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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Choosing Between The Iraqis and The Kurds

The Daily Escape:

Fall in Cooperstown, NY – photo by Robert Madden

Yesterday, we talked about the US strategy of keeping all sides at bay in the Middle East (ME). This is supposed to allow us to turn our attention away from the ME to Russia and China. If that leads to conflicts between ME countries (or within them), that is acceptable to us, so long as these conflicts do not threaten Israel, or drag us back into military involvement in the region.

Today, we see our strategy in action in the brewing conflict between Iraq and the Kurds in Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds held a referendum that decisively supported their independence from Iraq. The vote was a historic moment in the Kurds’ generations-long struggle for political independence. But every major player in the neighborhood including the US, opposed even holding the referendum. And Baghdad refused to recognize the results.

In the past few days, the Iraqi military battled Kurdish forces to reclaim the city of Kirkuk from the Kurds. This means that one American-backed ally is fighting another, both with American-supplied weapons. From the NYT: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

American officials, including President Trump, insisted that the US was not taking sides in the dispute, but some analysts say that the US approved the Iraqi plan to enter Kurdish-held areas and that Iran helped broker the agreement with a Kurdish faction to withdraw its fighters from Kirkuk, allowing the Iraqi forces to take over largely unopposed.

Most of the Kurdish Peshmerga military forces in Kirkuk are loyal to a faction that is opposed to Mr. Barzani, the nominal leader of Iraqi Kurds. They agreed to make way for the advancing Iraqi force. Iran also supports the Iraqi government’s moves on Kirkuk. Iran’s goal is to insert Shiite militias into contested areas, dividing the Kurds, while solidifying Iranian influence over the Iraqi government.

So, does this mean we are now supporting Iran’s moves in Kirkuk? How does that compute when we are calling them out at the UN as state-sponsors of terror? Does it compute as Trump walks us out of the Iran nuclear deal? And why we are doing this when the Kurds are an important ally in our fight against ISIS?

The NYT quotes Joshua Geltzer, a former director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council:

It seems like we just got out of the way as Baghdad rolled the Kurds, and that doesn’t feel right…Plus, it makes little sense for an administration interested in getting tougher on Iran.

So, is this just more of the ME balance of power strategy that we are practicing in the region? Maybe, but the Iraq’s history doesn’t support our idea of E Pluribus Unum.

Iraq emerged from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. Up to that point, the territory that became Iraq had been ruled by the Ottoman Turks for hundreds of years. But at the Versailles peace negotiations, the British were given the lands that are now Iraq, with the intention that the area be made independent at some point.

When Iraq was created, no group thought of itself as Iraqi.  As Pat Lang says, the land comprised:

Arab Sunni Muslims, Arab Shia Muslims, Kurdish Sunni Muslims, Kurdish Shia Muslims, Kurdish Yaziidis, Turkmans, Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Christians and Jews.

And these groups began revolutions against the central government shortly after Iraq was granted independence in 1925. In 2003, when the current Iraqi state emerged, it had ties to the US and to Iran. Now, Iraq is a Shia dominated state, and, despite all of the US blood and treasure expended to stabilize it, Iraq is likely to ally with Iran over time.

That’s the same Iran that Trump and his neo-con friends detest.

On Wrongo’s reading list is Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nationsby Georgina Howell. It details how Bell, at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire, was the driving force behind the creation of Iraq in the post-WWI period. As Christopher Hitchens said in his 2007 review:

Howell points out that the idealistic members of Britain’s “Arab Bureau” knew that the promises they gave to the Arab tribes, that they would have self-determination after the war if they joined Britain against the Turks, would be broken.

How remarkable (and tragic) that we would use the Kurds in the same way 100 years later against ISIS.

Is there any reason to have confidence that the Trump administration has a clear plan to deal with what is happening on the ground in Iraq?

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Trump’s Syrian Mistake

The Daily Escape

(Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque, photographed before the war, in 2009)

Joshua Landis edits a blog called “Syria Comment”, and his last post was about Trump’s strategy for taking Raqqa from ISIS. He thinks allying with Turkey at the expense of the Kurds is a mistake.

Wrongo’s March 13 post discussed Trump’s Syrian strategy:

We are watching a continuation of the policy that predates the Trump presidency, the balkanization of Syria by alternative means…Trump’s “A Team” of generals seem to have fallen back on the old plan.

Landis thinks that Trump is planning to give the Turks free hand in taking Raqqa and most likely all of the Euphrates Valley. Turkey has proposed taking Raqqa from the north at Tel Abyad. The map below points out the geography:

Tel Abyad is the large black dot near the top of the map. This approach would drive through the middle of the Kurdish region (the purple shaded area above), cutting it in two. This splitting of the Kurdish territory is the main reason Turkey has offered to take Raqqa. From Landis:

Turkey hopes to establish its Arab proxies in a new “Euphrates state” in eastern Syria. This would partition Syria into three states: a western Assad-ruled state; an eastern Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel-ruled state, and a northern Kurdish state.

If the US allows Turkey to do this, it will lose the Kurds as allies in the attack on Raqqa, or in any other part of ISIS territory. Turkey says it is the only way that they can participate, because Assad’s army has already taken territory east of Aleppo, which has cut off Turkey’s access to Raqqa via al-Bab. Landis asks:

Why are the Kurds willing to take Raqqa even though they do not have territorial interests in and around Raqqa? They are investing in their relationship with the US. They assume that it will serve them well over the long run when it comes to their political aspirations.

A major issue with following Turkey’s plan is that they have dangerous Islamic fundamentalist allies. Turkey’s Arab rebel allies include Ahrar al-Sham, (similar to the Taliban, and adamantly opposed to the US). If the Turkey/Ahrar coalition rules the Euphrates post-ISIS, it will become a haven for Salafists and al-Qaida’s coalition.

For the past five years, Turkey has teamed with al-Qaida’s forces in Syria. It allowed them to mass inside Turkey in 2013. Turkey has no problem with them being part of its Arab force, since their strategy is to use the Salafists as proxies in thwarting Kurdish regional ambitions. More from Landis:

These…are the reasons that American generals do not want to work with Turkey. They don’t trust it, both because it wants to attack our Kurdish allies and because it is soft on al-Qaida-like rebel groups.

Our generals don’t fully trust this NATO partner to act in America’s interest!

What’s more, there is a likelihood that Iran, Russia, Syria, and Iraq would move against a Turkey-led Sunni land grab. They will not allow a Sunni rebel enclave in the middle of their spheres of influence. Landis: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

The US would [then] be expected to side with Turkey and the Sunni rebels in a long and escalating war against the Shiites. I think this is a swamp waiting to suck the US into its malodorous depths.

For more than 15 years, we have been engaged in a war in the Middle East. Now, the Pentagon is planning to send another 1, 000 troops to Syria in the coming weeks. This is indeed an endless war.

Let’s get ISIS, but we shouldn’t be teaming solely with the Turks in the effort to destroy ISIS. The great Orange negotiator should stand up to the Turks on this.

Now for some Syrian music. Here is Refugees of Rap with their song, “Haram” (“Forbidden” in Arabic):

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Sample Lyrics (translated):

Came out of the house
I smelled gunpowder
Voices from the minarets

Say go back to your houses
Shells on the neighborhoods come down like rain
I felt more scared, I felt a sense of danger
I completed my way and approaching death to me more and more
Average people say Allahu Akbar
I saw the neighborhood; neighborhood was red in color
The smell of blood and body parts in front of me scatter
I ran to help my friend was injured
Hospitals in dire need of blood donation and mosques shouting
Walls in the streets become white in color

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The Pant Suit’s Scary Foreign Policy

There may be reasons not to vote for Hillary Clinton, but there are no reasons at all to vote for Donald Trump — except for pure nihilism. For the Trumpets, there is little coherence about why he is their choice. Two threads emerge: First, that Trump will shake things up, that DC is its own bubble that must be burst. The current two party system is fraudulent and corrupt. Second, that rage against Hillary is sufficient reason to vote for the Donald. Neither idea, nor are both ideas, sufficient reason to elect the Pant Load.

So, Hillary has to be the choice for this election. She has a track record, and the only things you have to go by with respect to Trump are his mostly appalling business practices, and his appalling character, neither of which should inspire voter confidence.

However, Clinton’s track record and policies are not without concern. In particular, her foreign policy positions are frightening. It is clear that Clinton proposes to pursue a more militaristic version of the policies that have brought us where we are in the world. She would:

  • Enforce a “no-fly” zone inside Syria, with or without Syrian and Russian agreement
  • Issue an even larger blank check to Israel
  • Treat Russia as a military problem rather than a factor in the European balance to be managed
  • Try to tie China down in East Asia

We have little idea about what would she would do differently in Afghanistan or Iraq. What would she do differently about North Korea, Iran, or Turkey? We don’t know, but this should be frightening:

In the rarefied world of the Washington foreign policy establishment, President Obama’s departure from the White House — and the possible return of a more conventional and hawkish Hillary Clinton — is being met with quiet relief. The Republicans and Democrats who make up the foreign policy elite are laying the groundwork for a more assertive American foreign policy…

And there is more: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The studies, which reflect Clinton’s stated views, break most forcefully with Obama on Syria. Virtually all these efforts…call for stepped-up military action to deter President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russian forces in Syria.

The proposed military measures include…safe zones to protect moderate rebels from Syrian and Russian forces. Most of the studies propose limited American airstrikes with cruise missiles to punish Assad if he continues to attack civilians with barrel bombs…

Obama has staunchly resisted any military action against the Assad regime.

Apparently, the Iraq war was such a success that these policy experts want to repeat it in Syria. But, we are not as popular as we used to be, what with our drones droning all over the Middle East.

It is important to remember that when the Arab Spring erupted in 2010, the total Arab ME population was 348 million (World Bank data); today, it is 400 million. In the past six years, 52 million new Arab citizens were born in the ME, few of whom know a world without war, many who have limited education, schooling and economic prospects.

Should our next president be making new enemies in the ME?

We have a yuuge problem if our so-called foreign policy “elites” think the most “dovish” policy available is Obama’s current foreign policy. If this is the best that our serious policy thinkers can come up with, maybe we should just burn down the Kennedy School and Georgetown.

Wrongo thinks that 2016 is reminiscent of 1964, when LBJ ran against Goldwater. We had an anti-communist foreign policy elite looking for a fight with the USSR, and Goldwater was their man. America chose LBJ, because it was impossible to conceive of Goldwater having his finger on the nuclear button. LBJ was solid on domestic policy, but he listened to the elites, and launched us into Vietnam for no good reason, and with little public enthusiasm.

Today our anti-Russian foreign policy elites have Hillary’s ear, and there is a potential that she will mirror LBJ, getting us into another calamitous foreign policy adventure.

Wrongo will vote for her despite these concerns, as there is no alternative.

Bush’s policy should not be the starting point, with Obama’s foreign policy being the end point in terms of Hillary Clinton’s possible foreign policy options. If Bush’s policy was a complete failure, why on earth would she rely on a variant of it as the basis for our foreign policy?

Sadly, we are having this discussion less than two weeks before the election.

We have to hope that Hillary Clinton can be a good listener to options other than what the Neo-Cons are proposing.

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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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Zogby: ISIS is The Problem and Nobody in the Middle East Wants America to Solve It

A new survey of eight Middle East countries finds consensus on two issues — that Daesh (ISIS) is the major threat, and that the US’ role in countering it is “extremely negative” in the region. The survey was conducted by Zogby Research Services, (Zogby). They conducted face-to-face surveys with 7,400 adults in six Arab states, plus Turkey and Iran, in September. (This was prior to the terror attacks in France and San Bernardino.) Interestingly, the poll found considerable agreement about the causes for Islamic extremism, with majorities blaming:

Corrupt, repressive and unrepresentative governments [and] religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas and/or incorrect religious interpretations.

Some key findings:

Groups promoting extremism: Respondents in all eight countries were asked about four groups: Daesh (ISIS), the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, and militias and groups supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They were asked to rate how serious a problem each of these groups is on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is “a serious problem” and 5 is “no problem at all.” The table below shows the percentages of respondents who selected 1 or 2 (“problem”) and 4 or 5 (“not a problem”) for each group, as well as a ranking of how problematic the four groups are from the perspective of respondents in each of the eight countries.

Zogby Extermeism by group-page-0How best to defeat extremism? Respondents in every country said:

Changing the political and social realities that cause young people to be attracted to extremist ideas [followed by] countering the messages and ideas of extremist groups.

Countries combating extremism: When asked which countries were effective at combating sectarian violence, the US was ranked worst by all eight countries while Iran was ranked second-worst, with six countries rating them poorly:

Zogby Role of Countries in combating extremeism-page-0• Surprisingly to people in the US, Turkey gets the most consistently positive reviews for its role in combating extremist sectarian violence, including majorities in Jordan (74%), UAE (63%), Saudi Arabia (59%), and Egypt (53%).
• Saudi Arabia and the UAE are viewed positively by wide margins in some countries. Saudi Arabia’s top ratings come from Egypt (92%), UAE (91%), and Turkey (84%), and a majority in Jordan (68%). The UAE’s top ratings come from Egypt (86%), Saudi Arabia (79%), and Jordan (60%), while 39% of Lebanese and fewer than one-quarter of respondents in Iraq (25%), Turkey (16%), and Iran (15%) see the UAE as playing a positive role in combating extremist sectarian violence.
• In Jordan, 31% of respondents view the US’ role as positive.
• With respect to Iran, Lebanese opinion is evenly split between positive and negative. In Iraq, 36% view Iran’s role as positive, while less than one-quarter of respondents in the other countries surveyed agreed.

Perhaps these results support what most people in the US think:

• ISIS is a big problem and,
• Nobody wants us to solve it.

But, we keep trying to solve it, so the real question for Americans is: “What is in it for us to fight ISIS?”

If you watched the Republican debate in Las Vegas, you saw nine GOP candidates, all of whom avoided military service, bluster about how tough they’ll be on ISIS, using the kids of other Americans as fodder.

What is amazing is, all of these open-carry advocates talk about provoking, disrespecting and punching a guy (Putin) who openly carries an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

And we would provoke him why? Because ISIS is a huge threat to us? Or, because Putin wants to keep Syria’s Assad in power? Or, because it polls well with the fringe of very conservative Republicans who know nothing about military tactics?

Or, is it because the countries in the region really, really want us there?

Zogby (and the people they polled) say, “Not so much.”

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Our ISIS Strategy is Undermined by Our Muslim Allies

Pat Lang, a retired Colonel in Military Intelligence and a specialist in the Middle East who taught Arabic at West Point, says at his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

The present strategy of the US for defeat of ISIS is ultimately dependent on the Turks. Turkey is the main pathway through which ISIS receives recruits…and [is] the main pathway through which ISIS continues to export oil to raise money. Erdogan’s Turkey has until very recently barred the US from the use against ISIS of air bases built and maintained by the US for NATO.

On July 25, The Guardian disclosed that US Special Forces had captured “hundreds of flash drives and documents” when they raided the compound of Islamic State’s financial chief, Abu Sayyaf (May 15-16, 2015). The documents showed there had been widespread collusion by Turkish government officials in the smuggling of oil from ISIS-controlled oil fields in eastern Syria.

Lang goes on to say that Turkey and the US have different expectations and goals: The US wants the bases for the war against ISIS, but the Turks want the downfall of the Assad government in Syria and a buffer against a Kurdish state on their southern border. This aligns Turkey with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni governments in the Gulf. The prospect of a Syria dominated by a Nusra Front-led government does not bother Erdogan. He wants a similar outcome for Turkey if he can get enough seats in parliament to change the Turkish constitution to eliminate its Kemalist secularism.

The Turks also want the US to help them bomb the Kurds (by which Erdogan means all Kurds) into submission. To this end, the Turks will use their own forces and any support they can get from the US and the Europeans. In fact the various Kurdish groups, despite their political and tribal differences are really one people. If the US became complicit in attacks on Kurdish fighters of any kind, it risks the loss of our Kurdish ally in Iraq. From HuffPo:

The US finds itself in a position where a key ally, Turkey, is effectively at war with the one ground force, the Kurds, who, when supported by American air power, have been the most effective in rolling back the Islamic State.

Under these circumstances is it any wonder that the ISIS continues to thrive? The Republican drum beat for more American troops on the ground is not because the jihadis are an existential threat to the US but, rather because they menace civilized life in the Islamic World and potentially, across the rest of the world as well. But without real Turkish cooperation, victory over the ISIS isn’t possible, and the US should not attempt it. More from Col. Lang: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

There will be no Western style Reformation of Islam…Most people reading this do not understand the lack of central religious authority in Islam that leads to this chaos…That lack of central authority, when combined with a mindset that inextricably links religious and political authority creates chaos that can only be resolved by force. We should withdraw from the area and watch in fascinated horror. The Israelis? Well, pilgrims, they have sown the wind…

So, how should our strategy evolve? So long as the US continues to support and play along with our Muslim allies, fighting ISIS is a pointless endeavor. It just digs America deeper into a religious war within Islam without any benefits to us. Once the US is not engaged, we will cease to be manipulated by our erstwhile allies – the Saudis, Turks, Gulf States, and Israelis. At that point, those states will need to concentrate their thinking on matters of their own and regional security.

This would be a smarter strategy than our current plan of kicking the can down the road and believing in unicorns. Analysis by Pat Lang:

…the world has changed; the local has become universal, and the burden of existential misery, caused by overpopulation, climate change, misgovernance, war, poverty and loss of hope, has affected large numbers of people worldwide. Local and temporary “solutions”, especially military ones, will no longer work. And, in fact, are likely to worsen the situation.

Overall, our strategy to assist in the defeat of ISIS has not brought about anything positive. From Rosa Brooks in Foreign Policy:

So far, the US-led military campaign…appears to have achieved few positive results…intelligence sources have reportedly concluded that the Islamic State has not been fundamentally weakened. At best, we are probably prolonging the status quo.

It’s very frustrating that we can’t clear an area the size of Kansas with airpower. Either fight the ISIS all the way, or just leave them the hell alone.

The vote here is to get out of the way.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – May 17, 2015

The “knowing what we know now” argument from the right wing talkers was all over the news this week. They are trying to help Jeb Bush walk back his brother’s decision to invade Iraq. It is a revisionist attempt to explain the past decisions of the Bush administration with the added benefit of indicting Hillary Clinton. After all, while a Senator from NY she voted to invade.

The reframe says that a decision based on “what we knew then” was righteous, that everyone who looked at the same information would have come to the same decision. These guys continue to defend the invasion, despite the fact that we know it was based on lies. Iraq was not a good faith mistake. Bush and Cheney didn’t sit down with the intelligence community, ask for their best assessment of the situation, and then reluctantly conclude that war was the only option.

They decided before the dust of 9/11 had settled to use it as an excuse to go after Saddam. As evil as he was, he had nothing to do with the attack. To make a case for the short little war they expected to fight, they deliberately misled the public, making an essentially fake case about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and insinuating that Saddam was behind 9/11. From Lambert Strether:

And we played whack-a-mole with one fake WMD story after another: The yellowcake. The drones. The white powder. Judy Miller. Curveball. Cheney at the CIA. As soon as we would whack one story, another would pop up. And then Colin Powell, bless his heart, went to the UN and regurgitated it all (to his subsequent regret). Only subsequently did we come to understand (from the Downing Street Memo) that “the facts and the intelligence were being fixed around the policy,” and that the reason it felt like we were playing whack-a-mole is that we were; Bush’s “White House Iraq Group” was systematically planting stories in our famously free press.

Yet the Neo-cons, including Jeb Bush, say they would still make the same decision.

Bush harkens back to a government that believed its own spin doctoring to the point where it wasn’t able to see the difference between a sales pitch and the hard evidence coming from the Intelligence community. Given the totality of the outcome of these decisions: America nearly bankrupted, hundreds of thousands dead, total conflagration in the Middle East, he spent the week dancing around, saying the intelligence was faulty, but everyone believed it. And saying while you wouldn’t do it now, you would have done it then, is moral depravity.

According to the neo-cons, Obama did it:

COW Obama Did It

Jeb mansplains:

COW Jebs Answer

This week, Obama met with our ME “allies”:

COW ME Strategy

Amtrak off the rails indicts America:

COW Train Wreck

GOP’s new budget is springtime for the 1%:

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trade Deal is still up in the air:

COW Trade Deal

 

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Transformative Ideas – Part III, Make America A Humanitarian Force in the Middle East

What is our grand strategy in the Middle East? Do we have a strategy at all?

We are now escalating our military role in Yemen. The USS Roosevelt battle group is deploying from the Persian Gulf to the northern Arabian Sea to….do what?

Both the US and Iranian navies have now sent ships to the waters around Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been bombing rebel targets since March. The press says the Iranians are bringing weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen; the Iranians say they are not. This sets up a scenario that can lead to miscalculation, like we saw in 1988, when US officials said they were trying to keep shipping lanes open, and a fight between Iran and the US wiped out half of the Iranian Navy.

Traditionally, we say that our Navy ensures freedom of the sea. So, are we again ensuring the freedom of the sea in the Bab al-Mandab Strait? Who threatens freedom of passage there?

Since 1980, US forces have invaded, occupied or bombed 14 countries in the Islamic world, and American soldiers have killed, or been killed, in them. Here’s the list:

Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-present), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-present), Sudan (1998), Yemen (2000, 2002-present), Pakistan (2004-present) and Syria (2014-present).

What is the outcome of our intervention in the Middle East? We should look at what we have accomplished in the Middle East, and what our sustained war footing has cost us.

Are Middle East nations more favorable to us? Are we more secure at home?

What of the millions of internally displaced persons and refugees in the Middle East? Estimates are that 3.1 million refugees are living outside their countries, while 13.1 million are displaced within Iraq and Syria alone.

A Brookings report, Arab Youth: Missing educational foundations for a productive life concluded that the percentages of primary school students who did not meet basic learning levels (average of numeracy and literacy) in 2011 was:

Around 90% in Yemen, 77% in Morocco, 69% in Kuwait and 63% in Tunisia. The best performers, with 30-40% of non-learning students, were Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, though in wealthy Qatar…over 53% of children at the secondary level were not learning.

It can’t have gotten better since 2011. These are flashing red lights. These tens of millions of uneducated young Arabs will prove to be homemade weapons of mass destruction, some directed at us. These young men and women cannot look forward to employment or meaningful roles in their societies. They are the feedstock for armed groups, criminal cults, and extremist militias, as we see in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Libya.

Here is the transformational idea: It is time we move away from US military intervention in the Middle East. Since it has failed us as a primary means of US policy, let’s change direction.

Let America keep a forward military position in the region, but we should stop bombing, shooting and droning. The National Priorities Project estimates that we have spent $1.6 Trillion on ME wars since 2001.

Instead, let’s use a big slice of that money to become the primary supplier of humanitarian and educational aid to the refugees and displaced people in the Middle East. We should position ourselves as a positive force for change among many millions of Muslims, and not be just another country in a long line of crusading infidels.

We can’t use military might to bring stability wherever it’s needed. We can’t remake parts of the world in our image, and the world doesn’t want us to even try to do so.

America has many fine attributes, but there is a naïve and possibly ignorant side of the American psyche that gets us into trouble. It is the myth of American exceptionalism. It bleeds into our politics, our popular culture, and much of our military. It makes us very hard to like in the ME.

Mr. Obama decided that we should try something different in Cuba, when 50 years of doing the same thing didn’t produce results.

Well, we have been doing the same thing in the Middle East for at least 60 years. In 1953, Iran’s military, financed by the CIA, overthrew Prime Minister Mossadeq. The Shah took power and, as thanks for the American help, signed over 40% percent of Iran’s oil fields to US companies. You know the rest of the Iran/US story.

Let’s try something different in the Middle East.

(This is the third in an occasional series about transformative ideas. You can read the first about capitalism here and the second about restoring the military draft, here)

 

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Should a Controversial Opera Be Seen?

On Monday night, hundreds of people protested outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera that the presentation of “The Death of Klinghoffer” is anti-Semitic, and should not have been offered by the Met.

A summary: In 1985, Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old Jewish-American disabled man, and his wife, Marilyn, were passengers on an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. The ship was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists, who shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him overboard in his wheelchair.

First produced in 1991, “Klinghoffer” contains a running debate between the killers—who voice a number of anti-Semitic slurs in the course of justifying their conduct—and Klinghoffer as their victim.

John Adams also wrote “Nixon in China”, another “docu-opera. With “Klinghoffer”, he has a much more provocative topic and aims to show both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was among the protestors, wrote a not completely unreasonable op-ed in his opposition to the Met’s staging of the John Adams opera. He says while the Met had a First Amendment right to present the opera:

Equally, all of us have as strong a First Amendment right to…warn people that this work is both a distortion of history and helped, in some ways, to foster a three decade long feckless policy of creating a moral equivalency between the Palestinian Authority and the state of Israel…this opera didn’t create but certainly contributed to a romanticized version of the Palestinian cause which led to the American administration giving them hundreds of millions of dollars meant for the Palestinian people but mostly taken by Arafat and his band of terrorist crooks.

So, Giuliani complains that Adams’s 23-year-old opera has contributed directly to the collapse of the Middle East peace process and to hundreds of millions of dollars being funneled to terrorists. What’s in that NYC water?

What has happened is that the protestors have brought the Israeli/Palestinian differences to New York. They are busy recapitulating the division, spin, shouting and reiteration of the talking points of both sides, this time through the medium of the Metropolitan Opera. Protesters are demanding that the opera be canceled; defenders of the opera couch their position in terms of artistic freedom or, as a two-sides presentation, giving a voice to the grievances of the Palestinians.

Some people say works like “Klinghoffer” encourage people to emulate the bad behaviors they see on stage. It is doubtful that anyone has engaged in sibling incest after watching “Die Walküre”. Let’s remember that “The Marriage of Figaro” is about a libidinous noble’s invocation of the historical “droit de seigneur.” That “Macbeth” is about regicide. That Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd” about a maniacal serial killer. That the opera “The Rake’s Progress” about someone selling his soul to the devil.

Let’s also remember Mr. Giuliani in 1999, as Mayor of all the people of New York, tried to shut down the Brooklyn Museum because he viewed an exhibition as “sick,” “disgusting” and sacrilegious. At the time, Giuliani argued that the Brooklyn Museum had no First Amendment right to show a British exhibition that featured a portrait of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung. He then threatened to terminate the Museum’s lease with the city and possibly even seize control of the Museum. The exhibit went forward.

The issue is what to do about provocative art that offends the sensibilities of some fraction of the population. The opera and the protests taken together, confront us with something we see all too often: Conflicts between, and often within populations, who have been traumatized by history.

You cannot reason with people when hyper-vigilance and condemnation are what drives any discussion with them.

Let the protestors protest. Let the show go on. Let the debate about the opera go forward. One can argue passionately about the Middle East, Israel or Palestinians. None of that makes the Klinghoffer murder morally acceptable. Or “Klinghoffer” great art.

If we want to bridge our differences, we have to start small, take a few risks, confess some offenses, forgive them and move to reconciliation. Then build on that.

It is the only solution. It does not begin in crowds.

 

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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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