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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Monday Wake Up Call – Veterans Day Edition, November 11, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France – 2016 photo by Wrongo

Wrongo’s service occurred during the Vietnam War. His father was a WWII veteran. His grandfather, a WWI vet. Wrongo salutes all who have served!

While none of his kids have served, we all carry scars of our nearly two decades-long mistaken adventures in the Middle East. For some, it is poorer roads, bridges and airports. For others, it’s a huge budget deficit that won’t be paid off, even by Wrongo’s grandchildren’s children.

Of the 2.7 million who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs says that 35% have some form of disability. Over 970,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veteran disability claims have been registered with the VA. Over 6,900 US troops have died, as have approximately 7,800 contractors. These 20 years have also produced around 2,000 amputees.

From the Economist:

“Iraq and Afghanistan vets represent less than 1% of the population, and America lost eight times as many soldiers in Vietnam in less than half the time, when its population was two-thirds the current size.”

The Economist tries to tell us that the body count in Afghanistan is a great result. That’s neoliberal BS. People died, people were wounded and many thousands continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Since we ended the compulsory draft in 1973, Americans are no longer connected to our wars, or to our veterans. These wars have been funded by debt, so younger Americans will pay for wars that they hardly know about, or why they happened.

This disconnect helps explain why the country’s civilian-military relations are so distant. It also explains why America has gotten locked into long and unproductive conflicts.

Some think that Trump will get us out of Afghanistan in the coming year. Some think that Trump was correct to cede northeastern Syria to Turkey and Russia.

But, as we sit here on Veterans Day 2019, the messages from the Trump administration are very mixed. The Guardian reports that two weeks after ordering a complete evacuation of US troops ahead of a Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, Trump has changed his mind.

He’s now said some US troops should stay to “secure the oil”. That’s oil that is the rightful property of Syria. Reuters reports that Defense Secretary Mark Esper said:

“The United States will repel any attempt to take Syria’s oil fields away from U.S.-backed Syrian militia with overwhelming force, whether the opponent is Islamic State or even forces backed by Russia or Syria…”

Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said that US forces may continue this effort for years to come.

So, we’re “protecting” Syrian oil fields to deny access to ISIS and/or to the Syrian government? For years to come?

Here we go again with oil fields in the Middle East. It’s the same old story: oil companies are again directing the use of our troops, and how we should spend our taxpayer’s money. That’s the money that could have been used for many more important things. Follow the oil, and you’ll know Trump’s military policy in the Middle East.

It isn’t honorable for America to squat down uninvited in another country. It isn’t honorable to take control of Syrian oil fields while saying we’re stopping ISIS from using it. FYI, the US bombed that oil infrastructure years ago. It isn’t producing much oil today.

With this much dishonor, most of it at the Pentagon and the White House, no one who is signing up now to serve voluntarily should believe that what we’re doing in the Middle East is defending the Constitution.

We should honor the service of our veterans, and that of those currently in uniform, but that’s not all that we have to do. It’s time to wake up America!

We need to see that Trump’s so-called “bring the troops home” stance only means that he hasn’t opened a new theater of war for the last 3 years. He’s continued to shuffle a few of our existing pieces around. Has he closed any of our 800+ military bases around the world? No, in fact, more have been added. Has he stopped any of the active wars that the US currently is engaged in around the world? No. Has he reduced the military budget? No, he has increased it.

The American people are sick and tired of these military quagmires. It’s time to take action at the ballot box in 2020 against the war mongers in both parties.

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Another Take on Memorial Day

The Daily Escape:

Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios, Jamaica – 2019 photo by Ashleigh Reutzel

There were many excellent Memorial Day columns posted over the weekend, and Wrongo wants to draw your attention to Andrew Bacevich, who wrote about visiting Marseilles, Illinois, which curiously, has our only monument honoring those who died in our wars in the Middle East: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Marseilles retains one modest claim to fame. It’s the site of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial, dedicated in June 2004….The memorial, created and supported by a conglomeration of civic-minded Illinois bikers, many of them Vietnam veterans, is the only one in the nation that commemorates those who have died during the course of the various campaigns…that have involved U.S. forces in various quarters of the Greater Middle East over the past several decades.

That tells you quite a bit about how Americans value the American sacrifice in these wars. More from Bacevich: (more emphasis by Wrongo)

Any American wanting to pay personal tribute to those who fought and died for our country in World War II or Korea or Vietnam knows where to go — to the Mall in Washington D.C….Nowhere else in this vast nation of ours has anyone invested in…the effort to remember more than a generation’s worth of less-than-triumphant American war making. Marseilles has a lock on the franchise.

We’ve been at war in the Middle East since Desert Storm. It’s hard to believe that a “Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial” isn’t on the National Mall. But, the Vietnam vets had to fight to have their monument built, over resistance from Washington.

Bacevich is originally from a nearby Illinois town, and sadly, his son is among the Middle East dead listed on the monument: (emphasis by Wrongo)

…I find myself uneasy with any reference to American soldiers having died for freedom in the Greater Middle East. Our pronounced penchant for using that term in connection with virtually any American military action strikes me as a dodge. It serves as an excuse for not thinking too deeply about the commitments, policies, and decisions that led to all those names being etched in stone, with more to come next month and probably for many years thereafter.

He closes with this:

Just as there are all-but-mandatory venues in Iowa and New Hampshire where candidates are expected to appear, why not make Marseilles, Illinois, one as well. Let all of the candidates competing to oust Donald Trump from the White House…schedule at least one campaign stop at the Middle East Conflicts Wall, press entourage suitably in tow.

One of the catch phrases of our cheap American patriotism is: “Thank you for your service,” which many (well-meaning) people say when they meet an active duty or veteran military person. As a former Army officer, Wrongo has always tempered his appreciation on hearing that with the idea that the unspoken part of that phrase is: “better you than me.”

We are reverent, but disengaged from our military. We love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them, is our norm. That wasn’t always the case. WWII and Korea were in the forefront of people’s minds while the fighting was underway. Americans were drafted into the military as late as Vietnam, and Nixon learned how difficult it was to keep Vietnam off the minds of the people.

Since we ended the draft in 1973, America hasn’t won a war. Now, less than one percent of the nation is in uniform. What is more alarming, military service has increasingly become a family affair. Coupled with troop-basing in the West and Southeast, we are quickly evolving into a Praetorian military culture, precisely as American culture fragments. Hero worship of our military has created a separate caste of military professionals. Unchecked, this will ultimately fracture our society.

Even well-meaning people don’t want to know what our policies have created, both at home and abroad. The cost of our wars is ruinous, partly because the human dimension is nearly absent from the discussion.

War is bankrupting us during a time of relative peace. We have no discernible threat comparable to our certain costs. And our media doesn’t always help us see the threats clearly.

These wars are all post-Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) wars. There have been no victory parades since the first Gulf War.

And all of these wars contribute to our fractured politics. We continue to use debt to cover the costs of our ever-expanding military, at the sacrifice of domestic needs like infrastructure, education and healthcare. We gotta wake up.

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15 Years Later, Bush and Cheney Can’t Be Forgiven

The Daily Escape:

Shock and Awe – Baghdad, Iraq 2003

In March 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein from power. A quick victory ensued, but while the campaign had been carefully planned, what was to happen after winning had not. That led to a series of blunders and ill-conceived decisions, and a chain of events that ensures the Middle East and North Africa will be unstable for generations to come.

The NYT has an article by Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-American novelist on the 15th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. He closes his piece with this:

No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again. The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.” It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.

What was supposed to be a quick operation, limited in time to remove a dictator from power, has snowballed into an out of control global nightmare.

Fifteen years later, the consequences have given us an uncertain future, but back in 2003, it didn’t have to be that way.

Wrongo had dinner back then with Gen. Jay Garner, who GW Bush had just tapped to lead the post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq. We were at a company offsite meeting, just before he left for Iraq. Garner said that he believed the establishment of a new government could be accomplished quickly, and that the country could be back on its (sort of democratic) feet within a year.

Garner’s plan was to choose the new government officials who would lead the country from the former Iraqi regime. He later said:

…as in any totalitarian regime, there were many people who needed to join the Baath Party in order to get ahead in their careers. We don’t have a problem with most of them. But we do have a problem with those who were part of the thug mechanism under Saddam. Once the US identifies those in the second group, we will get rid of them.

Garner was replaced by the noxious Paul Bremer in May, 2003. Garner wanted early elections, and for Iraqis to decide how to run the country. But Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz wanted to purge all Baathists. They cashiered the Iraqi military. They then selected Iyad Allawi to lead the Iraqi interim authority. Allawi was a Shiite who had worked with the CIA.

You know the rest of the story. The continuing catastrophe in Iraq led to the continuing catastrophe in Syria. That has caused the destabilizing flood of refugees into Europe. And it led to the European right-wing anti-immigrant movements that have ascended in most of the Eurozone.

Europeans must find it unbelievable that Trump claims they aren’t paying their way. They’re paying a huge daily tab in the form of destabilized politics and costly social programs for immigrants that reside in their towns and cities due to America’s adventurism in the Middle East.

In its wake, Iran allied with Russia and Iraq. Assad has won in Syria. Turkey’s relationship with NATO is frayed. Those birds will keep coming home to roost for generations.

Without the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the sheer incompetence of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer in Iraq, ISIS might not have expanded throughout Iraq and Syria. The refugee crisis might never happened.

And for what? A neo-con wet dream come to reality? Some real money made by their buddies via no-bid contracts?

The human toll, as Antoon says, was about one million Iraqis, and untold Syrians on top of that. It was never worth it.

Americans aren’t accustomed to calling their foreign adventures blunders. Antoon says it was a crime. We had a moment after Obama was elected to call the Iraq war’s perpetrators criminals, but Obama and Pelosi agreed that they wanted to look forward.

Now, the American public seems to want to let GW Bush off the hook for his blunders.

We can never allow that.

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Monday Wake Up Call – February 12, 2018

The Daily Escape:

The Three Sisters, viewed from Canmore, Canada – photo by DiscInPc

Strategy must be lost on the Trump administration. We revisit Afghanistan. Pepe Escobar reports that for the past two months, Beijing and Kabul have been discussing the possibility of setting up a joint military base on Afghanistan’s border with China. Escobar quotes Mohammad Radmanesh, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense:

We are going to build it [the base] and the Chinese government has committed to help financially, provide equipment and train Afghan soldiers…

Escobar says that the military base will be built in the Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous and narrow strip of territory in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to China, and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. He also reports that, according to local Kyrgyz nomads, joint Afghan-Chinese patrols are already active there.

Beijing is trying to prevent Uyghur Islamic fighters, who are exiled in Afghanistan, from crossing the Wakhan Corridor and conducting terror operations in China’s Xinjiang territory. Xinjiang is an autonomous territory in northwest China that has seen years of unrest, primarily from Muslims.

China’s concerns are backed by solid evidence. In 2013, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri supported jihad against China in Xinjiang. In July 2014, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, supported a move against Xinjiang.

China doesn’t want its Belt and Road Initiative, or the New Silk Road, which will connect China with Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe to be compromised by terrorists. And one of its links, the $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), could be hurt if terror threats abound in Central and South Asia. It could also affect China’s investments in Afghanistan’s mineral mining industry.

The Chinese are smart. Their new ambassador, Liu Jinsong, was raised in Xinjiang and was a director of the Belt and Road Initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund from 2012 to 2015. He understands how the local problems could hurt the New Silk Road. The plan is to prevent terrorists from having access to Chinese territory, and work to broker a deal between Kabul and some factions of the Taliban. If this sounds familiar, it is also Russia’s strategy, and Iran’s, and India’s as well.

Compare this joint approach with Washington’s strategy. Trump’s plan for Afghanistan involves defeating the Taliban, and then forcing them to negotiate. Since the Taliban control key areas of Afghanistan, the US strategy requires a new mini-surge.

This pits the US “coalition” against all of the great powers of the region. Think we are likely to succeed?

Let’s link this up with another Trump idea, his parade. Danny Sjursen, an Army major who served in Afghanistan wrote in an article in the American Conservative, “Parade of Defeat: Trump Prefers Spectacle Over Strategy:

Remember when military parades actually celebrated victories? Those were the days, or, better yet, the day—June 8, 1991…after the US military’s 100-hour lightning ground war ejected Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, some 8,800 soldiers marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC…The White House called it the National Victory Celebration.

Sjursen adds: (brackets by Wrongo)

So, one cannot help but wonder what it [Trump’s Parade] is…celebrating. Nearly 17 years of indecisive quagmire?

He goes for the kill: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Trump…has turned the petty political appropriation of the troops into an art form. Soldiers are a pawn in the game, a very old game, in which the hawkish interventionists inspire the base and depict the opposition as dovish traitors. This is…meant to disguise what amounts to paltry policy in foreign affairs; it’s spectacle not strategy.

Linking our non-strategy in Afghanistan, which all of the region’s powers hope to solve with trade and diplomacy, to Trump’s parade, a good question is: How are our wars doing? The short answer: Badly. But haven’t we “beaten” ISIS?  Not really. ISIS has leaped across the borders of Syrian and Iraq to Africa and Asia. That’s why China is building a base in Afghanistan.

For all the talk of new strategies about “turning corners” and “breaking stalemates,” more fighting in Afghanistan will just waste more of our resources. Today, a record number of Afghan provinces and districts are under the control of, or contested by, the Taliban. Short-term success isn’t sustainable.

Trump has no exit strategy. But no worries, he has a parade strategy.

So, time to wake Trump the (family blog) up. He’s got to get focused on closing a deal with his Russian and Chinese friends. To help The Donald wake up, here is the “Unity JAM” by Tony Succar, a percussionist and arranger:

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

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Tillerson: We’re Staying In Syria

The Daily Escape:

Coquina Rock outcropping, early morning, Flager Beach FL – 2017 photo by sir_oki

(By the time you read this, you may know if the US Congress has willfully kicked another own goal by allowing another government shutdown. If it has happened, it will be because Republicans couldn’t keep their factions in line in the House, and that the Democrats wouldn’t help the GOP in the Senate. As Wrongo writes this, there’s no sign that either are in place, but Wrongo thinks they will avert a shutdown.)

Secretary of State Tillerson visited Stanford University, and spoke about our threadbare geopolitical strategy. From the Guardian:

The US intends to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria, not only to fight Isis and AL-Qaeda but also to provide a bulwark against Iranian influence, ensure the departure of the Assad regime and create conditions for the return of refugees…

This is laughable. Think about the results to date on our Syrian strategy: US-backed jihadis along with the Assad regime have wrecked Syria, and changed the politics in Europe because of massive refugee migration. And the politics on the ground in Syria are unchanged.

Tillerson’s speech was more of the same old, same old about challenges and threats, some of which are unrelated to a grand strategy of US in the Middle East. But the most basic question, why the US remains in Syria, (and in the Middle East in general), were not addressed, much less answered.

It doesn’t take a 6’3” 239-pound geopolitical genius to figure out that the Trump administration’s prime ME directive is the containment and roll back of Iran’s influence in the region. But our partners are unreliable, and in some cases, disagree with this strategy. Wishful thinking is a bad basis for strategy, it is really a recipe for yet another ME disaster.

The hidden hands enabling America’s obsession with Iran, a country that presents zero military threat to us, are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel wants Iran-friendly Hezbollah neutralized in Syria and Lebanon, and is willing to fight to the last American in pursuit of that objective. The Saudis are fighting Iran for dominance in the region.

By carving out territory in Syria, we are creating a fundamentally weak situation, both militarily and politically. Over the next few months, Assad will prevail, and that will be the end of the Syrian civil war. Then, something entirely new will emerge. The Northeast of Syria, the Kurdish-controlled areas where we are placing our 2,000 ground troops, will become a main focus for Syria, Turkey and Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran.

And here, we enter uncharted political territory. We have no legal right to occupy a portion of Syria, and we must expect that at some point, Syria and Russia will call us on that. What will be our response? Is Trump willing to head-to-head with them, and possibly see US troops killed? For what?

Tactically, we have aligned with the Syrian Kurds to try and check a regional grouping who will surround our position. Worse, our policy is opposed by our ally, Turkey, who wants us to stop helping (and arming) the Kurds.

We are engaging in more superficial thinking about the ME, once again attempting to reshape the region. And to help us, we are counting on a rapprochement between Saudi-Arabia and Israel. It also requires them to commit military support to American efforts to block the combined interests of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

When you listen to Tillerson, you would think that the US had defeated ISIS, and our troops are there for the mop-up, that the Syrians, Russians and Iranians were hardly involved. Little of that is true.

Tillerson’s Syrian manifesto requires that Assad step down, now by losing an election, because evicting him by force proved impossible. Yet, it seems probable that Assad would win a fair election.

Isn’t Tillerson’s plan just more neo-con regime change? Think about Iraq. The US wanted Saddam out, and thus handed the country to Iran. In Syria, the goal was to oust Assad. Now, Assad is staying, and Russia has an unprecedented footprint in the region.

Under Trump, we have no end-game in Syria, or in Afghanistan. We choose to sit in the middle of a divided region: Arab vs. Persian, Kurds vs. Turks, Sunni vs. Shia, Saudi Arabia vs. Iran, Israel vs. Palestine, and remnants of ISIS vs. everyone else.

It is a powder keg waiting to go off.

Has Tillerson come up with a sound strategy? Definitely not.

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Can Anybody Play This Game?

The Daily Escape:

Fall in the Grand Tetons – photo by Jack Bell

The NYT just devoted more space to the auction of a Trump ink drawing of the Empire State Building than it did to news that the Syrian Kurds made a deal with the Russians to give Syria access to gas fields the Kurds had just captured. Why it wasn’t covered in the NYT is worth pondering, but the real question is, who is in charge of the asylum that houses our US Syrian policy?

It’s supposed to be some combo of Brett McGurk, who has the jawbreaker title of: Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis. But the Syrian fighters we back just went rogue. From Oil Price:

In a move that surprised many observers of the ongoing war for Deir Ezzor province, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) handed over one of Syria’s largest gas fields to Russian forces on Thursday, possibly as the result of unprecedented direct talks between high ranking Russian officials and Kurdish leaders in Qamishli in northeastern Syria.

Oil Price quotes Beirut-based al-Masdar News:

The information, disseminated by Syrian military reports, claims that an agreement has been brokered between Russia and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces whereby the Syrian government will be allowed to assume control over the gas field.

It’s pretty clear that the Russians continue to run rings around the US in Syria. Does anybody in DC know what the US strategy is in Syria? If so, can they tell the rest of us?

The Kurds may have decided that their best bet is to make bi-lateral deals with Russia, Iran and Syria to hedge against their possible fight with Iraq and Turkey over independence, particularly if the US plans to watch from the sidelines. The Kurds now know that their hopes that the US would support their drive for independence was in vain, since we sided with Iraq when forced to choose between them.

Maybe the Russian/Syrian deal offers some protection to the Kurd’s desire for self-rule.

The remaining question is: was this deal part of some backdoor agreement between Moscow and Washington?” If not, how could this happen without the US knowing about it?

Oil Price says that on Wednesday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister was spotted in the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava meeting with Kurdish and Syrian leaders in the northern city of Qamishli. No one has said what was discussed, but it was probably big, and our man McGurk wasn’t on the guest list.

This follows last month’s secret US-Russia military to military meeting about Syria. The AP reported:

The meeting, however, also suggests an expanded US and Russian effort to coordinate their efforts, raising questions about how the Pentagon is adhering to an American prohibition against military-to-military cooperation with Moscow. Congress enacted that law in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014.

And the unexpected transfer of the gas field by the SDF to the Syrian government raises the question if additional cooperation between the Syrian Arab Army and Kurdish-led militias to seize control of the much larger Al-Omar Oil Field from ISIS further south will occur. Last week, control of that oil field was thought to be a competition between the two forces.

The US endgame in Syria is the million dollar question. Before, it looked as if the goal was permanent US bases in a Syrian Kurdish federated zone. But if the Kurds are cutting separate deals with Russia and Syria, a US exit from Syria could be happening sooner rather than later.

We know that there are great complexities in these relationships in the Middle East, and that the Administration is hamstrung by its anti-Russia, anti-Iran ideologues.

Unless that goes away, we can just call the Trump administration “Incapable of Agreements,” while the Kurds, the Syrians, the Russians and Iran are all very capable of making them.

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