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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Media Strikes Iran’s Nuclear Facilities As Talks Fail

The recently wrapped up Moscow talks between the P5+1 (the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, the second round after those held Baghdad in late May, have failed to bear fruit. To play the blame game and castigate just one side would be an exercise in schoolyard oversimplification.

In the end, it seems Iranian negotiators could not entertain a strict demand to “stop, shut and ship”—stop enriching, shut down the Fordow site and ship out their load of 19.75 percent uranium. Not a shock that they balked: this is basically telling a proud nation it has no right to an independent nuclear program, that it should dismantle years of hard, complicated work and toss hundreds of millions of rials into the Gulf. Meanwhile Iranian promises of a fatwa against nuclear weapons, of full cooperation with the IAEA, and of low-grade enrichment limits—should sanctions be relaxed—did little to assuage the U.S. and its cohorts. Rightly so: Why would the Western nations trust an antagonistic, power-hungry regime who will say or do anything to improve its chances at regional hegemony? Indeed, much has been written about how both sides have overplayed their hands, feeling they have the leverage to walk away from the negotiating table.

This breakdown means we must prepare for the return of an endless onslaught of articles baldly assuming an imminent military strike on Iran’s enrichment facilities, similar to those we saw on cover stories through January and February. We will see not only straight-up calls for a pre-emptive attack but articles like those in The New York Times that correctly caught flak for their subtle allusions to Iran’s nuclear arsenal, which doesn’t exist. Back then, the eager calls by warhawks in the U.S. and Israel to bomb Iran backfired, even as scare tactic, by prompting numerous Israeli military and Mossad vets to denounce the plan as nothing short of stupid.

Fast forward to June: Even before the negotiations officially ended, the calls for strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities were coming in loud as well as insidious.

Jumping the gun and surprising no one was The Weekly Standard’s Jamie Fly and Will Kristol. Though the bulk of their advice amounted to “isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program,” the buildup to this gem was meant to manipulate the uninformed. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but using a 1936 Winston Churchill speech to make the implicit/explicit connection of Iran to Nazi Germany is tired, cliched and wrong. Points awarded for not referencing the classic warmonger Chamberlain-Munich-1938 catch-all (which was probably considered) though I predict this will be regurgitated ad nauseam soon.

The merits of this Authorizarion to threaten Iran with ordnance are debatable but Kristol et al come at it from the specious, hackneyed litany of complaints of Iran’s “record of murder and mayhem,” including all its foiled assassinations and of course the plot to “kill the Saudi ambassador (and American bystanders)” in Washington. According to the U.N.’s take on the matter, “the resolution, which was introduced by Saudi Arabia, doesn’t directly accuse Iran of involvement but calls on the country ‘to comply with all of its obligations under international law’ and to cooperate in ‘seeking to bring to justice’ the people who allegedly plotted to kill the envoy.” Not to mention the two-way street comparison in this scenario: The cyber-attacks, sabotage and murders by U.S. and Israeli intelligence aimed at stalling Tehran’s nuclear progress actually worked. I won’t get into the slew of arguments (e.g. Iran has never attacked another country) against Fly and Kristol’s junior high analysis of supervillain Iran.

An example of the less straightforward “imminent war” insinuation came Thursday from Reuters in Jerusalem: “Israel Says Clock Ticking After Iran Talks Fail.” Can you feel the doomsday chill yet? How about:

“Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.”

This provocative lede, upon further reading, is misleading, as the third paragraph relays: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.” (Emphasis added)

Note the journos habit of asking questions designed to get juiced-up headlines about when we can expect the war to start. No one has brought up military action except the reporter/writer/editor of the story. Read till the end and the piece balances out somewhat but, unfortunately, Reuters is picked up by tons of blurb driven news sites like Yahoo! where the audience isn’t expected to read on. Headlines and ledes are all we have time for these days.

The Washington Post stoked its own fears with the headline “Faltering Iran talks stoke fears of new conflict.” Even with a day of talks left, the questionable lede was concocted to spook us:

The near-collapse of nuclear talks with Iran has ushered in what experts on Wednesday described as a dangerous new phase in the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

What experts end up describing are potential actions resulting from the sanctions due to hit Iran on July 1, taking us down the slippery hypothetical path of what Iran could do if these sanctions have a particularly nasty effect: “Worsening economic hardship could drive Iran’s leaders to adopt more aggressive and confrontational policies.” Not quite as scary as the dangerous new phase we’ve already entered into.

The third sentence in the piece also particularly troublesome: “At the same time, prominent Israeli and U.S. politicians are renewing calls for preparations for a military strike to halt Iran’s nuclear progress.”

While a specific example is provided of a U.S. Republican senator calling for the Pentagon to prepare bunker-busting bombs, not one Israeli politician is mentioned, even off the record and anonymous. And of course, reserved for the very last line in the piece, apparently offered as a token to balance the story, is a Democratic Congressman calling on his right-of-the-aisle brothers to take a deep breath and calm down.

Nitpicky you say? Try this lede from the June 21 Wall Street Journal:

“Tel Aviv – Israel is unlikely to launch a strike on Iran as long as sanctions on Tehran intensify and diplomatic efforts continue, despite the failure of international talk… Israeli officials and security experts say.”

Given all the pre-emptive strike hullabaloo we’ve heard for the last two years, isn’t this the real story? That Israel is not shouting about how their window to attack is closing. Instead of America and Israel gearing up for a jet-fighter strike, the Journal piece talks about the breakdown in talks as the impetus that has “fueled talk of military options.” Illustrating how a story can be written to show the realistic thinking of those in power, it goes on to quote officials on the record and describe high-level discussions on how the U.S. could better use the threat of attack as a bargaining chip. Note: In no way could this be taken to mean an attack is imminent or unavoidable.

Alas, the Wall Street headline still reads: “Strike on Iran Stays on Hold, FOR NOW.” (Emphasis added)

And this is only the beginning.

Potential War of the Week: Israel vs. Iran

Please excuse this rapidly written rant. There’s been tons of talk in the major media outlets about what America should and shouldn’t do when Israel attacks Iran. Some say this will be between April and June 2012.

The Obama administration should make it crystal clear to Israel’s right-wing Likud party that the U.S. will not back it up when Iran retaliates.

As I wrote last year when the media was speculating about when the attack would happen: Neither Israel nor the U.S. should ever pre-emptively strike Iran. Even top Israeli military officials agree. Not even if Iran is on the cusp of getting nukes, not even if Iran gets them.

A nuclear-armed Iran will have some negative repercussions in the Middle East but Iran is never going to use nuclear weapons; neither will the Islamic Republic let a proxy terror group have them.

Case in point: Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is far less stable than Iran. Indeed, Pakistan’s military, judiciary and executive branch are in a major kerfuffle. A good chunk of Pakistan is controlled by various terrorist networks, the Haqqanis, Terik-e Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e Taiba, the list goes on, and the Pakistani military wages only a half-hearted campaign against them (and only at America’s behest).

Even though America frequently pisses off the Pakistanis, the military and spy agency still won’t let its terror networks near its nukes because India (and the rest of the world) would retaliate should bombs end up in non-state hands. U.S. drone strikes could fall like rain.

Iran, with a balanced and relatively unified governmental body and military, is not nearly as unstable. And Iran would appear much less hostile and volatile if Israel and the U.S. stopped antagonizing it using terrorist-list groups (Jundallah; the MEK) and severe sanctions. If the Iranian regime had fewer outside enemies to unite its hard-liners, democracy would have more of a chance, as it did under President Khatami in the early 2000s. And eventually Iran might move toward Turkey’s model of a Muslim democracy.

The bottom line is that, in this situation, whoever attacks first loses. If he attacks Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his state and neighborhood a hellish war zone, and the world a much more dangerous and economically unhinged place. When the U.S. defends Israel, America will again achieve the infamy it earn by invading Iraq and expend resources and capital it can’t afford to.

Not to mention that the chances a strike would end the Iranian nuclear program, as oppose to just delay it, are very slim.

Iran has never started a war with another sovereign nation (Saddam Hussein started the Iran-Iraq War). That’s not to say current and former Iranian leaders haven’t sponsored terrorism. And it’s not to categorize “pre-emptive strikes” as never appropriate. But Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s calculated ravings about wiping Israel off the map should only elicit one response: A promise from Israel, the U.S. and their allies that they will finish whatever Iran starts.

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).

We Need Another World War II Documentary About the U.S.

If I have to suffer through one more PBS/Channel 13 WWII documentary…. While PBS should be required viewing and Ken Burns’ War is a quality (if sentimental) film, please call me when the station runs a WWII documentary from the point of view of the Philippines or Poland. America’s Perilous Fight: Iwo Jima, with new color footage, is neat. But airing it not more than two weeks since the last installment of War serves only to drive home its redundancy.

We need to see Iwo Jima again like we need another History Channel program about Hitler. But at least the shows about Hitler aren’t naval-gazing generation worship. What more can possibly be gleaned by rehashing our most victorious victories? Maybe we should seek to create and air war documentaries that tell us why people hate in this country instead of constantly re-congratulating ourselves for saving the world. We had almost 600,000 dead and wounded in WWII, and that sucks; the rest of the world, 54.5 million.

World War II was not an equal opportunity destroyer. Was the U.S. the only combatant nation that can’t claim a civilian casualty? Maybe (China lost more than 5 million; Poland saw 2.5 million citizens die). Was the U.S. the country that gained the most while suffering the least in WWII? Without a doubt. Fuck our romantic view of the Great Generation’s War. It continues to color our vision of war as noble and just.