Bob Schwartz

Tag: Iraq War

We knew Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Senator Joe Manchin, you are no Robert Byrd.

What is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomatic efforts when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy? Why can this President not seem to see that America’s true power lies not in its will to intimidate, but in its ability to inspire?
—Senator Robert Byrd, March 2003

Joe Manchin is a Democratic Senator from West Virginia. He is in a tough battle for re-election in a Trump state, and so he said today that Hunter Biden is a relevant witness in the impeachment trial, a Republican talking point. Hunter Biden is not a relevant witness by any measure. He is a collateral character with no direct knowledge of the president’s conduct—unlike John Bolton. Giving Machin the benefit of the doubt, we will say he is being political rather than uninformed.

Manchin sits in the Senate seat once held by West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd. Byrd served in the Senate for over 51 years, from 1959 until his death in 2010. More than his tenure, and in spite of his repudiated earlier political life as a segregationist, no member of Congress has ever been a more knowledgeable and committed constitutionalist. At the drop of a hat, he would pull out a copy of the Constitution that he kept in the breast pocket of his jacket and would read from it.

Maybe Byrd’s shining hour was his unrelenting opposition to the Iraq War. He knew the Bush administration had not made its case, he knew that America was courting disaster, he knew that the future would not be benefited and would be indefinitely darkened by the war. Yet few members of Congress of either party opposed it.

Here is a speech he gave in March 2003 as the country marched to war. One more bit of evidence that in terms of judgment, Joe Manchin, you are no Robert Byrd:

I believe in this beautiful country. I have studied its roots and gloried in the wisdom of its magnificent Constitution. I have marveled at the wisdom of its founders and framers. Generation after generation of Americans has understood the lofty ideals that underlie our great republic. I have been inspired by the story of their sacrifice and their strength.

But, today, I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.

Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein, we seem to have isolated ourselves. We proclaim a new doctrine of pre-emption which is understood by few and feared by many. We say that the United States has the right to turn its firepower on any corner of the globe which might be suspect in the war on terrorism.

We assert that right without the sanction of any international body. As a result, the world has become a much more dangerous place.

We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat UN Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet. Valuable alliances are split.

After war has ended, the United States will have to rebuild much more than the country of Iraq. We will have to rebuild America’s image around the globe.

The case this administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice.

There is no credible information to connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11. The Twin Towers fell because a worldwide terrorist group, al-Qaeda, with cells in over 60 nations, struck at our wealth and our influence by turning our own planes into missiles, one of which would likely have slammed into the dome of this beautiful Capitol except for the brave sacrifice of the passengers on board.

The brutality seen on 11 September and in other terrorist attacks we have witnessed around the globe are the violent and desperate efforts by extremists to stop the daily encroachment of Western values upon their cultures. That is what we fight. It is a force not confined to borders. It is a shadowy entity with many faces, many names and many addresses.

But this administration has directed all of the anger, fear and grief which emerged from the ashes of the Twin Towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war. We will probably drive Saddam Hussein from power. But the zeal of our friends to assist our global war on terrorism may have already taken flight.

The general unease surrounding this war is not just due to ‘orange alert’. There is a pervasive sense of rush and risk and too many questions unanswered. How long will we be in Iraq? What will be the cost? What is the ultimate mission? How great is the danger at home?

What is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomatic efforts when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy?

Why can this President not seem to see that America’s true power lies not in its will to intimidate, but in its ability to inspire?

I along with millions of Americans will pray for the safety of our troops, for the innocent civilians in Iraq, and for the security of our homeland. May God continue to bless the United States of America in the troubled days ahead, and may we somehow recapture the vision which for the present eludes us.

If You’re Tired of Hearing About the Vietnam War, Tell Our Leaders to Stop Reenacting It

This weekend, an administration official tried to explain in an interview what exactly we are now doing in Iraq and Syria. It was like a ghost or the walking dead, sounding eerily and unhappily exactly like the rhetoric that was rolled out in the middle days of the Vietnam War.

There are roughly three groups about Vietnam: those who lived through it on the home front, those who lived through it (or not) in battle, and a generation or more that is so tired of hearing about a war that ended forty years ago. So tired of it. Can’t you all ever get over it?

Too bad. No, we should never “get over” Vietnam, no matter how many generations pass, and no matter how tired those generations are about the lessons we might learn. Vietnam was the first truly modern war of the media age and of the post-national era.

In media terms, it offered the best possibility up to that time to say positive stuff about a complex war policy, have it widely broadcast (though not as widely as digital today), and have the media endorse it and people believe it. Okay, that does sound like a description of what happened in Iraq, but that just proves the point.

As far as post-national warfare, Vietnam was technically a civil war, but it was obviously something else too. There was an army of North Vietnam, but there were also indigenous forces and a people’s movement trying to upset an unacceptable status quo, which we supported and ultimately defended. For a while. Until there was no more government of South Vietnam. And then it became a matter of just not losing. Which we did.

Another parallel is not paying attention to history, our own and that of others. The French abandoned Indochina, but that was supposedly just because they were, well, French. Americans know and are better than that. Just as in Afghanistan, where the Soviets abandoned their war, but that was supposedly because, well, they were Commies. Freedom loving Americans know and are better.

Which brings us back round to Iraq and Syria today. If you make the effort, you could go back to the LBJ days of Vietnam and hear exactly the same words that were spoken this weekend. Not just something like it, but exactly. Such as: it’s their fight, not ours.

There are things worth fighting for on the world stage, even when it is not on our homeland. But it is hard enough to figure out what those things are, and even harder to commit ourselves and our loved ones to the fight, when we are swimming in a sea of official stuff and nonsense. We want the brutal truth, if our leaders can tell it, especially when it is bound to be a brutal and long fight.

Torture Report: Who Is We and Who We Are

Senate Intelligence Committee Report

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, so much hand wringing, finger pointing, and finger wagging. So much righteousness and defensiveness. So many opportunities to forget for a few days our current troubles and focus, justifiably but still obsessively, on the past.

“This is not who we are.” You have heard this and it will continue to be earnestly said. But within that are two questions that need asking and answering—even if the answers are difficult.

Who Is We

Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his presidential desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” As a leader that is a responsible position to take. But it is not the whole story. In a democracy, it is complicated. Whether we voted for a particular official or not, or whether we voted or not, the buck—the responsibility—stops with us. We can make noises disclaiming a President, a Vice President, the CIA, and any policy we find objectionable or abhorrent. But if along the way—that is in real time—we didn’t take it on ourselves to do something/anything to counter what we knew or should have known, our fingerprints may be on this. It’s not about getting a license to criticize and moralize because you didn’t vote for that guy or you thought it was wrongheaded. It is about the reality of where the buck actually stops, no matter how perfidious and mendacious these perps are. They are we. Them is us.

Who We Are

This phrase is meant to point to our moral high ground. But in practice, many of us are involved in bits of moral relativism, or at least moral confusion. The problem isn’t whether moral absolutes exist; the problem is that we don’t much want to consider and discuss them when it comes to our personal, social, or political lives. The discussion is hard, and if you establish those absolutes, keeping to them is, as a practical matter, even harder. This isn’t about good or bad, or good or evil. This is about being human and building and operating human institutions. If, for example, everything in the report happened but the demonstrable outcome was prevention of some dark catastrophe (which it didn’t), many would relent in their critique because the good done outweighed the evil perpetrated.

And maybe that is a morally supportable perspective. And maybe not. But until we actually have that debate—about who is the “we” and who we are, it seems that we are shouting something either noble or scurrilous, but maybe, as Shakespeare wrote, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Do Something/Anything about ISIS? Would You Rather Have No Strategy or Bad Strategy?

Just Do It

President Obama candidly admitted that we have no strategy for dealing with ISIS, but that we are developing one.

Maybe too candid for the moment and his leadership position, but still a necessary truth. Necessary because no one on earth has a good strategy for dealing with that or the complex of situations around the world right now. For the religiously inclined, consider that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed convening in the Situation Room would have a tough time figuring out what to do next, short of calling in the Big Gun and wiping the slate clean and starting again.

This hasn’t stopped Congress from urging a simple solution to this puzzle: do something/anything. This is an all-time irony, given that Congress is currently infamous for doing absolutely nothing, ever, no matter how important the problem and no matter how relatively simple the solution. If a number of the members had a sense of irony, we could all wryly laugh at this, except that their sense of irony is absent, along with a sense of duty, democracy, and Americanism (the real kind, not the fake). Some of these same members do seem to have a sense of justice, John Wayne frontier justice, which is unfortunately out of place in the liquid world of 2014 global politics and insurgency.

A few years ago, some thought that democracy would spread around the oppressed nations like an epidemic, like Arab Spring fever. But chaos is also an opportunistic contagion, and as those on one insurgent or imperialist front look at the other fronts multiplying, they see opportunity and seize it. It doesn’t help that the geography is claustrophobic. If you don’t know it, connect the dots from Iraq to Syria to Israel to Gaza to Egypt, Sudan, and Libya. And that’s just one pole of the current dynamic.

We have been tragically mistaken on strategy in the last three major American wars. One was an abject defeat, the other two—Iraq and Afghanistan—have sort of ended, with an indeterminate outcome, and withdrawal that may or may not last. Let’s pull back from partisan finger-pointing, and just admit that some situations—whether you choose to demur or however you choose to engage—may have outcomes, but may not have solutions.

You can be smart or stupid, fearless or timid, right or wrong, and you can still be overwhelmed by circumstances. That is, there is no “perfect” strategy, especially not with the way things are aligning. So no, you can’t wait for that perfect strategy. But you also shouldn’t rush in with the next idea that comes into your head, especially if that idea comes from some outdated playbook that has already proven itself ineffective in current realities.

“Just do it” sounds great, as long as you spend sufficient time really considering what “it” is and what the consequences and outcomes might be. Oh, and also, you might try being candid, as Obama has been, rather than making stuff up. Like about WMDs. Like about wars that will last weeks and cost nothing. Let’s leave that sort of unhelpful lying to fairy tale tellers like Vladimir Putin, who is not invading Ukraine, and to Putin’s admirers and portrait painters.

The Gates Book and the Gates Speeches

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is about to release a memoir of his tenure under Presidents Bush and Obama. Provocative advance excerpts from Duty are now being released, and these explosive devices are anything but improvised.

Every news outlet, pundit and politician is already busy making points about President Obama, Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, based on comments clipped from these excerpts, rather than having read the whole book. Even out of context, it is clear that Gates has formed some definite opinions based on working for and with these American leaders. That is anyone’s privilege, but particularly that of a man who spent forty-five years in laudable public service, much of it at the highest levels of government.

As always, though, opinion and criticism is a matter of perspective, that is, where the critic stands underlies what a critic sees and says.

You can read all the speeches that Gates delivered as Secretary of Defense. This is guaranteed not to be as titillating as reading or hearing about the “best parts” of Duty, but it might give you additional insight that will make the context of the book clearer.

Here, for example, are excerpts from remarks he made to the Heritage Foundation on May 13, 2008, when he was serving under President George W. Bush. (You can read the entire speech here) At that point, the Iraq war was five years old, only halfway to its conclusion. At that point, he had been Secretary of Defense for two years, and from that point, he would remain in that position under President Obama until July 2011.

But there is a more fundamental point that I will close with – and again, historical perspective is important. It is impossible to separate discussions of the “broken” Army following Vietnam – a conscription army – from the ultimate result of that conflict. At a congressional hearing last year, General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, recounted the profound damage done to the Service’s “fiber and soul” by the reality of defeat in that war.

The risk of overextending the Army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater – to that institution, as well as to our country – if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win.

There it is, the context: Iraq was “the war we must win.” Gates’ insights into military matters is often brilliant and sensible, informed by his intelligence, experience and education. But on this point he candidly reveals a premise that for some colors everything else he offers. We must win Iraq because the failure to win would “break” the military the way that Vietnam did.

We did not win in Iraq, but technically, we did not lose. That current events in Iraq point to some devolution doesn’t really settle the question. That some U.S. Senators are calling for us to return to Iraq to avoid that loss or at least to avoid the appearance of futility is a partial reflection of exactly what Gates said.

We know that Gates’ personal critiques are based on close working relationships and observations. We also know, or should recognize, that those critiques are grounded in a worldview that others may not, very legitimately, share. If for Gates one of the measuring sticks is whether someone believes that Iraq had to be won, that measure may be skewed by genuine differences in informed opinion. One opinion is that as valorous as the service and sacrifice was, Iraq was a mistake, to be abandoned as prudently as possible; others might now say the same about Afghanistan. What Gates has to say about our leaders is certainly worth listening to, provided we pay equal attention to the mindset of the speaker.

Go Silent on Memorial Day

Go Silent
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) this week launched a new campaign asking all Americans to “Go Silent” this Memorial Day in honor of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The “Go Silent” campaign encourages Americans to pledge at to pause and be silent for a full minute at 12:01 p.m. EDT on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27.

The Pew Research Center has reported extensively on the Military-Civilian Gap:

America’s post-9/11 wars mark the longest period of sustained combat in the nation’s history – and never before has America waged war with so small a share of its population carrying the fight.

Military Participation

For more about IAVA.

To donate to IAVA.

Thank You for Your Service

I continue to receive comments from veterans of the recent wars about the post The Tin Anniversary of the Iraq War.  Rather than just reply to each comment, here is what I want to say.

Politics debases our language. Language is a tool, and like all tools, can be used for good, for ill, or for some combination.

In the political context, it is hard to tell whether “thank you for your service” from various politicos is sincere, tactical or, most likely, both. But even if it is meaningful, it sometimes seems like an automatic phrase, much like the obligatory speech close “and God bless the United States of America.” It becomes a cliché.

The Vietnam War is not just a textbook case in modern American history. It is an entire encyclopedia. One of the sorriest lessons was the treatment of returning vets. “Thank you for your service” is something those vets rarely if ever heard. All these years later, they mostly still haven’t.

Here it is, to the veterans and the fallen of our wars, then and now, however essential or popular or ill-conceived the wars may be or have been, and to their families, friends and everyone who has supported them in all ways: Thank you for your service.

In a related note, thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) for keeping the veterans of our longest wars out front and in our faces. Among our “never agains” should be never again asking Americans to sacrifice so gravely, then thanking them loudly or not at all, and then putting them at the back of the line. These people are not political props or calendar items, because every day is Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

Thank you.

The Iraq War and the Ryan Budget: A Modest Proposal

Paul Ryan Budget
We have two budget crises. One is the budget itself, which is clearly in need of work to make concrete our priorities and the willingness of citizens to support those priorities in the form of taxes. The second crisis is political dysfunction, where real and constructive talk about those priorities and that support is transformed and devolved into useless politalk. One way that uselessness is hidden is by obfuscation and throwing around lots of numbers, details, and core American principles.

Simplify, simplify.

We just marked the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War. There is going to be disagreement about many aspects of that war for generations.

But there is consensus on two things.

The war was financially expensive. How expensive is another matter of contention. The Costs of War Project pegs it at a few trillion dollars, give or take. So how expensive? Very expensive.

The war was not paid for. More precisely, the war was paid for by debt, not by taxes. The United States had never done this before. There are two perfectly good reasons to ask Americans to pay for and sacrifice for wars. Wars are expensive. And taxing for war asks all citizens at all economic levels to make real sacrifice, even if they or their loved ones are not in harm’s way. As a political matter, when the sacrifice outweighs support for the war, there may be pressure to question or even end the war.

It is uncontested that George W. Bush and Congress did not ask for that sacrifice. Without arguing about how that happened, it is the fact. There is no argument about the result. In the midst of this massive borrowing to pay for the war, the economy fell down, and is still having trouble getting up.

With a sense of humility, and standing in the shadow of today’s esteemed Congress, here is a simple and modest proposal.

1. Agree on the financial cost of the Iraq War. For purposes of discussion, let’s say $3 trillion, though it is certainly more.

2. Agree to taxes that will generate that amount of revenue, not a cent more or less. That revenue would then be spent on all the important things that would otherwise be underfunded or unfunded, including every possible entitlement for veterans.

3. Once that money is raised and spent, taxes will revert to the earlier levels, and some members of Congress can go back to babbling, bickering and posturing.

Simple, maybe even naïve. Certainly too naive for the sophisticated politicians who are busy building a budgetary hall of mirrors that only they can navigate, where they think they can hide themselves and some simple, inconvenient truths.

The Tin Anniversary of the Iraq War

Tin CupTin is the traditional gift to mark a 10th wedding anniversary, just as it is silver for the 25th and gold for the 50th. There is no tradition about the anniversaries of wars, so tin will have to do.

All wars are controversial, whatever the split in support (80/20, 20/80, 50/50, rarely true 100% support), whatever the rationale, whatever the price. Every American war has had its naysayers, contemporary with combat and in the rear view mirror of history. World War II came close to consensus, although even there questions are still raised about whether we were late getting in and whether the unprecedented brutal way we got out was necessary.

This paragraph was going to include a bunch of numbers about the Iraq War. But you are going to find those numbers everywhere: how many of our personnel served, how many were killed and wounded, how many civilians were killed and wounded, how much it cost in dollars. Those numbers are meant to demonstrate the price paid, in, as they say, blood and treasure. Here it is in brief: the price was staggeringly high.

And next is something surprisingly good to say about the Vietnam War. If we learned nothing else from that nation-dividing conflict, we learned this: whatever we believe about a war, we can never, ever, ever take anything away from the service of those who fight.

Some people miss an important point when they argue that we have to justify a war after the fact so that those who suffered won’t have suffered “in vain”. It is the exact opposite. When a war turns out in hindsight to present real questions about why, those who fought are maybe more our most loyal heroes, especially in a volunteer army. They didn’t answer a call to defeat some cosmic embodiment of evil (e.g., Hitler); they just loyally answered a call to serve. They deserve all we can give them (which, by the way, includes world-class medical care).

In August 2002 I sent an e-mail to some U.S. Senators, including Bob Graham of Florida and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Both of them were skeptical about the rush to war, and both—particularly Byrd—believed that the role of Congress was being ignored.

This is an excerpt from that e-mail It is not here to reveal some astute analysis or prescience. Lots of people knew or suspected that something was wrong. It is just here as an artifact of a moment that led us to the anniversary today.

Sent August 29, 2002

Congress has the constitutional power to make war, which includes careful deliberation and action if necessary.

In the case of Iraq, you and Congress should assert that power immediately and clearly. Congress has previously allowed that power to erode in the face of political pressure, and now faces an administration that is using an atmosphere of fear (that it has intentionally or inadvertently helped create) to dare Congress to defy its claimed authority.

When you do exercise that power, as I hope you will, it should be more than a rubber stamp. The President seems to have a simplistic and maybe, with all due respect, a simple-minded view of world affairs. The role he is carving out for the U.S. as the world’s sheriff may be right in a moral sense, but is possibly disastrous in the world of the 21st century. Which evildoer is next on the list; which town is he planning to clean up?

This isn’t High Noon or The Magnificent Seven. We have been lucky in Afghanistan, though I expect things will fall apart there within the next year or so. The destabilization of Iraq, especially in the face of global disdain for our actions, could be much more costly.

Finally, I believe that the President’s strange game of hide-the-ball regarding his plans for Iraq (in the guise of not telegraphing our strategy) is wreaking havoc with our economic confidence. Anybody with any economic insight knows that things are much worse than anyone is willing to talk about, restraining such talk in the hope that consumers and businesses will regain lost faith in the future. There is no way that an attack on Iraq can help that situation, and a thousand ways it can and will hurt.

For the record, when the Iraq War Resolution did pass Congress in October 2002, Byrd, Graham and a total of 23 Senators (21 Democrats, 1 Republican, 1 Independent) voted against it. Of those, only a handful are still in the Senate: Barbara Boxer, Dick Durbin, Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, Jack Reed, Debbie Stabenow and Ron Wyden. It has been more than ten years, so choice and death have taken the rest of them. One who did vote for it who is no longer in the Senate is John Kerry, who became Secretary of State after the “official” end of the Iraq War, and who, between the vote for the war and the end of it, ran for President.

It’s a funny old world.