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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

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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