Archive for category War

The Iraq Failure was Inevitable

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The blame game is going in full force.  Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it.  Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do.   But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power.  The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.

The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad.  Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq.  Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists.   The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.”  His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden.  He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success.   He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.

At first it worked brilliantly.  Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans.   By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos.  At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as "al qaeda in Iraq" was killed by the US in 2006.  Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as “al qaeda in Iraq” was killed by the US in 2006. Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq.   In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals.   The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests.  Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave.   In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam.   The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South.  Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat?   If so, who’s to blame?

The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization.   When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.

Bush's choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

Bush’s choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

So what went wrong?  Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government.  In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail.   Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization.    With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.

So what can the US do?  Very little.  Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders.   Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war.   Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh.  Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place.  Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary.  So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists - but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists – but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded.  The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure.  The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks.  The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering.  The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.

The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century.  We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure.  We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives.   Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.

The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize.  Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader.  That era is over.  Gone.  Kaputt.

Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace.  The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target.   The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other.  But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.

But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies.   That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.

 

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Obama’s Wise Choice

obamasyria

Up until a few days ago I was convinced I’d write a blog entry fiercely critical of Obama continuing the abuse of executive power that has been on display since WWII – a President going to war without Congressional approval.   To be sure, in legal terms he could have done it according to the provisions of the War Powers Act, though even that would be a murky case.

The Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war.   The War Powers Act of 1973 does allow a President to use force in cases of an emergency and then get approval from Congress.   All Presidents since Nixon have claimed the act to be unconstitutional, although only Presidents Reagan (aid to the Contras) and Clinton (Kosovo) have ignored Congressional opposition and thus clearly violated the act.   When force is used, the President is required to notify Congress within 48 hours, and then must get approval for action within sixty days.  If approval is not given, the President has 30 days to remove the forces.

While over a hundred reports to Congress have been given, in line with what the act requires, only one (President Ford and the Mayaguez incident) involved a direct threat to Americans.   In Syria there is no direct threat to the United States.

Practically the War Powers Act has actually strengthened the executive.   Once military action is under way, Congress is loathe to revoke it, least it get painted as having undermined America’s military.   Still, most Presidents have insisted it is unconstitutional — that as Commander in Chief the President does have the power to use the military, even absent a Congressional declaration of war.   This grabbing of power for the Executive branch reached a pinnacle under President George W. Bush, who used 9-11, the Patriot Act, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to amass more executive power without regard to the will of Congress.

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton claims Obama is weakening the Presidency by going to Congress

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton claims Obama is weakening the Presidency by going to Congress

Up until a few days ago, most people thought that President Obama would follow in Bush’s footsteps, refuse to involve an especially gridlocked Congress and simply act in an international coalition that he could forge.   This would defy the UN, since the Security Council has not approved action (Russia and China at this point would veto it) and to the chagrin of the anti-war activists who supported Obama, make Obama seem not much different than Bush.   So much for that Nobel Peace Prize!

Obama still may go that route.   But after British Prime Minister Cameron had to withdraw British support for a strike thanks to opposition in Parliament, it appears Obama recognized the need to slow down.   That is a very wise decision.

My hope is that this represents a move away from amassing more power to the Executive and is setting a precedent.   Going to war without Congressional approval (absent an emergency) is simply wrong.  It violates both the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and makes fiascoes more likely.    Yet even if the President isn’t ready to embrace a (for me to be welcomed) weakening of the Presidency, it makes sense.   Going to Syria in even a limited role is controversial.   To do so with minimal international and domestic support risks his Presidency.

Senator Rand Paul represents a new breed of Republican isolationists

Senator Rand Paul represents a new breed of Republican isolationists

Moreover, the country needs a true debate about the role of the United States foreign policy.   America and the world are fundamentally different in 2013 than just ten years ago.   After Iraq and Afghanistan there is real question about how eager the US should be to use military power.   The Republican party has a new breed of isolationists, still a minority in the party, but gaining clout.   Many Democrats (and some Republicans) are convinced we need to learn the hard lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.    Finally, with 90% of all casualties of military action being civilian these days, would a limited strike make a difference?    Would it be moral?

This debate – what to do about Syria – should take place both at home and abroad.   There are big issues at stake.   Can the UN act – is it possible for Russia and China to find a way to work with NATO and other states to support norms that trump sovereignty?   What kind of role do Americans want their country to play in this new world where the US is no longer as dominant, and traditional military power seems unlikely to yield desired political results?

Hillary is no longer Secretary of State, but many fear US military action is more likely to harm Syrians than help

Hillary is no longer Secretary of State, but many fear US military action is more likely to harm Syrians than help

And though Syrians suffer daily from the acts of their own regime, would American action only make things worse?    Would Assad use international controversy to increase his terror?    If Obama acts without domestic support, would this weaken the United States on the world stage?    Yes, Syrian civilians are suffering, and John McCain makes a good point when he says the world should not tolerate that and should help.    But going in with guns blazing and no international consensus may do more harm than good.

The issues in play here go far beyond just the Syrian case and cut to the core of how world politics is changing.    This is a time both at home and abroad for real reflection and discussion – patience rather than imprudence.

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Mideast Mess

Two Palestinian children in the rubble after an Israeli strike in northern Gaza

My mantra:  You cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian.  You can not be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll either keep killing each other or find a way to live together.    There is one feasible solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel.

The frustrating thing about violence like this is that observers tend to join the combatants in forming two camps.   The pro-Israeli side condemns the Palestinians for engaging in terrorism, and dismisses concern about innocents by simply blaming Hamas.   In the US sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza is dismissed by pro-Israel hawks as “anti-Semitic,” or akin to support of the Nazis.    Never mind that a large number of Jews in Israel form the backbone of an Israeli peace movement even more radical, the pro-Israel side often paints the world in stark good vs. evil tones.

An Israeli woman worries for her children as air raid sirens sound in Tel Aviv

On the other side are the defenders of the Palestinians, pointing at the big bad Israeli military hurling massive weapons into Gaza, killing women, children and other defenseless folk.    They rationalize Hamas’ missile attacks into Israel by pointing out the horrid conditions in the occupied territories and how Israel’s grip limits economic opportunity and leaves millions with no real political and economic rights.   For them it’s good vs. evil as well, but the Palestinians are the victims, fighting out desperation for a better future against a ruthless foe.

Go on line and follow blogs and news sites for each side and you’ll find two self-contained narratives wherein it is absolutely clear that one side is right and the other wrong, with little ambiguity or uncertainty.   Of course, which one is right depends on the side you’re following.

The reality is that ambiguity and misunderstanding define this conflict, while the capacity to paint it in stark black and white terms makes it harder for each side to truly understand the other.    In turn, that makes it more difficult to solve the conflict.   But the Arabs won’t drive the Jews into the sea and the Jews won’t drive the Arabs into the desert.

The Gaza strip is small but densely populated (yellow area on the southern coast of Israel)

Consider this case.   Border clashes leave a Palestinian youth dead.   Mad at that and other IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actions Hamas shoots missiles into Israel.   In Hamas’ mind it’s a tit for tat, they’re retaliating.   For Israelis shooting missiles into residential areas is an escalation – the IDF was engaged simply in protecting Israel’s security.   So they retaliate hard against Gaza.   Hamas then retaliates back, upping the ante.

Emotions are ignited on both sides, the conflicts grows in intensity, and soon we have a full blown crisis that apparently neither side planned or wanted.   Protests world wide show sympathy to the residents of Gaza, while supporters of Israel grumble that the media is unfair and doesn’t understand that no country could tolerate missiles being launched across the border into residential areas.   Two legs good, four legs evil.   Or was it four legs good, two legs evil?

The reality is far more complex.   The Palestinians have suffered and often have been treated unfairly and denied dignity by the Israelis.   Hamas did send missiles into Israel in an action no state could ignore or just accept.   Hamas is a terror organization which could end this by renouncing its terror tactics and stopping the bombardment.   Israel does keep the Palestinians on the leash that naturally breed resentment and anger.     That’s why each side is so adept at seeing themselves as the good guys – each side has evidence to that effect.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly find concerns about Iran on the back burner as Gaza violence flares

At this point its foolish to try to say one side is “more to blame.”   That falls victim to that same capacity to choose evidence and make interpretations that will see one side as essentially good and the other as the cause of the violence.  The first step out of this is to see it as a problem to be solved, rather than enemies to be defeated.   Neither side can win unless they both win.   That can only happen if they solve the fundamental problems they face.

There is a reason why war maker Yitzak Rabin became a peacemaker, reaching agreements with the PLO in 1993.   There is a reason why ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon ultimately proposed unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories after running a much a different platform.   An objective look at Israel’s security interests makes clear that on going conflict is harmful to Israel, especially with the rise of non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah.   The Arab states never really could pose an existential threat to Israel.  The non-state actors?   That’s a different story.

So how to solve the problem?   First, the two sides need to agree to a cease fire.   Israel should not try for a ‘military solution.’   Invading Gaza will be no more effective than invading Lebanon in 2006. Even if they damage Hamas, the conflict will be intensified and Israel will be no more secure.

Partner for peace? Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas

However, Israel should work to split the Palestinians.   There are two groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.   Israel should turn to the PA and work with it, trying to get Arabs around the region to throw their support to the PA as the voice of the Palestinian people.    As this is happening, the US needs to pressure Arab states to emphasize the role of the PA as opposed to Hamas, with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as the primary Palestinian negotiators.

This will create dilemmas for both the PA and Hamas.   The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning Gaza.   The only way they can possibly break from Hamas is if Israeli military action in Gaza has ceased.   Israel would also have to renounce some of the new policies they have for settlements in the West Bank, as well taking a softer line on the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at the UN.

Some would see that as Israel giving into pressure, but it’s a clever “giving in.”  If done in a way that undercuts Hamas it would be a victory for Israel.  Hamas might respond by upping the ante with more attacks.   But a more likely response would be to communicate to the PA the need to be on the same page and try to influence the negotiations.

Much conspires against such a solution.   Can Israel really pivot to a political effort to isolate Hamas rather than a military effort to defeat it?   Will Israel and the Palestinian Authority be able to make enough progress on past roadblocks to negotiation to make real communication between the two feasible?   Will the PA be willing to risk “selling out” its rival Hamas, and will the Arab world side with the PA over Hamas?   Still, despite the mess, this could open up the chance for a real move forward.

The phrase may be over used but it’s true – in every crisis there is an opportunity.

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The Folly of Striking Iran

Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Right now President Obama’s chances of re-election look good.    The Republicans are in disarray, he has no primary challenger and most importantly the economy appears on an upswing.   Taken together, the stars are aligning for the President better than any time since early in his Administration.   In politics, timing is everything.   However, lurking under the radar screen of most Americans is the possibility of an Israeli or (less likely) American strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.

Already President Obama is being criticized for not giving Israel high tech bunker busting weaponry that could increase the chances (but not guarantee) that an Israeli strike would work.    The CIA has consistently said that they do not think Iran is close to possessing a nuclear weapon and many doubt they actually want to go through with producing one.   There are also serious doubts about Iran’s delivery systems.

The reason both Presidents Bush and Obama have tried to hold Israel back is that such a strike is not at all in the US national interest.   A nuclear Iran (like the nuclear North Korea) would be an irritant, but not a major threat.

If Israel or the US struck Iran, however, the results could be devastating.  Oil prices would certainly skyrocket putting the economy back into recession just in time for the election.    President Obama would likely lose, especially if his base was infuriated by him starting another offensive war.   The Euro crisis would deepen as well, and the world economy would be back where it was in 2008 – or worse.   And that’s a best case scenario!

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak: What are they thinking?

In a worst case scenario the bombing unleashes a series of attacks on US interests in the region.   The Shi’ites in Iraq radicalize and ally with Iran, the Taliban uses this to incite the youth in Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Hamas launch terror strikes against Israel, and the region drifts towards the worst regional war since 1973.

Hezbollah remains a threat - one that Israel underestimated in 2006

Oil prices could rise to astronomical heights, the straits of Hormuz could be closed, Saudi oil facilities attacked, and unrest against even stable regimes like that of Saudi Arabia could grow.

From the US perspective there is little upside to an attack on Iran.   The only interest the Iranians can directly threaten is the oil supply, but the risk is small.   Especially since prices are unlikely to drop precipitously, the US and Iran share an interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing.   And the Carter doctrine still applies – nobody thinks that Iranian nukes would deter a US response to Iranian aggression threatening the flow of oil.  Iran would be loathe to escalate such a crisis to the nuclear level since that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.

The Persian Gulf

Iran’s power would grow in a region includes the Arab states, Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.   All other things being equal the US would prefer Iran be a weaker rather than a stronger regional power, but there are many options to balance Iranian power and contain any effort to extend it.   There would be concerns of further proliferation, but there would be many ways to prevent that.

Another indirect threat would be that Iran would give nuclear technology to terror organizations.   That sounds scary, but a country that works hard to gain a nuclear weapon does not give up control of them to people they can’t control.    Even now Iran limits what it gives groups like Hezbollah – and the Iranians certainly don’t want Hezbollah hotheads provoking a nuclear strike on Iran!

Remembering how wrong the US was about the Iraq war it would be a mistake to assume an attack on Iran would be low risk.   The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy, cheap, and yield a stable, safe pro-American ally offering us permanent regional bases.   None of that turned out to be the case.

The main dangers in striking Iran:  1)  There might be no benefit at all as Iran may have successfully decoyed its program; 2) This could severely undercut the reform movement in Iran, whose success would do more than anything to support US regional interests; 3)  After years of decreased influence and appeal, al qaeda and other radical groups could benefit from the US launching another war of aggression and the terrorist threat could spike dramatically, undermining our counter-terrorism efforts; 4) An oil price spike could not only bring us back into recession, but if the crisis were to drag on global depression is quite possible; 5) Iran could respond to an attack by escalating the war to create regional instability.

In the case of number 5, the US would see no alternative but to try to create “regime change” in Tehran.   This would cause unrest in the US.   Strong, angry domestic opposition to such a war would be far more intense than the opposition to the war in Iraq – national stability would be jeopardized, especially if an unpopular war were to be accompanied by deep recession or depression.    In short, this could lead to a crisis far more severe than any yet faced by the US or perhaps the industrialized West in the modern era.

Protests against the Iraq war were relatively mild; a war with Iran could unleash far more division

To be sure, it is possible that a strike could succeed and Iran would refrain from responding.  That’s the best case scenario.    The best case scenario is probably more likely than the worst case scenario, though most likely is something in between.

I cannot imagine people at the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense seeing any persuasive rationale for a strike against Iran.   I can imagine they will pull all the stops to assure that Israel refrain from its own strike, perhaps even suggesting that US support for the Jewish state cannot be assured if they start the war.

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I Ran like a Rock?

The future of Iran - as long as war doesn't mess things up!

The title of this post is a musical pun — I ran was a hit from Flock of Seagulls back in the early 80s (I’m listening to it as I type), and “Like a Rock” was a Bob Seger classic from that same era.   Those songs still come into my head when I think about Iran and Iraq.

But the question now seems to be whether the US is nearing war with Iran.    If so, will Iran be like Iraq?  Or should we “run so far away” from even thinking about another military engagement?

Many signs indicate that something is brewing, as Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican points out.  He notes how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims there is a “good chance” that Israel will strike Iran between April and June, and speculates that this could be the start of an Obama administration sales pitch of war with Iran.

Foreign policy “realists” argue that as long as states are “status quo” states — ones that don’t want to alter borders or change the essential nature of the system, diplomacy can be effective and war should be avoided.  If revolutionary states arise to threaten systemic stability, war may be necessary.

They key is to figure out what a state is.   German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler insisted that once the Versailles treaty had been brushed aside Germany would be a status quo state, firmly protecting Europe from Bolshevism.   Britain’s conservatives and their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gambled that Hitler was telling the truth with their appeasement policy — appease legitimate German interests in order to get them to support the system.   Chamberlain himself thought war likely, but saw that policy as at least buying the British military time to prepare for war.

In any event, Hitler’s Germany was a revolutionary power, bent on changing the system.   However, in the Cold War many Americans thought the Soviet Union a revolutionary power focused on spreading Communism.   Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon bet that it was actually a status quo power wanting to maintain its systemic role, and the policy of detente brought some stability to the system and helped end the Vietnam war.   In this case, Kissinger and Nixon were right, the Soviets were not focused on spreading communism.

Many say Iran is more like Hitler’s Germany, citing anti-Israeli comments and painting Iran’s leaders with the same brush as Islamic extremists.   Others point out that Iran has been rational in its foreign policy since the revolution, and is simply trying to expand its regional influence than bring war to the Mideast.

The reality is probably inbetween, more like Bismarck’s Germany in the 1860s.  Iran believes that although it is situated to be a major player in the region — larger than any other state, situated on the Persian Gulf between China and the Russia — US and Israel have prevented it from playing the regional role its power should allow.   Support for Hezbollah is designed not out of psychopathic antipathy for Israel but to try to blunt Israeli power and send a message to the Arab Sunni states.   Indeed, the Saudis are as scared of Iranian power as are the Israelis.

As with Bismarck’s Germany, nobody wants to see Iran move into a role of being a stronger regional power.    The Saudis and Israelis want regional stability, and the US worries about Iran’s capacity to disrupt Persian gulf oil.  Another US concern is that if Israel were to attack Iran the entire region would be destabilized, with oil prices likely doubling (or worse, depending on how events unfold).   China and Russia are more friendly with Iran, perhaps seeing a partnership with Iran as a counter to what has been western dominance of the region.    Accordingly, China and Russia have been vocal in warning against an attack on Iran, even hinting that they’d be on Iran’s side.

So what’s going on?   First, I think the US wants to avoid a military strike on Iran at all costs.   The rhetoric from Panetta is not the kind of thing we’d say if a strike were planned (you’re going to be attacked, and here’s when the attack is likely).   It is designed to increase pressure on Iran, and perhaps even generate opposition within Israel against an attack.   The Israeli military is not unified in thinking attacking Iran would be a good idea, even if Iran had nuclear weapons.

War in the region would be extremely dangerous and could yield global economic meltdown.   The benefit of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is not worth that risk.   Moreover, it’s not clear that a war would be successful.

The US is well positioned to contain Iranian regional power

US policy instead has been to use covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear progress while increasing pressure on Iran by expanding sanctions and boycotts.  The EU has gone alone even more than they would otherwise wish out of a belief that’s the best way to avoid war.   If the sanctions fail, the next step would be to contain Iran by expanding US presence in the region and connection with allies.

Another reason war would be disruptive is the Arab spring.   The last thing the US wants when change is sweeping through the region is another war against an Islamic state.   This would play into the hands of extremists.   Iran can be contained, however, and internal change is likely to come sooner rather than later.   One reason Iran’s leaders might be courting a crisis is to “wag the dog” – create a foreign policy event that  brings the public together through nationalism, thereby undercutting the growing and increasingly powerful Iranian opposition.

Iran's internal opposition is real and powerful - and does not want the US to act against their state.

I think the US government believes that patience, economic pressure, and if necessary containment will ultimately assist internal efforts for change within Iran.

In Iraq the US learned a very important lesson.    One may think a war will be easy, have it planned out, and even achieve military success, only to have the political costs overwhelm any benefit of the victory.   Moreover, the American public is much less tolerant of war now than it was in 2003, shortly after the emotion of the 9-11 attacks.    It would be foolhardy for the US to pick a fight with a larger and much more powerful state than Iraq.   The costs of war could be immense, the benefits uncertain, and the costs of not going to war even if Iran does not back down would be tolerable.

So war with Iran in 2012?   I doubt it.  I think we’re seeing a policy designed to minimize the likelihood of war rather than to prepare for one.

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Discarded Veterans

“Within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later.  By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them…Discarded veterans are never a pretty sight.  They are troubled and some physically maimed.  They often feel betrayed, misunderstood and alone.  It is hard to integrate again into peacetime society.  Many are shunted aside, left to nuture their resentment and pain.”
Chris Hedges, from “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning.”

As troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, expect the same scene to play itself out over and over.   Parades welcoming home the troops, signs and cheers from citizens grateful for the sacrifices made.    Waves from returning veterans, smiles, and thank yous will be shared.   Perhaps a rally or two, hugs and then everyone goes home.

Yet if you look at the statistics, combat veterans have markedly higher divorce rates, suicide rates, incidents of domestic abuse, and depression.    Most of this is caused by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition which haunts at least a third of combat veterans.   It damages the brain, meaning that it can show itself as a variety of mental disorders from anxiety and stress to even bipolar disorder and other conditions.

There is no way someone like me who has never been in the military can really know what these people go through.   We can only imagine what it must be like, as a young man or woman, to enter the service full of enthusiasm to serve ones’ country and protect it from foes, and then be thrown in conditions that nobody can truly be prepared for.    Moreover, given multiple deployments, many have to go through this over and over, constantly juxtaposing civilian life with military life.

Not everyone in the military experiences combat the same way.   Elite units such as Army Rangers or Navy Seals experience it with more intensity than others.   Some units see a lot of combat, for others it’s limited.    Some people lose most of their buddies, others only a few.  Some people know they’ve killed innocents, usually by mistake, others know they have not.   No one leaves unaffected, but most manage to patch things together and go on with life.   Some resilient people come out strengthened by the experience, others seek to forget it.

On Thanksgiving it’s normal to thank veterans.   Even those of us who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know that almost everyone in the military went out of love for the country and its liberties.   If the wars were wrong, the blame rests on the politicians, not the soldiers.    We assume that the military with its VA hospitals and GI bills takes care of veterans after they come home, integrating them into life.   We assume that benefits for veterans are generous.

It’s not that simple.   A case here in Farmington of a former Army Ranger Justin Crowley-Smilek brings that home.     On Saturday November 19th he was shot with deadly force by a member of the Farmington police force.   Apparently he had gone to the door of the municipal building (which currently houses the police force) and knocked.   When the officer opened it and asked what he wanted a confrontation ensued, with the officer shooting Crowley-Smilek four times.

Crowley-Smilek had been in trouble before, bringing an armed weapon to a University of Maine Farmington basketball game, and allegedly beating up someone outside a bar recently.   There have been a few such incidents since he returned from service in Afghanistan.    There he had been injured badly and came home with PTSD, taking numerous medications prescribed by the VA.   I never met the man, but from all accounts by family and loved ones he knew he had problems and had been trying to deal with them.

He confronted the officer on Saturday with nothing but a kitchen knife, leading many to criticize the officer and wonder why he couldn’t have just shot him in the leg or somehow disabled him.   The thing is, a small town cop against an Army Ranger, even one armed with just a kitchen knife, is not a fair fight.   I suspect Crowley-Smilek left him with no choice but to shoot.   Mostly likely it was the outcome the victim intended.

Justin Crowley-Smilek, killed November 19, 2011

Studies out there suggest that 40% of returning combat vets seek aid for mental health issues.   Many with problems do not seek aid.   When we send troops to war we debate a lot of things.   We ask if the war is just, discuss the cost, and of course worry about how many soldiers will be killed.  We don’t usually think of going to war in terms of dooming many young people to a life time of mental distress.   We also tend to ignore veterans after the war ends, except on particular holidays.

For instance, Congress finally passed a plan to help jobless vets.   The sad fact is that in this economy coming home from military combat often means leaving a job for unemployment.   Yet even that bill took a long time to pass because of political infighting — Republicans wanted to connect it with other jobs bills before they’d give in on this one.    Finally, realizing this would be an embarrassment, they joined for unanimous approval.

Yet overall we do a poor job of taking care of veterans after they return.   How many suicides, divorces, addictions and messed up lives does it take until people see that ‘support the troops’ does not mean ‘support the war’ or ‘come out and cheer at parades?’

We are entering a new post-war era, as Iraq and Afghanistan both wind down.   Hundreds of thousands of vets involved in those wars will be coming home to a society that can either welcome them and give them the care and help reintegrating that they deserve, or cheer and say thanks and then discard them.   I did not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because of what this would mean for many American military families.    Our leaders chose to get into those wars and send young men and women over to often experience events that they can never truly escape.

To be sure, the majority can handle it, but there is a large minority who cannot, and that causes considerable suffering.  As a society if we can choose to pay the terrible costs of going to war we have to be prepared to pay whatever the cost is to take care of those who return scarred both physically and psychologically.   That is the true way to be thankful for their service and to support the troops.

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The Iraq War, RIP

Shock and awe, March 20, 2003

President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.

I still remember the spring of 2003.   I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy.   Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq.   I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.

I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital.   “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up.    We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born.   In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son.   He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.

I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty.   Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military.   There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.

I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit.  At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right.    I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies.   This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.

Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points.    Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form?    The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly.   “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.

At that point support for the war was high.  It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running.   The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.

In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005.    On June 24, 2005 I wrote:

Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa.  That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy.  This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around.  This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives.  If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better.  They are out of touch with reality. 

By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history.   Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave.  It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush.  He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam:  he changed course.

President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion.   By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well.    There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast.   The challenge of counter-terrorism remains.   The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.

For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase.   President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success.   And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.

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