buckets of gasoline abroad to throw matches into. Four years later no politician is talking about terrorism and the wars which dominated the past two decades are background noise for most voters.

    (Knock knock. Who’s there? 9/11. 9/11 who? Aw, you said you’d never forget.)

    Did we win? Well anyway, terrorism seems to be gone. The thing is America does always need a foreign enemy, enough but not too much, to fuel defense spending, to justify a global imperial stance, to blame for our economic woes, and to serve as a rallying point for American jingoism as needed for domestic political purposes. The Russians did well in the role for many years but are hard to see as a rising global threat. “The Terrorists” had a good run until disappearing in a fast fade.

    The problem of having a standing enemy found its solution in China. The sword rattling had already begun in Late Obama. As president, Donald Trump built on those brewing animosities to break long-standing U.S. policy toward China. Since 1979 the country was characterized as a rising autocracy with at times aggressive but containable behaviors, a competitor but not an enemy. Trade-offs were necessary in such a relationship, especially if the U.S. was going to continue to push China on human rights issues. Not Trump: he saw the U.S. and China as enemies across a multiverse of economic, intellectual, technologic, and military issues.

    Inflamed by the COVID crisis, Trump continued what in a second term may develop into a policy of real Cold War. Trump imposed trade sanctions. Trump cut back on student visas, academic exchanges, and turned up the heat on Chinese espionage inside the U.S. Trump is selling F-35s to Japan and South Korea as part of a broad military check on Chinese ambitions. Administration officials portray China as an existential threat to the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mocked “the old paradigm” and accused President Xi of seeking “global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Given the chance in November, Trump will likely continue to accelerate the process of “decoupling.”

    What about President Joe Biden? Biden has learned beating up on China is a cost-free way to prove his toughness, and has oddly even called out Trump for being too weak. It seems very likely Biden, if elected, will continue near but not in Trump’s footsteps with Target China. The difference will very likely be found in Biden himself, who with decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will pay attention to the actual state of affairs between the U.S. and China versus Trump the ideologue and populist. So more challenges and possibilities, fewer problems and threats.

    The economic relationship alone is staggering. China purchased $165 billion in goods and services from the United States in 2015, such that China is the third-largest destination for American exports. China holds the most U.S. government debt of any foreign country. Much was made when one McDonald’s opened in Red Square during the Cold War. Yet the numbers for China represent a whole lot more reality for two supposed “enemies.”

    China’s military ambitions are both overstated and misunderstood. Beijing has made strides toward a real blue water navy but is it not there yet. Claims China might best the U.S. in the Pacific are mostly excuses to increase short-term defense spending. The PLAN is just the latest boogeyman for the military industrial complex.

    China does not yet have one modern carrier. The U.S. has 11 nuclear carrier groups, plus nine amphibious assault ships which can launch the F-35 as a strike aircraft. Japan, Korea, and Australia have similar amphibious ships to add to the fight. That of course is all just in the first responder category; land based American aircraft from Japan, Korea, Guam, and the U.S. mainland would assure air dominance. More importantly, America’s military is fully blooded and experienced, a sad legacy of the last 19 years of war. The modern PLAN has yet to fire a shot in anger, and learning under fire is expensive.

    Even more important is understanding China holds few territorial ambitions in the traditional sense of competing with the U.S. for control of land masses and populations. Nearly any place the U.S. might call a target — Japan and Taiwan stand out — is instead a major trading destination for China. Attacking a partner? War is bad for business. The Chinese do have a nationalist fixation on security and for a global order safe for their autocracy, but embarking on ideological or imperial crusades to remake other countries in its image is reserved for the United States.

    It’s not hard to see the difference in action. As head of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, I was tasked with improving water supply in our sector for the Iraqis. Fruitlessly driving through small towns looking for some place to create a water project, we spied a large stack of crated water pipes and pumps. Upon inspection, all had come from China. The locals told us Chinese salespeople had sold them the stuff and left months ago. The U.S. sent the 10th Mountain Division, the Chinese sent a sales team.

    Some saber rattling and fusses over tiny islands, of course, but always within boundaries. This is how it has worked regionally for decades. For example, Japan has challenged Russia for control of some northern islands for 75 years without violence (or progress.) Much the same for Taiwan and the Spratlys, claimed by multiple nations. The last real shooting between Taiwan and the Mainland was in the 1950s.

    President Biden will need to cooperate with China as he returns to America’s traditional international agenda. Transnational issues like climate change demand active engagement between the world’s two biggest economies. China is a major buyer of Iranian oil and key to any effective sanctions. A sleeper transnational issue is North Korea. Any serious change in the North requires Chinese cooperation. Or imagine the need to work together following a massive earthquake or Chernobyl-level nuclear accident in the North, as China struggles with a refugee crisis on its border under a drifting cloud of radiation.

    That doesn’t mean Biden can’t have a little of everything. Talk tough at home, do little abroad is something the Chinese have come to understand and expect from the U.S., a kind of necessary tax on the more important parts of the relationship.

    So during the primaries Biden called President Xi a thug for having “a million Uyghurs in reconstruction camps meaning concentration camps.” After Beijing imposed the new national security law in Hong Kong Biden vowed to “prohibit U.S. companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.” At the same time Biden is respectful of how the great game is played. So expect fewer tariffs via Tweet, less nasty jabs against things like student visas and cell phone apps. There are well-known soft spots the U.S. must be cautious of, and Biden has long been a champion of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. Biden’s will be a pragmatic China policy. Trump’s an emotive, populist one.

    A significant danger will come from Obama alums like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, perhaps even Bloody Hillary as some sort of elder statesman/special envoy, who will try to press Biden into the kind of open conflict they bluntly championed across the Middle East. Biden will have to resist them, as well as the defense intellectuals who see war between the Dragon and the Eagle as inevitable. The NYT, out front as always, reviewed scary Chinese military propaganda videos on YouTube as a way of warning us, not even getting the irony that one video is pieced together from borrowed Hollywood blockbuster footage.

    But if Biden holds steady, it won’t be cold war; let’s call it lukewarm at worst. The ties that bind the two nations are important enough that Biden and the Chinese will always be careful to color inside the lines. It is likely Biden will sound like a version of Trump but act much like Obama’s predecessors. China understands this game; the rules were established long ago over things like the multi-administration tsk tsk response to Tienanmen and the One Child Policy. Look for semi-tough words even as the cargo ships crowd each other out crossing the Pacific.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Did You Notice the Trump Doctrine?

    August 15, 2020 // 3 Comments »


     
    The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff recently issued a report titled “Diplomacy in Crisis: The Trump Administration’s Decimation of the State Department.” Oh, it’s horrid! Under Trump 11 Assistant Secretary or Under Secretary posts are vacant or filled by acting officials. And career public servants, many of whom were actively involved in trying to impeach and “resist” the president, report “leadership exhibits a sense of disrespect and disdain for their work.”
     
    Leaving aside the question of what an “Under Secretary” does and why previous administrations needed so dang many of them, one is tempted to say if this is what the real-world effect of American diplomacy in crisis is, please don’t fix anything: for the first time in almost two decades America has not started a new war. Cut back on some existing ones, too.

    U.S. military fatalities during the Obama term were 1,912. Trump’s body count to date is only 123. Damn uncomfortable truth. You can make yourself feel better by giving Trump (and State) no credit. You can calm yourself by believing there’s no Trump Doctrine of winding back the dumbness of constant war, no thought out process that maybe America’s power is enhanced by not throwing a match into every bucket of gasoline in the Middle East, just Trump bumbling in the foreign policy darkness randomly added up to something. He’s the diplomatic equivalent of all those monkeys pecking away at a million typewriters and accidentally reproducing Hamlet. Whatever helps you sleep at night. But the tally, in trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of human lives saved, is unambiguous and good.

     

    With Elderly Caucasian Joe Biden heading up the alumni association seeking the White House like the last founding member of Blue Oyster Cult taking the “band” out on the road one more time, it might be fun to indulge in some Obama-Biden foreign policy nostalgia as a vision of things to come.

    It’s easy to forget in the foreign policy debate between Trump and Hillary way back in 2016 one of the catch phrases was “boots on the ground” in reference to how (not if) Clinton was going to flat-out war in Syria. Trump wanted no part of it, but Obama-Biden had already intervened in Syria in multiple ways, teeing it up for the next POTUS.

    Clinton was being egged on to expand the war in Syria by the State Department. In June 2016 an internal State Department “dissent” memo leaked to major news outlets sharply criticizing the Obama-Biden policy of relative restraint, and demanding military strikes. The memo, signed by 51 diplomats whose identities somehow were not leaked, was almost certainly shepherded by former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Ford had earlier helped promote the destruction of Iraq as Obama’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad, and went on to want open war in Syria. He was pulled out of the job in Syria for his own safety after undiplomatically promoting the overthrow of the government there.

    Obama’s expansion in Syria was minor compared to Iraq. After withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 in time to get re-elected the next year, in 2014 Obama partnered with Iran to let start putting boots back on that same old ground. It didn’t take long for the United States to morph that conflict from a rescue mission (Save the Yazidis!) to a training mission to bombing to special forces and then regular forces in ongoing contact with the enemy for what became Iraq War 3.0. American ground forces grew to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total.

    Obama surged into Afghanistan, the same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize, sending 17,000  troops to raise the total in-country by 50 percent. Obama also had U.S. forces at war in Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, and Somalia. Goaded by Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice he attacked Libya, turning the country into a failed state and promoting one of the most tragic outflows of refugees into Europe in modern times, forever changing the demographics of the continent (Germany did not say thank you.) There was Benghazi. Luckily, time ran out before Obama-Biden could militarily intervene in Ukraine. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland, in a tapped call discussing manipulating political succession in Ukraine, said “F*ck the EU” showing how the administration valued its allies.

    And of course the Putin love shown by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry who invited Russia back into Syria. Kerry who floundered as Russia made its incursions into Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry who sang Happy Birthday to Putin at an APEC conference.

     

    But in weighing Obama the Committed Warlord against Trump the Accidental Peacemaker, one cannot focus on policy alone. One needs to know the man.

    Obama killed four American citizens by drone. Trump zero. After Obama ordered the killing of American Anwar al-Awlaki and later his teenage American son, Obama’s White House press secretary Robert Gibbs commented the kill shot on the kid was justified as he “should have had a more responsible father.” Obama personally lead the Tuesday Oval Office reviews to choose who would die the coming week, telling senior aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” Under Obama America wasn’t the world’s policeman. We were the world’s George Zimmerman.

    At a time when militarization and Trump’s use of Federal force in America cities is being questioned, remember Obama set the bar. Following the drone killings of Americans abroad Senator Rand Paul asked whether the president could authorize lethal force against an American citizen in the U.S. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder answered yes. Holder said he could imagine “an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” Note to DJT: the legal justification is still on the books if you need it in Portland.

     

    That was the world in 2016. Donald Trump as president has started no new wars. Troop levels in Syria are down. Same for Iraq. Afghanistan remains about the same, with no surges. In 2017, the Department of Defense stopped providing specific military deployment figures for those areas. However, DOD’s annual budget requests fill in some of the blanks. The budget request from March 2019 showed the number of troops in Afghanistan at 12,000, with Iraq and Syria together at 5,800. In a recent move, Trump announced 12,000 American troops will be leaving Germany.

    The Global War on Terror, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and regime change in Syria played important roles in the 2016 election. They’re no longer in the lexicon, artifacts now of another era. What happened? Did we win? Are they postponed because of COVID? Or was it mostly a pile of bullsh*t from the beginning and Trump called the bluff?

    It is a good thing a lot of nothing happened. John Bolton was the Bad Boy who was supposed to start wars with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, maybe even China. He didn’t. The ending of the Iran nuclear agreement and the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem caused not much to happen. In the end Bolton had no home in an administration which didn’t want to go to war. Mad Dog Jim Mattis as defense secretary, along with State Department special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS Brett McGurk, resigned over Trump’s decision to draw down in Syria and Afghanistan. Mattis and McGurk too had no place in an administration which didn’t want more war.

    Whereas Obama had given up on diplomacy with North Korea in 2012, content to see them grow their nuclear arsenal, Trump understood you make peace by talking to your worst adversaries. His efforts were mocked, with the MSM declaring anything short of improbable full denuclearization meant Trump failed. But the door was left open, tensions cooled on the Korean Peninsula, and both sides got a peek at how they can move forward in the future. It’s easy to forget that before Trump’s diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, the Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula at 50 percent.

     

    Of course Biden isn’t Obama. But neither is Trump, who spent the last four years disengaging from the policies Biden helped champion for eight. Biden’s foreign policy will be shaped by Obama alums. Only Satan knows the details of Susan Rice’s and Samantha Power’s pact with him, but they will both certainly have a role in a Biden administration promoting war as they did under Barack. We might even see the return of Hillary in some sort of elder statesman/special envoy role.

    There are many domestic Trump policies people don’t like, and this article isn’t meant to defend them. But it is worth noting how central warmaking has been to mucking up America, whether it is savaging our economy with debt, diverting funds from some social program to war, fueling terrorism either directly through CIA funding, or indirectly by blowing up wedding parties and creating new enemies. America’s warmaking has turned allies against us, burned too many times by American adventurism. And for those concerned about America’s image abroad, the most offensive Trump tweets have little to compare to the serial “accidental” bombings of schools and hospitals. So while the easy out is to rebut this with “But Trump…,” that ignores the centrality of war to American foreign policy and benefits in walking that back.

     

    Democrats and the MSM have spent four years declaring Trump is about to start some war or another, when in fact he has done quite the opposite. Meanwhile their candidate carries forward a bloody history of intervention and self-proclaimed Just War killing millions. While the Left will insist it won’t believe it’s eyes, it is possible the people know. Trump’s 2016 win was influenced by his outspoken denouncement of the waste of America’s wars. Evidence suggests pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique, voters who’d either served in Obama’s wars or whose sons/daughters had served. We’ll see who notices in November.

     

     

    BONUS Content: Ah, Susan Rice. Only Satan knows the details of her pact with him, but she would certainly have a role in the Biden administration. Rice who supported bloodshed in Africa, created the policy of overlooking genocide in Rwanda, persuaded President Clinton against killing bin Laden, supported the invasion of Iraq as did Biden, who lied about what happened in Benghazi, and who wanted war in Libya. Rice combines the steamy crap foreign policy failures of Bill and Hillary with Obama to ensure it’ll all work out about the same for Biden. She is also all appetite, having spent a career promoting Susan Rice, so also expect her to go after the Oval Office if she can.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part I of II

    May 20, 2020 // 1 Comment »


     
    Saying “Mike Pompeo” out loud feels odd, like mouthing the name of an old girlfriend, or shouting out your GMail password. It just feels wrong in your mouth, because what’s Mike or the State Department done lately? As the Trump administration wraps up its first term focused on domestic issues, it occurs the United States has passed almost four years without a foreign policy, and without the need for a Secretary of State or a department of diplomats behind him.
     
    On his first anniversary in the job Pompeo told assembled diplomats “We needed everyone in their place, working on the mission, if we were going to achieve this mission on behalf of the president” but never actually said what that mission was. A Google query shows “Searches related to Mike Pompeo Achievements” include “mike pompeo weight – mike pompeo net worth.” One can easily imagine Pompeo, even pre-COVID, slipping out the side door at Foggy Bottom shouting “I’ll be working from home, check with my deputy if anything comes up” while his wife is waiting in the car for him, Ferris Bueller-style.

    We had high hopes for Mike. He and John Bolton (as National Security Advisor) were the Bad Boys who were supposed to start wars with Iran and North Korea, outdo Cheney and even challenge the legend himself, Henry “Bloody Hands” Kissinger. Pompeo watched as not much happened between the U.S. and North Korea. He watched as the ending of the Iran nuclear treaty caused not much to happen. John Bolton, who liberals expected to see on a throne in Tehran rolling a mullah’s bloody head around his lap, instead sits by the phone hoping a think tank will offer him an intern to listen to his stories, or maybe Dancing with the Stars will ring needing a last-minute. That show on Fox?

    Prior to Pompeo, the Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson. Tillerson couldn’t even come up with an elevator speech of his accomplishments when asked, listing as he left office North Korean sanctions which achieved nothing, alongside his own mea culpas for failing to make progress in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, where with a straight face he noted there was “more to be done.” A bit hard to blame him, as Trump chose a policy of stasis, not wanting to withdraw the last trooper and forever be the man who lost Afghanistan. Imagine if the U.S. had followed similar political caution and still garrisoned Vietnam?

    Commentators wrote Tillerson would be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. Wrong. He made no significant blunders, gave away nothing. He just didn’t do much at all. His actual only real accomplishment was a humiliating apology tour of Africa meeting with leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign affairs grouchy over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

     

    It would be easy to blame Trump, his open mic night style of making decisions, his decrees by Twitter, sucking all of the diplomatic air out of the room and suffocating up-and-coming diplomats like Mike and Rex before they even had a chance to try on their plumed hats. Unlike his predecessors, Trump never took advantage of his get-one-free foreign incursion along the lines of invading Grenada, occupying Lebanon, or an adventure in Somalia, never mind the big ticket items like Iraq Wars I-III. Sure, Trump did bomb Syria (who hasn’t?) and nipped at Iran, but the tumescence was over before the media could even declare the end of the world again.

    One can imagine meetings with friendly foreign nations in the Age of Trump: “Anything new from your side? No, you? Nah, something on Twitter from POTUS about armageddon, misspelled. Say, Crimea still giving you trouble? A little, whatever, you watching Tiger King? Pretty funny. Quite.”

     

    So turn the page backwards to John Kerry, Obama’s second term Secretary of State. Kerry imagined himself a Kennedy-esque man of action, Flashman at the ready, and had the State Department keep an online tally of how many miles he had traveled doing diplomatic stuff. The Nation called him “One of the Most Significant Secretaries of State in the Last 50 Years,” heady company when you realize the list includes Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, and Kissinger.

    OK, but… Kerry’s signature accomplishment, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, faded quickly. As negotiated the thing was only for ten years anyway, and would be about half over even if Trump had not walked away. And that’s giving Kerry full marks for getting an agreement where the National Security Council did much of the heavy lifting, and one which the Iranians wanted badly enough to help their economy they were willing to trade away a lot of Wonka tickets. Kerry’s work with the TPP and Paris Agreement also showed good effort. We’ll put them up on the fridge next to the one song Ringo got onto each Beatles album. Kerry’s muscular efforts came to little substance (albeit through little fault of his own) but the legacy business is harsh.

    After that, you have John Kerry helping muck up Syria. Kerry floundering in the Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry failing to move the ball forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, or blunting China as it assumed a pivotal role in Asia in every way except militarily (they’re working on it.)

    That Nation article praising Kerry also cites as achievements “the military retaking of Mosul, the sponsorship of an Oceans Conference, the strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council…” all of which mean what in 2020? Kerry did sing Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at the APEC conference in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown. Kerry’s most significant achievement was leaving many Democratic voters secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush beat Kerry to take on a dismal second term.

     

    But Hillary! Never mind “one of,” Google chair Eric Schmidt called her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson” (suck it, Kerry.) Secretary of State was only the first half of the prize Hillary got for clearing the way for Obama in 2008 (Barack shooing Joe Biden aside for her in 2016 was the second) and Clinton made the most of it. For herself. Ignoring America’s real foreign policy needs (or was she being ignored?) she turned the State Department into an arm of her Foundation, projecting “soft power” on things like women’s issues and AIDS to match her eventual platform, all the while generating B-roll for the campaign like a chunky Angelina Jolie. She also had the Department obsessively document her constant travels, with formal photos of Secretary Clinton alongside world leaders as well as selfies of Hil letting her hair down among her own diplomats. “Texts from Hillary” predated Instagram. Not a pair of dry panties to be found over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    But in the tally of history, Hillary Clinton accomplished… not much. Time Magazine listed her key accomplishments as “the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma and the assembly of a coalition against Iran.” In a summary piece, USA Today singled out “Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guang Cheng,” who returned the favor by joining an American think tank opposing abortion and gay marriage.

    From the horse’s mouth, quoting Hillary Herself, key accomplishments were “hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.” Not resume items as momentous as forever changing the Cold War balance of power by opening China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Meanwhile, the world owes Hillary for her significant contributions to the failed state of Libya and the subsequent refugee flow, the human misery of Syria, the missed chances of the Arab Spring, and failing to end other wars she helped start or voted for.

    A generation before Hillary we have Colin Powell and Condi Rice, whose only accomplishments as Secretary were to march America into the desert and abandon her there (Colin) and march the State Department into the desert with the guaranteed-to-fail mission to create democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and abandon her there (Condi.)

     

    The good news is the U.S. is experiencing a peace of a sorts not by sweating out the sins of diplomacy, but just by not going around the world throwing matches into buckets of gasoline. Trump has made little use of his Secretaries of State and their Department. No recent president made much use of those diplomats either, so they are unlikely to be missed.

    The next Secretary, whether working for Trump or Biden, will find themself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. They may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing a network of embassies to serve as America’s concierge abroad, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations.

    If the U.S. government had to downsize into a smaller capital, the State Department would likely end up on the curb, alongside those boxes of the kids’ elementary school drawings. Cute, sentimental, good times, but why did we keep them all these years?

    How did this happen? In Part II of this article, we’ll look at the factors internal to State and the United States, and those external, global changes, that left the Department adrift.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    On the Afghan Papers, Tequila, and Anne Smedinghoff

    January 3, 2020 // 27 Comments »


     

    It’s common this time of year to write review articles making sense of the events of the last 12 months. But what all of them will omit is one of the most important stories of the year. For the first time in some two decades America hasn’t started a new war.

    In 2019 34 American service members died in war. In 2009 it was 459, in 2003 it was 526. A total of 6857 since the post 9/11 wars commenced in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan. Bush began that war, then invaded Iraq in 2003. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 then immediately expanded the war in Afghanistan. He went on to restart America’s war in Iraq after it was over the first time, launched a new war to turn Libya into a failed state and trigger the refugee flows still disrupting EU politics, engaged the U.S. in Yemen, abetted a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and set off yet another refugee flow into Europe through military intervention. So three full years without a new war is indeed news.

    This year also brought mainstream confirmation of the truth behind the Afghan War. The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a tiny step of penance in publishing the “Afghan Papers,” which show the American public was lied to every step of the way over the past 18 years about progress in Afghanistan and the possibility of some sort of success. Government officials from the president(s) to the grunt(s) issued positive statements they knew to be false and hid evidence the war was unwinnable. The so-called Afghan Papers are actually thousands of pages of notes created by the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a watchdog federal agency created to oversee the spending of close to one trillion dollars in reconstruction money.

    The SIGAR documents (all quotes are from the Post’s Afghan Papers reporting) are blunt. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking… If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction, 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added. “Who will say this was in vain?” There are plenty of similar sentiments expressed going back a decade, with hints of the same almost to the first months of the conflict. The record of lies is as stark, final, and unambiguous as the death toll itself.

     

    Underlying all these comments given to SIGAR confidentially (WaPo had to fight a hellish FOIA battle to get these Papers released and even then most names were redacted) is a subtheme of what happens when the public finds out they’ve been lied to? The lesson there is a clear one: the public will have it shoved under their noses and ignore it repeatedly. The “secrets” of what was going on in Afghanistan were available for any who cared to call bullsh*t. Everything that failed in Afghanistan was at some level a repeat of what had failed earlier or concurrently in Iraq. The Papers quote an Army brigade commander in eastern Afghanistan who told government interviewers that he often saw nation building proposals that referred to “sheikhs” literally cut-and-pasted from reconstruction projects in Iraq. (“Sheikh” is an Arabic title of respect regularly misused by the military in Iraq but inapplicable across most of Afghanistan.) Many reconstruction personnel on the civilian side were transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan, and senior military leaders followed enlisted sons and fathers in doing deployments in both nations.

    On paper the story was the same. Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks exposed the lies in Iraq, only to face jail time and personal destruction. Whistleblower Matt Hoh, who served in Iraq as a Marine and in Afghanistan with the State Department, resigned in protest and told all as far back as 2010. My own book on Iraq exposed reconstruction was a failure in 2011, as did Chris Coyne’s on reconstruction in Haiti in 2010, or Douglas Wissing or Anand Gopal on Afghanistan or more recently Scott Horton’s in 2017. The Army’s Lt. Col Danny Davis, or even SIGAR’s own reporting over the years told much of the same story if anyone had bothered to read it. If anyone had looked deeper, they would have seen the same errors in reconstruction made many times before, from Somalia to the massive CORDS program in the Vietnam War.

    The Papers also show during the peak of the fighting in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, U.S. politicians and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other projects the faster things would improve. Aid workers told SIGAR from the ground “it was a colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame alive.” One staffer with the Agency for International Development claimed 90 percent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.” A contractor explained he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He once asked a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home, and “he said hell no. I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.”

    It was never a question of would it work, but more of a question of finding any example in the past where it did work. The one cited by so many NEOCON believers was the post-WWII Marshall Plan, as if loans to German and Japanese industrialists to rebuild factories and retool from tanks to cars had anything to do with the medieval economy of Afghanistan.

    But perhaps owing to their roots as the watchdog of the reconstruction program, SIGAR saves some of its most laser-like commentary for nation building.

     

    But Afghanistan was always supposed to be more than a “kinetic” war. The real battles were for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, with money as the weapon. Democracyfreedompluralisticsociety would be created from the primeval mud, with roads and bridges and factories as its Adam, and schools for boys and girls as its Eve. One of the core lies told to the public, and to each other on the ground in Afghanistan, was that a large portion of reconstruction money should be spent on education, even though Afghanistan had few jobs for graduates. “We were building schools next to empty schools, and it just didn’t make sense,” a Special Forces officer explained. “The local Afghans made clear they didn’t really want schools. They said they wanted their kids out herding goats.”

    “There was not a willingness to answer questions such as, what is the meaning of this number of schools that you have built? How has that progressed you towards your goal?” said John Garofano, who supported the First Marine Expeditionary Force in its reconstruction spending in Helmand Province. “How do you show this as evidence of success and not just evidence of effort or evidence of just doing a good thing?”

    And it is on that specific bruised prayer of a lie that Anne Smedinghoff, the only State Department Foreign Service officer to lose a life in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, died.

    This is what all those lies detailed in the Afghan Papers translate into on the ground. Anne was a diplomat, just 25 years old, assigned by the State Department to create good press in Afghanistan so the people at home could see we were winning. It was a hard fight, her work was supposed to show, but the sacrifices were worth it because we are accomplishing this. This in the very specific case which destroyed Anne was handing out unneeded books to Afghans who lacked clean water and childhood vaccines twelve years into America’s longest war so she and (important) more senior people could be photographed doing so. Inside the beltway this was called a “happy snap,” photos of Americans doing good with, albeit always in the background, smiling Afghans lapping it up. Through a series of grossly preventable micro-errors in security nested like Russian dolls inside the macro-error of what Anne or any American was doing in rural Zabul, Afghanistan anyway, Anne’s body was blown into pink mush by jagged fragments of steel from an IED.

    The school where Anne was killed was “built” by the U.S. in October 2009, only to enjoy a $135,000 “renovation” a few months later that included “foundation work, installation of new windows and doors, interior and exterior paint, electricity and a garden.” The original contractor did miserable work but got away with it in the we’ll check later Potemkin world where the appearance of success trumped actual results. The Army noted as the school opened “The many smiles on the faces of both men and women showed all were filled with joy and excitement during this special occasion.” That the Afghans in the area likely needed sewage processing to lower infant mortality levels from water borne disease was irrelevant, they got a freaking school.

    The limited official reporting on what happened to Anne bungled most of the details, and State clung (as they later did with Benghazi, some lessons are learned) to a weak tea that the “cause” of Anne’s death were the actions of the bad guys, anything we did up to our very presence on the ground treated as a kind of background. The desire to not look too deep was underscored by then Secretary of State John Kerry, who said “she tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future” and smoothed the media into blending Anne’s death into what the entire world now knows is the fake narrative Anne herself died trying to create.

    Kerry is an easy target because of his Vietnam-era protests, including his famous question to Congress in 1971 “Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake. We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    To the State Department, what mattered in the life and then death of Anne Smedinghoff was damage control to what the Afghan Paper show they secretly knew was an already-failed story.

     

    Anne was only one of thousands of Americans, and, literally-only-God-knows how many Afghans, who died for the lies in the Afghan Papers. Same in the other countries America made war against, Syria and Libya for example, whose “papers” exposing those lies we await. So that’s why the biggest story of 2019 is the one no one seems to want to talk about, that for the first time in decades we seem to be slowing this all down.

    When someone writes now, in light of the reveals of the Afghan Papers, Anne died in vain, someone else will dismiss that as playing politics with a young woman’s death. But if you will read one more sentence, read this: Anne’s presence in Afghanistan was about politics, and her death delivering books for a photo op was a political act in support of lies. Her death thrusts her into the role of symbolism whether anyone likes that or not, and our job is simply to determine what she is indeed a symbol of and try to learn from that.

    For me, I learned on the same day Anne died an airstrike elsewhere in Afghanistan inadvertently killed ten children. I learned on the nights I think too much about things like that it usually takes a fair amount of tequila to abort my thoughts. And I take no pride in admitting I usually just drink from the bottle. But tonight I’ll use a glass, so I can raise it to Anne. I know she won’t be the last, there’ll be another set of “papers,” but there’s always hope at the bottom of a glass, isn’t there?

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    John Kerry Is a Man of His Times (and That’s Not a Good Thing)

    January 31, 2019 // 18 Comments »


     

    Oh how easy it is to forget! John Kerry, fundraising for the 2020 Dems, write “Trump’s complete disregard for diplomacy has embarrassed our nation on the world stage” and “weakened the very foundation of our democracy.”

    Poor John Kerry doesn’t remember much about his own record. So, John, here’s something I wrote in 2013 to refresh your memory of what a hash you made of the world, including singing “Happy Birthday” to Vlad Putin during a USG shutdown.

    This one’s, again, for you, Johnny boyo!

     

    In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class.  Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?

    In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?

    If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East.  His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.

    Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!

    We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia

    Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.

    Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.

    All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…

    … in the Middle East

    If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.

    The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.

    Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.

    Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty.  He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”

    Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.

    State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.

    Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…

    … Everywhere Else

    Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.

    Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.

    After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.

    Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…

    … Entering Syrian Airspace

    The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)

    Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

    Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.

    His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”

    But, But…

    As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)

    In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.

    Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.

    Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.

    Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.

    Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.

    The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

    Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.

    The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Don’t Weep for Mattis but for the Global War on Terror, 2001-2018, R.I.P.

    December 25, 2018 // 20 Comments »



    Senior officials never seem to resign over a president starting a war. And Trump, the guy who was supposed to start new wars, instead ended one and is on his way to wrapping up another.

    A full pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria and a drawdown in Afghanistan are much more important as markers of the end of an era than either a bureaucratic tussle (Mattis is stepping down as defense secretary after Trump overruled him and other top national security advisers) or a disastrous geopolitical decision.

    The New York Times, its journalists in mourning over the loss of a war, ask “Who will protect America now?” Mattis the warrior-monk is juxtaposed with the flippant Commander-in-Cheeto. The Times also sees strategic disaster in an “abrupt and dangerous decision, detached from any broader strategic context or any public rationale, sowed new uncertainty about America’s commitment to the Middle East, [and] its willingness to be a global leader.” “A major blunder,” tweeted Marco Rubio. “If it isn’t reversed it will haunt… America for years to come.” Lindsey Graham called for congressional hearings.

    What is history if not irony. Rubio talks of haunting foreign policy decisions in Syria seemingly without knowledge of its predecessor decisions in Iraq. Graham wants to hold hearings on quitting a war Congress never held hearings on authorizing.

    That’s all wrong. Mattis’ resignation, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, are significant as marking the beginning of the end of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, the singular, tragic, bloody driver of American foreign policy for almost two decades.

     

    Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    It’s 2018. Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Defeat ISIS? ISIS’ ability to hold ground and project power outside its immediate backyard was destroyed somewhere back in 2016 by an unholy coalition of American, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and Israeli forces in Iraq and Syria. Sure, there are terrorists who continue to set off bombs in marketplaces in ISIS’ name, but those people are not controlled or directed out of Syria. They are most likely legal residents of the Western countries they attack, radicalized online or in local mosques. They are motivated by a philosophy, and that way of thinking cannot be destroyed on the ground in Syria. The fundamental failure of the GWOT is that you can’t blow up an idea.

    Regime change? It was never a practical idea (as in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, there was never a plan on what to do next, how to keep Syria from descending into complete chaos the day Assad was removed) and though progressives embraced the idea of getting rid of another “evil dictator” when it came through the mouthpiece of Obama’s own freedom fighter Samantha Power, the same idea today has little drive behind it.

    Russia! Overwrought fear of Russia was once a sign of unhealthy paranoia satirized on The Twilight Zone. Today it is seen as a prerequisite to patriotism, though it still makes no more sense. The Russians have always had a practical relationship with Syria and maintained a naval base there at Tartus since 1971, and will continue to do so. There was never a plan for the U.S. to push the Russians out — Obama in fact saw the Russian presence are part of the solution in Syria. American withdrawal from Syria is far more a return to status quo than anything like a win for Putin (Matt Purple pokes holes in Putin Paranoia elsewhere on TAC.)

    The Kurds? The U.S.-Kurd story is a one of expediency over morality. At each sad turn there was no force otherwise available in bulk and the Kurds were used and abandoned many times by America: in 1991 when it refused to assist them in breaking away from Saddam Hussein following Gulf War I, when it insisted they remain part of a “united Iraq” following Gulf War II, and most definitively in 2017 forward following Gulf War III when the U.S. did not support the Kurdish independence referendum, relegating the Kurds to forever being the half-loved stepchild to Baghdad. After all that, U.S. intentions toward the Kurds in Syria are barely a sideshow-scale event. The Kurds want to cleave off territory from Turkey and Syria, something neither nation will permit and something the U.S. quietly understands would destabilize the region.

    Mattis, by the way, supported NATO ally Turkey in its fight against the Kurds, calling them an “active insurgency inside its borders.” The Kurds run a propaganda operation inside the U.S. to rival any other, and, as if to signal that they would not go quietly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are discussing the release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners, a prominent monitoring group and a Western official said Thursday. Western media of course featured this story heavily, without thinking for even one second how stupid it would be to release thousands of ISIS prisoners who would immediately turn on you, just to spite the U.S.

    A final point — “The Kurds” are not a nation, or an organization, or a sports team. As referred to in this context, “The Kurds” are a violent subset of an ethnic group spread across multiple nation borders, including Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Supporting “The Kurds” means supporting a non-uniformed armed force which uses violence many classify as terrorism, including urban car bombs, to take and hold territory. The roots of these conflicts go back centuries, and the U.S. should tread carefully when inserting its 500 pound gorilla-self into them. Certainly discussion beyond Op-Eds is needed. Sorry, kids, it’s called real world politics: forced to choose between Turkey whose second-largest army in NATO controls the entrance to the Black Sea, and the stateless Kurds, um…

    Iran? Does the U.S. have troops in Syria to brush back Iranian influence? As with “all of the above,” the genie got out of the bottle years ago. Iranian power in the greater Middle East has grown dramatically since 2003, and has been driven at every step by the blunders of the United States. If the most powerful army in the world couldn’t stop the Iranians from essentially being the winners of Gulf Wars II and III, how can 2,000 troops in Syria hope to accomplish much? The United States of course wasn’t even shooting at the Iranians in Syria; in most cases it was working either with them, or tacitly alongside them towards the same goal of killing off ISIS anyway. Tehran’s role as Assad’s protector was set as America rumbled about regime change. Iran has since pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria and will not be giving that up, certainly not because of the presence of absence of a few thousand Americans.

    American credibility? Left is that once-neocon, now progressive catch-all, we need to stay in Syria to preserve American credibility. While pundits can still get away with this line, the rest of the globe knows the empire has no clothes. Since 2001 the United States has spent some $6 trillion on its wars, and killed multiples of the 9/11 victims worth of American troops and foreign civilians. The U.S. has tortured, still maintains the gulag of Guantanamo as a crown jewel, and worst of all credibility-wise, lost on every front. Afghanistan after 17 years of war festers. Nothing was accomplished with Iraq. Libya is a failed state. Syria is the source of a refugee crisis whose long-term effects on Europe are still being played out. We are largely left as an “indispensable nation” only in our own minds. A lot of people around the world probably wish America would just stop messing with their countries.

    Our allies? The much-touted coalition which the U.S. lead into Afghanistan was in pieces before it fell apart in 2003 ahead of the Iraq invasion. One-by-one, American allies across Europe, including Britain, as well as Canada, have dropped out of GWOT or reduced their participation to token forces. Nonetheless, the media has found people as far away as Australia to quote on how the U.S. is abandoning its post-WWII roll as the world’s protector. And of course any U.S. ally who feels the fight in Syria/Afghanistan/Yemen/Etc. is worth dying for is more than welcome to send in its own troops.

     

    So why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Anyone? Bueller? Mattis?

    The U.S. presence in Syria, like Jim Mattis himself, is an artifact of another era, the failed GWOT. As a Marine, Mattis served in ground combat leadership roles in Gulf Wars I and II, and also in Afghanistan. He ran United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, the final years of The Surge in Iraq and American withdrawal afterwards. There is no doubt why he supported the American military presence in Syria, and why he resigned to protest Trump’s decision to end it — Mattis knew nothing else. His entire career was built around the strategy of the GWOT, the core of which was never question GWOT strategy. Mattis didn’t need a reason to stay in Syria; being in Syria was the reason.

    So why didn’t Trump listen to his generals? Maybe because the bulk of their advice has been dead wrong for 17 years? Instead, Trump plans a dramatic drawdown of troops in Afghanistan (American soldiers will be there in some small number forever to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops.) The U.S. presence in Iraq has dwindled from combat to advise and assist, and Congress seems poised to end U.S. involvement in Yemen against Mattis’ advice.

    There is no pleasure in watching Jim Mattis end his decades of service with a bureaucratic dirty stick shoved at him as a parting gift. But to see this all as another Trump versus the world blunder is very wrong. The war on terror failed, and needed to be dismantled long ago. Barack Obama could have done it, but instead was a victim of hubris and bureaucratic capture and allowed himself to expand it. His supporters give him credit for not escalating the war in Syria, but leave out the part about how he also left the pot to simmer on the stove instead of removing it altogether.

    A New Lens

    The raw drive to insta-hate everything Trump does can mislead otherwise thoughtful people. So let’s try a new lens: During the campaign Trump outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas was driven by people who agreed with his critique, by people who’d served in these wars, whose sons/daughters had served, or given the length of all this, both. Since taking office, the president has pulled U.S. troops back from pointless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Congress may yet rise to do the same for American involvement in Yemen. No new wars have started. Though the results are far from certain, for the first time in nearly twenty years negotiations are open again with North Korea.

    Mattis’ ending was clumsy, but it was a long time coming. It is time for some old ideas to move on. And if future world events cause us to have some sort of debate over what the proper U.S. role is in places like Syria and Afghanistan, well, that’s been a long time coming, too.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    A Short History of How the U.S. Went to War in Syria

    December 22, 2018 // 2 Comments »



    Here’s what got Secretary of Defense James Mattis all worked up!

    Even as what should have been a quick 2001 strike into Afghanistan bogged down into the quagmire of nation building, George W. Bush in 2003 invaded Iraq. The pretenses were all false. Terrorism was the excuse, American control over the region the goal. “Winning” in Iraq was built on an illusion the U.S. could somehow establish a puppet government there incorporating Sunni, Shia, and Kurd power blocs. There was no plan for this and it predictably failed, metastasizing into civil war, eventually drawing in powerful outside forces, most predominantly the Iranians on the Shia side, and al Qaeda on the Sunni side, with the U.S. assuming a defacto role protecting the semi-autonomous Kurds.

    As the second Bush term gasped to conclusion and America grew weary of the Iraq War, the U.S. quietly abandoned its plans for a tripartite Iraqi state. It allowed Iranian-supported Shias to “win” the 2010 elections at the expense of the Sunni population, and walled off the Kurds, formal status to be sorted out sometime whenever. Under a deal negotiated by Bush, American troops came home under Obama. That action didn’t “lose” Iraq; Iraq was “lost” at a thousand incremental steps between 2003-2010 when the U.S. failed to create a viable government and left everyone to fight it out. The continued presence of American troops post-2010 would not have prevented the violence which followed, anymore than the continued presence of U.S. troops pre-2010 did not prevent the violence and in fact inflamed it.

    The Shia government in Iraq, advised, financed, and controlled by newly-empowered Iran (America’s wars had removed Iran’s two biggest enemies, the Taliban on its eastern border and Saddam on the west, freeing up the bulk of Iran’s military and foreign policy resources) wildly overplayed its hand, setting off on a clumsy genocide of the Sunnis. Out of desperation, the remnants of al Qaeda coupled with ultra-violent Sunni nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists (pick one word, but they all describe ISIS) morphed into Islamic State. From a Syrian border American interventionism had turned into a failed state, Islamic State organized itself and began holding ground, quickly rolling over the Kurds in northern Iraq and through sympathetic Sunni lands. When the American-trained (cost: $25 billion) Iraqi national army dropped its weapons and ran in 2014, remaining Shia forces collapsed back toward Baghdad, and it looked like Iraq was about to snap apart.

    The U.S., under Obama, reinserted itself into Iraq, in a devil’s bargain with the most powerful player on the ground other than ISIS, the Iranians. The U.S. paired with Iranian special forces, the U.S. paired with Iranian-led Iraqi troops, and the U.S. paired with Iranian-backed Shia militias/nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists. This time there was no grand plan to do any nation building. The plan was to literally kill every Islamic State fighter, and if that meant destroying Sunni cities to save them, so be it. Death was rained in literal Biblical doses. The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis.

    Without much discussion, “fighting ISIS” into Syrian territory slipped into another, albeit less enthusiastic, round of regime change, this time aimed at Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s family controlled the country since the 1960s, and was a sort-of American partner here and there, certainly helpful during the early years of the GWOT in torturing folks on America’s behalf. Bashar himself was a goofy looking guy with a sophisticated wife, an optometrist by education, and when he took office after his classic dictator Dr. Evil father’s death, was briefly seen as a “new voice” in the Middle East, a less fashionable version of last year’s Saudi Mohammed bin Salman. Assad was fighting Islamic State, too: they were seeking to seize territory from him, and so the U.S. and Assad were sort of on the same side.

    Nonetheless, Obama’s warhawks — the gals, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton in the lead! — drove policy toward regime change. Assad became an evil dictator who killed his own people. Justification for the U.S. going to war again in the Middle East was thus because a tiny percentage of the deaths were maybe caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones, a “red line.” The world of 2015 however was very different than the one of 2003. The U.S. had been bled out by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and fights picked in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and across Africa. Iran was empowered. Russia, always a friend of Assad’s, was invited in to help rid Syria of chemical weapons by Secretary of State John Kerry and took the opportunity to dramatically grow its military role there.

    Saudi money fed the fight, often flowing into ISIS’ coffers because ISIS was fighting Iranian-backed troops whom the Saudi’s opposed. Turkey saw an opportunity in chaos to push back against the Kurds nipping at its southern and eastern borders and basically a small-scale version of WWI unraveled as the United States bombed a bit, stepped back, sent in some special forces, then claimed it had no boots on the ground, and so forth. America’s goals — destroy ISIS, fight Iranian influence, oust Assad — were often at odds with one another and lead to U.S. weapons and money flooding the battlefield. More than one firefight featured American-supplied guns on both sides. More than one American special forces unit found itself playing traffic cop stopping an American “ally” from attacking another American “ally.”

    That more or less brings things up to late 2018…

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over

    January 2, 2018 // 66 Comments »



    America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

    Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.


    Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

    The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

    Prior to the ‘Storm, the U.S. supplied weapons to Iraq, including the chemicals Saddam used to gas his own people. The American goal was more to bleed the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, than anything else, but the upshot was helping Saddam stay in power. The more significant change in policy Iraq War 1.0 brought was reversing America’s post-Vietnam reluctance to make war on a large scale. “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula. By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the elder Bush said, in what the New York Times called “a spontaneous burst of pride.” There was even a victory parade with tanks and attack helicopters staged in Washington. America was back!

    Bill Clinton took office and kept the fires burning, literally, inside Iraq, in what might be called Iraq War 1.5. Clinton, following the brush back pitch of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, decided maybe some Vietnam-era reluctance to send in troops wasn’t all that bad an idea, and instead embarked on an aerial campaign, with U.S. imposed no-fly zones, over Iraq. By the time Clinton’s tenure in the White House ended, America was bombing Iraq on average three times a week. In 1999, the U.S. dropped about $1 billion worth of ordnance, scaling up to $1.4 billion in the year ending around the time George W. Bush took office. It would be that Bush, in the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, who would shift the previous years of war on Iraq into something that would change the balance of power in the Middle East: Iraq War 2.0, full-on regime change.


    Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One

    On the flimsiest excuse, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, fueled by the media and America’s own jihadistic blood thirst, George W. Bush invaded a nation to change its government to one preferred by the United States.

    Though often presented as a stand-alone adventure, Bush’s invasion was consistent with the broader post-WWII American Empire policy that fueled incursions in South East Asia and coups across South America when Washington decided a government needed to be changed to something more Empire-friendly. Many believe Iraq was only the first of Bush’s planned regime changes, his war cabinet having their eye on Syria, Lebanon, perhaps even Iran. After a heady start with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (“shock and awe”) Bush declared victory for the first time — Mission Accomplished! — only to see the war drag on past his own time in office.

    It is a type of macabre parlor game to pick the moment when things might have been turned around in Iraq, when chaos and disaster might have been averted. Over drinks in some Georgetown salon it might be agreed the tipping point was the decision to disband the Iraqi military, police, and civil service in 2003. Others might point to the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Golden Mosque, which drove the next decade of Sunni-Shia fighting. The American military insists they had a chance right up through the Surge in 2008, the State Department imagines it almost turned the corner with reconstruction in 2010, and Republican revisionists prefer to mark the last chance to fix things as the day before Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops in 2011.


    Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq

    Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

    Until Obama went back. Obama turned a purported humanitarian mission in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people few Americans had ever heard of from destruction at the hands of Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 73 nations and organizations (including Chad and Ireland, the vestigial list is still online) was formed to help, even though no one ever heard of them again absent a few bombing runs by the Brits. It was as if the events of 2003-2011 had never happened; Barack Obama stepped to the edge of the Iraq abyss, peered over, and shrugged his shoulders.

    The Iraq of 2014 was all Made in America, and due to low oil prices, much of it was also paid for by America, via subsidies and foreign aid to replace the petroleum revenues that never came.

    The gleefully corrupt Baghdad authorities of 2014 held little control over most of the nation; vast areas were occupied by Islamic State, itself more or less welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as protection against the genocide they feared at the hands of the Iranian puppet Shia central government. That government had been installed by Iran out of the mess of the 2010 elections the U.S. held in hopes of legitimizing its tail-tucked exit from Iraq. The Sunnis were vulnerable because the American Surge of 2008 had betrayed them, coercing the tribes into ratting out al Qaeda with the promise of a role in governing a new Iraq that never happened once the Iranian-backed Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki took power.

    Initially off to the side of the 2014-era Sunni-Shia struggle but soon drawn in by Islamic State’s territorial gains were the Iraqi Kurds, forever promised a homeland whenever the U.S. needed them and then denied that homeland when the U.S. did not need them to oppose Saddam in Iraq War 1.0, help stabilize liberated Iraq in War 2.0, or defeat Islamic State in Iraq War 3.0.


    We Won! Sort of.

    Obama’s, and now Trump’s, Iraq War 3.0 strategy was medieval, brutal in its simplicity: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq. Then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased in the aftermath.

    The United Nations said earlier this month it was appalled by a mass execution of Sunni prisoners in Iraq and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from the United States. As in Iraq War 1.0, when the U.S. abandoned the Kurds and their desire for a homeland, and stood back while Saddam crushed a Shia uprising the U.S. had helped provoke, internal Iraqi affairs were just too messy to be of lasting concern; that was one of the big takeaways from Iraq War 2.0 and all that failed nation building. Do what we’re good at, killing, and then walk away.

    The outcome of Iraq War 3.0 was never really in doubt, only how long it might take. With the semi-allied forces of the United States, Iran, the Kurds, and local Shia militias directed against them, Islamic State could never hold territory in what was a struggle of attrition.

    This was finally a war the U.S. knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were the same set-piece battle the American army first fought in Vicksburg in 1863. City after Sunni city were ground into little Stalingrads by air power and artillery (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the Shia militias for the ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunni elements. There are no practical plans by the Iraqi government to rebuild what was destroyed. This time, unlike in Iraq War 2.0, there will be no billions of U.S. tax dollars allotted to the task.

    The end of War 3.0 came almost silently. There was no “Mission Accomplished” moment. No parades in Washington, no toppling of giant Saddam statues in Baghdad. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi simply on December 9, 2017 declared the war which essentially started in 1991 over. It barely made the news, and passed without comment by President Trump. What used to matter a lot in the end did not matter at all.


    The Price We Paid in Iraq

    Tweetable version: The last quarter century of Iraq Wars (from Desert Storm 1991 to the present) thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces. As long as the U.S. insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have no way short of war to exert any influence, a very weak position. Other nation-states in the Middle East will move to diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this. Regional politics, not American interests, will drive events.

    After five administrations and 26 years the price the United States paid for what will have to pass as a victory conclusion is high. Some 4,500 American dead, millions killed on the Iraqi side, and $7.9 trillion taxpayer dollars spent.

    The U.S. sacrificed long-term allies the Kurds and their dreams of a homeland to avoid a rift with Baghdad; the dead-end of the Kurdish independence referendum vote this autumn just created a handy date for historians to cite, because the Kurds were really done the day their usefulness in fighting Islamic State wrapped up. Where once pundits wondered how the U.S. would chose a side when the Turks and Kurds went to war both armed with American weapons, it appears the U.S. could care less about what either does over the disputed borderlands they both crave.

    The big winner of America’s Iraq War is Iran. In 2017, Iran has no enemies on either major border (Afghanistan, to the east, thanks again to the United States, is unlikely to reconstitute as a national-level threat in anyone’s lifetime) and Iraq is now somewhere between a vassal state and a neutered puppet of Tehran.

    About their rivals in Saudi Arabia, again there is only good news for Iran. With the Sunnis in Iraq hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog (and Iranian-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently to remain in power), Saudi influence is on the wane. In the broader regional picture, unlike the Saudi monarchs, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one. With its victory in Iraq, stake in Syria, and friends in Lebanon, Iran has pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean at very low cost. If it was a stock, you’d want to buy Iran in 2018.


    The War to Make All Wars

    Going forward, Trump is unlikely to pull many troops out of Iraq, having seen the political price Obama paid for doing so in 2011. The troops will stay to block the worst of any really ugly Shia reprisals against the Sunnis, and to referee among the many disparate groups (Peshmerga, Yazidi, Turkmen, the Orwellian-named/Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, along with animated militias and factions of all flavors) who the U.S. armed willy-nilly to defeat ISIS.

    The U.S. put a lot of weapons on to the battlefield and a reckoning is feared. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight ISIS, but with that behind them, about all they still have in common is mutual distrust. There is zero chance of any national cohesion, and zero chance of any meaningful power-sharing by Baghdad. U.S. goals include keeping a lid on things so no one back home starts looking for someone to blame in the next election cycle, wondering what went wrong, “Who lost Iraq?” and asking what we should be doing about it. How well the U.S. will do at keeping things in line, and the long term effects of so many disparate, heavily-armed groups rocketing around greater Mesopotamia, will need to be seen.

    U.S. troops perma-stationed in Iraq will also be a handy bulwark against whatever happens next in Syria. In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the United States garrison parts of western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power, and to keep Jordan from overreacting to the increased Iranian influence.

    Iran has already passively agreed to most of this. It has little to gain from a fight over some desert real estate that it would probably lose to the Americans anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy and a historic waste of American blood and resources.


    Empire

    In the longer view, the Iraq Wars will be seen as a turning point in the American Empire. They began in 1991 as a war for oil, the battle to keep the pipelines in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia open to the United States’ hungry mouth. They ended in 2017 when Persian Gulf oil is no longer a centerpiece of American foreign policy. When oil no longer really mattered, Iraq no longer really mattered.

    More significantly, the Iraq Wars created the template for decades of conflict to come. Iraq was the first forever war. It began in 1991 with the goal of protecting oil. The point of it all then shape-shifted effortlessly to containing Saddam via air power to removing weapons of mass destruction to freeing Iraq from an evil dictator to destroying al Qaeda to destroying Islamic State to something something buttress against Iran. Over the years the media dutifully advised the American people what the new point of it all was, reporting the changes as it might report the new trends in fashion — for fall, it’s shorter hemlines, no more al Qaeda, and anti-ISIS, ladies!

    The Iraq Wars changed the way we look at conflict. There would never again be a need for a formal declaration of war, such decisions now clearly were within the president’s whims and ordinations. He could ramp things up, or slow things down, as his mind, goals, temperament, and often domestic political needs, required. The media would play along, happily adopting neutral terms like “regime change” to replace naughty ones like “overthrow.” Americans were trained by movies and NFL halftime salutes to accept a steady but agreeably low rate of casualties on our side, heroes all, and be hardened to the point of uncaring about the millions of souls taken as “collateral damage” from the other. Everyone we kill is a terrorist, the proof being that we killed them. Play a loud noise long enough and you stop hearing it.


    The mistakes of the first try at a forever war, Vietnam, were fixed: no draft, no high body counts for Americans, no combative media looking for atrocities, no anguish by the president over a dirty but necessary job, no clear statement of what victory looks like to muddle things. For all but the most special occasions the blather about democracy and freeing the oppressed was dropped.

    More insidiously, killing became mechanical, nearly sterile from our point of view (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Iraq War 1.0? The hi-tech magic of drone kills, video game death dispensed from thousands of miles away?) Our atrocities — Abu Ghraib is the best known, but there are more — were ritualistically labeled the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities were evil genius, fanaticism, campaigns of horror. How many YouTube beheading videos were Americans shown until we all agreed the president could fight ISIS forever?

    Without the Iraq Wars there would be no multi-generational war in Afghanistan, and no chance of one in Syria. The United States currently has military operations underway in Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Any one will do of course, as the answer to one last question: where will America fight its next forever war, the lessons of Iraq well-learned, the presidents ready?




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    The Next Middle East War, Post-ISIS

    October 29, 2017 // 3 Comments »

    Iraqs-Prime-Minister-Nuri-al-Maliki

    Islamic State is in fatal decline. The Middle East will soon enter a new era, post-Islamic State, dominated by the Saudi-Iranian power struggle. The struggle will, as it has as it ran alongside the fight against Islamic State, involve shifting Sunni and Shiite allegiances. But the fight is not about religion. Religion this time has more to do with complicating choices in political bedfellows and where proxies are recruited than dogma. For behind that Sunni-Shiite curtain, this is a classic geopolitical power struggle — for control of Iraq and Syria, and for expanding diplomatic and strategic reach throughout the region.

    In the fight against Islamic State, it has been all too easy to cite expediency in putting complex issues aside, but as the alliances created for that struggle run their course, the new reality will force changes. With the strategic value of funding Islamic State as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq gone, the Saudis appear to be pivoting toward building warmer relations with the Shiite government in Baghdad. That a Saudi airline is just now announcing the first return of direct service between the two countries since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 is no coincidence, nor is it an isolated event

    The Saudis also appear willing to let a lot of religious water pass under the bridge to take advantage of a looming intra-Shiite power struggle in Baghdad among Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (above), and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the most religiously zealous Shiite of the group, has always been something of a nationalist, and unlike his rivals, is wary of Iranian influence. It is perhaps not surprising that he has made friendly trips to Sunni Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, the first time in 11 years done under official invitation from Saudi Arabia.

    Sadr is an interesting choice for the Saudis to use to gain influence in Baghdad. Real progress for Riyadh means untangling years of close Iranian cooperation in Iraq, to include limiting the power of the Iranian-backed militias. Sadr has significant influence among the militias, and can use his religious credibility to sell Saudi cooperation to the vast numbers of his followers who remember well the Saudis funded al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State’s killing of so many Shiites over the years. Further enhancing Sadr’s Shiite religious status can thus further Sunni Saudi goals. During his visit, the Saudis gifted Sadr with $10 million for “rebuilding,” but also astutely threw in some special visas for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for Sadr to distribute.

    One should not, however, sell Iran short. Its ties to officials in Baghdad are a tiny part of a deep relationship forged in the bloody fight against the American occupiers. Iranian special forces then helped defeat Islamic State, Iranian money continues to support Iraq, and the Shiite militias who will suddenly have a lot less to occupy their time post-Islamic State are still mostly under Iranian influence. In the absence of any effective national army, no government will stand long in Baghdad without militia support. At the moment, Iran is way ahead in Iraq.

    Iran is also likely to be a winner in Syria. Islamic State’s defeat will significantly lessen Sunni influence there, and Iran’s role as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s protector will only increase in value now that it appears Assad will remain in control of some portion of the country. The Saudis backed the wrong team and are left with little influence.

    In addition to a strong hand in Iraq and Syria, Iran is also probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years, and is largely religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous (though keep an eye on the Kurdish minority.) While still governed in significant part by its clerics, the country has held a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. And unlike the Saudis, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.


    Power struggles create flashpoints, and the Saudi-Iranian struggle post-Islamic State is no exception.

    The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen has settled into a version of World War I-style trench warfare, with neither side strong enough to win or weak enough to lose. In an ugly form of stasis, the conflict seems likely to stay within its present borders.

    A potential powder keg however lies in Kurdistan. The Kurds, a de facto state arguably since 2003, did the one thing they weren’t allowed to do, pull the tiger’s tale by holding a formal independence referendum. That vote required everyone with a stake to consider their next moves instead of leaving well enough alone.

    Iran, and the Iranian-backed government now in Baghdad, are clear they will not tolerate an actual Kurdish state. With Islamic State defeated, those governments will simultaneously lose the need to make nice to keep the Kurds in that fight and find themselves with combat-tested Shiite militias ready for the next task. Following a Shiite move against the Kurds, and stymied in Yemen, imagine the Saudis throwing their support into the fight, and a new proxy war will be underway right on Iran’s own western border.


    While it may seem odd to write about the balance of power in the Middle East leaving out the United States, that may very well describe America’s range of options post-Islamic State.

    The United States, which did so much via its unnecessary invasion of Iraq and tragic handling of the post-war period to nurture the growth of Islamic State, seems the least positioned of all players to find a place in a post-Islamic State Middle East. American influence in Baghdad is limited, and with Washington having declared its opposition to the Kurdish independence referendum, likely limited in Erbil as well. Detente with Iran is in shambles under the Trump administration, leaving Washington with few options other than perhaps supporting the Saudis in whatever meddling they do in Iraq.

    Having followed his predecessor’s single minded “strategy” of simply “destroy Islamic State,” there are no signs the Trump administration has any ideas about what to do next, and with the military exhausted and the State Department apparently sitting out international relations at present, it is unclear if any will emerge. It will soon be mission accomplished for America with nothing much to follow. And if that sounds familiar, echoing back to 2003, well, then you understand how things got to where they are.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Madmen, North Korea, and War

    October 25, 2017 // 4 Comments »


    The seemingly accepted wisdom that American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are paired madmen on the edge of war has little to support it other than projected fears. There will be no war because war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is very bad for everyone (we’ll get to the madmen theory in a moment.)

    North Korea’s weapons, nuclear and conventional, are arguably the most defensive ever fielded. The North has no realistic claims on overseas territory or resources to resolve, and its borders are stable. Its weapons have not been used offensively more or less since 1953. They exist within the most perfect example of mutually assured destruction history has seen.

    Mutually assured destruction, MAD, is what kept the Cold War cool, the understanding that if either the United States or Russia unleashed nuclear weapons, both sides would be destroyed. The same applies today on the Korean Peninsula, where any conflict means the end of the North and the end of the Kim dynasty. “Conflict” in this sense also includes an invasion of South Korea by the North. The United States and its allies will win any fight. Kim and everyone with any power, influence or stake in the North knows that. The nation of North Korea exists to exist, living proof of its own juche philosophy of self-reliance. North Korea has no reason to start a war that will end in its own destruction. Its nuclear weapons are only useful if they are never used.

    Any talk of an American conventional “surgical strike” ignores the reality that no amount of planning can ensure every weapon of mass destruction will be destroyed; if that was possible the United States would have done it. Any attack on North Korea will result in a nuclear response — there is nothing “limited” for a cornered animal fighting for its life. While it is unclear a North Korean missile could reach American territory, no one in Washington has ever been willing to bet the house that a submarine with a nuke, or North Korean special forces with a dirty bomb, couldn’t do significant damage to an American city. Or to Seoul and Tokyo, both also well within range of North Korean nuclear and conventional missiles.

    So while the American mainland is not under the threat of mutually assured destruction from Pyongyang per se, war on the Korean Peninsula would inevitably destroy American allies South Korea and Japan, unleash radioactivity across the Pacific, and cripple the global economy such that from Washington’s point of view it does indeed exist in a state of virtual mutually assured destruction. Deterrence works. Ask the Cold War.

    All that’s left is the madman theory, the idea that Kim and Trump are irrational, impulsive people who could just one night say let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing in history supports it.

    The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional conflict, famine, crushing sanctions, internal strife, and hostile acts. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union, the transition of China to a pseudo-capitalist economy, and American governments from Truman to Trump. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You stay in power and hold your own against multiple superpowers by careful action. And there is nothing in the current record to support any contention the current Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.

    The Central Intelligence Agency agrees. A top official said Kim’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “There’s a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong Un has done,” according to Yong Suk Lee of the Agency’s Korea Mission Center. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

    Which leaves Trump as the last standing madman. The problem is, after some ten months, it is hard to point to any irrational act, an actual decision made or action taken that is without logic or reason, something that a madman did anyway knowing the consequences would be dire.

    Forget the tweets; whatever they are, they have come to be seen by the world outside the media as inconsequential. The Tweets are mean, stupid, crude, unpresidential, provocative, and all the rest, but they have never added up to much more than steamy fuel for pop psychologists. Internationally, governments have learned to leave them unanswered except for the occasional diplomatic snark. Nothing that scales to the level of nuclear war-irrationality has actually happened.

    The strongest case for “irrational” is based on Trump’s apparent impulsivity. Despite his lack of political experience, Trump has lived a very public life, in the spotlight for most of the time at least two of the three Kim’s have been on the world stage. He ran companies, made and lost money, he got himself elected president. He’s been in office now some ten months and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions people have made have come to pass. We end up right back at the tweets, a long string of impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts.

    In comparison, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in part because they tried to assassinate his dad 12 years earlier. It was Bush’s nonsensical inclusion of North Korea in his “Axis of Evil” that scuttled the last real attempt at nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush provacatively demanded regime change, a string of actions which lead in a direct line to the North going nuclear in 2003. Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong Il, as a pygmy.

    President Obama created new American wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, re-entered the Iraq war, and surged without result into Afghanistan. He held weekly meetings where he alone decided which human beings across the globe would be snuffed out by drones, allegedly claiming “I’m really good at killing people.” With one failed exception, Obama avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while threatening the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North.

    And yet the current president is the one voted most likely to act impulsively and start a war. So far he’s the only recent president who hasn’t.

    What’s left is the “but not yet” pseudo-argument, that whatever one expects Trump to do, just because he hasn’t done it does not mean he won’t. Hard to refute people who demand one foretell the future, but go ahead and bookmark this page and see how the conclusions look in a year.

    At this point we have run out of reasons why there will be war on the Korean Peninsula.

    With the exception of the Trump element, all of the factors that will prevent war in 2017 have been preventing war in Korea for decades. There is nothing in the record, recent or historical, that supports the idea Trump (or Kim) will wake up for cocoa, push a button, and start World War III. It’s a rough, messy, incomplete version of peace, and we’re just going to have to learn to live with it.

     

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Kurdistan Independence Referendum: Fuse for Iraq War 4.0, and What Might Have Been

    October 5, 2017 // 1 Comment »

    Free Iraqi Child

    It was all a terrible, terrible waste. There were plenty of worthy markers along the way, but history loves a signature event, so let it be September 25, 2017, the day of the Kurdish independence referendum. That overwhelmingly “yes” vote to someday, somehow break away from Iraq will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in October.


    The referendum, coupled with the ongoing decimation of Iraq’s Sunni minority population (with the destruction of Mosul in summer 2017 as its signature event), means “Iraq” no longer in practice exists. In its place is a Shiite state dominated by Iran, a new nation in all but name called Kurdistan, and a shrinking population of Sunnis tottering between annihilation or reservation-like existence, depending on whether the United States uses the last of its influence to sketch out the borders or abandons the Sunnis to fate.

    The waste comes in that a better version of all this was available around 2006. Every life (estimates are of some one million Iraqi dead, plus those 4,424 Americans), every dollar (the cost is in the trillions), and every unanticipated outcome (the rise of Islamic State, conflict in Syria) since then is part of the waste.


    The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement created modern Iraq, dividing up Arab lands that had been part the Ottoman Empire. A key goal of the era, creating Kurdistan, never happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. The referendum never took place, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result is 30 million Kurds now scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    No one at the time of Sykes-Picot could have imagined the Kurds would wait over 80 years for the United States to show up under the false flag of post-9/11 retribution to create the conditions for a modern referendum.


    The 2003 American invasion, arguably the single worst foreign policy decision since WWII, destroyed all civil order in Iraq. American failures opened the door to massive Iranian influence, such that a pro-Iranian government was installed in 2010 under the passivity of an America in retreat anxious for the illusion of stability. Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies manipulated chaos into opportunity and began a process of political marginalization followed by direct ongoing violence against Iraqi Sunnis. That in turn created an opening for a Sunni protector, Islamic State, to replace the scattered al Qaeda.

    The situation facing the United States at that point was grim. While then President Obama seemed content to accept a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad in return for enough stability to maintain the false impression at home that America had at least “not lost” in Iraq, he could not accept a powerful Islamic State holding territory in northern and western Iraq, threatening Baghdad. When the Iraqi national army dropped its weapons, broke, and ran in 2014, and local Shiite militias proved too weak to fill the breach, Obama reinserted the U.S. military into Iraq, saving the Kurds with air power to then repurpose those fighters against Islamic State.

    It kind of worked: the Kurds, with American help, blunted Islamic State’s progress in the south, and retook territory in the north. The problem was that while American diplomacy, the carrot-and-stick of aid, and difficulty of maintaining long-distance logistics saw the Kurdish forces replaced by Shiite militias in some locations, the Kurds held their gains in the north. Victorious and blooded, they were not about to go home empty handed. The Kurds’ need for American arms did force them to postpone an independence referendum in 2014 opposed by Washington. However, three years later with Islamic State mortally weakened, Washington no longer holds that sway over Kurdish ambitions.

    The ground truth in autumn 2017 — a referendum-endorsed Kurdistan in the the north, a Shiite state in the south, a marginalized Sunni population out west — is pretty much the deal that could have been had in 2006, albeit now for a 2017 price.


    In 2006 then-senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden proposed Iraq be divided into three separate regions: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni. Biden wanted the United States to broker the deal and leave behind a “residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest.” A peacekeeping force of Americans that would impose itself between Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, while keeping outsiders like Islamic State at bay. The Senate actually passed a resolution in 2007 supporting Biden’s idea.

    It probably would have stabilized the region. The Middle East in 2006 was a very different place than in 2017.

    In 2006 Iran faced an American military as yet unsullied by a decade more of grinding war. That military sat on both Iran’s western border with Iraq, and eastern border with Afghanistan. The Iranian nuclear program was years behind where it is today, leaving Iran’s ability to intercede in Iraq minimal. Syria in 2006 was a relatively stable place under not-then-yet-enemy of the free world Bashar al-Assad; indeed, there was some hope the young Assad might be a minor reformer. Turkey was stable, a recognized albeit reluctant NATO ally. Russia was not in 2006 a major player in the Middle East. Many of 2017’s regional genies were thus still in the bottle.

    By Middle Eastern standards security would have been a manageable proposition via a modest American military presence. Alongside this, America would have realized its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq and could have decoupled its Islamic State-forward Syrian policy from Iraq. Never mind the savings of all those lives and all that money.


    Instead, the rough play of the last decade has brought us to a worse place on the ground in Iraq at much greater cost. The ten years has also torn apart the regions surrounding Iraq such that Kurdish independence being a source of stability has greatly diminished. There are now new questions: in 2017 and beyond, will an empowered Iran push back against the Kurds? Will an engorged, nationalistic Turkey politically distant from NATO go to war over disputed borderlands with Kurdistan? Will the Kurds, emboldened by their victories and aware of America’s weaker position try to hold territory they now occupy in Syria? Will the Russians, newly returned to the neighborhood, look for opportunities? Will Israel, who backs Kurdish independence as part of its search for allies, seek a bigger role in the ongoing conflicts?

    Who will control the disputed flashpoint city of Kirkuk? And what will become of the oil reserves held by the land-locked Kurds? That question is key to the future of Kurdistan, as the government there is some $20 billion in debt with oil as its primary export.


    Alongside these questions, the American military, once with the chance of a role similar to that played in former Yugoslavia, instead will exist as a crumple zone among the forces of its own warring semi-allies. Imagine American forces trapped between Turk and Kurd fighters, all three sides armed by the United States, on a scale dwarfing the so-far quickly deconflicted skirmishes now happening inside Syria. Such a scenario tells the tale of what might have been in 2006 when the United States could have managed events, and 2017, when Americans can do little more than witness them.

    Kurdish independence — the 2017 version — is a fuse waiting to ignite the next phase of Mesopotamia sorting itself out. Call it the end of Iraq War 3.0, and the start of the next version.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    How to Help Refugees: A Practical Guide

    June 26, 2017 // 8 Comments »


    You want to #resist? Helping refugees means helping refugees, you know, talk the talk not just walk the walk. And not just on weekends. Here’s some of what you can do.

    Start By Understanding the Multi-Organizational Refugee Process

    The American refugee acceptance, qualification, and resettlement process is a tangle of the United Nations, at least three different agencies of the U.S. government, and multiple nongovernmental organizations. You can’t speak to others, advocate, interact emphatically with refugees, or decide where to devote your volunteer time or money without understanding how this works. Start here.


    Find Out Why Your State Does Not Accept More Refugees

    As for advocacy, ask why your state does not resettle more refugees. While states are not allowed to turn away refugees who wish to live there, 30 American governors said they’d refuse to accept Syrian refugees into their states if they somehow could.

    Just ten states resettled more than half of recent refugees to U.S. Arkansas, the District of Columbia and Wyoming resettled fewer than ten refugees each, while two states – Delaware and Hawaii – took in none.

    A significant issue is that people are afraid. Understand the vetting process so you can talk to them. Explain how this process has been in place for a long period of time. Marches and demonstrations are never a bad thing, but to affect real change you must reach out to people who disagree with you. Look for opportunities to talk to groups that are not on your side.

    Strongly consider fact-based arguments and not emotional appeals. There is an extraordinary amount of inaccurate information out there, from purposeful hate and fear mongering, to well-meaning people making dumb mistakes. Everyone’s heard the poem on the side of the Statue of Liberty; try another path to persuade people. For example, for those concerned about the cost to taxpayers, after no more than 180 days, financial assistance from federal agencies stops and refugees are expected to become self-sufficient.

    See if your local schools will allow refugees to speak about their home country. People are less fearful and more accepting of those they know better. You can say you hate Syrians; it’s harder to say you hate Mrs. Aswad who spoke to your son’s social studies class.


    Volunteer Locally to Resettle Refugees

    Once a refugee arrives in the United States, a process called resettlement begins.

    In the U.S., the International Organization for Migration and U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement work with voluntary agencies like the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service and others to resettle refugees. These voluntary agencies have offices across the country. For example, Church World Service has resettlement programs in 21 states, while the International Rescue Committee has programs in 15.

    From there, local nonprofit ethnic associations and church-based groups help refugees learn English and job skills. All of these nonprofits need volunteers. Here’s a list to get you started.

    Here are some examples of what volunteers do. It could be something as simple as helping kids register for school.

    Some organizations may offer, or be willing to start offering, internships for students to bring in more help. Check if your school is willing to offer credit.


    Finding Work

    If you or your organization can offer refugees a job, contact a local resettlement group.

    Consider canvassing businesses to see if any of their employment needs can be filled by a refugee. Refugees bring a variety of skills with them. Speak with local resettlement groups and see if you can offer “matchmaking” assistance.

    Check with colleges and universities about available scholarships, or free classes.

    For persons who cannot work, consider volunteer activities to help them build skills or a resume.

    Support businesses that employ refugees, and stay away from ones who explicitly do not. If you shop at businesses that employ a lot of refugees or immigrants who work primarily for tips (The people who deliver food to you? Drive your Uber?), tip generously. You can literally put money into the hand of someone who can use it.


    Know Your History

    Despite the lofty and idealized rhetoric surrounding refugee admissions, the United States is quite stingy in the number of people it accepts. Knowing history makes you a more credible speaker and educator.

    America sets an annual ceiling on refugees; for FY 2016 it was 85,000. Refugee number 85,001, no matter how desperate, waits until next year. Go back to 2006, and the ceiling was 70,000 (though less than 50,000 were actually admitted). Since 1980, the United States has accepted fewer than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were children who accompanied or joined their refugee parent(s). By contrast, though not limited to refugees, the Obama administration deported 2.5 million people in just eight years.

    The FY2016 American quota for Syrian refugees was 10,000. In contrast, among Syrians alone, Canada in 2016 took in 25,000. Germany admitted 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.

    Careful about being an amateur lawyer; preserve your credibility. 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful to ban immigrants (Legal Permanent Residents, green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however is silent on banning refugees for those same reasons.


    Inclusion of links does not imply endorsement. Exclusion of any organization implies nothing negative. Do your own research before making any donations or volunteering in any way.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Flashback! Questions from the Last Time America was Supposed to “Take Out” Assad

    April 25, 2017 // 5 Comments »

    assad
    History is a funny thing, because we forget it so easily, and so quickly. That forgetting is usually based on the political needs of the moment, and politicians and the media count on us being that way so they can manipulate us. Works nearly every time, too.

    One of the latest versions of this is the media meme that the Syrian quagmire is kinda new-ish, and that the most recent American spurt of 59 cruise missiles into that country represents something, maybe an escalation, maybe a change of policy, maybe some domestic political thingie. To help disprove all that, here’s an article I wrote about a year ago.

    Let’s see how that holds up in hindsight.

     

    Quick Summary:

    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 in 2016 publicly demanded 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 failed 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, 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.



    A Memo

    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 [Note this was in mid-2016].

    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.”



    Regime Change

    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, in 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.

    History sure is funny. It also bites hard, especially when you ignore its lessons.

     

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Tell Us Why We’re At War, President Trump

    April 24, 2017 // 30 Comments »



    People speak of Afghanistan as “our generation’s” Vietnam, a quagmire, a war that goes on simply because it has been going on.


    The Afghan war is dragging into being our generation’s, and soon the next generation’s Vietnam as well, over a decade and a half old. There are troops deploying now that were two years old when the conflict started. There are fathers and sons deploying together. Bin Laden’s been dead for years.

    With a slight break, the current war in Iraq has been ongoing for some 14 years. If you want to think of it in a longer view, Trump is now the fifth consecutive president to make war on that country. Saddam’s been dead for years.

    And though of more recent vintage, the war in Syria appears both open-ended in duration and ramping up in U.S. involvement. If Assad died tomorrow, the war would likely only intensify, as the multiple parties in the fight vie to take over after him.

    The reason we’re fighting all of these places and more can’t still be “terrorism,” can it? That has sort of been the reason for the past 16 years so you’d think we would have settled that. Regime change? A lot of that has also happened, without much end game, and nobody seems to know if that does or ever did apply in Syria to begin with. America can’t be under threat after all these years, right? I mean, world’s most powerful military and all that.


    So maybe it’s time for the current president to tell us why we’re still fighting in all of these wars. Because previous presidents’ track records on explaining to the ever-bloodthirsty American public why we are fighting is poor. Perhaps history has a lesson for us?


    — When I was a kid, successive presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.

    — I was a teenager during the Cold War, several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, maybe invade Cuba, fight covert wars and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.

    — When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    — When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.

    — Another president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    — The one after him told us that because a bunch of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us. The Taliban are still there 15 years later, ISIS now too, and so is the American military. We believed. It was a lie.

    — After that the same President told us Saddam Hussein threatened every one of our children with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.

    — In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.

    — In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple, limited act only the United States could conduct, and then we’d leave. We believed. It was a lie.

    — That same president later told us Americans will need to fight and die in Syria. He says this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland. We believed. It was a lie.


    So with a new guy in the White House, maybe it’s time to renew the question. Perhaps the media can take a day off from what borders on sexual pleasure gushing over the latest super bomb and ask the president a few simple questions: why are we fighting, what is the goal, when will we get there? Someone should have asked a long time ago, but since no one did, this is as good a time as any.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Looking Ahead: Clinton’s Plans for Syria

    October 25, 2016 // 23 Comments »

    Hillary Clinton has a plan for defeating Islamic State in Syria. Donald Trump has one, too. With the conflict in Syria spreading beyond its borders, it’s essential to understand the new president’s strategies and how they may need to be adjusted over the next four years.


    Trump: Safe Zones

    Trump has advocated for a “safe zone” for Syrians to ride out the conflict. Such a zone would be a swath of territory inside the country, where today’s refugees would reside instead of fleeing to Europe and elsewhere. Trump has offered no details on how such a zone would be created, or by whom. American support for this initiative, Trump has made clear, would be limited to some economic assistance, with the bulk of the costs borne by the Gulf States. Though Trump does not support a no-fly zone per se, it seems difficult anyone could create and protect a safe zone without a no-fly-zone.


    Clinton: No Fly Zones

    Clinton has also made the case for safe zones, as well as consistently proposing a no-fly zone. America, under Clinton’s plan, would make a portion of Syrian national airspace inaccessible to any but potentially its own planes. Russian strike aircraft and Syrian government helicopters would risk being shot down.

    Clinton has said the no-fly zone would “create those safe refuges within Syria, to try to protect people on the ground both from Assad’s forces, who continue to drop barrel bombs, and from ISIS. And of course, it has to be de-conflicted with the Russians, who are also flying in that space.” She has also stated that “A no-fly zone would prevent the outflow of refugees and give us a chance to have some safe spaces.”

    Clinton’s no-fly zone, and in practical terms, Trump’s safe zone, both open the same door to a greatly enlarged conflict.

    General Martin Dempsey, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in 2012 imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American servicepeople to dismantle Syria’s air defense system, as a no-fly zone could not coexist alongside the possibility Assad might shoot down American aircraft. An attack on Assad of that magnitude would almost certainly demand a response; how would Russia come to the defense of its ally?

    In addition, any no-fly zone (or safe zone for that matter) must address the near-certainty it will be challenged by the Russians; it almost has to be, given the struggle for dominance in the region. Shooting down a Russian plane would enlarge the conflict in Syria while at the same time risking a retaliatory move that could take place anywhere in the world, perhaps even in cyberspace.

    The possible juice from a no-fly or safe zone just isn’t worth the squeeze of an enlarged conflict with nation-state level, global implications. President Barack Obama has rejected the idea of a no-fly/safe zone in Syria for years. Would President Clinton, or Trump, really roll the dice on possible direct military conflict with Russia when their predecessor did not?


    Boots on the Ground

    Another Syrian strategy option, sending in American ground forces, will also be on the table for the next president to weigh.

    Trump appears to have split with running mate Mike Pence over Syria; Pence says the United States should meet Russian “provocations” with strength, backing the use of military force to do so. Trump, when asked about that statement, claimed “He and I disagree.” Though the notion of a disagreement has been walked back, the nature of a Trump administration policy towards American forces deployed in Syria remains unclear.

    Despite Clinton’s assertions that her plan for Syria does not include boots on the ground, and Trump’s apparent interest in not introducing troops, the new president will inherit an evolving situation: the boots are not only already firmly on the ground, their numbers are growing. Since April President Barack Obama has overseen the largest expansion of ground forces in Syria since its civil war began, bringing the number of Special Forces deployed to about 1,500. A year ago the United States had only 50 soldiers in Syria.

    Experience suggests mission creep in both scale and headcount is likely. The current fight against Islamic State in Iraq has seen American ground forces grow to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total. The mission has also expanded, from advising to direct action, including artillery and helicopter gunship ground attacks.

    In Syria, the tactical picture is even tougher than in Iraq. The United States faces not only Islamic State, but also potentially troops from Russia and Syria, Iranian special forces, and/or militias professionally armed and trained by Russia, Syria, and Iran. The American side of the equation sweeps in an ad hoc collection of Syrian groups of questionable loyalty and radical ideology, Kurds who oppose Turks, Turks who oppose Kurds, and perhaps third party Arab fighters.


    Post Assad?

    Any new strategy for Syria will unfold on a complex game board.

    As long as Assad stays in power, even without Islamic State, the bloody civil war will continue. If Assad goes, who could replace him and not trigger a new round of civil war? Who will pay for Syria to rebuild at some point?

    Enlarging the picture, how will the Kurd-Turk struggle be managed now that the genie of Kurdish independence is out of the lamp? How will the next phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite relationship in Iraq affect Syria? How will growing Iranian influence in Iraq, a likely consequence of any defeat of Islamic State there, factor in? The Russians are now on the ground again in the Middle East. What effect will that have on the broader regional and global strategic balance?

    The task facing the next president is not just defeating Islamic State inside Syria, but doing so even as the local problems there have metastasized into broad issues with global consequences. President Clinton or President Trump may find their current proposed plans will run into the same vexing realities the Obama administration has struggled with for years. The candidates’ current proposed plans do not seem up to the task. The new administration will have to quickly devise strategies that have otherwise eluded America’s best strategic thinkers since the earliest days of the Syrian civil war.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    CNN Celebrates Iraqi Housewife Who Beheaded and Then Cooked the Skulls of ISIS fighters

    October 4, 2016 // 21 Comments »

    cnn


    When Islamic State beheads someone it is terrorism. When an Iraqi housewife beheads an ISIS fighter and cooks his skull, it is freedom. That is the CNN doctrine.


    CNN reports the story of 39-year-old Wahida Mohamed aka Um Hanadi, an Iraqi woman who supposedly leads a tribal militia force of around 70 men south of Mosul. She and her band allegedly helped “government forces” drive Islamic State out of a small town.

    “I began fighting the terrorists in 2004, working with Iraqi security forces and the coalition,” she told CNN. CNN cites no other source other than Um Hanadi herself and Facebook in its coverage.

    As a result, Um Hanadi said, she attracted the wrath of what eventually became al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which later morphed into ISIS. “I received threats from the top leadership of ISIS, including from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself,” she says. “I’m at the top of their most wanted list, even more than the [Iraqi] Prime Minister.”

    Um Hanadi stated al Qaeda/AQI/ISIS planted car bombs outside her home in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014.

    Along the way, her first husband was killed in action. She remarried, but ISIS killed her second husband. ISIS also killed her father and three brothers. They also killed, she added, her sheep, her dogs and her birds, and tried to otherwise assassinate her six times.



    Where Has Um Hanadi Been Hiding All These Years?

    Despite her claim to have worked with the U.S. coalition, to be higher on the ISIS hit list than the Prime Minister, to have been the target of multiple bombing attempts, and to be a very, very, very rare example of a Muslim woman leading Muslim men in combat, I could not find any references to Um Hanadi that predate the CNN report. Um Hanadi does have a self-created social media presence which she updates between battles.

    In addition, Um Hanadi may be the luckiest person in Iraq, apparently cheating death on a near-daily basis.

    CNN did not explain in its coverage how it came to locate and interview Um Hanadi amid the chaos of present-day Iraq.



    The Beheadings

    Now, on to the beheadings.

    CNN quotes Um Hanadi as saying of ISIS “I fought them. I beheaded them. I cooked their heads, I burned their bodies.” CNN states “She made no excuses, nor attempted to rationalize this. It was delivered as a boast, not a confession.”

    “This is all documented,” she said. “You can see it on my Facebook page.”

    The CNN reporter wrote that he indeed checked her Facebook page and saw photos, and though he could not verify them, still “got the point.”

    Comment

    This is propaganda of the worst, and most infantile, kind. In addition to the broad question of whether or not any of this is even true, the question of who set CNN up to meet with Um Hanadi is left unanswered. That CNN would run this story on its television news, and website, is a shameful descent into the decaying corpse of the First Amendment. Media around the globe, including the once venerable New York Times, have reprinted the story.

    Lastly is the horrific idea that atrocities such as beheading people are somehow right when an anti-ISIS person does it, and justification for an entire undeclared war by the U.S. when ISIS does it.

    CNN have you no shame? Hah, trick question, you bast*rds really don’t, do you?





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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Some Hindsight: The Lies that Dumped America Into the Syrian War

    September 2, 2016 // 40 Comments »

    assad


    Checking out the news these days, it might seem pretty clear why the U.S. is at war in Syria: destroy ISIS. That is almost certainly the way the two main presidential candidates will see it during their upcoming first debate, in a rare point of agreement.


    The funny thing is that ISIS did not become the reason for what now is a major regional war until late in the game.

    If we rewind about three years, the original justification was to “rid the world of the dictator,” Syrian president Bashar Assad. The U.S. involvement was started under the pretext that Assad was using chemical weapons against the other side in what was once confined to a civil war. American declared Assad thus had to go to avoid a genocide and humanitarian disaster.

    FYI: If you read no further, remember anytime a politician uses the word “genocide” these days we’re about to be dragged into another conflict that will morph into a quagmire.

    So here’s a reprise of something I wrote three years ago. Let’s revisit it and see whether or not any of the current disaster, political and humanitarian, could have been anticipated.


    From Three Years Ago:

    As for intervening in Syria, the United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the UK has not supported U.S. military action [the UK later changed it’s policy and is now involved across the Middle East again]. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?

    Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect the women and children of Syria? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.

    Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.

    So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:

    — The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.

    — The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.

    — Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date [in 2013; the death toll is now likely in the millions].

    — The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.

    Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:

    — Is it Iraq again? That went well.

    — Does it have oil?

    — Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?

    — Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)?

    — Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators? [Trick question; it does not.]

    — Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?

    — Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?

    — Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?

    — Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda [Now ISIS], won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?

    — Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?

    — With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?

    — Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?

    — What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?

    Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.

    NOTE: Obama did intervene, and golly, who could have thought it, look what happened!




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Tell Us Why We’re At War, Candidates

    August 29, 2016 // 24 Comments »

    20090218221111!Vietnam_war_memorial




    When I was a kid, successive presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.

    I was a teenager during the Cold War, several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, maybe invade Cuba, fight covert wars and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.

    Another president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    The one after him told us that because a bunch of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there 15 years later, and so is the American army. We believed. It was a lie.

    After that the same President told us Saddam Hussein threatened every one of our children with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.

    In 2011 the president and his secretary of state, now running for president herself, told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.

    In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple, limited act only the United States could conduct, and then we’d leave. We believed. It was a lie.

    That same president later told us Americans will need to fight and die in Syria. He says this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland. We believe. We’ll let history roll around again to tell it is again a lie.

    The two main candidates for president both tell us they will expand the war in Syria, maybe Libya. Too many of our fellow citizens still want to believe it is necessary to protect America more. They want to know it is not a lie.

    So candidates, please explain why what you plan is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time.


    (This article is a reimagining of a piece I wrote about a year ago, when the war in Syria was less so, and the U.S. has not re-entered the fight overtly in Libya. I’ll update it from time to time as new wars happen.)




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    How I Was Blacklisted at CNN, and How Easily America Goes to War Now

    August 26, 2016 // 14 Comments »



    It was about two years ago to the day I was blacklisted at CNN.

    I don’t want to remind them they were sadly wrong, but they were. So write this off however you prefer, but understand that we were lied to again to drag us again into an open-ended war in Iraq-Syria. Last time it was Bush and those missing Weapons of Mass Destruction. This time is was Obama and saving the Yazidi people from genocide.

    Wait, what? Who are the Yazidis? How they get us back into Iraq?

    Ah, how fast time flies.


    Two years ago a group of Yazidis, a minority spread across Iran, Iraq and Turkey, were being threatened by a group called ISIS few American were focused on. Obama declared a genocide was about to happen, and the U.S. had to act. U.S. officials said they believed that some type of ground force would be necessary to secure the safety of the stranded members of the Yazidi group. The military drew up plans for limited airstrikes and the deployment of 150 ground troops.

    No Congressional authorization was sought, no attempt was made to secure UN sanction, no effort was made to seek Iraqi military help to save their own people inside their own country. However, promises were made by the White House of having no American “boots on the ground” and that the airstrikes to kill people were for a humanitarian purpose.

    Two years later the U.S. has some 6,000 troops on the ground, including artillery units and aircraft based inside Iraq and Syria. The limited airstrikes have expanded to a 24 month broad-based bombing campaign, which has spread into Syria, with the sideshows of complete collapse of democracy in Turkey, a Russian military presence in Syria, and an Iranian military presence in Iraq. For the record, the Yazidis are pretty much fine, as are ISIS and Syrian president Assad. The Yazadis do occasionally show up in fear-mongering, unsourced stories about ISIS sex slaves, usually spoon-fed to American media, and only American media, by pro-Yazidi ethnic groups safely in the west.

    In fact, other than a massive regional death toll and no progress toward whatever the actual goal for the United States is (um, whatever, “destroy” ISIS), things are pretty much the same after two years, +chaos. And whomever is elected this November will be the fifth U.S. president to make war in Iraq.


    Back to CNN.

    As the Yazidi situation was unfolding, I was invited to tape a discussion there alongside the usual retired U.S. military colonel. I was asked a single question, explained in my answer that the U.S. was in fact using the Yazidi “humanitarian crisis/faux genocide” as an excuse to re-enter the Iraq quagmire, and equated it to George W. Bush’s flim-flam about weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

    The host literally said I was wrong. I was not asked another question, though the colonel was given several minutes to explain the urgency of the situation, demand America act where no one else would, and assure the public that Obama planned only limited, surgical strikes and that was it, one and done.

    My question was edited out, the colonel’s lengthy answer was played on air, and my very brief moment in the glow of CNN was ended even though I wore a nice suit and a tie. Oh well, we still have each other here, and hey, CNN, my number’s still the same if you wanna call.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Did an ISIS Fighter Try to Sell Sex Slaves on Facebook?

    August 25, 2016 // 3 Comments »

    slave


    Well, maybe. It is amazing how these horrific stories about ISIS just happen to appear on global social media, and then are instantly picked up by the mainstream media as fact.

    Why, it is almost as if someone is creating them, and then calling the mass media’s attention to them on obscure sources, for anti-ISIS propaganda purposes. Hmm.


    Well, don’t be shocked, but…

    “To all the bros thinking about buying a slave, this one is $8,000,” began the Facebook posting attributed to an Islamic State fighter who calls himself Abu Assad Almani. The same man posted a second image a few hours later, this one a pale young woman’s face with weepy red eyes.

    “Another sabiyah [slave], also about $8,000,” the posting reads. “Yay, or nay?”


    The photos were taken down within hours by Facebook but of course still were coincidentally captured by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit group with unclear funding sources that monitors jihadists’ ­social media accounts. That Institute then pumped the story out across the web.

    “We have seen a great deal of brutality, but the content that ISIS has been disseminating over the past two years has surpassed it all for sheer evil,” said a researcher for the Institute. “Sales of slave girls on social media is just one more example of this.”

    Uh huh. It must all be true.


    BONUS: Selling sex slaves violates Facebook’s Terms of Use, so ISIS that did wrong thing too. Bastards have no respect for our American social media.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Russia Teams Up With Iran to Continue to Bomb Syria

    August 22, 2016 // 12 Comments »

    pokemongo_syria

    Ho, ho, ho, here’s a scenario no one could have possibly anticipated: some complex thing in the Middle East as a temporary patch to some previous complicated thing in the Middle East turned out to backfire for the U.S. because of a lack of any semblance of an actual policy as opposed to a series of random actions linked only in temporal order. Soon a new thing will be needed to counteract the lastest old thing, but that’s for next week.


    The most current thing is that Russia deployed bomber and fighter aircraft to Iran for air strikes on rebels in Syria, the first time in 37 years that Iran allowed foreign forces to base and deploy from its territory. The new basing dramatically cuts into the number of frequent flyer miles the Russian air forces needs to bomb Syria. Flying out of Iran instead of from inside Russia means more sorties a day, maybe lower maintenance burdens, maybe heavier payloads.

    Iran has, for now, walked back the arrangement, apparently embarrassed at the publicity. The larger issues still remain.



    So a review, to put things in context. We’ll go quick here, kind of like the opening song of the Big Bang Theory, where they cover the history of the whole universe in 30 seconds of jaunty song:

    — About 13 years ago Iraq was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same dictator it had been for decades. U.S. invades to “free Iraq,” chaos ensues through two presidencies with a third teed up. The more or less stable Iraqi-Syrian border became a porous sore for Sunni baddies to enter and leave the fight, precursor foot soldiers to ISIS. The Sunni collaboration with (then) al Qaeda to protect themselves from Shiite militias spread into Syria.

    — Five years ago Syria was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same family of dictators it has been since the 1960s. The U.S. had tolerated, dealt with and cooperated with the Assad family during much of that time. Why, post-9/11, the U.S. even outsourced some torture to them. There were no Syrian aid agencies, no orphaned kids of Aleppo, no global refugee crisis.

    — The Arab Spring starts in 2011, U.S. sees an opening, fans the flames in what started as a legitimate people’s revolt in Syria. Assad fights back, U.S. keeps intervening just enough to keep the fires burning but not much else, chaos ensues. Hillary and David Petraeus demand more U.S. war in Syria, end up instead getting a new U.S. invasion of Libya as a consolation prize from Obama and another failed state is created in another crappy Mideast stinkhole that had been run stably by the same dictator for decades. But we digress.

    — Blah blah, time passes, people die, U.S. declares Assad an evil dictator who “must go,” thinks it negotiates the Russians into the new war to help “free Syria.” Russians grin wildly as they establish new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Syria without a shot fired. They’re back into the game in the Middle East, half-invited by the U.S.!

    — The oops! It turns out the sneaky Russians support Assad (who knew???), as America used to, and aren’t fighting him, like America wants them to. Bad, bad. John Kerry flies around Europe ignored by the White House (“sure, John, off you go, don’t forget to write and let us know how it’s going”) with his trademark Muppety “cautious but optimistic” face.

    — But oops! Things change; the U.S. doesn’t like Assad, no sir, evil dictator kills his own people genocide barrel bombs poison gas save children, but isn’t going to attack him either like the Russians won’t attack him, because the war isn’t about “taking him out” per se except when asked to say that on TV news in America, it is about defeating destroying ISIS. So, the U.S., Russia and hey, sure, why not, Iran, are all on the same side, fighting ISIS.

    — BONUS: The U.S. and Iran are also “fighting ISIS” in Iraq. Iran, the big winner of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is grinning wildly as it establishes a new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Iraq without a shot fired. They’re back in the game, half-invited by the U.S. Iran had been training and equipping the people who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011. Now they are helping U.S.-supported Iraqi Shiite militias who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011 retake the same cities U.S. soldiers died taking 2003-2011.


    And that brings us to this week, where Assad is still around, ISIS is still around, Iraq is still a sectarian mess, Iran more or less controls the Iraqi government and the powerful Shiite militias except for the ones who might just rebel and/or slaughter Sunnis to complete a slow-burn civil war, Turkey a newly-collapsing crappy Mideast-ish stinkhole run by a new dictator and Russia and Iran, always a bit wary of one another, are cooperating militarily to attack ISIS (U.S. thumbs up!) in support of Assad (U.S. thumbs down!)

    And that’s all before we get to the Kurds, who are well on their way to creating a confederacy of Kurdistan carved out of parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. That will be the impetus behind the next war inside the Middle East, with most of the same players now in Syria joining in. Figure maybe a year from now or so.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Defeating Islamic Terrorism. Here’s How…

    July 25, 2016 // 3 Comments »

    isis lego


    As terrorism struck again in Nice and Germany and… Donald Trump outlined his policy against Islamic State: as president, he will seek a full declaration of war from Congress, the first such formal invocation since Pearl Harbor.


    Trump was short on specifics but very clear he would take the strategies of the post-9/11 era into a presidency. Clinton, for her part, intends on “intensifying the current air campaign [and] stepping up support for local forces on the ground.” Their French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, declared “We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil.”


    The problem is that none of that will work. While perhaps necessary at times, military force is far from sufficient in defeating Islamic terrorism.

    Post-Germany, Post-Nice, post-Brussels, post-Turkey, post-Paris… it is clear the last 15 years of the war on terror in general, and the last two against Islamic State in particular, have not worked. No society can defend itself fully when any truck can be turned into a weapon. No amount of curating social media will prevent disenfranchised people from becoming radicalized. Ramadi fell, Fallujah fell, Mosul will likely fall, and Nice still happened.

    “The effect that’s going to happen now is like stepping on a ball of mercury,” stated one American intelligence analyst. “You step on a ball of mercury, all the pieces break up and spread around the world.”


    A new way of thinking is needed.


    The west must be willing to understand Islamic terror beyond scary search engine terms and decide if we wish to tackle the problem at its core, or simply choose to live with a new normal where incidents like Nice will just happen. Here is what might be considered. It will be hard, and will be unpopular.


    — Admit the current strategy has not worked. Agree, in the U.S. and abroad, that something new is needed. Statements such as those from Trump and Clinton block anything beyond more of the same.


    — Understand that the roots of Islamic terror rest in part in the Sunni-Shia divide, which the west helped fuel in arming jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and whose fuse the west lit in 2003 when it invaded once-stable Iraq. A significant amount of terror takes place insider the Muslim world, and sectarianism is a steady fuel for recruitment.

    At the same time, both sides of the divide recruit well off of horror stories of CIA torture, the continued existence of Guantanamo, the fits of Islamophobia played out in western refugee policy, French and American militarization of Islamic Africa, and a core belief that the actual goal of the western powers is not to “defeat Islamic State,” but to create a permanent state of war against Muslims while garrisoning the Middle East (it used to be more about taking Arab oil, but the point is the same.) More war, more troops, and more draconian security measures are just gas on those fires.


    — Another driver of Islamic terror is the unhappiness of many Muslim youth with the autocratic, secular governments in most of their Arab nations. The west must pull back its support for such governments and lessen its fear of non-secular governments. What Washington sees, for example as expedient, realpolitik decisions to support the repressive Saudi government, Bahrain where the United States turns a blind eye to human rights in return for an important naval base, or allowing the Arab Spring to be crushed in Egypt as a military coup unseated the only democratically elected president in the nation’s history, have not worked well in even the medium term. Same for supporting the corrupt government in Baghdad.

    The west must find rapprochement with Muslim leadership (Iran, with a robust participatory component inside a fundamentalist theocracy, is an interesting example.) Much of radical jihadism is less about destroying the west than it is about changing the Middle East; even 9/11, the worst of the terror attacks, had as its extended purpose pulling the United States into Afghanistan in hopes of triggering a broader Muslim uprising across the region.


    — Immigration out of the Middle East is toothpaste out of the tube. It can’t be snaked back in by tough policies against refugees or stopping Muslims from entering the United States. Western nations must assimilate their Islamic immigrants.

    Islamophobia, law enforcement discriminatory targeting of Muslims, hot-headed rhetoric and the rise of right wing governments pleasing citizens enamored anxious to trade their freedom for security, fuel the anger and sense of displacement of so-called lone wolves, and send them to the solutions offered by groups such as Islamic State. It is not about cleaning up Twitter. It is about chipping away at the mindset that makes those 140 character messages so attractive.


    This is, in the end, a long war of ideas. Success must include difficult decisions to acknowledge the tides of history moving across the Middle East. Because you can’t stop the next truck. You do have a chance at making it so a man won’t choose to get behind the wheel.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen