The confirmation hearing in the Senate for Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, was painful to watch because it displayed the tomfoolery, pretense, self-righteous know-nothingism, and embarrassing lack of contact with reality that dominate the landscape of America’s broken democracy. It was like watching a Nebraska ordinary Joe set upon by circus freaks– a phalanx of moral midgets, stalking cat-men, vicious lobster boys and ethical werewolves.
Those who regretted that Hagel seldom stood his ground, often just deflected persnickety questions, and sometimes was made to recite the catechisms of Neoconservative orthodoxy, should remember that what is important in Washington is willingness to conform orally, regardless of what one actually believes or how one acts. Hagel might agree to look like he is being pushed around by his former colleagues, for the sake of their face and his. He won’t agree actually to be pushed around once he is in office.
At one point a caller called in from London with a rambling statement, who made an argument that there is a double standard, with the US and its allies free from international law on things like possessing and using nuclear weapons, whereas other countries are held to stricter standard. He said that this unequal application of the law was clear in that Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, had been convicted of war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court, but Israeli leaders, who had committed war crimes against the Palestinians, had been held harmless. He went on rambling, complaining about alleged war crimes the Sri Lankan government committed against the Tamil Tigers, then the host asked him for a question and to finish up. When Hagel responded, he began by saying he agreed with the caller’s point. It is obvious to me that he was agreeing that there had been a double standard, and he later said it should be overcome with regard to nuclear disarmament by the US and Russia taking the lead to reduce stockpiles. The caller had a thick accent and it wasn’t even clear that Hagel understood everything he said in his rant, much less meant to agree with it. Is Cruz saying that Hagel was agreeing about Sri Lanka, too?
Cruz insisted that Hagel should have disagreed with the caller about Israel having committed war crimes, given that Jews were victims of war crimes. Cruz is a truly bright and energetic man, with a Princeton education, who clerked for Rehnquist. He knows very well that he is lying about Hagel. And he knows that Israel is guilty of plenty of war crimes. He managed to make Hagel deny this obvious fact, however. Cruz’s performance underlines the importance of Christian Zionism in reinforcing the crackpot conviction in the US senate that it is impossible ever to say anything slightly negative about Israeli policy (the only country in the world so exempted).
Ironically, Cruz’s implausible grandstanding occurred on the same day when, as the New York Times headline put it, “U.N. Panel Says Israeli Settlement Policy Violates Law ”
Ah, and then there is Lindsey Graham, the Red Queen of the Senate (who is the essence of the pedantic governess and asks through-the-looking-glass questions like: “Divide a loaf by a knife: what’s the answer to that?”).
The reason that was a dumb resolution is that terrorism is defined in the US civil code as the deployment of violence by a non-state actor against civilians for political purposes. Since the Revolutionary Guards are a kind of Iranian national guard, they are not a non-state actor. They are therefore not a terrorist organization. They may deploy terror, but it is state terror. (The senate also said they were terrorists because they were guilty of killing US troops in Iraq. First of all, there is no evidence that is true. Second of all, killing troops is not terrorism, it is an act of war). Graham’s position is illogical and makes a hash of any reasonable definition of terrorism.
Graham wants to pile on illogical charges against Iran and its institutions in order to force the US into a war on that country, which is 3 times more populous and much more geographically vast than Iraq. Because, like, Iraq went so well, I guess.
The irony, of course, is that Graham is himself part of the Israel lobby, and there he was intimidating Hagel for complaining about having been intimidated!
All the congressmen and senators know that the Israel lobby intimidates them or tries to, on a daily basis. Ernst Hollings complained, “you can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here.” AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the de facto foreign agent of the Israeli government in the United States, which gets away with not having to register as such because it has bought off or intimidated Congress. 22-year Illinois veteran of congress Paul Findley has also complained about this. And, just read former AIPAC lobbyis M.J. Rosenberg regularly to get the inside scoop on how AIPAC pressures Congress, including against the president. As Graham knows, there is a whole book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt about the Israel lobbies, which will soon be supplemented by further publications documenting all the … intimidation. The Israel lobbies work by threatening to give money to a rival in the next primary or election. Since races in many districts are close, and since there is no wealthy, organized lobby for the Palestinians or Arabs, it is crazy for a US politician to risk AIPAC’s ire. AIPAC doesn’t always win, and recognizing its effectiveness as a lobby is not to buy into the bigotted notion of Jews secretly controlling Gentiles. In fact, denying that the Israel lobby exists is not only willful blindness, it is itself a form of anti-Semitism, since such a denial depicts Jews as inherently unlike Cubans, Armenians, Indians, Latinos and all the other ethnic groups that lobby Congress.
Senator John McCain then attacked Hagel for having predicted that the surge or troop escalation ordered by George W. Bush would be a huge mistake. The Iraq War was fought under false pretenses (that the Saddam Hussein regime was two years from having a nuclear weapon and had big stores of biological and chemical weapons, and that it was behind the 9/11 attacks and trained al-Qaeda in the use of chemical weapons– all of these pretexts for war being wretched, bald-faced lies). The Neocons promised McCain’s committee a short inexpensive war of $60 billion, over within 6 months. Instead it turned into a quagmire that cost thousands of American lives and some 33,000 badly injured veterans who lead diminished lives. McCain was a cheerleader for the war, then a skeptic, then a cheerleader, and now he has decided that the troop escalation was a success.
If the ‘surge’ was a success, it was a minor one in a vast and pockmarked terrain of abject failure. But there are plenty of reasons to question the David Petraeus narrative of a successful surge. In Baghdad, the horrible civil war that killed tens of thousands in 2006 gradually subsided through 2007 mainly because the Shiites ethnically cleansed Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods. The US troop escalation was complicit here because it disarmed the Sunni neighborhood militias first, exposing them to night-time attacks by the still-armed Mahdi Army and Badr Corps. I have talked to Iraq vets who were on the ground and saw this process unfold with their own eyes; they say everyone knew that was what was happening. The turning of Baghdad into a largely Shiite city, while it tamped down violence, could hardly be called a big success (it had been about 50/50 Sunni and Shiite in 2002 before the Americans came).
The big news from Iraq these days is precisely the continued discontent of Sunni Arab Iraqis, some of them (like the Abu Rishas) from families that had joined the Awakening Councils. They are demanding increased stipends for their service under Petraeus, demanding that hundreds of Sunni Arab youth arrested arbitrarily be released, demanding that the stigmatization of Sunni Arabs and the barring of them from public service be ended, and demanding that the pro-Iran, pro-Syrian, Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, step down.
So the “surge” didn’t account for the decline of violence in Baghdad, and its Awakening Councils created as many problems as they solved, and created expectations that continue to roil Iraqi politics and perhaps threaten a break-up of the country.
An important problem with the narrative line of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the Central Intelligence Agency’s quest for Usama Bin Laden, is not just that it comes across as pro-torture but that it ignores the elephant in the room: Bad intelligence elicited by torture almost derailed that quest to put down al-Qaeda by diverting most resources to Iraq.
The film is misleading precisely because it does what the Bush administration did not do. It stays with Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda. At one point a CIA official complains that there are no other working groups concentrating on al-Qaeda, that it is just the handful of field officers around the table. But he does not say that the Bush administration ran off to Iraq and closed down the Bin Laden desk at the CIA. Nor do any of the characters admit that bad intelligence, including that gathered by torture, helped send the United States off on the Great Iraq Wild Goose Chase.
I care about this issue in part for reasons of my own biography. As a Baby Boomer who was against the Vietnam War, I had never had much to do with the US government until the September 11 attacks. Had I not been on the doorstep of 50 when they took place, I might well have enlisted. I felt 9/11 profoundly, to my very soul, and was depressed about it for years. I wanted to do what I could to understand al-Qaeda and help destroy it. When RAND and other providers of speakers in Washington asked me to come out and talk to analysts from various government agencies, I was pleased to do it. At the time, Arabists and Islam experts in the US were not so numerous, and pernicious self-proclaimed experts had proliferated. There was a lot of Islamophobia around, and most Americans who did not know the Middle East first hand did not realize that al-Qaeda was a tiny fringe, not representative of Islam.
I don’t know if all those talks I gave in DC to inter-agency audiences were ever useful in fighting al-Qaeda, but I certainly hope so, and I was proud to do my bit in presenting an informed and analytical approach to fighting the phenomenon. I was trying to model for them social analysis as academics understand it. I was also honored to address people who were doing their best to confront a major security challenge.
Bush and Cheney exploited al-Qaeda and the threat of terrorism to erode civil liberties at home and to reshape Iraq and its oil riches abroad. But they weren’t that interested in actually finding Bin Laden or rolling up al-Qaeda. Someone like myself, who could see that Iraq was a massive train wreck and that it actually prolonged al-Qaeda’s significance, was most inconvenient in 2005 and 2006.
So, I mind the the narrative of “Zero Dark Thirty” for personal reasons. It leaves out a key obstacle to the quest it recounts. Some of what is wrong with the film may derive from its beginnings, as a story about how the quest for Bin Laden failed. That premise had to be changed after May 2, 2011, of course. But a film that began with an exploration of failure should have highlighted the Iraq distraction and the bad intel from torture all the more.
Al-Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured trying to escape from Afghanistan in late 2001. He was sent to Egypt to be tortured, and under duress alleged that Saddam Hussein was training al-Qaeda agents in chemical weapons techniques. It was a total crock, and alleged solely to escape further pain. Al-Libi disavowed the allegation when he was returned to CIA custody. But Cheney and Condi Rice ran with the single-source, torture-induced assertion and it was inserted by Scooter Libby in Colin Powell’s infamous speech to the United Nations.
‘ “We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of Al Qaeda going back for actually quite a long time,” Rice said. “We know too that several of the [Al Qaeda] detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to Al Qaeda in chemical weapons development.” ‘
In my book, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East, I note that Gen. Bonaparte forbade the use of torture by French military interrogators in Cairo, on the grounds that it produced too much misinformation. Napoleon was not exactly squeamish. And even he would have been ashamed of the crew we had in Washington before last January.
In the end, I’m not entirely sure that the film shows torture succeeding for the CIA. In fact, al-Kuwaiti’s identity is confirmed by other techniques in the film. In one instance a man (“Ammar”) who was tortured to no effect is tricked into believing that he had already given up operational information. This kind of technique is called in intelligence work ‘false flag tradecraft,’ i.e. fooling an informant by feeding him or her a set of false premises. In part, this success comes from a rapport the man made with “Maya,” the relentless woman field officer. Again, in real life interrogations, such rapport and such false flag techniques are always more successful than torture.
In another scene, a Pakistani man who is interrogated begins by saying that he had been tortured in the past by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, and is willing to cooperate to avoid further mistreatment at American hands. I suppose that exchange serves as a suggestion that torture works in the long run, but what he gives the Americans is this case freely given.
The screenplay does, nevertheless, have a fascination with torture, and implies at several points its utility, as Karen Greenberg showed in these pages last week. Thus, when al-Kuwaiti’s true identity is established, a field officer complains that it can no longer be double-checked with detainees because President Obama had closed down the torture program. This odd complaint assumes that detainees who had protected his identity despite years of abuse and brutalization would have fingered al-Kuwaiti if only waterboarded a few times more.
“I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda. In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.”
McCain was tortured while a POW in Vietnam and is among the few prominent American politicians to stand forthrightly against what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did in committing the US to war crimes. He is a critic of the film, and I think his view of this matter should be taken extremely seriously.
I did not like “Zero Dark Thirty” as a film. I found it emotionally thin, grim and relentless. It failed to establish an emotional connection to any of the characters, or to flesh them out as characters. The violence is deployed for the purposes of surprise rather than suspense, so that its dramatic effect is limited. It is episodic (we know that the Islamabad Marriott was blown up; shouldn’t the film present a theory as to why?) Any suspense is further blunted by our lack of connection to the protagonist. Whereas in “Argo,” my heart was in my mouth when the embassy employees were in danger, I just couldn’t summon that kind of interest in Jessica Chastain’s “Maya.” The characters remain undeveloped because this film is plot driven, but also because it is primarily didactic, intended to send a message. Unfortunately, instead of glorifying the genuine heroes who have mostly rolled up al-Qaeda (an evil organization that wants to kill your children), it covers many of them with the shame of war crimes.
Korean pop star Psy (Park Jae-sang ) is apologizing for performances in 2004 in which he condemned the Iraq War. At one point he sang another songwriter’s lyrics about US soldiers killing and torturing Iraqis and the need to fight back against them and their family members.
The lyrics were in poor taste, but not anti-American, just anti-war. The incident speaks volumes of how the Bush administration’s warmongering frittered away the good will many in the world had felt for the US. Opinion polls showed that US favorability ratings in Turkey fell from 58% to 9%, and in Indonesia from 75% to 22% in the Bush era, largely because of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the emergence of large numbers of photos showing torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Petroleum makes the world go round, with 70% of it used to power automobiles. About a fifth of the world’s 90 million barrels a day of oil production comes out of the Persian Gulf/ Arabian Gulf.
A large part of the US stand-off with Iran has to do with petroleum. The US doesn’t want a big military power hulking over the Gulf, other than itself. Iran can’t be allowed to dominate the Gulf oil kingdoms. Likewise, Washington insists that oil countries remain susceptible of being invaded by the US. Non-oil states like Pakistan, India and Israel have been allowed to actually develop nuclear bombs, but Iraq was destroyed even on false suspicion of moving in the same direction. Even an Iranian capability to construct a bomb, i.e. “nuclear latency,” would have a deterrent effect, and the US is determined to prevent Iran from being taken out of the column of countries that can be safely invaded. (There is no good evidence that Iran seeks to actually construct a warhead, nor is Iran a threat to much more powerful Israel; US tensions with Iran are largely over ‘nuclear latency,’ the mere capability to construct a nuclear warhead on short notice).
A quick US transition to hybrid and then electric cars, and fueling them with electricity produced by renewables, is necessary to combat increasingly dangerous global climate change. But it might also make the Persian Gulf/ Arabian Gulf geopolitically irrelevant. A green America would be energy self-sufficient, and its many wind turbines and solar panels would be impossible for an enemy to target. The US would be both much more secure and also much less aggressive if it were green. There would be no reason for a green America to care very much about security in the Gulf. The behind-the-scenes push by Big Oil for war to open new fields would be deflated. The US would be freed to move the Fifth Fleet HQ away from dictatorial little Bahrain. It could let Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen go.
Petroleum has been at the center of many modern wars. In WW II, FDR told Japan he would cut if off from American petroleum, on which Japan depended to keep its Chinese empire going. Japan fought its way to Indonesian oil to replace the lost American supply, first trying to defang the US Navy at Pearl Harbor. Hitler suffered from lack of access to petroleum, and was driven to open the second front by a quest for the petroleum in the East Bloc. The Axis drive on Egypt from Libya may well have aimed at ultimately pushing on Iraq and Iran for their oil. Iraq’s invasions of Iran and Kuwait were in part an attempt by Saddam Hussein to consolidate control over neighboring oil fields. Israel pumped petroleum from Egypt’s Sinai while occupying it. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was connected to the latter’s petroleum. Greg Muttit has used leaked BP documents to show that the company lobbied the UK PM Tony Blair to make sure it got its share of petroleum fields in post-Saddam Iraq.
Mitt Romney’s speech at VMI on foreign policy has been widely condemned as vague and lacking in substance, sort of like the man who gave it. But the speech is also full of suggestions and criticisms of the Obama administration that are simply not realistic. The speech is Romney’s “Mission Impossible,” only without the cool theme music and also without a prayer of being actually achievable short of launching a series of 5 wars. I’ve decided that my initial assumption that a businessman of Romney’s experience must know something about the world was dead wrong. Apparently it is possible to sit in cushy big offices in companies like Bain, and to remain completely ignorant of foreign affairs. Romney’s speeches are all just a replaying for us of the prejudices of CEOs when they play golf together and complain vaguely about the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and so forth. Or, maybe Romney has gotten so many campaign contributions from arms manufacturers that he can’t help see foreign affairs through the lens of new wars he wants to fight.
1. The First War: Return to Iraq
Romney wants to send US troops back into Iraq and complained again about Obama’s “abrupt” withdrawal from that country. I don’t know how many ways there are of saying this, but it was from the beginning absolutely impossible for US troops to remain in Iraq legally. Romney apparently let Dan Senor, Bremer’s Neocon spokesman who came out to lie to us every day in Baghdad, write the following paragraph:
: “In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al-Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran. And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The President tried—and failed—to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”
Romney’s premise, that the US military in Iraq had some sort of ‘achievement’ that is in danger of being lost now that it is out of the country is ridiculous. The United States launched an illegal war of aggression on Iraq that virtually destroyed the country and kicked off a power vacuum that eventuated in a civil war that still continues at a low level. In 2006 when there were over 150,000 US troops in Iraq, in some months the death toll from political violence was 2500. That doesn’t even count all the armed Iraqis the US military was killing. The United States military never controlled Iraq and could never prevent bombings and attacks. When the US troops stopped patrolling major cities, the death toll promptly fell, because guerrillas were no longer setting improvised explosive devices to hit US convoys– operations that often wounded Iraqi by-standers as well.
In August, 2012, the death toll from political violence in Iraq was 164, half what it had been in July, after a crackdown by Iraqi army and police. So Romney is just wrong that there is some sort of secular trend in Iraq toward the kind of violence that had racked the country half a decade ago, and it is wrong to think that the US military was anyway primarily responsible for the end of the mass killings. What appears to have happened is that in 2006-2007, Iraqis living in mixed neighborhoods having both Sunnis and Shiites ethnically cleansed one another. Once the neighborhoods were mostly only one sect, the killing subsided (you’d have to get in your car and drive a while to find someone of a different persuasion to kill). That wasn’t a US achievement, it was a US failure!
It was the then leader of the Republican Party, George W. Bush, who negotiated the December 31, 2011, deadline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq with the Iraqi parliament. Obama simply implemented the agreement Bush signed. The reason the accord had to be worked out with the Iraqi parliament was that Bush wanted to be sure that US officers and troops could not be prosecuted for military actions they undertook in Iraq. The only way to forestall such prosecutions was a bilateral agreement authorizing US troops to fight in Iraq, and signed by the Iraqi government. Simply negotiating it with the prime minister would not have made it legally solid enough to protect the troops. Their presence had to be authorized by the Iraqi legislature. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was barely able to get the agreement passed, and only succeeded because it seemed to a lot of members of parliament their best bet for ushering US troops out of the country.
For that agreement to be renegotiated so that US combat units remained in Iraq would have required another vote of parliament. The Iraqi parliament is dominated by Shiites, along with Sunnis and a minority of Kurds. The Kurds were the only group that might have voted to keep US troops in the country, and they just don’t have that many seats. The Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party of al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Sadrists or followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, dominate parliament, along with Sunni nationalists. None of them wanted US troops in their country in the first place. They would never, ever have voted for a continued US troop presence in Iraq, and there would have been no way for Romney to make them do so if he had been president. His snide implication that Obama had a shot at this endeavor, and took it and missed, is just inside the beltway wishful thinking.
Guys! The Iraqis don’t like you. They didn’t want you in their country. They didn’t give you candy or put garlands around your neck. They killed over 4,000 of your troops, hundreds more of your contractors, and only failed to kill more because they were poorly armed compared to you.
After 8 years of ‘shaping’ Iraq, you got a Shiite government allied with Iran and Syria, the leader of which is now in Moscow seeking a $5 billion arms deal from Mr. Putin, so as to become more independent of the US. That was your best shot at empire, with hundreds of thousands of troops cycling through and a trillion dollars to play with, and it didn’t work. Because in today’s world it doesn’t work. Political-military empire is over. People are mobilized.
The only way for the US to dominate Iraq any more would be to re-invade the country, which would be Romney’s first war.
“The President has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women, and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months. Violent extremists are flowing into the fight. Our ally Turkey has been attacked. And the conflict threatens stability in the region.”
He goes on to say later in the speech,
“we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity. As one Syrian woman put it, “We will not forget that you forgot about us.” It is time to change course in the Middle East . . . “
“In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.”
So, it seems clear that Romney wants to “lead” in Syria, i.e., get involved in the war there.
But the reason that not only Obama but the entirety of Europe has declined to get involved in Syria is that there is no UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. In its absence, any army that used force except in self defense would be open to being hauled before judges in the Hague or judges in some country where the judiciary claims universal jurisdiction.
If the US went into Syria unilaterally, the same thing would happen to Romney as happened to Bush– the US would bear all the costs and would gradually become isolated and alone in the enterprise. As for fearing that people won’t forget that the US did not come to their aid, you could equally fear all the people who will be upset that the US intervened militarily, or you could fear ingratitude even if we did intervene (there are lots of examples of both).
3. The Third War is with Iran
Romney couldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear enrichment program if he were president, any more than Obama can. That step would require an invasion and occupation of the country. Simply bombing the facilities would only briefly set them back.
“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region—and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.
For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions—not just words—that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated. I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations. I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf. “
But close cooperation with Israel against Iran would ensure that none of our Arab allies would be willing to associate themselves with such a campaign. There is a reason that George H. W. Bush kept PM Yitzhak Shamir out of the Gulf War.
And, Romney can’t tighten sanctions on Iran any further without going all the way to an actual naval blockade of Iranian commerce. The US already has a financial blockade against Iran. Blockades, like ultimatums, cause wars. Countries threatened with strangulation frequently strike out. Even more stringent sanctions and blockades risk pushing Iran into reacting violently for self-preservation.
4. The fourth war is in Afghanistan. Although Romney said he would wind down the war there by 2014, just as Obama has pledged, he intended to ‘remain strong’ and to ‘consult our military,’ i.e. he implicitly is reopening the question of the US withdrawal from that country. He said,
“President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.
I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation. ”
There is no reason for Romney to bring up his political prospects being damaged unless he is considering reneging on Obama’s pledge to get out of Afghanistan. Likewise, that is implied by his reference to ‘evaluating conditions on the ground’ and taking ‘the best advice of our military commanders.’
On Afghanistan, Romney is pulling an anti-Nixon. He appears to have a secret plan not to end the war in Afghanistan.
5. The small wars: Intervention in Yemen, Somalia, perhaps even Libya in a ‘war on terror.’
The US has hit Yemen and Somalia with drone strikes and is occasionally kind of at war in those countries, though it is a desultory, occasional, and limited sort of conflict.
Romney says that drones are not enough. What would you use in such conflicts besides drones? Infantry? The implication of being ‘more forceful’ and dismissing drone strikes is that you would support the insertion of troops into those conflicts.
Romney’s various wars would, if pursued, bankrupt the country and cause more backlash and terrorism against the United States. Romney thinks that US prestige flows from strength, defined as military might.
But in fact what people in the Middle East admire about the US is its values, such as democracy and the rule of law. They hate our military hubris and still have not forgiven us for what we did to Iraq.
The only positive thing about Romney’s speech was his commitment to getting a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Unfortunately, we know from his leaked fundraiser recording of last May that he intends to ‘kick the can down the road’ on the Israel-Palestine issues, and that he does not trust the Palestinians with a state. So that positive language is just lies.
Four or five wars and lots of other conflicts are not a foreign policy vision, they are a nightmare.
Yesterday I explored the errors and fantasies in Gov. Mitt Romney’s WSJ op-ed on the Middle East. Here I will briefly go over the mistakes that the Obama administration has made in the region. Unlike the proposed blunders of Romney, I have to say, most of these are errors of omission or of an abundance of caution. I’d give Obama a C on Middle East policy, whereas I’d give Romney’s announced plans an F. Still, the present administration has had significant failures.
1. Obama came into office determined to restart the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He failed in this attempt. In part, he was stymied when Kadima Party leader Tzippi Livni failed to attract enough coalition partners to form a government, in February of 2009, allowing Likud hard liner Binyamin Netanyahu to become Prime Minister. Netanyahu had boasted of derailing the 1990s Oslo peace process, and was the least likely partner for Obama you could imagine. After briefly acquiescing in a settlement freeze for some of the West Bank, which got Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to open negotiations, Netanyahu managed to deflect Washington’s demands that he go back to the bargaining table by vastly increasing the rate of Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. The Palestinians angrily withdrew, not sure why they should try to negotiate over a pie that was being actively gobbled down by the other side. Since his failure, Obama has neglected to speak out on Israeli aggressive colonization measures or even on settler attacks on mosques, churches and individuals. Obama appears, incredibly, not to have realized how hard it would be to accomplish anything on this front, and not to have realized that he would have had to make it a top priority and put his presidency on the line about it, as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David. Sending George Mitchell out as a special envoy was simply too little.
2. Obama accepted the plan of David Petraeus and other Pentagon officers (who, admittedly, boxed him in) for a troop escalation in Afghanistan, combined with an ambitious counter-insurgency program that aimed at pacifying the country ahead of a US withdrawal. The alternative, allegedly championed by Vice President Joe Biden, was a much less ambitious counter-terrorism approach. The latter would not involve big conventional armies but sending light mobile special operations units in to deal with violent cells where they popped up. The operation against Bin Laden had this shape. The big counter-insurgency project and the troop ‘surge’ manifestly failed, as I predicted at the time. Petraeus and others were misled by their Iraq experience, where the US troop escalation in 2007 had some success, but only because it coincided with a Shiite ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis from Shiite neighborhoods, which fatally weakened the Sunni guerrillas, so that the US could polish a lot of those cells off. Afghanistan was not comparable.
3. Obama has used economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to deflect the enormous pressure from Netanyahu and his allies in the American Israel lobbies (which work through Congress) to bomb Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Such a strike would release toxic chemicals and metals and would kill thousands of non-combatants in Isfahan. But the latest round of very severe sanctions on Iran, to the extent of trying to prevent the sale of Iranian petroleum, go beyond a boycott to being a form of blockade. It isn’t a naval blockade. Rather, Obama is preventing Iranian banks from interfacing with their counterparts and making it hard for other countries to pay Iran for the petroleum they buy from it. The US is now also threatening third-party sanctions on countries that buy Iranian petroleum. Blockades, like ultimatums, routinely cause wars. Roosevelt’s cutting off of Japan from US petroleum was part of the reason for Pearl Harbor (the Japanese had a choice of becoming a normal country or trying to keep their empire, and in the latter case the generals believed they had to take the Dutch East Indies for its petroleum, instead, and so had to neutralize the US pacific fleet). Moreover, there is danger of causing so much economic pain and isolation with severe sanctions that children and other non-combatants cannot get access to, e.g., needed medicines. Obama has put the US on a war footing with Iran, and may not have been as clever as he imagined about avoiding the traps Netanyahu set for him.
4. Having joined in the NATO effort to protect Libyans from the murderous regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama seems to have more or less lost interest in that country. It was predictable that when an idiosyncratic, personalized, police state collapsed, the country would limp along without the needed institutions until they were rebuilt. NATO (which is led by the US) should have helped train up a new Libyan army and police. As it is, the militias thrown up by the civil war are still too powerful (and some have become gangs), and the new elected government has too few police and military tools to establish order. In March, a mere 250 troops were graduated from the Tripoli academy. (Though, as I have underlined before, despite occasional incidents, security is better in Libya than we had any right to expect, and it isn’t the basket case it is often depicted in the US press).
The current Neocon critique of Obama over a terror cell’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the US ambassador and 3 others, by the way, makes no sense to me. No president could have done much to prevent such a sudden terrorist attack, and the fog of war would always prevent an exact understanding of the events for a period after such an attack. Why CNN has been bringing Murdoch hacks on, who have no knowledge of the situation on the ground in Benghazi, to make this flimsy case mystifies me.
5. Obama has been peculiarly passive as Syria has descended into mass murder, with over 30,000 dead and widespread displacement, hunger and misery. His hands have been tied by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council, to be sure. Nor would it be a good idea for the US to intervene with boots on the ground or by giving weaponry to the ragtag Free Syrian Army. But had he wanted to act more decisively on Syria, short of going to war, the president surely could have. Even just finding ways to get humanitarian aid in to starving Syrians would make a difference. (The current levels of US humanitarian aid are small and the delivery methods uncertain). They say that Bill Clinton has profound regrets over letting the Rwanda genocide proceed unhindered. Obama’s neglect of Syria, I fear, is likely to haunt him, and to haunt us all.
6. Obama should move the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain to some other port in the Gulf, and should speak out forcefully against the repressiveness of the Sunni monarchy against the Shiite majority in Bahrain. It is shameful for the US to have to depend on a government that is acting like a sordid little police state. It has just actually sentenced physicians to long prison terms for simply treating wounded rebels. That is the act of a petulant tyrant, and the US should dissociate itself from him.
7. Obama’s deployment of drones in northern Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia is deeply problematic. It has no real legal framework. It is classified and often run by CIA civilians, and so cannot be properly debated in an open, democratic way. Obama has claimed the prerogative of assassinating people by drone, and has even killed American citizens. Although some members of Congress are briefed on the program, it is too secretive and too far outside the realm of the rule of law to be compatible with the US constitution. Worse the drone strikes are probably politically counterproductive. Where the US hits again quickly after an initial strike, killing rescue workers, it is probably committing a war crime.
The Obama administration has done a fair job of navigating through the shoals of the Arab Spring. He should have called for Hosni Mubarak to step down much earlier than he did. But that was not a disaster, and neither are US relations with post-revolutionary Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. The US has good relations with the government of Hamadi Jabali in Tunisia. Obama called for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in Yemen from June of 2011. In general, Obama has done no harm, in the face of mass popular movements that changed the face of the region. The withdrawal from Iraq was necessary by the terms of the agreement Bush reached with the Iraqi parliament, and while Iraq will have problems for a long time, at least US troops are not fighting and dying there. There haven’t been big breakthroughs or successes with the possible exception of the nullification of Usamah Bin Laden, but also no major disasters and quagmires (Afghanistan is not a quagmire because Obama has announced he is getting out in 2014 no matter what).
Israeli PM Binyamin “Chicken Little” Netanyahu tried to scaremonger about Iraq in 2002, as his contribution to the Anglo-American war of aggression on that country. “there is no question whatsoever,” Netanyahu said, “that Saddam” was seeking nuclear weapons. He said that Israeli intelligence reported to him that Russian scientists and North Korea were on site and actively aiding this phantom nuclear weapons program.
There was no Iraqi nuclear weapons program in 2002; it was dismantled in the early 1990s by United Nations inspectors. There were none of the chemical or biological weapons Netanyahu spoke of. No Russians. No North Koreans. Bupkes.
Netanyahu also warned that Iraq would give nuclear warheads (which it did not have) to “terrorist groups.”
He also argued that no inspections could possibly find “mobile weapons sites” (which are impossible), implying that invasion and occupation was the only course open.
Netanyahu proved that neither he nor the Israeli intelligence organization, Mossad, had the slightest actual intelligence on Iraq, and that neither should be trusted to provide such intelligence to the US. Clearly, some right wing Israeli leaders always want the US entangled in regional wars in the Middle East, insofar as they are seeking US support in a hostile region. They therefore habitually exaggerate the dangers, and are little more than bullshit artists.
Netanyahu’s comments on Iraq are almost verbatim what he is now saying about Iran.
The Mainstream Media never calls Netanyahu on his bull crap.