Browsed by
Category: Middle East

Overwrought about ISIS

Overwrought about ISIS

You could be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of déjà vu these past months at the barrage of dire pronouncements on the urgent threat posed by the terrorist group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes substituting “Levant” for “Syria” for ISIL). Flashback to 2003 and the overwrought nonsense we heard in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

Only then we had an administration that was leading the charge for war and mounting a campaign of misinformation and exaggeration to bamboozle Americans into supporting an invasion; now, ironically, we have a president who has been trying, with limited success, to proceed with caution and calm deliberation in the face of overheated rhetoric and fear mongering not merely from right-wing politicians and pundits, but from the mainstream media; a loud and constant clamoring for a strategy to defeat ISIS not only in Iraq where, arguably, we bear some responsibility given our ties to the country, but also in Syria.

Obama recognizes, as so many of his detractors seem not to, that Syria in particular represents a veritable minefield of challenges in a region where, on balance, we have done more harm than good by our interventions in the last two decades. In fact the very existence of ISIS can be traced to the bloody aftermath of the United States invasion of Iraq.

To intervene in Iraq is one thing, and the Obama administration has made a good start by maneuvering Maliki out of office (using the threat of ISIS and the prospect of US military aid as leverage) and using airpower to assist the Kurds in the north and secure certain strategic objectives such as the Mosul dam.

But airpower alone cannot take back the areas currently occupied by ISIS and it will likely take 1-2 years to build up the confidence and military readiness of the Iraqi army so it won’t crumble like Swiss cheese during any campaign to take back Anbar and the north of Iraq from ISIS.  A prerequisite to ultimate success will also require an alliance with the Sunni tribes whom Maliki succeeded all too well in alienating to the point where, in 2014, they shrugged off any loyalty to the Iraqi state and stood by while ISIS humiliated the latter’s army.

This part of Obama’s strategy (which contrary to the braying of Fox News and the mainstream Sunday talk show hosts and their guests, was always clear) makes perfect sense; his decision to cave to the pressure and intervene in Syria, much less so.

Syria is a chaotic mess but, for once in the Middle East, we had nothing to do with it. There were sound reasons for not getting involved and the success of ISIS in rising from the chaos doesn’t alter that fact.

The truth is that ISIS is not a direct threat to the US in the short to medium term and probably beyond. Unlike al-Qaida (which Obama has eviscerated during his tenure) the focus of ISIS has never been on the US but on creating a Sunni-dominated caliphate in the Middle East. It’s a threat to Middle East stability, no question, but not specifically to us, Senator Lindsey Graham’s dire warnings notwithstanding (that guy really needs to take his anxiety meds).

Obama was castigated for not having a strategy for Syria but that was actually a good thing since the choices are all bad. Bombing ISIS will have limited effect and is just as likely to help Assad as hurt ISIS; finding let alone training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels to be the ground component is tough and there’s no guarantee they’ll fight ISIS rather than Assad; and hands up everyone who wants to see US ground forces in Syria as do Senators McCain and Graham.

Obama’s initial instincts appear to have been to fight ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria. He should have stuck with them.

Obama Deserves Credit for Libya Success

Obama Deserves Credit for Libya Success

The apparent defeat of Muammah Gaddafi‘s loyalist forces by a Libyan rebel alliance supported by NATO is a stunning success for the United States, NATO and most of all President Obama. Unfortunately he’s getting little of the credit he deserves.

Obama took the politically risky decision to involve a war-weary America in actively supporting a populist Libyan rebellion that otherwise would have been crushed by the better trained and equipped loyalist forces of Gaddafi. In this he received tepid support from congressional Democrats, wary of another costly commitment, and outright hostility (surprise! surprise!) from a GOP that was all over the place on the issue of whether to intervene. There was the Michelle Bachmann (cuckoo’s) wing of the party who opposed any involvement, apparently content to see the rebels crushed and Gaddafi, the long ruling tyrant, maintain his reign.  At the other extreme we had the two grand interventionists, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who don’t see a Middle East country they don’t want to invade.

Obama developed a strategy that acknowledged the political realities while nevertheless pursuing the right course.  He directed the United States military to provide enough airpower in the initial stages (the degradation of Libya’s air defence network, pummelling Libyan armour and artillery)  to enable the NATO allies, ably led by the British and French, to assume the role of supporting the rebels with training, intelligence and air support.  Of equal importance, his Secretary of State launched a diplomatic offensive in which she worked along with our allies to successfully marshal international support, both material and moral, for the rebels, including within the Arab world.

Although it came to be derided as the “lead from behind” strategy (a notion which Robert Kagan in Sunday’s Washington Post debunks), it clearly worked. At minimal cost to the US and NATO, we engineered a huge victory for what we all hope will turn out to be democratic forces in Libya. The real beauty of it, however, is that the victory belonged, first and foremost, to the Libyan people who shed all of the blood, and who fought with incredible courage and determination in the face of a ruthless and professionally armed and equipped enemy. The rebels’ ace, however, was the steady, low key, but ultimately devastatingly effective support from the British, French, Qataris, Americans and others, both in and outside of NATO.  The fact that it is Libyans themselves, who won this victory on the ground whilst the allied support was mostly low-level, is a crucial element that the likes of McCain and Graham seem incapable of comprehending.

It isn’t over by any means and as Kagan points out it would be foolish to assume that we can pack our marbles and go home when so much needs to be done to help the forces of democracy to succeed in Libya. And we have no idea at this stage how that effort will turn out.

But for now, Obama’s performance warrants applause not brickbats.

Malcom Nance to Marc Thiessen: Put up or Shut Up

Malcom Nance to Marc Thiessen: Put up or Shut Up

Malcom Nance recently published the book, An End to al-Qaeda: Destroying Bin Laden’s Jihad and Restoring America’s Honor.  He is a combat veteran and counter terrorism expert with twenty-eight years of experience.  Scott Horton of Harper’s asked him six questions, and I recommend you read the whole article, but I especially liked the fifth Q&A:

5.  …He insists that it absolutely is not torture, and he insists that it’s different from the technique used by the Khmer Rouge.  Does Thiessen know what he’s talking about?

I spent twenty years in intelligence and four years in the SERE program waterboarding people before I ever opened my mouth on the subject.  Marc Thiessen is a fool of the highest magnitude if he thinks he knows anything about waterboarding.

Before I arrived at SERE, I went to S21 prison in Cambodia.  Right next to the Wall of Skulls sits the exact waterboard platform that the SERE program copied for our own use in the training program.  Remember, our goal was to prepare pilots for the techniques they might face if they fell into the hands of our enemies.

We have prosecuted and convicted men for using these techniques in the past, and we were right to do so.

This suggests to me that, while he may cite Thomas Aquinas, Thiessen has no sense of honor and no moral compass.  I give him credit for his loyalty to the Cheneys, but he’s blind to their errors in judgment.

Thiessen and his boss want us to embrace the tactics we used in that program–taken from the Russians, the Communist Chinese, the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge–as our own.  He claims that these techniques are unpleasant but have no long-term physical or mental impact.  Really? I challenge him to put up or shut up.  I offer to put him through just one hour of the CIA enhanced interrogation techniques that were authorized in the Bush Administration’s OLC memos–including the CIA-approved variant of waterboarding.  If at the end he still believes this is not torture, I’ll respect his viewpoint.  But not until then. By the way, I can assure you that, within that hour, I’ll secure Thiessen’s written admission that waterboarding is torture and that his book is a pack of falsehoods.  He’ll give me any statement I want in order to end the torture.

U.S. Actions Speak Louder than Words

U.S. Actions Speak Louder than Words

Today’s New York Times includes an article about an essay written by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that is centered around how the U.S. communicates to the Muslim world.

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique, an essay to be published Friday by Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal.

“I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he wrote. “They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.”

Admiral Mullen did not single out specific government communications programs for criticism, but wrote that “there has been a certain arrogance to our ‘strat comm’ efforts.” He wrote that “good communications runs both ways.”

“It’s not about telling our story,” he stated. “We must also be better listeners.”

Can Israel Risk Apartheid?

Can Israel Risk Apartheid?

The prospects for a peace agreement based on a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians have never seemed bleaker.

In the decade following the failure of Bill Clinton’s mediation effort between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in 2000, the Israelis have been subjected to suicide bombers, random shootings and more recently to unguided rockets from Gaza that targeted innocent civilians.  And an organization that is sworn to destroy the State of Israel now controls half of the Palestinian territories.

If Israeli dead and injured number in the hundreds, those of the Palestinians are counted in thousands as Israel has unleashed its military might, sometimes brutally, to crush first the Intifada and more recently the Hamas rocket barrage.  Gaza is beleaguered and in ruins, a testament to the callousness of both Hamas towards its own people, and of the Israelis who seem to think that not targeting civilians absolves them of moral responsibility when they’re killed “collaterally.”

The Palestinians in the West Bank have yet to see much concrete benefit from choosing the more moderate Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas.  They are, as ever, subjected to daily humiliations by Israeli military roadblocks; they see extreme right-wing Jewish zealots building new and expanding existing settlements on the West Bank often on the best available land. There are roads the Palestinians are not permitted to use and water sources that are for the Jewish settlers alone.

A recent devastating segment on the CBS network’s 60 Minutes highlighted the reality of the second-class status of Palestinians in the West Bank.  In one part it showed a Palestinian family whose house was regularly occupied without warning by Israeli troops because it happened to be situated on a rise affording good observation over the surrounding area.  During these temporary expropriations, the homeowner (a bank manager) and his wife are kicked out of their bedroom for the duration, and must live with their children downstairs.  The Israeli soldiers refused to be filmed or to answer questions; perhaps they were ashamed, as well they should be, but probably not.  When the 60 Minutes crew arrived a second time at the house coincidentally with the children returning from school, they were told the latter would not be admitted until the film crew departed.  Such is the daily life of one Palestinian family.

CBS showed a lot of courage airing this piece because it was sympathetic to the Palestinians.  Unlike in the rest of the world, that’s not a popular thing to do in the United States.  Despite the fact that Israelis have the strongest military in the region, Americans perpetually labour under the illusion that it’s the former and not the Palestinians who are the underdogs.  The plight of the Palestinians receives short shift in the media and American public opinion; and politicians of both parties take note.

A few years back, Jimmy Carter received a good deal of flak here for using the word “apartheid” in the title of his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. In the book, Carter made a compelling case that Israel had essentially imposed a sort of apartheid  on the Palestinians of the West Bank.  Although pilloried in America, his opinion is widely shared throughout the rest of the world, and for good reason as anyone who saw the 60 Minutes segment would see.

The Bush administration did virtually nothing to reconcile the two sides in eight years.  On its watch the bitterness and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians after so much violence has only hardened attitudes. Politically, the Palestinians are now disastrously split with the dreadful Hamas in control in Gaza; Israelis meanwhile have now given the hard-line Benyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud a better than even shot at forming a government.  The prospects for a lasting peace have surely never seemed worse.

Yet there is hope even in the very hopelessness of it all.  Israel is faced with three unpalatable choices in its relationship with the Palestinians.  If the two-state solution is rejected, it has two other choices: It can drive the Palestinians out of the territories or at least try to make life for them so unbearable they that will leave of their own accord to go… where? Jordan?  Egypt?  In the alternative, it can continue on its present course towards an apartheid state in which its Jewish citizens enjoy a privileged existence whilst Arab and Palestinian inhabitants live as second-class nobodies with few rights.  In either case it is Israel’s soul that will be destroyed.

Sooner or later Israel and the Palestinians must come back to the table because the status quo is simply not sustainable.  And in the Obama administration, let’s hope Israel finds it has a true friend and not one that sycophantically tells it only what it wishes to hear.

Our Troops in Afghanistan Need Mountain Warfare Training

Our Troops in Afghanistan Need Mountain Warfare Training

President Obama has made our commitment to Afghanistan a central plank of his foreign policy.  Everyone agrees that the reinvigorated Taliban, helped by al-Qaida in  Pakistan, represent a formidable foe in their mountainous home.  And whilst it is widely recognized that building a stable Afghanistan will require much more than the application of military force, it is equally clear that we cannot make substantive progress whilst the Taliban controls large swaths of the countryside.  

Yet there is not a single brigade-sized or larger unit in either the United States Army or Marine Corps that is specifically trained for the sort of mountain warfare that would help prepare them for combat in rugged Afghanistan. The Army’s 10th  Mountain Division, unlike its illustrious World War II predecessor, is a mountain division in name only.  It lacks any particular training or expertise in mountain warfare.

To be sure both services have mountain warfare schools but these primarily are for individual rather than unit training. No major US ground force unit is based at or regularly trains at a high elevation camp or post. This in contrast to the WWII era 10th Mountain Division which was based and trained at Camps Carson and Hale in the Colorado Rockies. 

Specialized unit training of troops for mountain warfare is both expensive and resource intensive.  It requires them to be able to become acclimated to high elevation movement and maneuver; to be equipped for the bitter cold and very possibly with new weapons, such as artillery, that are specially designed for being packed in to otherwise inaccessible terrain. Yet the rewards of training our conventional troops well enough  to go toe-to-toe with the fleet-footed Taliban warriors even in their most inaccessible redoubts and sanctuaries could be enormous.

It’s no secret that the Marines are keen to be redeployed from Iraq to the campaign in Afghanistan, where they believe their talents will better utilized..  To date, Secretary of Defence Gates has resisted the idea of having the Marines take the lead force there although a small number has already been deployed.  In fact having the Marines as the principal conventional force in Afghanistan is an excellent idea.  To win their point the Marines should immediately expand the USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center in California and ensure that every battalion slated for deployment in Afghanistan is given lengthy and sustained mountain warfare training and altitude acclimation before shipping out. 

If the Army continues to have the principal role in Afghanistan, why not make the 10th Mountain Division a mountain warfare specialist in more than just name?

We are likely to be battling the Taliban for years to come in the mountains they know so well. It is long past time we treated the challenge with the seriousness it deserves by adequately preparing our troops for what will be a long and arduous struggle.

Turns out the US does Torture

Turns out the US does Torture

The Washington Post has confirmed that the United States has used torture at Guantanamo Bay. 

From the Reuters article:

The Pentagon official overseeing the tribunals for Guantanamo Bay detainees has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

“We tortured [Mohammed al-] Qahtani,” Susan Crawford said in an interview with the newspaper. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

I can only hope that once Obama gets into office he will look into the activities and punish all who were involved, up to and including George W. Bush.

But, we will need to hold Obama accountable for investigating the former administration.  I am concerned about the possibility that he will attempt to downplay the crimes of the past administration.

From his recent TV interview, Think Progress reports:

Q: The most popular question on your own website is related to this. On it comes from Bob Fertik of New York City and he asks, ‘Will you appoint a special prosecutor ideally Patrick Fitzgerald to independently investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.’

OBAMA:We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. … My orientation is going to be moving foward.

As a nation, we need to watch this closely over the next year and let our representatives in Congress know how we feel about the United States committing War Crimes.

John McCain gets Al Qaeda’s Endorsement

John McCain gets Al Qaeda’s Endorsement

Last week we were hearing all about how Obama would be “tested” by anti-American groups if he were elected president.  Biden even said it, and it was reported as a gaffe, but I think the point Biden was trying to make was that Obama would be tested, but he would stand up to whomever does the testing and pass the test.

McCain didn’t see it that way.  He thought the very idea Obama getting tested was a sign of weakness, and that he, John McCain former POW, is not weak – so they wouldn’t mess around testing him. 

From an interview with Brian Williams for the Today Show:

WILLIAMS: You mentioned Senator Biden’s comment the other day about a new president and a test of the new president’s metal. One of your very closest friends in the Senate, Joe Lieberman said on “Face the Nation,” quote, “Our enemies will test the new president early. And it has happened throughout modern history.”

MCCAIN: Well, look, I’ve been tested. They know me. They know me very well. I’ve been tested.

Turns out that Al Qaeda is so comfortable with McCain winning the presidency that they’ve given him their endorsement:  Nicholas Kristoff reports why:

“Al Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election,” read a commentary on a password-protected Islamist Web site that is closely linked to Al Qaeda and often disseminates the group’s propaganda.

The endorsement left the McCain campaign sputtering, and noting helplessly that Hamas appears to prefer Barack Obama.  Al Qaeda’s apparent enthusiasm for Mr. McCain is manifestly not reciprocated.

“From their perspective, a continuation of Bush policies is best for recruiting,” said Professor Nye, adding that Mr. McCain is far more likely to continue those policies.

An American president who keeps troops in Iraq indefinitely, fulminates about Islamic terrorism, inclines toward military solutions and antagonizes other nations is an excellent recruiting tool. In contrast, an African-American president with a Muslim grandfather and a penchant for building bridges rather than blowing them up would give Al Qaeda recruiters fits.

…Al Qaeda militants prefer a McCain presidency: four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world would be a tragedy for Americans and virtually everyone else, but a boon for radical groups trying to recruit suicide bombers.

Nice job John.  Al Qaeda wants YOU in the White House!

Brief Thoughts on the 2nd Obama – McCain Debate

Brief Thoughts on the 2nd Obama – McCain Debate

Barack Obama and John McCain squared off in a “town hall” style debate at Belmont University last night.  The debate didn’t seem very town-hall like to me, because there was not much audience participation.  I tend to think of town-hall forums to be pretty loosely controlled so that everyone there can participate.  This one was very structured.  All of the questions were screened ahead of time and the audience could not ask follow-up questions, although the moderator, Tom Brokaw, was able to ask a few.  The candidates did walk around and address the audience, but they weren’t allowed to respond, so if you weren’t watching on TV, you wouldn’t really notice the difference between this one and the last one, except for the occasional question asked by someone in the audience.

Another problem with this debate was the amount of time that was allotted to follow-ups and rebuttals.  Tom had to remind both candidates several times that they had agreed to limit their time to one minute.  One minute?  In a presidential debate?  That’s ridiculous, and both candidates went over the limit almost every time.  They should have been more realistic and doubled that time.

So what of the substance of the debate?

Obama and McCain outlined their own health-care plans and criticized their opponents. I think McCain’s attack was a little over the top, but then it probably had to be because his plan is clearly inferior to Obama’s.  (Not that Obama’s is the best plan.  Personally I would love to see us go to a single-payer plan like the one France has.  But we must progress in baby steps…)  McCain kept saying that Obama would fine employers if they did not participate.  As far as I can tell, that’s an outright lie, but you can check here if you’d like.

Obama clearly has a much better understanding of economics that McCain.  McCain seemed to rattle on about taxes, taxes and more taxes as if that was the only major factor.  Yes, he did talk a bit about spending, and he did throw out a wild card about he would like to spend another 300 billion dollars to buy up bad mortgages.  My interpretation was that it would be in addition to the 700 billion we just threw in.  This we get from a guy who says he wants to reduce spending?  The Center for American Progress has been pushing this idea since December 2007, and the post on their website today tells how perplexing McCain’s announcement was because “he had previously rejected similar mortgage relief.”

Obama’s discussions about the economy and his tax plans were fare more comprehensive that McCain’s. Obama was able to draw a big picture that did not focus on just one or two economic variables.  He spoke of a need for fairness in tax rates, of rebuilding our infrastructure, of effective tax cuts, and surgical spending cuts.  He spoke of his grand ambition of weaning our country from foreign oil in ten years.  He spoke of expanding our economy by investing in the development alternative energy sources and then exporting that technology to China. 

Yes, McCain did touch on some of these same topics but his presentation seemed fractured while Obama’s seemed more coherent and easier to understand.

I am convinced that everyone’s opinion of who does better in the foreign policy section of the debates ultimately gets down to whether or not one thinks it was right or wrong to invade Iraq.  I think it was a horrible mistake, so I side with Obama.  Those who think we should have gone in and that we can win the war will side with McCain.  That said, I think Obama presented his side much more eloquently than McCain, but eloquence doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to this issue.

A few other observations:

  • The word “maverick” was not spoken last night.
  • The words “My friends” were spoken sixteen times.  It got pretty old after about nine times.
  • Obama looks good.   He is calm and thoughtful.  He looks, sounds, and acts like I think a president should.
  • McCain is and old man.  He looks older every time I see him.  He seems kind of rash and not very thoughtful.  I don’t think he has the proper temperament to be president.

Bottom line:  Obama won the debate.  Again.  Most every survey that I saw on news channels and websites also showed Obama as the winner.  The only exception was FOX News.

If you missed it, you can watch and/or read the whole thing here.

Last week in politics

Last week in politics

First, honk if you like bumper sticker politics:
appeasement Last week in politics

1. GWB tells Israel that Obama is going to cause the next holocaust.

2. Hard Ball host Chris Matthews challenges a loud-mouthed, flock-jock, talk(ing points) radio host and republican party line parrot to back up his words with a little substance. I swear to god I haven’t seen this kind of hard-line reporting technique since John Stossel in the `80s.

3. Former White House mouthpiece takes extreme pride in fucking doing his job:

4. Speaking of White House mouthpieces, this idiot just needs to die.

5. Walking in apparent lockstep momentum with the republican stupidity landslide (the kind that threatens to destroy structural foundations and is generally caused by poor urban planning and overcrowding of popular real estate), Mike Huckabee conflates government regulation of industry and government interference in our personal lives to pander to “self-government” activists. Also makes a joke about pro-gun morons assassinating liberal political hopefuls. Just let me say now, FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCK PIECE OF SHIT ASSHOLE MORON. Also, I hate Mike Huckabee.

6. For which he later apologized. Even the republican party is beginning to understand the breadth, depth, and kinetic energy of its own stupidity.

If the democrats don’t win this time I’m just going to acquire a heroin habit. If this reality is so ludicrous, the alternate one has got to be better.