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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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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – April 16, 2016

(There will not be a Monday Wake Up column this week, as Wrongo continues to deal with getting the Wrong family tax return fininshed by Tuesday)

Why won’t the Syrian tar baby let us go? Why can’t we quit Syria? Some clues from Robin Wright in the New Yorker: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Henry Kissinger made twenty-eight trips to Damascus—fourteen in a single month—to deal with the fallout from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. He finally brokered an agreement with Assad, in 1974, to disengage Syrian and Israeli troops along the Golan Heights.

Jimmy Carter met Assad in Geneva, in 1977, to explore prospects for a U.S.-Soviet conference on Middle East peace. Assad was unyielding. He demanded the return of territory seized by Israel.

Tensions between Ronald Reagan and Assad turned openly hostile after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, where Syria had thousands of troops deployed.

Between 1993 and 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher made almost thirty trips to Damascus, to broker a deal on the Golan Heights.

In 2007, the C.I.A. corroborated Israeli intelligence that Syria, with North Korean blueprints and technicians, was building a secret nuclear reactor in the remote city of Deir Ezzor. Israeli warplanes attacked the site.

The New Yorker article’s headline calls the Assad family “The Nemesis of Nine US Presidents”. It assumes that this is a one-sided story, but it seems that it is also about America’s little nuclear-armed apartheid partner on the Mediterranean, and the weeping sore of its occupation and annexation of Syrian territory. And we wonder why Russia and Iran have insinuated themselves in the Shiite Middle East.

On to a shortened version of cartoons. The Easter Egg Roll, which takes place at the White House on Monday, is one of the WH’s biggest annual events. Last year, more than 35,000 people attended, but about 20,000 are invited this year. It has been an annual event since first lady Dolley Madison started it in the early 1800s. Trump is at Mar-a-Lago for Easter weekend. There’s an Easter hunt there too:

Steve Bannon isn’t getting the message:

Bannon was “volunteered” to give up his seat on AF One:

 

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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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Congress Can’t Get Its Responsibilities Right

It is always good to know why and how we got where we are. Here is a little history about our military position in the Middle East. From Steve Coll in the New Yorker:

In 1967, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave up on the remnants of Pax Britannica. His Labour Government pulled British forces from Malaysia, Singapore, Yemen, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and other Persian Gulf emirates.

At the time, Denis Healey, the British Defense Secretary, said England should not:

Become mercenaries for people who would like to have a few British troops around.

And since nature doesn’t tolerate a vacuum, the US decided to leave a few American troops stationed permanently in the Gulf.

Now, 49 years later, American warships still patrol the Middle East. US fighter jets fly from a massive base in Qatar. Over the decades, Republican and Democratic administrations (and Congresses) have colluded to give a blank-check to successive presidents, keeping our troops deeply involved in the ME.

Andrew Bacevich has a new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,” which highlights the inexplicable passivity of Congress in our ME wars. He points out that from the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Middle East, while since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere except the ME.

After the Cold War wound down in the 1980s, the US began what Bacevich calls the “War for the Greater Middle East”. As this new war unfolded, hostilities became persistent: From the Balkans to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, US forces embarked upon a seemingly endless series of campaigns in the Islamic world, without conclusive success.

Actions undertaken with expectations of promoting peace and stability produced just the opposite. As a consequence, phrases like “war on terrorism,” “permanent war” and “open-ended war” have become part of our everyday politics. When it came to the ME, despite Congress having the Constitutional duty to declare war, they stopped offering any check or balance to America’s continuing ME wars.

It wasn’t always that way.

In 1964, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The Congress urged President Lyndon Johnson “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” across the length and breadth of Southeast Asia.  LBJ used it as legal cover to ramp up in Vietnam, as well as in Cambodia and Laos.

Fast forward to 2001, and Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). We can consider it to be the grandchild of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.  This directed President George W. Bush:

To use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

In plain language, it was a blank check. Now, nearly 15 years later, the AUMF remains operative, and has become the basis for military actions against innumerable individuals, organizations, and nations with no involvement whatsoever with the events of September 11, 2001.

And in 2015, when Obama asked Congress for a new AUMF addressing the specific threat posed by ISIS, asking that they rubber-stamp what he had already launched in Syria and Iraq,  Senator Mitch McConnell worried that a new AUMF might constrain his successor.  The Majority Leader remarked that the next president will:

Have to clean up this mess, created by all of this passivity over the last eight years…an authorization to use military force that ties the president’s hands behind his back is not something I would want to do.

So, Republicans think the proper role for Congress was to give this commander-in-chief carte blanche so that the next one would enjoy similar unlimited prerogatives. The GOP-controlled Congress thereby has transformed the post-9/11 AUMF into what has now become, in effect, permission for permanent armed conflict.

The illogic astounds: On ME warfare, Republicans collaborate with a president they despise, implicitly concurring with Obama’s claim that “existing statutes [already] provide me with the authority I need” to make war on ISIS.

Something that is at best, extra-Constitutional.

Yet, when Obama is clearly acting in accordance with the Constitution, nominating a new Justice to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, they spare no effort to thwart him, concocting bizarre arguments to justify their obstructionism.

How does Congress square shirking its responsibilities in our ME war with its activism against Merrick Gardner?

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What’s The Strategy Mr. Obama?

From The Atlantic:

Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the US will step up its operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including through ‘direct action on the ground.’

Carter captured the strategic incoherence that is the essence of our current Middle East policy.

And isn’t sending our uniformed military into Syria to support forces in open rebellion against the Syrian government an act of war? What will we say when a non-NATO country invokes this same precedent, say, in the Baltic States, or on Philippine territory?

We seem to be relying on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF is our legal excuse to justify any plan for more intervention in the ME. It is a catch-all, because it allows the US to go after whoever we dislike. The relevant passage from the AUMF says that the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.

Our new ME policy backs ISIS in Syria, but fights it in Iraq. This is a flawed strategic position. It puts US soldiers at risk of direct confrontation with Russian forces, instead of by proxy, which would be bad enough. From Sic Semper Tyrannis: (Brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

In Syria, the [Def Sec]Carter/[General]Dunford/WH “team” proposes to insert US Green Berets into YPG Kurdish controlled areas northeast of Aleppo as instructors, coordinators, advisers and air controllers. The Turkish Air Force has been busy bombing these same Kurds the last few days to prevent them moving west along the border to seal it against IS transit of the border from Turkey…Question – what will happen when Turkey kills some US soldiers?

We are doing this because we have been outplayed by Russia in Syria. The US (and Obama’s) dilemma has nothing to do with the alleged Obama fecklessness. It has everything to do with the US having to cope with the second order effects of the destruction of Iraq.

Iraq is America’s cardinal sin, and we will suffer its consequences for a very long time.

The US cannot have a coherent ME strategy as long as it remains loyal to its traditional ME allies/clients Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel. Successive administrations have maneuvered the US into a position where we can’t extricate ourselves from the policy goals of these “client states”, even when we know their goals are detrimental to US interests.

These alliances have placed the US in a foreign policy straitjacket. Obama wants to wriggle free. He wants to accept the changes in the regional balance of power that have emerged as a result of the destruction of Iraq, but our allies/clients both resent, and oppose them.

The simple fact is that the US is dependent on the consent of these allies/clients for the use of their overseas bases. The Turks have leveraged that need with the denial of use of Incirlik Air Base until their demands were met. We should expect the Saudis and Qataris play the same card.

The Obama administration understands that the US is losing its grip on the region and its politics. We try to operate against that, despite having allies/clients that have different objectives than we have, allies who have diametrically opposing narratives of recent events and very different policy goals.

That means the “allies” resist our plans, while we compromise with them, and work to meet their preconditions. This is precisely because the US has configured our Empire in a way that means these allies aren’t “client states” at all: They are “customers” for our military suppliers, and everyone knows that The Customer Is Always Right.

In the end, even assuming a rational strategy and stellar execution, the regional balance of power in the ME has fundamentally changed, and the US must adjust.

This new move by the Obama administration means that America is on a track to just continue wandering around in the ME. That will continue until we are again bloodied on the ground, and fade away…or stumble into WWIII.

We let the genie is out of the bottle. Now it is time to deal with it.

 

See you on Sunday.

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America’s “Fill in the Blanks” Middle East Policy

(There will be no further posting until Monday 10/26, since Wrongo and Ms. Oh So Right are attending a weekend family reunion)

We have been talking about our failed strategy in the Middle East for several days. Here is a great observation by Tom Englehardt that summarizes our all-too-true ME reality:

Sometimes I imagine the last 14 years of American war policy in the Greater Middle East as a set of dismal Mad Libs. An example might be: The United States has spent [your choice of multiple billions of dollars] building up [fill in name of Greater Middle Eastern country]’s army and equipping it with [range of weaponry of your choosing]. That army was recently routed by the [rebel or terrorist group of your choice] and fled, abandoning [list U.S. weaponry and equipment]. Washington has just sent in more [choose from: trainers/weaponry/equipment/all of the above] and [continue the sentence ad infinitum]. Or here’s another: After [number, and make it large] years and a [choose one or more: war, air war, drone assassination campaign, intervention, counterinsurgency program, counterterror effort, occupation] in [Greater Middle Eastern country of your choice] that seems to be [choose from: failing, unraveling, going nowhere, achieving nothing], the [fill in office of top U.S. official of your choice] has just stated that a U.S. withdrawal would be [choose from: counterproductive, self-defeating, inconceivable, politically unpalatable, dangerous to the homeland, mad] because [leave this blank, since no one knows].

Englehardt’s blog, TomDispatch, has an important article by Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department, who spent a year in Iraq. The article is entitled: What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came? − What Could Possibly Go Wrong (October 2015 Edition)

You should read it all, but here are some extensive quotes:

In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.

More:

There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

And more:

What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.

And finally: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?

What are we doing in the ME?

Why are we doing it?

What end state do we want?

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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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What Have We Learned from 13 years of War?

“The Americans have all the clocks…but we have all the time” – Taliban Commander

On Veteran’s Day, the Wrongologist asked himself whether, after the last 13 years of war in the Middle East, conducted by four presidents, with the loss of many thousands of American lives, and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, what have we learned?

Maybe, not enough. So, here are three more credits in the Big Picture:

Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that US forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980. 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), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-present), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-present), Pakistan (2004-present) and now, Syria.

We need to figure out what we have learned from all of this intervention in the Middle East. We need to total up what we have accomplished in the Middle East, and what a sustained war footing has cost us as a nation. Our veterans and the American people deserve an accounting.

On Tuesday, the NYT had an op-ed by Daniel Bolger, a retired General who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Bolger wants us to stop saying that the surge won the Iraq War:

The surge in Iraq did not “win” anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad…the surge just forestalled today’s stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fevered patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn’t go away. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents we battled for more than eight years simply re-emerged this year as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Please read Bolger’s book, “Why We Lost – A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars”. Its first paragraph:

I am a United Sates Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.

Americans have the problem, our politicians have the problem, and so do our generals. We think that we can: i) bring stability wherever it is needed, or ii) remake parts of the world in our image. Well, we can’t. And the world doesn’t want us to even try to do it. America has many fine attributes and things to be proud of, but there is a naïve and possibly purposefully 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. You only need to look at Tuesday’s Concert for Valor to see how deeply we are infected by the Exceptionalism myth.

We need a debate. What are we doing in the Middle East? Andrew Bacevich, a professor and retired army colonel has said: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

You know, we live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost, even though the costs almost inevitably end up being orders of magnitude larger than anybody projected at the outcome. But when you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we come very, you know, cost-conscious…

Has the Middle East become more or less stable? Has it become more democratic? Is there less anti-Americanism? The answer is “no” to all. So, it is time to recognize that US military intervention in the Middle East has failed us as a primary means of US policy.

Mr. Obama’s bet — the same bet made by each of his predecessors, going back to Carter — is that the application of US military power would solve the dilemma of the moment. All of them were wrong, and so is he. Without a real debate, when the 14th campaign runs its course, a 15th will be waiting.

One thing worthy of debate is whether we should return to a universal service based on a mandatory draft. Richard Nixon replaced the draft with a lottery. That morphed into our all-volunteer armed forces. And thus, the ideal of the citizen/soldier was another casualty of the Vietnam War.

Non-professional soldiers would assure that we debate what we are doing militarily. It would engage the public in our foreign military strategy, unlike their current engagement with an all-professional military.

Will Congress ever agree to a commission to examine our grand strategy in the Middle East? Not without real civilian pressure. Who in their wildest imagination, after Vietnam, would have thought we would commit to a military strategy and a foreign policy that produced the debacle we now have in the Middle East?

Then again, how long will Sisyphus continue to roll that rock up War Mountain?

 

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