The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

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


Sunday Cartoon Blogging – September 14, 2014

In this week’s “Parade of Bad News”: Yes, the Wrongologist remembers where he was on 9/11, but where we are today is way more important:

COW Permanent War











Mr. Obama must plan carefully whenever the “Coalition” gets together:

COW ISIS Guest List


Nobody said building an ISIS “strategy” would be easy:

COW ISIS Strategy


After the speech, the “coalition of the willing” didn’t include the 535 Commanders-in-Chief in Congress:

COW Are you with me


In other news, here’s why the NFL didn’t get it right the first time:



We Have to do Something!

Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and ISIS: We have to do something! What’s the plan, Obama? In fact most Americans have heard that Mr. Obama said “we don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS.

WTF? In fact, Obama was speaking solely about ISIS in Syria. A reporter asked last Thursday:

Do you need Congress’s approval to go into Syria?

Obama replied:

We don’t have a strategy yet…We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress

This has led to the “We have to do something” chorus. Consider Fox Anchor Heather Childers:

Ever hear of the “Politician’s Syllogism”? It is a logical fallacy that takes this form:
1. We have to do something
2. This is something
3. Therefore, we have to do this.

Sound familiar? We see and hear it every Sunday morning on “Bloviating with The Old Pundits”, also known as the network week in review shows. Here is what this can lead to: The Hill reports that House and the Senate are considering action to “do something”:

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., said in a statement Wednesday he will introduce legislation when Congress reconvenes next week that would authorize the use of military force against ISIS and other terror groups around the world, including al Nusra, Ansar al Sharia, al Shabaab and Boko Haram

House Speaker Boehner said in an appearance on conservative Hugh Hewitt’s radio show that the president will need congressional authority if he wants to strike at ISIS in its Syrian strongholds:

…If he’s going after ISIS…I think he would have to provide a War Powers notification to the Congress…And then it would be up to the House to make a decision about whether we dealt with the issue or not

Are you feeling better? We saw the pitfalls of “We must do something” following 9/11. Initial reactions to the attacks on America were shock and confusion. Traditional ideological divides were blurred, but then the Right trotted out a line that resonated with all Americans and caused the antiwar left to dissolve: We have to do something!

In US political speak, the one thing we have to do “something” about always refers to a foreign policy concern. Politicans don’t feel that we “have to do something” about domestic problems. Poverty? No need to act. Corrupt bankers? Inaction is fine.

In foreign policy, when a crisis flares up overseas, and especially if it involves possible opponents that the War Hawks, the defense industry and the media can categorize as bad guys, “we have to do something” means military action.

But, there are always supplements to military action. Half-measures can come in both military (money and weapons, but no boots on the ground), quasi-military (military and political advisers) and geo-political or diplomatic forms (coalitions, sanctions or embargoes). We can employ some, or all of those options. Or, after careful consideration of our short and long term interests, we can do nothing.

Any and all of that is called “strategy”.

And that’s the problem. We need to do something effective that has long and short term benefits, and that doesn’t bankrupt the nation. We can drop some more bombs and send more advisers. To have a useful strategy, we have to come to grips with these facts:
• We’re going to have to give Assad a pass for killing his countrymen and doing mean things with chemical weapons, because we have to work together on eliminating ISIS
• We may need to ally with Iran, a non-democratic and anti-Sunni regime that most Americans think of as an enemy
• We may need to confront our allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who have, at best, been “soft” on ISIS
• We have to accept that we now bomb our own weapons that have been seized by ISIS. Are we OK with more of that down the road, if that is the outcome of arming the “moderates” in Iraq and Syria?

Shoot in other footWith two beheadings, American opinion is being whipped up by certain politicians and the media to get us to strike back, hard. Fine, but let’s spend a few seconds thinking about WHY ISIS is whacking the hornets’ nest that is America. We are told that it is to get America to stop the bombing in Iraq.

Could it be just the opposite, that it is their invitation to join in yet another Middle East quagmire?

Could it be that they want a chance to defeat the “sole superpower” on their way to creating their caliphate? The logic of this form of asymmetric terror is pretty straightforward. But our “tough on defense” politicians fall for it every time. They take another bite of the “counter-insurgency” apple.

It may just be that their strategy (emulating Osama bin Laden), is to:

…in any way possible, enmesh the US and NATO in unwinnable wars, and then watch as the imperial powers disintegrate

ISIS and Al Qaeda are playing a long game. By doing flashy terrorist actions they empower the War Hawks and American conservatives. War Hawks and conservatives thereafter use their rejuvenated mandate to insist on crude and violent actions in the Middle East. They push reluctant centrists and liberals to do the same.

America then completely messes up the campaign, and further weakens its economy and social contract.

Perhaps we should let ISIS terrify Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf States to the point where they will all work together to destroy ISIS and its sources of funding instead of begging us to waste American lives and money there.

That is a strategy that is not exactly a do-nothing strategy, but you can already hear the War Hawk chorus, telling America to expect beheadings on Main Street next week.


Military Sales Complicate Our Middle East Strategy

The Hill quotes President Obama’s impromptu press conference on July 16:

We live in a complex world and at a challenging time…And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions, but all of them require American leadership. And as commander in chief, I’m confident that, if we stay patient and determined, that we will, in fact, meet these challenges.

Of course it is a complex time. But we make our lives much more complicated by the arms deals we make with other countries. In the last three years, the US has provided tens of billions of dollars in military weapons through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to the United Arab Emirates (UAE); Qatar; Kuwait; and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

Some are designed to protect against airborne missile retaliation and air attacks. For example, the US supplied Qatar ($9.9 billion), Kuwait ($4.2 billion), and UAE ($1.1 billion) with Patriot anti-missile systems and UAE also acquired a $6.5 billion theater anti-air defense (THAAD) system. The US also sold KSA $6.7 billion worth of KC-130 aerial refueling tankers, the UAE $4 billion and KSA $6.8 billion of munitions including “bunker buster bombs,” typically used to attack hardened targets like nuclear facilities (are you listening Iran?). Qatar received a $1.2 billion early warning radar; KSA $1.3 billion for 30 patrol boats for use in the Gulf of Hormuz; Qatar spent $3 billion on Apache attack helicopters used for special operations insertions. The list also includes Javelin missiles, F-18’s and F-16’s, and Sidewinder anti-air missiles.

Israel is the largest recipient of US Foreign Military Financing (FMF). For FY 2015, the President’s request for Israel adds up to about 55% of our global FMF funding. Annual FMF grants to Israel represent about 25% of the overall Israeli defense budget. We also agreed to sell Israel 19 F-35s in 2010, with options to increase that order to 75 planes. We have recently approved the only foreign sale of the V-22 Tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft to the Israelis for $3 billion.

Business Insider reports that we may have made our lives more complicated by weapons sales to Qatar. You probably are not aware that Qatar is one of Hamas’s reliable international partners:

Last week, Qatar closed the largest sale of American weaponry so far this year, purchasing $11 billion worth of Patriot missile batteries and Apache attack helicopters. The sale revealed that Qatar hasn’t exactly been lacking in strategic daring in the wake of its failed bet on Muslim Brotherhood-linked political movements throughout the Middle East.

Qatar is about the size of Connecticut. It has fewer than 300,000 citizens. The rest of its 2.1 million inhabitants are expatriates and foreign workers. Why does it need all these weapons?

The Israeli-Hamas fight shines a light on Qatar. The New York Times reported on the Qatari Emir’s 2012 visit to Hamas-controlled Gaza:

The emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, pledged $400 million to build two housing complexes, rehabilitate three main roads and create a prosthetic center, among other projects, a transformational infusion of cash at a time when foreign aid to the Palestinian territories has been in free fall.

He was the first-ever leader of a country to meet with Hamas in Gaza. Business Insider quotes Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who said that Qatar is “believed to be the primary financier of Hamas,” which has estimated annual operating expenses of around $1 billion. In June, Qatar attempted to transfer money for long-unpaid civil service salaries for Gaza-based Hamas members through the Arab Bank, a transaction that the Bank disallowed after apparent US pressure.

Qatar is arguably a counter-productive actor in the context of the biggest Israeli-Palestinian crisis since the Second Intifada of a decade ago. Business Insider reports that David Weinberg, a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that Congress hasn’t been concerned enough with Qatar’s policies to put a hold on weapons sales, and it confirmed the Obama administration’s recent nominee as ambassador to Doha without controversy:

It’s not clear whether Congress has the stomach for a fight over these issues with an ostensible ally when…the administration seems to be vouching for Qatari conduct.

Yes, we vouch for conduct we can’t control, or in some cases, really influence. Why is it that the first thing our lawmakers think of is “send them more arms”?

The powder keg of the Middle East has been filled in part by our policymakers’ conflicted views of Middle East politics, but largely by the political influence of America’s military contractors.

Thanks to our Congress and President, it waits only for another spark to set it off. If and when that happens, count on someone in the administration or in Congress saying: “who could have anticipated THAT happening?”