Good News! Obama Centrist, Realist

Get it?

It can be really depressing studying foreign policy and international conflicts. It’s mostly bad news. Especially when, in addition to the death, destruction, terrorism and war reporting on mainstream media, you must also study the conspiracy sites. Blogs like The Ugly Truth, which I found off a link on a great foreign policy roundup of blogs. I signed up for the newsletter and the next day received 10 emails of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda (not necessarily all untrue). Though there are worthwhile alternative media perspectives among the posts, 10 highly subjective posts in a day is both lazy and desperate. And gratuitous: Commenting on the link to a story about how U.S. sanctions are compromising the safety of Iranian airlines, The Ugly Truth editors noted

ed note–which means that if (when) there is some crash of an Iranian airliner, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians, more likely than not it will be due to the American (Israeli) sanctions put in place. 

Just in case we didn’t see what this post had to do with Israel. Thanks for making your bias so blatant, The Ugly Truth. Another Ugly bias example is the tying of Israel to the Syrian opposition. From what I’ve read, Israel is at worst ambivalent about the somewhat one-sided Syrian Civil War. And I read a lot of different sources. For instance with Syria, Aljazeera English’s website is predictably anti-Assad, Russia Today is mildly anti-U.S. so they support Russia’s position even while they criticize the Kremlin and report on protests. The Economist is capitalist, imperialist and interventionist and The New York Times is, well, getting better.

They no longer just trumpet that “Massacre in Syria blamed on Assad, says everyone”, and try to use vague terms when they don’t know something (like “bloody clash”) instead of just repeating what the Syrian opposition claims (like “civilian massacre”). The Times got a bit of a beatdown, and rightly so, for its reporting on Iran’s nuclear program because it kept substituting “weapon” with what should have been “capability.” As in, it’s been proven Iranians want a “weapon” as opposed to just the capability to build one. Foreign correspondent David Sanger wrote the most egregious substitutions.

And this brings me to the good news. David Sanger’s new book about the Obama foreign policy, Conceal and Confront, came out recently. Guess who was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this week. The Times writer was getting his book reviewed in the Times about what he wrote about for the Times. This must be a totally objective review, right? No, of course not. But to tell the truth, I didn’t care. I was just so happy that Sanger’s book was not a hatchet job of the President’s record. There are plenty of complaints to level at Obama from both the left—legit concerns like drone strike legality—and the right—mostly bullshit, like Obama’s no friend of Israel—but, like Sanger, I believe that President Obama, aside from the Af/Pak surge, has a strangely decent, pragmatic and limited so-called doctrine.

First of all, to address the Israel criticism, the main reason there was tension between Washington and Jerusalem, was Obama wanted to avoid dragging us into war with Iran. We definitely don’t want to go to war with Iran, because if there were any case at all for it, Mitt Romney would be howling. Republicans don’t want to go into Syria, even John McCain has shut up about it. Hell, we told Turkey not to go to war with Syria.

No politician in the U.S. can sell any more American war. Republicans shut up about the lack of soldiers left in Iraq, even while Iraq teeters on the edge (you’d think Romney would attack with that). With soldiers in Afghanistan being blown up or murdered by their allies almost weekly, Obama’s strategically ridiculous decision to surge with 30,000 troops and announce a short-ass withdrawal date at the same time has worked to his political advantage pre-election. Accelerating the withdrawal was cynical yet shrewd.

The other Republican criticism, correct if not utterly hypocritical, has Obama running an imperial presidency. Notice how no one in Congress actually bitched about Obama’s decision to help NATO topple Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, just how he didn’t check with Capitol Hill first. Every president gets this “overreach” criticism at some point.

Obama is certainly impenetrable to the charge of softie, ordering countless more drone strikes than W. and virtually assassinating quantities of al-Qaeda and Taliban officers. He refused to apologize for a chopper strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, even though Pakistan is a client-ally we need. He ordered the Afghanistan surge and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He hit Iran with the toughest sanctions yet and unleashed a cyberwar on their nuclear program (detailed in Sanger’s book).

Our defense department’s pivot toward East Asia strategy has led to an arms race with China, the budding superpower. And this all in one term. By the way, we are sending warships to the Persian Gulf right now.

Where Obama’s foreign policy sought restraint was in the Arab Awakening. Bravo! The left attacks him for not acting in some inspirational role with the Egyptian masses and the right attacks for betraying Hosni Mubarak, whom they claim was an ally. He was just another corrupt client and a greedy dictator who started killing his own people. That’s why we “betrayed” him, Monica Crowley. Crowley is a racist fear-monger who preaches that Obama would rather see America destroyed than win a second term and that Sharia law is strangling America.

State and Defense had to walk a tightrope through the Mideast revolts, often following a healthy dose of rhetoric with, well, nothing. It was the sanest thing to do in such a complex situation. Hillary Clinton is meeting with new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, as well as the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The rightist Islamophobia critique again fails because Egypt’s Islamists—a comparatible Third Reich for Republicans and Fox News—are still off-set by the military, whom the U.S. supported to help keep things status quo. Clinton is asking the SCAF to give power to the President Morsi, but only in public. Both cynical and shrewd again.

As a realist who understands how low our country can sink (from Rumsfeld/Cheney’s Iraq and Iran-Contra to Pinochet), I have such confidence in current best practices, with regard to this epoch of unstable nations, religious extremism and runaway deficits, that should Mitt Romney become president, I predict little will change. It can’t get that much worse, can it? Never mind.

As the Times review of Sanger’s book reads: “But in truth [Obama] has positioned himself nicely within a political sweetspot, one where Americans are loathe to see their country relinquish its premier global position but wary of unnecessary wars undertaken on wispy rationales.”

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Positive Spin on the U.S. Wars (my cynical id)

The Taliban and their friends in Pakistan safe havens have gotten a rude awakening. It’s about time we took the battle to its true center, North Waziristan and over the Pakistan border in general.

Helicopter attacks and increased drone strikes on insurgents who fire on coalition forces in Afghanistan and then retreat over the border to Pakistan are finally being accepted (with limits) by the Pakistani powers that be. In September alone there were 20 drone bombings and a copter raid killed at least 40 retreating Taliban. The CIA has a network of Pashtun informants and spies that allow these attacks to be accurate. And the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are murdering their own people in numbers over who might be informants.

It’s just about the coolest thing I’ve heard with regard to the Afghanistan(/Pakistan) war since the CIA, with the Northern Alliance, ousted the Taliban back in 2001 (without the U.S. military).

We have to put it to Pakistan or we have to go home. We’ve given them billions so they can play both sides and enough is enough.

THE TAKEAWAY FROM IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

Sure we went to war with countries that posed little or no threat to us, compared to Iran and Pakistan. (The Iranian leadership hates America and Israel and is desperate to acquire nukes. Pakistan has nukes and both countries have and support various terrorist/extremist groups that could snag those nukes.) Sure, instead of just toppling oppressive regimes we saw as hostile, we decided we had to stick around and pretend we could make those nations democracies. Sure, we played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to make the world think we’re brutal imperialists and to turn a new generation of potential terrorists against us.

But what have we learned? And more importantly, what have we relearned that has been stripped of ambiguity going forward?

1. There will always be war. The sooner we accept this, the better.

a) Fighting has been humankind’s defining trait since the dawn of time and the century that brought the world the most progress also brought by far the most devastating war and destruction.

b) 9/11 and our response to 9/11 have assured perpetual war. Now not just the hawks and the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about know this, the public knows it. That knowledge has been stripped of all ambiguity.

c) The invasion and occupation  of Iraq and Afghanistan will be seen as U.S. failures. But instead of promoting caution in further overseas adventures, it will only fuel our need to not be perceived as weak. Already prognosticators see no other option but military action if Iran continues to strive for nuclear weapons.

d) But even if the status quo remains with Iran for years, non-state actors will provoke the U.S. to attack other countries at some point. The sooner we accept this, the better.

2. We’ve relearned our allies are our enemies.

a) We can assassinate our enemies from the sky, and this is acceptable in Pakistan, a country we’re not at war with (it’s acceptable to the American people as well!). Pakistan works with the U.S. and against U.S. interests at the same time. We used the threat of a massive terrorist attack in Europe to finally go into Pakistan, where it was said to be planned. This has blowback potential.

b) We once supported Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

3. We’ve learned that politics makes bad military strategy.

a) Bush and Rumsfeld’s light-footprint strategy to limit U.S. casualties was a disaster.

b) Obama should have either pulled out or sent in more troops for the long haul. Instead he split the difference and prolonged our withdrawal for a year, actually doing himself no favors politically and learning nothing from the light-footprint Iraq fiasco. Obama will pull out before the 2012 elections.

c) The U.S. obtained its immediate objectives (removal of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) easily. Did we really believe we could start a stable, democratic government (Bush’s political goal) in Iraq or keep amorphous, splintered groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of power forever (Obama’s stated goal in the campaign)?

4. We learned that the more we fight the better at fighting we get.

a) The military learned a new kind of war: counterinsurgency (COIN) for the 21st century. Our military is much smarter than it was 6 or 7 years ago, and has adapted impressively. (Too bad COIN is the most costly of all war strategies.)

5. We’ve relearned that our adventures and interference in the world can backfire and that, as the most powerful nation, we have serious limits. However, we’ve learned that we can still protect the American public (especially our non-Muslim citizens) by destabilizing other nations. Iraq self-destructed because its citizens lived in sectarian fear and had to join violent extremists to survive a civil war (spurred on by U.S. de-Baathification and the like). They spend so much time and energy killing one another that they do not pose a threat to the U.S. in the near future. Even al-Qaeda spent most of its resources inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 instead of focusing on the U.S.

6. We have relearned that the United States is not concerned with civilian casualties in developing and Muslim countries, or in countries that commit mass sectarian violence within themselves.

The United States of America became (by WWII) and remains the most powerful nation in the world by engaging in often ridiculous and counterproductive wars and coups. History, the present and the foreseeable future all prove there will be war.

Be glad you’re on the winning team (because even the innocent losers are massacred).

Destabilization was obvious: a brief history of Iraq

Studying Iraq’s modern history for a few days and reading books such as Patrick Cockburn’s Muqtada, it seems obvious that the W. Bush Administration either intended to destabilize—i.e incite civil war in—Iraq or at the very least considered chaos as an acceptable side effect to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. It’s no secret CIA studies had concluded that a major outbreak of sectarian violence would follow a regime-changing invasion. It’s also been a stated neocon goal in regard to the defense of Israel.

The volatile cross-identification of tens of millions of Middle Easterners—tensions based on religion, region and race, not to mention family bloodline and political party—and the traditions of violence in Iraq have been U.S. news since the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War. The Baath party (Arab nationalists) and its early de facto leader Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni, had ruled Iraq for two generations by 2003. In a society such as Iraq where one either rules or is oppressed, leaving a power vacuum is a recipe for bloodshed—then add a dollop of Islamic martyrdom and stir with unpopular Western forces. The complexity of hatred that America has either witnessed or directly fostered upon the fragmented country for 40-odd years might have tipped off U.S. warmongers (who had taken a day to study Iraqi history) that civil war was likely to erupt.

(In the 1970s, Saddam himself recognized that Iraq’s sectarian rivalries and tribal and religious divisions had to be quashed with a combination of violent repression and rapid modernization.)

Saddam engaged in ethnic cleansing, brutally silenced dissent, murdered countless allies in paranoid fits and instigated an unpopular eight-year war where hundreds of thousands were killed. It certainly wasn’t a hard sell for the Bush Administration to paint Saddam Hussein as the tyrant whose removal would be a cure-all and allow the U.S. to be “welcomed as liberators.” (This war argument was, of course, supplemental to the WMD hoax that Donald Rumsfeld et al force-fed the American public and Congress.)

But, again, a cursory study of Iraq in the second half of the 20th century reveals that the “liberators” prediction was absurd and that anything other than civil war could not have been realistically presumed (at very least in the short term). Here are some warning signs about the largest and most clearly defined potential insurgent group, the Shiites.

1) Without a doubt, studious Shiite Muslims live through their history and pay very close attention to it (chess is still forbidden because Yazid, the Umayyad leader who beat up on Muslims from 680 to 683, was playing it during the Battle of Kerbala). Shiite Muslims, a 70-plus percent majority in Iraq, remember that the U.S. supported secular Saddam and the Baath party, indirectly or directly, from 1963 to 1991.

2) The Shia themselves are separated into several factions along philosophical, familial and economic lines, e.g.: Quietism practicing Marji’iyyah clerics; political parties like al-Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq [ISCI]; millions of poor in what is now Baghdad’s Sadr City. Saddam’s atrocities and the Iran-Iraq war in particular—pitting Shiite against Shiite—resulted in further division (Iran’s Shia theocracy also has a lot to do with the lack of Shia unity).

3) Adding U.S. insult to Shia injury: After Saddam’s army was humiliated by U.S. forces in 1991, George H.W. Bush said it was time for the Iraqi’s to overthrow him themselves. When Shiites rose up and rebelled against the Iraqi president, they assumed they would have U.S. military backing. But the U.S. left, and Saddam crushed the violent Shia uprising with, of course, extreme prejudice. Even if the Shia had misinterpreted H.W.’s dedication, how could the second Bush Administration—a direct descendant not just in name, but in cabinet too, of the offending previous president—assume that Shiites in general would welcome U.S. forces as liberators? Nearly the exact same administration betrayed them to the tune of about 100,000 dead.

Did the Bush Department of Defense (DOD) anticipate the reaction of the divided Shiites—not to mention desperate Arab nationalists and Sunnis, nihilistic al-Qaeda and the emboldened Kurds—to be a unified front once the Americans stepped in to smooth the post-Saddam path? Did the DOD experts expect to only deal with Sunni vs. Shia (both of which only serve as an umbrella for a variety of subset insurgencies)? Did they care?

The U.S.’s 2003 invasion exacerbated Shia schisms, illustrated by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army (now the Sadrists) and its disconnect from both the Shia religious authority (grand ayatollahs such as the current leader al-Sistani) and the Shia politicos. This should not have been a surprise to the administration’s Iraq experts, but they underestimated this Shia insurgency by thinking not many would follow the nonclerical Muqtada—even though his twice-martyred family is a descendant of Muhammad’s cousin Imam Ali (the figure at the heart of the Shia/Sunni split in the 7th century).

The Sadrists, probably one of the easiest threats to be predicted, became arguably the most violent and frustrating force the U.S. occupiers had to deal with from 2004 to 2007. Muqtada al-Sadr still refuses to deal with U.S. now and is certainly not beholden to Shiite prime minister Nur al-Maliki. Muqtada, in exile in Iran, has even recently met with al-Maliki’s rival Ayad Allawi (the Shia ex-Baathist the U.S. installed as prime minister in 2004).

More than six months after the Iraqi elections in March, a government has not been formed. It’s good that the civil war is over. It is too bad nobody won.

As there are countless players and organizations to reference, the following timeline skews toward Sadrist ascendance and U.S.-influenced events. (It’s important to note that the holiest Shia cities, Najaf and Kerbala, are in Iraq near Baghdad, not in Shia-ruled Iran)

TIMELINE
1958 – General (later president) Qassim overthrows the Hashemite Monarchy. In general, secularism, nationalism and even communism are superior to Islam or religion as a governing force at this time.

Late 50s – Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr’s cousin and father-in-law), descendant from a line of respected Shia clerics going back to the 7th Imam and Muhammad himself, helps found and lead Shia political activism and the Dawa party. The practiced doctrine of Quietism (separating Islam from politics and the state) had led most Shia cleric elders (i.e. Marji’iyyah, ayatollahs) away from seeking direct political power, even though they were the majority. Sunnis, on the other hand, traditionally did not separate Islam from the state. Many Marji’iyyah saw Baqir al-Sadr and Dawa’s political aspirations as dangerous because they would draw attention.

1959 – The mainly Sunni Baath party (Arab nationalists) and Saddam Hussein in particular try to assassinate the communist leaning President Qassim. The U.S., under the Truman Doctrine auspices of containment, begins to back the Baath party.

Early 60s – 1) Saddam, a student of Stalin, helps create the Baathist secret police. 2) Baqir al-Sadr rallies the urban poor Shia (in what would become Sadr City), providing services and promoting his Dawa party—even drawing many Marji’iyyah to tentatively ally with him.

Feb. 1963 – The Baathists stage a military coup encouraged by the U.S. It is seen as “anti-Shia” by the majority of Iraqis. The U.S. sees the party as an enemy of communism. However, despite Qassim’s death, the Baathists cannot hold on to power.

1967 – The Shah of Iran, a U.S. ally installed by the CIA in a 1953 coup, declares himself a Persian King of Kings, expanding his powers and becoming more repressive and unpopular with Shiites, students and intellectuals.

1968 – The Baathists finally seize control of Iraq. Saddam is made vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, head of security forces.

1974-76 – Saddam consolidates his de facto leadership of Iraq. He has seized Iraq’s oil interests and marched the fractious nation into modernization. After a tentative peace with the northern Iraq Kurds, Saddam sacks the region and deports hundreds in his bid to take over oil interests in Kirkuk (and foster Arabization). Saddam becomes General of Iraq’s armed forces.

1978 – In a fateful move, the Shah of Iran asks Saddam (now vice president) to kick exiled Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khomeini out of Najaf, Iraq. Khomeini, who had been speaking out against the Shah (and against Shia Quietism) for years, moves near Paris where mass media outlets allow him to address the millions of disenfranchised Shiites in Iran much more easily than from Najaf. Khomeini has been reinterpreting Shiite religious authority to not only dove-tail with political power, but to in fact supplant it (Knomeinism).

1978-79 – 1) During the Iranian Revolution, the Shah is deposed and Khomeini assumes supreme leadership. 2) Saddam becomes official president of Iraq and immediately has 22 “disloyal” Baathist party members executed. 3) Al-Dawa and Baqir al-Sadr, tolerated by Saddam to keep the Shia majority in check for the last decade, support the revolution.

1980 – Saddam, to avoid the Shah’s fate, cracks down on Shia militants and sees fit to execute the man whom Shiites see as Iraq’s Khomeini. Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and his sister are murdered. He becomes the Sadrist’s first martyr. Many Dawa members flee to Iran, including future Iraqi prime minister Nur al-Maliki.

1981-1988 – Iraq goes to war against Iran. Despite being supported by U.S. money and arms (Special envoy Donald Rumseld visits Baghdad to make sure Saddam knows where on his side), the war is a bloody stalemate à la WWI’s trench warfare. Iraqi Shiites are forced to kill their religious brothers in Iran. Captured Iraq Shiite soldiers (betrayers of the faith) are treated far worse than Sunni or secular Arab prisoners.

1987 – Saddam begins a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, using chemical weapons and killing at least 50,000.

1991 – Khomeini has died and the Iran-Iraq War is over. Saddam invades Kuwait for oil control. When the U.S. responds, Saddam’s prized military deserts him.

1992 – With the hopes that the U.S. military will help finish the job, a Shiite rebellion explodes with Baathist’s murdered throughout the south. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (cousin to first martyr Baqir al-Sadr, and father to Muqtada) takes control of the many young militant Shia poor in Sadr City, Baghdad (then called Rebellion Township). Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq today, encourages the uprising with much more subtlety. Both the U.S. and Iran do nothing to support the uprising, leading to further Shiite rifts after Saddam crushes the rebellion. However, the ghetto of Rebellion Township was so Shia- entrenched that Saddam could only contain the area, not control it nor kill Sadeq al-Sadr. In fact, soon after the uprising, Saddam believes he is shrewd by making Sadeq al-Sadr the Marji’ al-Taqlid, the Shiite religious leader of Iraq to appease the Shia after massacring their people.

1998 – After years of targeted U.S. bombings and harsh sanctions (leading countless Iraqi’s to die), Saddam still refuses to comply with U.N. disarmament terms. War with Iraq is discussed but unpopular with the American public. President Bill Clinton signs the Iraq Liberation Act, calling for regime change.

1999 – Openly critical of Saddam while gaining support of millions of Shia poor throughout the 90s, Sadeq al-Sadr and his two eldest sons are finally assassinated. Just as his cousin Baqir al-Sadr did when he became an official target of Saddam in 1980, Sadeq donned the white death shroud before he was killed. He became the second martyr.

2003 – 1) Saddam and his Baathists are quickly eliminated by Coalition forces. The U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority’s Iraq Governing Council (IGC) is set up with Paul Bremer as viceroy and Shia ex-Baathist Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. 2) Muqtada al-Sadr consolidates control of the almost 2 million Shia in Sadr City, providing basic services through his Sadr Bureau and arming his Mehdi Army (he, of course, runs the newspaper Hawza). Muqtada, hero to the Sadrists, opposes the U.S. occupation and speaks to the illegitimacy of the Iraqi Governing Council. He declares a shadow government and is at odds with both the leading Shia cleric, al-Sistani, often seen as the representative of the middle class and wealthy Shitte elite, and the Coalition’s Shia IRC “stooge” Ayad Allawi.