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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

September 11, 2016

(There will be no cartoons today. Instead, Sunday cartoon blogging will be tomorrow, Monday 9/12.)

wtc-idealized

After 15 years, some of the sharp pain of the events of 9/11 have faded, and an idealized view of the towers like this one, is all we need to take us back to that point in time when American invincibility ended. We remember the tragedy, but perhaps we now have enough distance from it to begin to put 9/11/2001 in a context for today.

Tom Englehardt makes the point that on 9/11, al-Qaeda launched a four-plane air force against the US, and now, 15 years later, the air war still has not ended. Englehardt states that the costs have been staggering. Pentagon figures show that just since 2014, the cost of the air war to the taxpayers has been $8.4 billion.

The point behind these numbers is that America’s air war in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become institutionalized, and is now a part of our politics. No future president will end our drone programs. In fact, both The Pant Suit and The Pant Load are essentially committed to continuing the US air war for at least their first term in office.

Mohammad Atta, the kingpin hijacker, pursued a master’s degree in city planning at the Hamburg University of Technology, where he wrote his thesis on urban planning in Aleppo, Syria. Slate’s Daniel Brooks traveled to Hamburg in 2009 to read the thesis and try to get a sense for how Atta saw the world:

The subject of the thesis is a section of Aleppo…Atta describes decades of meddling by Western urban planners, who rammed highways through the neighborhood’s historic urban fabric and replaced many of its once ubiquitous courtyard houses with modernist high-rises. Atta calls for rebuilding the area along traditional lines, all tiny shops and odd-angled cul-de-sacs. The highways and high-rises are to be removed —in [Atta’s] meticulous color-coded maps, they are all slated for demolition. Traditional courtyard homes and market stalls are to be rebuilt.

We see Atta’s commitment to the culture of Islam:

For Atta, the rebuilding of Aleppo’s traditional cityscape was part of a larger project to restore the Islamic culture of the neighborhood, a culture he sees as threatened by the West…In Atta’s Aleppo, women wouldn’t leave the house, and policies would be carefully crafted so as not to “engender emancipatory thoughts of any kind,” which he sees as “out of place in Islamic society.”

As a student, Atta called for demolishing the western-style high rise buildings in Aleppo. He then got the assignment to crash a plane into America’s tallest and most famous high-rise.

The circularity is striking. The decision to attack America led to the US decision to invade Iraq. That led to the Shia takeover of Iraq, which led to a Sunni exodus into Syria. The Sunni exodus, along with the Arab Spring, led to the on-going anti-Assad revolution in Syria, which led in time to the destruction of the rebel-held parts of today’s Aleppo.

Atta’s demolition plans have been wildly successful.

Finally, we have spent $1 trillion since 9/11 to protect the homeland from terrorists. Are we safer? On the positive side of the ledger, the 9/11 attack killed almost 3,000 people, while the total deaths by jihadists on US soil since 9/11 is 94 people. On the negative side, it remains questionable if we are safe from future terrorist attacks.

We are safer from the 9/11-style orchestrated attack. It’s harder for terrorists to get into the country, and harder for them to pull off something spectacular. But, as the Orlando massacre reminds us, the world is populated by lone wolves, and those living among us can easily obtain military-grade weapons. This makes their attacks much more lethal, and harder to detect in advance.

Our defenses are stronger, but we are trying to defend against more and different threats.

Again, focus on the political: We live in an America where one terrorist slipping through the armor is deemed to be total failure politically. Sooner or later, we must accept that we can’t continue a “zero terrorist events” policy, and Congress can’t use “zero events” as an excuse to make everything a top priority.

Politicians won’t prioritize among the programs for anti-terrorist funding, because they fear looking weak on terror. They also want to keep getting PAC funds from defense contractors. That means our political leaders will declare everything a top priority. In fact, 119 Congressional committees or subcommittees assert some kind of jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Everybody has a finger in the pie.

We need to start making better decisions and fewer enemies. Let’s start by asking the presidential candidates:

  • What have you learned from our 15 years of unsuccessful wars in the Middle East, and how would you apply those lessons in your administration?
  • Do you agree with the Obama administration’s plan to spend a trillion dollars modernizing our nuclear weapons?
  • What is your strategy to protect against cyber warfare?
  • How will you address the on-the-ground complexities of the Syrian civil war and of the Greater Middle East?
  • Is China, Russia, or ISIS our greatest threat?

At 15 years post-9/11, these questions should be answerable by ANY prospective US Commander-in-Chief. (Sorry, Gary Johnson)

Insist on better answers.

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More Iraq??

We have solved nothing in 12 years in Iraq. As Tony Wikrent says at Naked Capitalism,

The sheer imbecility of American leaders is brought into glaring light [by] Bush’s attempt at the transformation of Iraq from among the Middle East’s most repressive states to a multiparty democracy.

As Col Lang says, we own it [Iraq], but cannot fix it.

So naturally, we will send more troops there in the next month or so. And to a new location. This will bring American troop levels to 3,500 since we left Iraq in 2011. The air base where the additional US forces are to deploy is al-Taqqadum, which sits about halfway between ISIS positions in Ramadi, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) to the west, and Fallujah, to the east.

Pat Lang reminds us that al-Taqqadum was originally a British air force base called RAF Habbaniya, which later became an Iraqi air force base. It had been abandoned for a long time when US forces occupied it in March, 2003. We initially called it Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ridgway before settling on the more Iraqi-friendly Camp Taqqadum in 2004. Pat Lang on our plans:

Former RAF Habbaniya was the center of the…British presence in Iraq. Look at the pictures of chapels, cemeteries, and swimming pools for the British troops… Habbaniya is the place we will defend and try to make Sunni tribesmen and Shia cowards into fighters? The omens for this are not good.

Think about it: It is an airfield we know well and maintained for years, but it’s only 24 miles from the ISIS lines. We are by design putting our newest effort right where the enemy could take out our planes and our soldiers. Makes you think that it is a trip wire of sorts, leading to a large re-deployment to Iraq when ISIS crosses our wire. We will have to fortify and defend this place very heavily. Otherwise, ISIS will see it as a place to engage us directly in battle.

Da Nang anybody?

The idea behind the new site is to provide greater support for Sunni tribal fighters, who have yet to receive all of the backing and arms promised by the Shiite-led government. But there may be a glitch. The Guardian quotes Mr. Obama at the close of the G7 summit, saying that there were not enough recruits to train:

We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits…It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.

The Guardian also quoted Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar and expert on ISIS that:

Only 1,100 Sunnis had taken part in the US training program, and none of them have graduated from it. In total, about 9,500 fighters have completed the training.

Washington wants to revive the “Sunni Awakening” strategy that we used in 2007 when large numbers of Sunni tribal fighters joined with US troops to help defeat al Qaeda in Iraq. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised us that he would incorporate the Sunni fighters into Iraq’s standing security forces and pay them regular salaries, but failed to do so, sparking the sectarian anger across Anbar Province that left some Sunni tribal leaders amenable to working with ISIS.

Mr. Obama originally said that we did not have a strategy, now, a year later, he sends an additional 450 troops to train Iraqi recruits that he himself says don’t exist. The Wrongologist has supported President Obama, however, this has the makings of a fool’s errand.

Why do we keep talking about training Iraqis to fight? The evidence shows that lots of Iraqis already know how to fight, and many of them are fighting very effectively against the very government that America installed.

This is almost like early days in Vietnam. We dribbled in more and more advisers and support. But it’s not what’s in the hands of the soldiers, it’s what’s in their hearts, and we have no control over that.

The NYT says this will cost us $8 million per week, or $47,619.05 per hour, which is more than many people earn in one year. Do the American people want their tax dollars spent in this way? When our infrastructure is falling apart? When our kids have to take out onerous loans to go to college? When Social Security, which we paid for, is under threat from the right side of the aisle?

Thomas P. M. Barnett has advised US leaders on national security since the end of the Cold War, including the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, Central Command and Special Operations Command. Barnett said in a TED talk:

We field a 1st half team in a league that insists on keeping score until the end of the game

Barnett is correct. We have not learned how to play the 2nd half in Iraq.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – May 31, 2015

Get a cup of coffee and ponder a few things on this Sunday.

First, from the NYT’s Upshot, data-driven news you can use: Clinton vs. Sanders voting record. Top line numbers, they voted the same way 93% of the time. However, the 31 times that Ms. Clinton and Mr. Sanders disagreed happened to be on some the biggest issues of the day, including measures on continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an immigration reform bill and bank bailouts during the Great Recession. Bernie was opposed to all these actions.

Second, recycled neo-con viewpoints from the Washington Post Editorial Board on the Obama administration’s strategy in Iraq and for ISIS: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

The Obama administration has been unable to induce [Iraq’s] Abadi government to deliver desperately needed arms…to the Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces. Yet it [the Obama administration] simultaneously refuses to deliver materiel directly to those fighters, on the grounds this might undermine the Abadi government.

Then the Jeff Bezos team trots out Iran bogeyman:

Meanwhile, US officials watch as Iran continues to provide massive direct support to Shiite militias, including forces the US has designated as terrorist organizations.

Finally the neo-con wet dream of more troops on the ground emerges, repeating John McCain’s view:

Mr. Obama should bolster them with more US advisers, including forward air controllers, and more air support. He should insist that Mr. Abadi open a weapons pipeline to Sunni and Kurdish units. Perhaps most important, Mr. Obama should make his priority eliminating the Islamic State — as opposed to limiting US engagement in Iraq.

What we know: Experienced Iraqi army officers, who were largely Sunni, were left jobless when the Iraqi army was disbanded in 2004. Some of them joined ISIS. And Iraq’s current army officers are incompetent and corrupt appointees of an incompetent and corrupt Iraqi government. No matter what equipment we provide to the Iraqi army, all the Iraqi army will be capable of doing is spending our money and losing on the field of battle.

The editors of the WaPo have an agenda that isn’t serious about Iraq. The Iraqis do not lack weapons. We have spent nearly $40 billion on weapons and training. What money can’t buy is the will to fight. The Iraqi army apparently doesn’t have a lot of that.

If what the WaPo and Republicans really are saying is that more American men and women should die in Iraq for a country whose soldiers flee at the first sight of ISIS, then they should say that.

Let’s fight an endless war with money we don’t have. Great idea. Go ahead, you can now have your flashback to Vietnam.

On to a few cartoons.

Obama’s ISIS conundrum in a nutshell:

COW ISIS Bombing

FIFA’s story inspires others:

COW FIFA BustFIFA gets 47 count indictment:

COW Soccer Match

Texas floods delay Texas policy:

COWTexas Floods

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One-third of Nigeria’s rescued girls are pregnant:

COW Nigeria Pro-Life

 

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Sec Def Carter Says What Politicians Can’t

After Ramadi fell to ISIS, Mr. Obama said in an interview with the Atlantic, that the fall of Ramadi was a “tactical setback” in the US effort to defeat ISIS but said, “I don’t think we’re losing.” Then, because something real had to be said, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said it:

What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight…They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight. They withdrew from the site, and that says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.

He captured the essence of the problem:

We can give them training, we can give them equipment — we obviously can’t give them the will to fight…But if we give them training, we give them equipment, and give them support, and give them some time, I hope they will develop the will to fight, because only if they fight can ISIL remain defeated.

This was all too much for the Republicans, who are attacking President Obama’s “failed” strategy for dealing with ISIS. John Bolton said on Fox News Sunday: “We’re losing. There’s no doubt about it.” John McCain, on CBS’s Face the Nation: “We need more troops on the ground. We need forward air controllers”.

The Republican 2016 candidates also attacked Obama’s strategy, but said little about what they would do differently. Those who have spoken out, want thousands of US troops back in Iraq.

• Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum want to deploy 10,000 American troops in Iraq as part of a coalition with Arab nations
• Jeb Bush thinks additional American soldiers would have prevented ISIS from gathering strength in recent years. But an American-led force now? “I don’t think that will work,” he said last Friday
• Marco Rubio described his strategy against ISIS with a line from the movie “Taken” — “we will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you”
• Scott Walker and Rick Perry are open to a combat mission
• Rand Paul wants boots on the ground — as long as they are “Arab boots on the ground”

The Republicans offer “more troops” and movie quotes. They seem to say, “It matters not if you win or lose, it’s where you place the blame”. They also want us to believe that the “surge” defeated the Iraqi insurgency back in the day, and that if Obama had just stayed in Iraq, ISIS wouldn’t be there today.

It’s just more Republican delusion about a country we broke and can’t put back together.

Def Sec Carter was correct to rebuke the Iraqis for cutting and running at Ramadi. The Iraqi military and police forces outnumbered the attacking ISIS forces by 10 to 1, and were more heavily armed. Yet they still ran away as fast as their US-provided ground vehicles would carry them. The Iraqi forces have pointed out that they did not have as much air support as they wanted.

Ok, but it is fair to point out the total lack of air support available to ISIS forces. Any army, like the Iraqis who have air support, when facing an enemy who fights without air support, and finds itself unable to overcome that enemy, is probably fighting poorly.

The military situation is that ISIS and the Iraqi Shias are evenly matched in weaponry, and the Iraqi army has superior numbers. ISIS uses their arms and smaller numbers better, and leads their fighters more skillfully. What is keeping the Iraqi army from using the mobile, combined arms operations tactics that ISIS executes routinely? Is it lack of US air support? Lack of Iranian support?

Maybe it is a marked inferiority in leadership. How about a lack of competence in tactics, logistics, maintenance and supply, not to mention nepotism and chronic corruption?

This is not our fight, and it never was. Now that the apple cart is upside down, and the Sunnis and Shias are at each other, there is absolutely no place in this for the US. At the end of the day, we need to have both Sunni and Shia friends in the ME.

Bravo, Secretary Carter!

Keep our politicians real whenever they try to posture about the ME and ISIS.

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Is Our Politicians Learning? The Answer is “No.”

Even as the American public, politicians, and pundits speak of putting boots on the ground in the Middle East, yesterday, Counterpunch posted Tariq Ali’s interview with Patrick Cockburn on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Cockburn speaks about why the Iraqi army failed in Mosul in the face of a few thousand ISIS fighters. The point he makes is that the Iraqi army was set up as a corrupt organization. His reporting showed that when the Americans set up the new Iraqi army, they insisted that supplies should be outsourced: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

So immediately a colonel of a battalion nominally of 600 men would get money for 600 men, [but] in fact there were only 200 men in it, and [he] would pocket the difference, which was spread out among the officers. And this applied to fuel, it applied to ammunition…

At the time of the fall of Mosul, there were supposed to be 30,000 troops there. Cockburn estimates that only one in three were actually physically present. From Cockburn: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Because what you did was: you joined the army, you got your full salary and then you kicked back half that salary to your officer, who spread it among the officers. So I remember about a year ago talking to a senior Iraqi politician, and who said ‘look, the army’s going to collapse if it’s attacked’. I said surely some will fight, he said: ‘no, you don’t understand. These officers are not soldiers, they’re investors’!

Cockburn goes on to say:

They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment. Of course you had to buy your position. So in 2009, you want to be a colonel in the Iraqi army, it’ll cost you about $20,000, more recently it cost you about $200,000. You want to be divisional commander, and there are 15 divisions, it will cost you about $2 million.

Finally, the conclusion by Cockburn:

Of course, there are other ways of making money. Checkpoints on the roads act as sort of customs barriers and a tariff on each truck going through would be paid. So that’s why they ran away, led by their commanding officer. The three commanding generals got into a helicopter in civilian clothes and fled to Erbil, the Kurdish capital. And that led to the final dissolution of the army.

So, the Iraqi army didn’t become corrupt. It was set up to be corrupt from the start.

If Cockburn knew this, and the Iraqi general he interviewed knew this, then the US authorities in Baghdad knew this as well! It also begs the question of where the money went that we were spending to train the Iraqi military: If it was a fake army, why was Washington spending all this real money?

We need to keep this in mind as the drumbeats build for troops on the ground.

Let’s draw an inconvenient parallel. Robert Farley, Professor at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, observes that the Obama administration has decided to rely on air power in its efforts to limit the power of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and asks whether air power could have won in Vietnam:

Taking a look at the strategic, tactical, and joint aspects of the use of air power in Vietnam, we can get to an answer of “Maybe, but…” with an emphasis on the “but.” The US could have used airpower more effectively in Vietnam than it did, but even the most efficient plans likely could not have saved the Saigon regime.

The South Vietnamese government did not have legitimacy and support of its population. If US airpower had been used in the most ‘effective’ possible way, Vietnam might have survived longer than it did, but a corrupt regime that lacked widespread legitimacy with its own population was not going to survive in the long run.

Iraq is analogous to South Vietnam. It is a corrupt regime that lacks support of a significant minority of its citizens. To the Sunni community, amounting to about 20% of Iraqis, ISIS is a better overlord than the Iraqi army or the Iraqi Shia militias.

However, tactically air power may be more successful in Syriraqistan. It can slow ISIS from taking new territory, but it’s not going to dislodge them from where they sit, without killing a lot of civilians.

The question still comes down to “How many civilians are we willing to kill?”, because the first thing an enemy with no air defense learns is not to hang around in the open where they make easy targets. Indeed, today, the White House acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes will not apply to US military operations in Syria and Iraq.

Obama’s problem was saying the objective was to “destroy ISIS”. We can’t “win” the war against ISIS. We can keep them bottled up, and that’s where bombing can help. We can destroy ISIS’s fuel, weapons supplies, and vehicles.

If we do that for long enough, ISIS could collapse on its own – it’s a creature of war and expansionism, and its crowd of foreign and local fighters will get restless and start turning on each other if they can’t conquer new areas.

If boots are required, they will have to come from the neighborhood.

 

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We Have No Syrian Strategy

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Tuesday about the US policy to combat the Islamic State. It featured testimony from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey. You can find transcripts of their testimony here. During their pitch, they called each other “Chuck” and “Marty”. What happened to “Mr. Secretary” and “General”?

Is this the level of professionalism these guys show in the field, or with our allies?

Anyway, the idea of the hearing was for Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey to explain to the Senators how we will conduct the “degradation and destruction” of ISIS. It didn’t go well for those of us who think we should really have a strategy before we head off to Iraq and Syria.

The headline from the hearing is that the disconnect in the ISIS strategy, that we saw when Mr. Obama said we had no Syrian strategy, remains. We still have no Syrian strategy, at least no strategy that has a high probability of working.

Aside from the air strikes that you know about, there was a discussion of training a new force to go into Syria. General Dempsey expects that we will recruit 5,400 previously untrained Syrians from refugee camps, send them to about a year’s military training in Saudi Arabia, organize maybe a few more contingents in later training cohorts, and then send them into Syria, where they will defeat ISIS, and then move against Assad.

That’s believable. Hope you didn’t think we should be doing something sooner, because no other ME country will be sending actually breathing, trained troops to help out against ISIS in Iraq or Syria.

The Obama strategy reads as a multi-track effort. On the one hand, we will combat ISIS; then we will effect regime change in Syria. That’s a maximalist strategy, but is it realistic? The plan has additional risks, (American boots on the ground, quagmire, and creation of additional Islamists who hate America) plus, there is little chance it will work. Too many moving parts.

Maybe Mr. Obama’s real plan for training 5400 Syrians to become a new kind of “Bay of Pigs Brigade” (that didn’t go well) is to delay having to do anything about Syria and Assad, and leave that decision to his successor. The peril is, should the Bay of Pigs Brigade fail, McCain & Co then have a better reason to call for an all-out invasion of Syria, because Assad just killed off our 5400 trusty unicorns.

And because America would lose face if we let Assad get away with it.

Today in the NYT, Tom Friedman finally makes some sense:

Here’s another question: What’s this war really about?
“This is a war over the soul of Islam — that is what differentiates this moment from all others,” argues Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar associated with St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Here is why: For decades, Saudi Arabia has been the top funder of the mosques and schools throughout the Muslim world that promote the most puritanical version of Islam, known as Salafism, which is hostile to modernity, women and religious pluralism, or even Islamic pluralism.

More from Friedman:

Saudi financing for these groups is a byproduct of the ruling bargain there between the al-Saud family and its Salafist religious establishment, known as the Wahhabis. The al-Sauds get to rule and live how they like behind walls, and the Wahhabis get to propagate Salafist Islam both inside Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world, using Saudi oil wealth. Saudi Arabia is, in effect, helping to fund both the war against ISIS and the Islamist ideology that creates ISIS members.

In yesterday’s NYT, the above quoted Ahmad Samih Khalidi said:

The West must overcome its reluctance to offend the Saudis, and speak out much more forcefully against the insidious influence of Wahhabism and the ideological support it offers violent extremism. The Arab Gulf States must choose a side. They cannot continue to finance terrorism and use fundamentalism as a policy tool and yet claim to be fighting it abroad.

The lesson we should have learned in Iraq is that toppling a ruthless dictator does not produce spontaneous democracy. It produces spontaneous chaos that makes the ruthless dictator look, in retrospect, like the better alternative. That could be the outcome in Syria as well.

When ideology collides with reality, reality wins. Today’s reality is that if the ME nations fail to address this problem themselves, it will not get solved. It’s time for America to rethink the continuation of the wishful policies that have kept us stuck in the Middle East for so long, and at such a high cost.

As Matt Stoller said this week: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Adopting a realistic policy on ISIS means a mass understanding who our allies actually are and what they want, as well as their leverage points against us and our leverage points on them. I believe Americans are ready for an adult conversation about our role in the world and the nature of the fraying American order, rather than more absurd and hollow bromides about American exceptionalism.

 

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Our Mesopotamian Badlands

We have been stuck in Iraq for 23 years, starting in 1991 when Pappy Bush gathered a coalition to chase Saddam Hussein’s invading forces from Kuwait. In 2003, George the Younger invaded Iraq, looking for WMDs. He killed Saddam and then got stuck in the quagmire. It took a commitment of large numbers of American troops to bring sectarian violence under control, and help a democratically elected Iraqi government to take hold. Then, Barack Obama extricated us from Iraq in 2011.

We are now back on track to be Iraq’s air force. Mr. Obama has America returning to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ISIS jihadists who burst out of Syria and have reached the gates of Baghdad.

We have been asked to spend another $500 million to train Iraq’s fighters. Who pays to train the ISIS fighters? They seem to learn on the job. In fact, today’s New York Times reports on a Turkish ISIS fighter who trained for 15 days before assignment to a unit where he shot two people and was part of a public execution. From the NYT:

It was only after he buried a man alive that he was told he had become a full ISIS fighter.

And they make $150/day, plus all they can intimidate out of Iraqi businesses.

We are told that the effort will take many years. We are told that it will cost many more billions. NBC News estimates that costs will ramp towards $20 Billion per year:

The Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2014 authorized over $550 billion in spending on national defense, with an additional $80 billion for what’s called “Overseas Contingency Operations,” or OCO. That OCO fund is where officials have said funds for the ISIS fight will come from.

We are told that is quite possible that the effort will fail, because the (mostly) unwilling coalition Mr. Obama has rounded up really doesn’t want to fight ISIS. Why are most of them unwilling? The reasons vary. The Economist has a great chart that shows who sides with whom in the ME today:

Iraq Mosaic

The chart shows the degree to which America needs to play a delicate diplomatic game in holding together allies that may not always be friends with each other. Although ISIS is popular among young Muslim fundamentalists, the group has no allies on the political stage. But no country wants to put boots on the ground to cut ISIS off from their supply lines, their sources of cash, their command and communications. Dan Froomkin of the Intercept reports:

The big news out of the new “Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” meeting in Paris was that “several” Arab nations were willing to join President Obama’s latest bombing campaign.

But there were no details announced. And even the US’s most stalwart partner, the UK, wouldn’t actually commit to any specifics, because they are worried about the impact on the vote for Scotland secession. The “several” Arab countries are evidently “two”, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Guardian reports that Saudi Arabia felt so threatened by Isis that it was prepared to act in a front-line role:

There is a very real possibility that we could have the Saudi air force bombing targets inside Syria…That is a remarkable development, and something the US would be very pleased to see

A Grand Coalition is the military answer. But can Mr. Obama bring so many incompatible parties together and weld them into a coordinated military campaign?

It requires a far greater fear of ISIS for Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Shias and Sunnis, Alawites and Kurds to be military allies, while working with Western military powers, whom several Arab nations actively dislike.

For at least the past decade, there has been no oxygen in the room for Non-Middle East/Non-Arab problems. And yet, the world is still full of problems, many of which could benefit from resources and attention by a Grand Coalition. Those problems will wait while we try to win a war we don’t want, against an enemy who doesn’t truly threaten us.

There is a logic against doing nothing. ISIS has grown faster (up from 8,000, to nearly 40,000 militants), while also improving qualitatively much faster than any other terrorist group in the last 40 years. With control of part of the oil revenues in Syria and Iraq, they are on a trajectory for even further growth.

So, once again we trek back into the badlands. As Springsteen says:

Badlands you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good

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Thinking About the Slurry Wall on 9/11

It’s 13 years since that beautiful sky-blue September day when our world changed.

Consider the parallelism. Today, as we remember the terrorist attack 13 years ago, we begin another “war” against yet other group of Sunni terrorists. Mr. Obama, who was elected in 2008 to get us out of wars in the Middle East, has us on track to lead another “coalition of the willing” into the ME. The purpose of this crusade sounds depressingly familiar: To blunt the threat of another attack on the Homeland, despite little evidence that an attack is possible or imminent. And we do this because the people who face a direct ISIS threat can’t (or won’t) handle it for themselves.

The rise of ISIS is in part a consequence of US policy in the ME. Our war in Iraq and the subsequent 8 years of Iraqi internal political squabble have left many Sunnis in Iraq willing to support any challenge to the Shia central government. And now, 13 years after 9/11, we’re again strapping on our weapons and heading into war.

So today, let’s talk about the slurry wall at the World Trade Center. The Wrongologist took this photo in July, 2014 of the portion of the slurry wall that remains exposed in the Foundation Hall of the National September 11 Memorial Museum:

WTC Slurry Wall

The slurry wall is the outer wall of what WTC engineers called the “Bathtub” in the 1960’s:

The bathtub is the 9-block area of the World Trade Center site that is excavated down to bedrock…and ringed by the slurry wall. The bathtub was created to enable the building of the Twin Towers’ foundations, and was ultimately filled with seven stories of basements housing the parking garage, mall, and building services.

Except that this bathtub kept water out of the 70’ deep basement. The ground water level at the WTC site is just a few feet below the surface, while bedrock is about 70 feet below the surface. Creating the bathtub required first building a 7-story dam below the water level of the adjacent Hudson River – that was the slurry wall.

After the 9/11 attack, the concern was that the slurry wall would fail. A breach in the wall and a flooding of the bathtub might have also flooded other adjacent below-grade structures, such as the PATH tunnels that passed through the bathtub. The NY subway, built below the PATH tubes could also have flooded with a breach of the wall.

On 9/11, most of the central portion of the wall’s south side (bordering Liberty Street) had moved inward by more than 10 inches. But, it held. According to the New York Times, George Tamaro, a former staff engineer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who was closely involved with the construction of the trade center, believes: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

[The slurry wall construction]…may have helped prevent the Hudson River from flooding parts of Lower Manhattan

According to Tamaro’s report on the aftermath of the attack, the PATH tunnels in Jersey City, New Jersey, at the Exchange Place Station, were 5 feet lower in elevation than at the WTC PATH Station. Exchange Place became a sump for fire water, river water, and broken water mains discharging into the bathtub. But the slurry wall held.

Looking up at the exposed portion of the slurry wall in Foundation Hall, one can’t help but be thankful for the work of engineers and construction workers back in the sixties who built the bathtub, and the engineers and firefighters who stabilized the walls after 9/11. Since the attack, that unseen wall is now a symbol of the resilience of both New Yorkers and America.

But the world has spun off its normal axis since September 11, 2001. Isn’t it interesting that 9/11 was supposed to be about America striking back against a foreign enemy of freedom. Yet in the process of attempting to win the “War on Terror”, American citizens have given up a significant part of their personal freedoms. And just this month, we are starting to have a national discussion about how, since 9/11, the US Department of Homeland Security has transformed our local police into a paramilitary force. For example, the Los Angles School District Police got a MRAP (mine resistant vehicle) and 3 grenade launchers.

Schools need grenade launchers now? James Madison said in 1787:

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home…

Today, Americans own enormous numbers of weapons. Pew Research reports that the number of guns in the US is between 270 and 310 million, or roughly one for each of us. But, estimates are that about 37% of us actually own all the weapons.

So, today on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, we need to ask each other: What are we to make of a country in which:
• Local police are militarizing
• Citizens continue to arm themselves
• The federal government tramples on our Bill of Rights

Let’s think about what has been won and lost so far in the War on Terror. And let’s think about what remains of our social fabric. Is it as strong as that slurry wall? Will it hold when attacked? Do we still have that same problem-solving genius that built a slurry wall that was strong enough to survive attack?

Is America still built to last?

 

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What’s Erbil Got to do With It?

David Brooks:

We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq. The last four presidents have found themselves drawn into that nation because it epitomizes the core problem at the center of so many crises: the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.

While Lawrence of Arabia said “on to Aqaba”, President Obama says, “on to Erbil”.

From the 2-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Steve Coll, writing in The New Yorker:

To the defense of Erbil: this was the main cause that drew President Obama back to combat in Iraq last week, two and a half years after he fulfilled a campaign pledge and pulled the last troops out.

More from Coll:

Erbil is the capital of the oil-endowed Kurdish Regional Government, in northern Iraq. There the US built political alliances and equipped Kurdish Peshmerga militias long before the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, in 2003.

Erbil was the most stable place in Iraq until ISIS got near there. That caused Mr. Obama to draw a Red Line he has been thus far, unwilling to draw elsewhere in the Middle East, despite the urgings from politicians to his right. Mr. Obama, speaking with Tom Friedman in an interview last Friday:

The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see…It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected.

Kurdistan’s economy has boomed, attracting investors from all over. But, Kurdistan has one notable deficit as the model Middle East US ally: it isn’t a state. Nor is it a happy partner in the Iraqi national unity government. So, given that, Mr. Obama’s explanation of his rationale for war seems incomplete.

Did we say there are American oil companies on the ground there? Or, that there are American oil workers on the ground there? ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the oil and gas firms drilling in Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favorable terms. Along with them came the usual sub-contractors, the oilfield service companies, the accountants, the construction firms, and logistics firms.

More from Steve Coll: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

It’s not about oil. After you’ve written that on the blackboard five hundred times, watch Rachel Maddow’s documentary “Why We Did It” for a highly sophisticated yet pointed journalistic take on how the world oil economy has figured from the start as a silent partner in the Iraq fiasco.

Mr. Obama has a duty to defend American lives and interests in Erbil and elsewhere, oil or no. But, rather than evacuating US citizens, he has ordered a months-long aerial campaign to defend Kurdistan’s status quo. Why?

The DC Spin Doctors will say that it is essential to help a unified Iraq become capable of containing and defeating ISIS. But the status quo in Kurdistan also continues oil production by the international firms. We hear no mention of that, or how badly an evacuation would play for Democrats in the November elections. So, back in Iraq we are.

A little history: ExxonMobil cut its deal in Erbil in 2011. The GW Bush administration did not force Exxon’s predecessor American oil companies such as the Dallas-based Hunt Oil, to divest from Kurdistan. Bush’s team allowed the wildcatters on the ground to stay there, while insisting that Erbil’s politicians negotiate an oil-revenue sharing and political unity deal with Baghdad.

The Kurds in Erbil didn’t see the point in a final compromise with Baghdad’s Shiite politicians, so as each year passed, and the Kurds got richer, they attracted more credible and deep-pocketed oil companies as partners, and they looked more and more like a de-facto state. Steve Coll concludes:

And so, in Erbil in the weeks to come, American pilots will defend from the air a capital whose growing independence and wealth has loosened Iraq’s seams, even while, in Baghdad, American diplomats will persist in an effort to stitch that same country together to confront ISIS.

So we have another case of “Privatizing the Profits and Socializing the Losses”. The oil companies may or may not pay US taxes on the profits from their operations in Kurdistan, but Americans will surely pay the costs of Obama’s defense of Erbil.

We are defending an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose geopolitical appeal is as a long-term non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe. We don’t hear that spoken about in polite or naïve company.

Or in our main stream media, which is neither polite or naïve.

So, American forces are now using weapons (mostly air power) to destroy other American weapons captured by ISIS forces in Iraq, which the ISIS combatants have been using to capture even more US armaments, which Americans, in turn, will have to destroy at some point in the future.

Steve Coll reminds us that the historical Al Swearengen, Mayor of Deadwood, SD was a character in the HBO Series Deadwood. On the show, he once said that life is made up of:

“one vile task after another”

 

And so is American policy in Iraq.

 

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