The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Friday Music Break – September 19, 2014

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Our political class has been banging their spoons on the table, crying for war all summer. But now that they’ve got one, they’re not sure they like it. On Wednesday, the House approved President Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to counter the growing threat of the Islamic State organization. But the vote was 273 to 156, which shows widespread misgivings in both parties about the plan’s chances of success, even among lawmakers who voted in favor of it.

Since our representatives are authorizing the third significant US military operation in Iraq in the past 25 years, today’s music is about war, loss and the last Iraq war.

We start with Michael Franti & Spearhead’s “Light Up Ya Lighter” from their 2006 album “Yell Fire”:

The key lyrics:
Here’s what you get
An M-16 and a Kevlar vest
You might come home
With one less leg
But this thing will surely keep a bullet out of your chest

So come on, come on
Sign up, come on
This one’s nothing like Vietnam
Except for the bullets, except for the bombs
Except for the youth that’s gone

Tell me president, tell if you will
How many people does a smart bomb kill?
How many of em do you think we got?
The general says we never miss a shot
And we never ever ever keep a body count
We killin’ so efficiently we can’t keep count

Next, a song from the Vietnam era that still resonates today. Creedence Clearwater Revivals’ “Fortunate Son”, from their album, “Willy and the Poor Boys” is an anti-war anthem. It criticizes militant patriotic behavior, and those who support the use of military force without having to pay the costs themselves, either financially or by serving in a wartime military. Fortunate Son came out 45 years ago, in September 1969. The Wrongologist was discharged in March of that same year. He wasn’t “no millionaire’s son”.

Which, by the way, was how it worked. And how it still works. Let Congress send their sons and daughters to Iraq to degrade and destroy ISIS. That would be called “leadership”.

Let’s close with “Élegie” by Gabriel Faure´. While this isn’t an anti-war piece, it was written to express sorrow at the death of a friend. This is sad story music. It starts with an angry meditation: the person is angry, and as he mulls what is lost, his anger increases. Thus, the music grows even more intense than at the beginning. But at the very end, there is resignation.

Sort of 5 stages of grief for cello and piano.

The artist is Julian Lloyd Webber, brother of, you know, THAT Lloyd Webber. In April 2014 he announced that he would no longer be performing the cello in public, due to a neck injury:


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.



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 – August 17, 2014

Difficult week. Ferguson MO, Iraq and RIP Robin:

COW Robin W

The media is making a thing of Robin Williams’s suicide. Media coverage and commentary is wall-to-wall, just like when Seymour Phillip Hoffman OD’ed.

They ignore that CNN says that there are 22 suicides a DAY among America’s veterans. What has happened to proportionality in the press?

A study published this week in Health Affairs states that spending on behavioral health disorders is expected to decline from 7.4% of total health spending in 2009 to 6.5% in 2020, while actual dollars spent are projected to increase from $172 billion in 2009 to $281 billion in 2020. More needs to be done.

From the police blotter:

COW Hands Up











We heard on Friday that Michael Brown may have stolen cigars from a convenience store. The media says that it shows the kid was no saint. But people aren’t shot for shoplifting, they get arrested and need help from lawyers like these philadelphia criminal lawyers to help reduce their charges. This is despite the fact that shoplifting costs American retailers approximately $14B annually. Once again, the media are conflating the dead boy and his possible crime with the right of the people to free assembly to protest a grievance against their government, as well as the threat that is posed to ordinary Americans by militarized police.

The Ice Bucket Challenge throws cold water on Obama:

COW Ice Bucket

We revise our view of Iraqi history:

COW Strongman

Iraq owns us. 4 US presidents in row have been called to action there:

COW Cakewalk


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.