ISIS, oh ISIS – What drives us to you is what drives us insane: In Reuters, Middle East expert Andrew Bacevich has some serious doubts about a military solution to the newest Big Bad (who, let’s remember, are a threat at all precisely because of all the weapons we’ve already dumped in the area — Gee, it’s almost like our always getting involved makes everything worse.) “Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.”
He’s not alone. While they’ve been highly complicit in the collective freak-out over the past few weeks, the media — as welcome returning blogger Dan Froomkin notes — are starting to get skeptical too. “Allam notes that Yemen and Somalia are hardly examples of success; that the new Iraqi government is hardly ‘inclusive’; that training of Iraqi soldiers hasn’t worked in the past; that in Syria it’s unclear which ‘opposition’ Obama intends to support; and that it may be too late to cut off the flow of fighters and funds.”
Keeping in mind that Obama himself seems to think this is all a terrible idea, let’s recall what we’re really dealing with here, via the very worthwhile “War Nerd,” Gary Brecher: “ISIS, compared to any of the groups on that list, is about as scary as your neighbor’s yappy Shih Tzu: all noise and no teeth. Let’s just sober up, for Christ’s sake, and remember we’re talking about a half-assed Sunni militia that couldn’t face up to Assad’s mediocre Syrian Arab Army and still hasn’t found a way to occupy Sunni Iraqi towns that were outright abandoned by the Army, left totally undefended.”
Along the same lines, see Brecher on ISIS’s initial advance back in June:
|“Actually, topography has everything to do with what’s gone well or badly for ISIS. in this latest push. If you know the ethnic makeup of the turf they’ve taken, their ‘shocking gains’ don’t seem so shocking, or impressive. After all, we’re talking about a mobile force — mounted on the beloved Toyota Hilux pickup truck, favorite vehicle of every male in the Middle East — advancing over totally flat, dry ground in pursuit of a totally demoralized opponent. In that situation, any force could take a lot of country very quickly…So this isn’t the second coming of Erwin Rommel by any means. Everything has conspired to push the Sunni advance, from the lousy opponent they’re up against to the terrain, which is a light mechanized commander’s dream.
Flat and dry is how a mechanized force commander wants his ground — and believe me, you haven’t seen flat and dry until you get to Iraq. Once you’re south of the Kurdish mountains, you’re on a dried mudflat…This is, after all, Mesopotamia, a land literally built by the sediment of the Euphrates and Tigris. It’s river mud, but nice and dry because very little rain falls,..On ground like that, any force with good morale and enough fuel could advance as quickly as the Sunni have. It’s the Bonneville Salt Flats of insurgency, the place you go to set new speed records.”
The point being, we have to stop losing our minds and letting a hysterical media and the same gaggle of Neocon pricks who’ve been wrong about everything for two decades get us involved in every opportunity to make war in the Middle East. Are ISIS a bunch of Bad Men? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t make them an existential threat to the republic. So how about we all take a deep breath before, yet again, expending ever more blood and treasure in the region?
In very related news, and in a somewhat overwritten but otherwise worthy piece, former GOP Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren summarizes the problem of America’s Deep State (a term Lofgren did not coin, borrowed from Turkey.) Think the military-industrial complex, now infused with financial sector/Pete Peterson-style rent-seeking. “[This] is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.”
A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”
Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)
But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.
ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”
Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarism — congrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.
Thanks to info provided by Edward Snowden, the WaPo builds on their earlier Top Secret America coverage with a first-ever detailed summary of the “Black Budget.” “The document describes a constellation of spy agencies that track millions of individual surveillance targets and carry out operations that include hundreds of lethal strikes.”
Among the revelations here: “Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013. The figure vastly exceeds outside estimates and is nearly 50 percent above that of the National Security Agency, which…has long been considered the behemoth of the community…The CIA’s dominant position will likely stun outside experts.”
Also of note: This multi-billion-dollar, post-9/11 technological terror we’ve constructed “remain[s] unable to provide critical information to the president on a range of national security threats..A chart outlining efforts to address key questions on biological and chemical weapons is particularly bleak…The intelligence community seems particularly daunted by the emergence of ‘home grown’ terrorists who plan attacks in the United States without direct support or instruction from abroad.”
In other words, what we have here is a resource-swallowing, clandestine intelligence-industrial bureaucracy that’s nonetheless incapable of actually doing what it’s ostensibly being funded to do. You can see why they’d want to keep this sort of thing secret.
Update: “Since 2007, we’ve known how much the total Black Budget is (before that, with some years excepted, we didn’t even know that), but not how much is spent on specific things. Now we know that too.” Eleven budget charts to help make sense of it all.
Didn’t get to this before heading out for a Memorial Day weekend camping trip: As y’all know by now, President Obama delivered a much-hailed State of the War on Terror address at the National Defense University, during which he called for the eventual repeal of AUMF, tighter oversight of drone strikes, and the closing of the Gitmo Gulag at last. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
Sounds great! When’s it happening? Er…well, that’s that trick, isn’t it? When it comes to the first promise — the repeal of AUMF — as Brooking’s Benjamin Witte noted: “Obama does not need Congress to narrow or repeal the AUMF or to get off of a war footing. He can do it himself, declaring hostilities over in whole or in part. And Obama, needless to say, did not do anything like that.”
Ok, what about drone strikes? As Fred Kaplan and others — including the heckler at the speech — have pointed out, President Obama did not promise to transfer drone strike authority from the CIA (where they remain covert) to the military (where there’s more possibility of oversight.) Nor did he pledge to end “signature strikes,” meaning the current practice of unleashing fiery death upon unknown parties because they seem to be acting shady. This “supposedly new, restrictive policy on drone strikes,” writes Kaplan, “was neither new nor restrictive…In short, the speech heralded nothing new when it comes to drone strikes.”
Instead, Obama defended his drone policy as legal and effective. At one point, he asserted “for the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process.” And then, in the very next paragraph, he asserts that particular executive prerogative in the matter of Anwar Awlaki — assassinated without due process. (FWIW, Obama is clearly using the Colbert reasoning here: “Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”)
As for Gitmo…well, we have been here before, so fool me once and all that. “‘The speech was deeply disappointing,’ says David Remes, a lawyer who has represented a number of Yemenis held at Guantanamo – adding that Obama only ‘created the illusion of forward momentum.’…The president has the power to issue national security waivers and direct the Secretary of Defense to certify detainee transfer if they are deemed not a national security threat – something human rights groups have been advocating. Didn’t hear much about that in the president’s address.
Yes, the paragraphs I quoted from the speech above at the onset are laudable, and yes, I suppose some people might find it vaguely comforting to know that the force of these issues weigh on the presidential mind in a way they didn’t between 2001 and 2008. But let’s be honest. It has been a troubling tendency of this administration — and by troubling tendency I mean signature pattern — to follow up lofty, progressive-minded rhetoric with absolutely no action of consequence. We need more than words from this president.
Well, at least one branch of our government is well-funded enough to take on these sorts of projects, I guess. Too bad the research is classified and likely highly iffy. Consider, similarly, the two “other” Hubbles found lying around in a Pentagon warehouse last year. “[S]top and think about this for a moment. The Department of Defense has the kind of funding needed — hundred of millions to billions of dollars, presumably — to build not one, but two, Hubble-like optical telescopes and then never use them.”
You know what the world really needs? A system of dormant underwater drones, which apparently DARPA is hard at work on. If you want to use this type of tech to explore the oceans of Europa or Titan, fine. For the Taiwan Strait? Sounds like a terrible idea. SKYNET aside, glitches happen.
“An executive at a small defense contractor recently joked to me, ‘Afghanistan is our business plan.’ I asked him what he would do if the war ended. He stared at me for a moment and said, ‘Well, then I hope we invade Libya.‘”
Proving Chalmers Johnson‘s maxim in Why We Fight that “when war becomes that profitable, you’re going to see more of it,” PBS’s Joshua Foust looks at the economic implications of withdrawal in Afghanistan for our standing army of
Hessians defense sub-contractors. “Ten years of war have established a discrete class of entrepreneurs, mid-level workers and administrators who are completely reliant upon the U.S. being at war to stay employed.” I somehow doubt we’ll be freezing their pay anytime soon.
Next week, Foreign Policy magazine and its editor-in-chief Susan Glasser will be releasing its 2nd annual roster of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers in foreign policy. I have seen the list — and it’s impressively creative and eclectic. There is one name that is not on the FP100 who should be — and that is Chalmers Johnson, who from my perspective rivals Henry Kissinger as the most significant intellectual force who has shaped and defined the fundamental boundaries and goal posts of US foreign policy in the modern era.“
The Washington Note‘s Steve Clemons remembers one of his friends, colleagues, and mentors: Asia scholar, critic of empire, and coiner of the “developmental state,” Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010. (See also James Fallows’ remembrances on his passing.) Argued Johnson in 2009: “Make no mistake – whether we’re being bled rapidly or slowly, we are bleeding; and hanging onto our military empire will ultimately spell the end of the United States as we know it.”