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The Forever War We Need to Keep Waging

The Forever War We Need to Keep Waging

There’s little that Democrats and Republican Trumpers agree on to be sure, but on one issue at least they may be united: the need to end America’s forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in each of which we’ve been involved for almost two decades. 

Trump has threatened to abandon both places. He’s already betrayed the Kurds in Syria who fought so well and loyally essentially as our infantry against Daesh, and he seeks to do the same by withdrawing all American forces from the country in which the plan for 9/11 was hatched.. But Trump is an idiot and his desire to withdraw from Afghanistan has less to do with strategy or a hardheaded reassessment of our commitments abroad than winning brownie points with his base before a tough re-election campaign. But such a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a serious strategic and moral mistake and I really hope a Biden administration, if there is one, will agree, even if it means the commitment of a modest force indefinitely.

Of course the case for staying isn’t helped by the fact that its strongest advocates are some of the same nincompoops whose enthusiast cheer led us into the 2003 Iraq invasion ordered by George W Bush, such as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute and retired army general Jack Keane joined by a guy I’d hoped never to see or hear from again, Joe Lieberman and we all know how that went (although as an ardent opponent of that war it would be churlish indeed not to acknowledge that the United States plucked a solid military victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to the 2006 surge of forces under a more capable general and the fortunate timing of an alliance with the Arab Sunni Awakening; but at a bitter cost to both Iraqis and Coalition forces). We still live with the unpleasant reality that the principal beneficiary geopolitically has been Iran who lost a formidable enemy and found a new best friend in the now Shia-dominated Iraqi government.  

But just because they were wrong about Iraq doesn’t mean they’re wrong now and O’Hanlon in particular makes a compelling case for retaining the current residual force of between 5-10,000 American and NATO forces.  And whilst both O’Hanlon and Keane emphasize the critical counter-terrorism role of such a force, and rightly so given the ongoing threat of Daesh (ISIS-K) and the ever present possibility of a rejuvenated al-Qaida, I would argue that we should also help to thwart a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. We can do this by continuing to provide training, logistics and even air support to Afghan forces. And let’s not forget the all-important moral support our presence provides. 

Why should we do this? Because of the effort and sacrifice our Allies and ourselves have made to the cause; and because Afghanis, especially women and young girls, have come too far to be sent back to the 15th century by the fundamentalist rigidity of another Taliban regime. And make no mistake, that is the alternative if we fail to continue helping the Afghans.

Fulfilling our obligations and commitments is not a partisan issue, it’s an American issue. And betrayal doesn’t sit well with us, nor should it.

Americans now favor George W. Bush over Barack Obama

Americans now favor George W. Bush over Barack Obama

According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, Americans now have a more favorable opinion of George W. Bush than they do of President Barack Obama.

CNN reports:

According to the poll, 52% of adults had a favorable impression of George W. Bush, 43% unfavorable. When Bush left office in 2009, only about a third of Americans said they had a positive opinion of him. In a February 2009 poll conducted about a month after he left office, Republicans were the only group among which a majority said they had a favorable view of Bush. Even among self-described conservatives, only 50% had a favorable take on the former president and champion of “compassionate conservatism.”

Bush’s overall favorability has remained well below 50% for much of his time as a presidential alum. This new poll presents a notable shift.

As of a year ago, 46% had a favorable take on the former president, 51% an unfavorable one. Since then, Bush has gained in esteem among men (up 11 points), Republicans (up 10 points), those with household incomes under $50,000 (up 10 points), younger adults (up 9 points among those under age 50) and suburbanites (up 8 points).

Liberals, non-whites, and young people are still repulsed by him. That means the conservatives and old white people who had soured on him are starting to like him again.

The polls shows people are split 49% favorable to 49% unfavorable on Obama.

How does the president who was in charge when the stock market crashed and unemployment soared; who, along with his team of despicable lying war mongers, purposefully misled us into the Iraq War that has cost our country trillions of dollars have a more favorable rating than the president who has led us out of an economic catastrophe and is trying to extract us from never-ending, unwinnable wars in the Middle East?

Now I don’t know who’s dumber: George W. Bush or the unmindful people who favor him.

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.

Good Ideas about School and the Military Whose Time Will Never Come

Good Ideas about School and the Military Whose Time Will Never Come

In the The Washington Post ‘Outlook’s 4th Annual Spring Cleaning’ ten writers were invited to recommend one thing the country needs to throw out. Among the suggestions were these two standouts:

Peter Orszag, President Obama’s former budget director, makes the case for getting rid of the 3pm school day and extending it to 5 pm or longer. He points out that more time in school, especially when combined with other measures, is likely to help our kids to master the material they are taught by giving teachers more classroom time. It would also help parents with their schedules by addressing the problem of latchkey kids; these are children, many of whom are elementary school age, who go unsupervised once school gets out.

And as a parent who has watched my children’s progress over the years, I am convinced that their teachers, particularly from middle school on, are forced to rush through a broad curriculum that doesn’t allow sufficient time to explore concepts in depth, or ensure that students have mastered the material before moving on.

My high school and middle school children start school at 7:50 am and get out at 2:20 pm. This is a ridiculous school day which starts too early and doesn’t last long enough. A much better school day would start a bit later, say at 9 am, and end no earlier than 5 pm.

Orszag acknowledges the monetary cost but insists it’s worth it. He’s absolutely right.

Meanwhile Thomas E Ricks, who has written a couple of excellent books on the Iraq War, wants us to get rid of the all-volunteer military – not because it doesn’t work but because it works too well.

I daresay that during his book research as well as during his coverage of the Iraq war, Ricks must have appreciated even more clearly than the rest of us the folly of George W Bush’s Iraq invasion, both in terms of its stand-alone stupidity and because it resulted in the United States taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, thereby significantly adding to the length and human cost of that conflict.

Admittedly it’s odd to argue that because something is too efficient we should go to a less competent model. But the all-volunteer military’s very professionalism when combined with the tiny percentage of Americans who are thereby touched personally when it goes to war is too great a temptation to some presidents with a serious imbalance in levels of testosterone and common sense.

Ricks thinks our society needs to re-establish its connection to our military through the draft; that way if we do decide to go to war there is no doubt we will all feel the pain. It’s a point well-made but, like Orszag’s, it will never happen. Good public policy ideas rarely do in today’s America.

NPR Should Have Fired Juan Williams Years Ago

NPR Should Have Fired Juan Williams Years Ago

Juan Williams told Bill O’Reilly, who a week earlier declared on The View that “Muslims killed us on 9/11,”  that he wasn’t comfortable around people dressed up in Muslim garb.  NPR fired him the next day.  FOX Noise immediately hired him.

Glenn Greenwald quotes Andrew Sullivan and dissects the bigotry.  

Williams’ trite attempt to glorify his bigotry as anti-P.C. Speaking of the Truth is inane, as his remarks were suffused with falsehoods, not facts:  as Sullivan points out, the minute percentage of Muslims who have committed acts of terror against the U.S. — including those on 9/11 — were not wearing “Muslim garb.”  Moreover, the very idea that those who wear “Muslim garb” are necessarily “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims” is itself noxious:  does anyone who wears religious attire (a yarmulke or crucifix or Sikh turban) identify themselves “first and foremost” by their religion as opposed to, say, their nationality or individuality or any number of other attributes?  The bottom line here is that equating Muslims with Terrorism — which is exactly what Williams did — is definitively bigoted (not to mention demonstrably false).

Shankar Vendantam at Slate argues that it’s only natural for Williams’s brain to concoct illusory correlations that make him feel nervous around Muslims.  Vendantam uses examples of upset stomachs and snakes to make his point: 

Juan Williams pointed out on Fox that we do not associate Timothy McVeigh and the rude people who protest about homosexuality at military funerals with Christianity.  But he didn’t understand why our minds fail to make that connection.  Illusory correlations disproportionately afflict minorities because, in making associations, we mainly link unlikely events. Whites and Christians are not minorities; they are like the newspaper delivered to our front door every day.  We do not associate McVeigh with Christians any more than we associate our upset stomach with the newspaper.

Muslims are only the latest victim of illusory correlations in the United States.  African-Americans have long suffered the same bias when it comes to crime.  In every country on earth, you can find minority groups that get tagged with various pathologies for no better reason than that the pathologies are unusual and the minorities are minorities.

If you know there are 1 billion Muslims on our planet (low estimate) and you’ve heard of 1,000 incidents where Muslims carried out terrorist attacks (an exaggerated number), and terrorist sympathies were (improbably) distributed evenly across the world, the odds that a particular Muslim is a terrorist are about 1 in a million. A rational Bill O’Reilly should be much more exercised about asteroids striking Earth, or dying from dog bites, than about Muslims being terrorists.

The fact that so many of us subscribe to illusory correlations can be blamed on our unconscious minds.  The fact so few of us challenge our unconscious minds?  That’s on us.

See?  It’s just like whitey not being comfortable around black people.  No big deal.

Can NPR expect Williams to use his analytical mind and recognize how stupid something is before he says it?  Yes.  So was it wrong to for NPR to hold one of its prominent media figures to a high standard for anti-bigotry?  No.  They were right to fire him, but they should have fired him years ago.

Why should NPR have fired him years ago?  Because of an incredibly bad interview he did on air with Dick Cheney on January 22, 2004.  I remember it well because it really pissed me off.  That was a few months before we started up this blog, so I can’t refer you back to a post, but I did find an email that I blasted off to some friends after I got to work that day:

Did you happen to hear Dick Cheney talking out his ass this morning on NPR? I was enraged. Juan Williams did the “interview” which did not include very good followup questions to Cheney’s obvious lies, many by omission.  Cheney further confirmed (as if I needed confirmation) that this is the most dishonest administration in modern times.

Back to work.

I wasn’t the only one who thought Williams let Cheney off easy by not following up with some tough questions about the administration’s lies that led us into war and the lies they were telling about WMDs once we crushed our way into Baghdad.  Thousands of people blasted off emails and comments to NPR.  You can read the response from NPR’s ombudsman here.

So, they should have fired him right after that superficial interview, and then FOX could have hired him seven years ago.  He would have fit right in at FOX, not as a journalist, but as an advocate for the lawless Bush Administration just like all the other biased gasbags that make up their “fair and balanced” broadcasts.

Killing People is Not Easy

Killing People is Not Easy

Well it’s easy enough to pull the trigger on a sniper rifle, drop a bomb from an airplane, or even launch artillery into a house full of Iraqi insurgents, but it’s not so easy to live with what you see when you enter the house to survey the results and find out you’ve made a terrible mistake.  So writes Army lieutenant Shannon Meehan for The New York Times:

I thought we had struck enemy fighters, but I was wrong. A father, mother and their children had been huddled inside.

The feelings of disbelief that initially filled me quickly transformed into feelings of rage and self-loathing.  The following weeks, months and years would prove that my life was forever changed.

In fact, it’s been nearly three years, and I still cannot remove from my mind the image of that family gathered together in the final moments of their lives.  I can’t shake it.  It simply lingers.

While reading this column today, I was thinking about the conversation I had with my ten-year-old son during a battle scene in The Sand Pebbles.  The movie stars  Steve McQueen who plays Jake Holman, a Navy engineer assigned to a gunboat cruising China’s Yangtze River in 1926 as the Nationalist revolution led by Chiang Kai-shek breaks out.  The battle scene takes place near the end of the film when the Navy boat must get past a blockade of junks set up by the Chinese revolutionaries.  After much shooting and hand-to-hand combat to clear the center junk, Holman uses an axe to the cut the thick ropes that string the boats together.  While he’s chopping at the ropes, a Chinese fighter sneaks up on him with a machete and raises it for the killing blow.  Holman catches a glimpse of  him approaching and moves just in time for the machete weilder to miss his mark.  The blade hits Holman’s helmet and glances away from him.  He then swings his axe head right into the gut of the Chinese man who doubles over and dies.

Holman stands there with his axe hanging by his side staring at the dying man while his boat, just a few yards behind him, begins to advance past the blockade.  At that point, my son said, “What’s he doing?  Why is he just standing there?”  All I could say was something like, “Well, it’s not easy to kill a man.  It’s a terrible thing to take another man’s life.  That’s what he’s feeling, and it doesn’t feel good to him.”  As I’m saying this, Holman shake his head, shoulders his axe, and gets on board the gun boat.

Meehan wrote about that feeling in his column.

Killing enemy combatants comes with its own emotional costs.  On the surface, we feel as soldiers that killing the enemy should not affect us — it is our job, after all.  But it is still killing, and on a subconscious level, it changes you.  You’ve killed.  You’ve taken life. What I found, though, is that you feel the shock and weight of it only when you kill an enemy for the first time, when you move from zero to one.  Once you’ve crossed that line, there is little difference in killing 10 or 20 or 30 more after that.

…The deaths that I caused also killed any regard I had for my own life.  I felt that I did not deserve something that I had taken from them. I fell into a downward spiral, doubting if I even deserved to be alive.  The value, or regard, I once had for my own life dissipated.

My son plays a series of computer war games that are mostly based on historical events.  In these games, he builds villages and farms to supply them with food and materials, and he must also build armies to protect them from enemies that want to take what he’s built.  Battles ensue, and one side or the other ultimately wins.  The games do teach a bit of history, but they don’t delve into the morality of war and allow for contemplation about the victims.

I’ll share this piece with him and hope that it makes him think a little about what might be going on in the minds of the tiny little warriors on his computer screen.

The War Who’s Name Shall Not Be Spoken

The War Who’s Name Shall Not Be Spoken

Here’s another section of Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech that reveals a little something about Obama’s thoughts on another war he inherited.

To begin with, I believe that all nations – strong and weak alike – must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.  I – like any head of state – reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates – and weakens – those who don’t.

The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense.  Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait – a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression.

Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.  For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention – no matter how justified.

This becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor.  More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

Notice how he singles out the war to take back Kuwait, but makes no mention of the Iraq War that’s been going on since 2003.  That war is not one that adheres to “standards that govern the use of force.”  It was a war of choice (a very poor choice), not a war of necessity.

I searched the entire text of the speech and the word “Iraq” was never mentioned.  I guess it’s kind of like “Voldemort” to him.  If only we could make it go away for real with such ease.

Oh, and another phrase I did not find is “War on Terror.”  This guy is way different than the fool that started these wars he has to finish.  I was not to thrilled about his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, but if he abides by the moral code he outlined in his speech today and he does not waiver in his role as the leader of the free world, we might actually not just win the battle, but also the war of ideas that is key to defeating the religious fanatics that seek to undermine centuries of human progress and freedom.

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.