Bob Schwartz

Tag: Iraq

The Abstract Perpetual War Is Real


Consider this: If you have a child or grandchild age 12 or younger, they have lived their lives with America at war.

And this: In six years that child will be old enough for military service, but will not necessarily have to serve because we have no mandatory universal service. So even if we are still at war, that child is probably not at risk.

And this: Why don’t we have mandatory universal service, especially if we are in perpetual war? Do we have perpetual war because we don’t have mandatory universal service?

Michael Auslin, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a fascinating piece in Politico about the prospect of a perpetual war footing, Don’t Do As the Romans Did… His politics may not be yours, but his analysis is compelling and worth reading in its entirety:

For Washington, which has already spent at least $2 trillion on relatively limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of decades more competition, deterrence and fighting at an unknown cost represents the greatest security challenge since the Cold War, and perhaps since World War II. It is just as much a domestic political issue, and will figure as prominently in the debates over the future direction of the country, as do the battles over Obamacare, the regulatory burden or the transformation of the economy. Yet so far, it does not seem that either the country’s political elites or ordinary citizens have fully appreciated both the scope and, more importantly, the nature of America’s new two-front conflict. They soon will, as the country’s economic health and domestic political stability will be directly affected by rising global risk. To quote Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Americans must accept the fact that, while their country may not be engaged in daily fighting, neither will it know peace for the foreseeable future. The world will become far more insecure and unstable over the next decades, and the amorphous yet crucial idea of global “order” will be strained, perhaps to the breaking point.

America’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The spirit of can-do, roll up your sleeves, and in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “get ‘er done” is a model for the world. But a related failure to think things through, apply broad and deep vision, and act deliberately and more slowly, can neutralize or outweigh the benefits of that spirit.

Living in the moment, in the now, is a great way for people to not be mired in the mistakes of the past and not be intimidated by the hypothetical misfortunes of the future. That is, unfortunately, not a luxury that nations, particularly super powerful ones, have. When you can spend trillions of dollars of your citizens’ money, send thousands of citizens to their deaths, and have the potential to blow up cities and the whole world, we expect you to think twice or more before you roll up those sleeves and get ‘er done.

A World Worth Saving

Xul Solar - Puerto Azul

People are justifiably angry, frustrated, and confused when those with all the “advantages” of Western Europe and the United States join violent apocalyptic movements in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But maybe we can learn a little by asking some related questions: Do these fighters believe the world is worth saving? Do your fellow citizens, friends, and neighbors believe it? Do you?

Almost by definition, those who are convinced to join movements aimed at turning the world upside down believe that the world as it is is beyond repair, and that the world as it is is not worth saving.

What might surprise you, if you think about it, is how many of the people around you, people you know, believe exactly the same thing. They don’t go halfway around the world to kill mercilessly to hasten the end of the status quo. But they do believe that this world is irreparably broken, that many other people (maybe even you) are complicit in maintaining and encouraging that disrepair—in feeding the beast—and that nothing short of the quickest possible end to this world will bring them to the rightness of that world.

We don’t talk much about whether this world is worth saving. There are those true believers just mentioned who think there is nothing to talk about, that it is dogmatic and axiomatic that this world is as good as gone. For others, it can be a bunch of words, about how we will make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve “the American way of life” or “freedom,” as if those were so self-evident that discussion would be at best useless and at worst seditious.

We have to talk about it, not just assume or demand the automatic answer “of course it’s worth saving.” One of the reasons we don’t talk about it is that we would have to think about it, and that is not easy or comfortable. We would, among other discomforts, have to admit shortcomings, some very serious.

When we don’t talk, we end up with some people easily persuaded that maybe this world is so broken that we should start creating a different one, even apocalyptically. That’s the bad news, ripped from today’s headlines.

The good news is that if we did talk about whether the world is worth saving, honestly, without dogma, with no “wrong” answers, we would almost certainly conclude that—with some minor and major adjustments—it is. It’s just getting to that conclusion that can be so difficult.

The Ukrainian Favor

Ukrainian Contingent Ends Iraq Mission

Commander of the Ukrainian contingent in Diwaniya presents a certificate and gift to
a member of the Qadisiya Province Iraqi Police, during an end of mission ceremony
at Camp Echo, Dec. 9, 2008.

“Are you asking as a friend or calling in a chit? A friend would not ask me to do this.”
“A friend just won’t hold it against you if you don’t.”
Adapted from Suits, USA Network

In 2008, Ukrainian troops officially left the U.S.-instigated Iraq War. Since 2003, 5,000 Ukrainian troops had served there (the third largest contingent in the multinational force) and 18 soldiers had died. No service or sacrifice can be minimized, even if these numbers pale in comparison to the American investment. Ukraine answered the call with honor and valor, as it had in other international conflicts, presumably because there are principles at stake, including the principle that modern internationalism means a commitment to mutual trust and support.

At the ceremony marking the end of the Ukrainian mission, Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, deputy commanding general for operations, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said:

We know that violence is at its lowest level in five years, and the Iraqi Security Forces, partnering with Coalition forces, will take the lead in defending their country. And soon, the Iraqi people will vote in the future of their country in the provincial elections. These changes were not brought about naturally, but were instead brought about by the dedication and the hard work of the men and women from the nations such as yours. You helped create the Iraqi Security Force and instilled in them a solid foundation of skills essential to the future security and prosperity of Iraq.

To Iraq’s benefit, and through Ukraine’s efforts, you have helped ensure a higher quality of life for the people of Iraq. Ukraine forces made contributions that enabled all Coalition partners to be successful here, but it has not been without cost. A precious 18 Ukrainian Soldiers have died here.

Ukraine is asking for help from anyone to hold their country together. Under the circumstances, that is going to be difficult and may not be possible.

Are they asking as a friend or calling in a chit? If we don’t provide adequate or effective help, will they hold it against us? Should they?

Yellowcake and Red Line: The Colors of Casus Belli

You may not remember yellowcake. Not the kind you eat. The kind that is uranium, the stuff of nuclear fission, the stuff of weapons of mass destruction, the stuff that was supposed to be in Iraq but was never found there.

Colors seem to be troublesome in talking about reasons for going to war. So maybe President Obama should have picked a different metaphor than red line. Line in the sand comes to mind. Of course, lines in the sand have a different quality. They are harder to see, and are subject to being erased by wind or water, or by a quick brush of the foot.

Maybe better to stay away from colors and lines altogether, and instead do the much harder, painful and less appealing work, leaders and citizens, of talking honestly about our strengths and limitations, the world we have and the one we want to have, and how to practically and ideally get from here to there. That would be a nice grownup change from childish colors and macho ultimata.

Syria and Foreign Incoherence

Red Line
America may not have had a coherent foreign policy since the end of World War II. And the beat goes on.

Incoherence doesn’t mean that there haven’t been successes. It doesn’t mean that other countries have done better in that time. And it doesn’t mean that the era has been an easy one: the world is more complex and diffracted than ever.

Coherence means an open, intelligent discussion about principles, followed by an open, intelligent discussion about taking action or withholding, and about the consequences and aims of the paths we choose or avoid.

Our policy seems to be driven by overwhelming ideology, good intentions and self-interest—none of which are exceptional or indictable, but all of which should be expressed in a much bigger and more sensible and realistic context. We ought to know what we’re about and candidly tell our citizens what we’re about. And when we don’t know what we’re doing—hard as that is to admit—we ought to say so.

Harry Truman was the last President to have a foreign policy named after him, in that case the Truman Doctrine. In 1947 he warned that the U.S. and the free world could not stand for Greece and Turkey falling into Communist hands (though he never used the word Communism):

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East….

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

March 12, 1947

(A digression: The reason Greece was considered vulnerable to insidious forces in 1947 is that it was broke and falling apart. Presumably, without a Communist threat looming, Greece 2013 is no longer considered as significant.)

That black-and-white view was in some ways a vestige of the black-and-white war we had just finished—and won. But soon after that speech, global gray was the new black-and-white. Empires were crumbling, new nations were being made. In the year of the Truman Doctrine alone, two of the world’s most populous nations changed course: India became independent, Mao won a revolution in China—events representing more than a third of the world population. The following year, the Middle East (and history) came unglued forever with the creation of Israel. We could pretend that all this was part of some simple monolithic history, but that really made no sense.

And yet we proceeded with a dyadic us-versus-them model for decades, mostly inexplicably and unquestioningly. Korea was supposed to stop the Communism; the military result was a bloody stalemate and status quo, the economic result a Chinese hegemon. Vietnam was supposed to stop Communism; we lost the war, and Southeast Asia is a geopolitical hodgepodge. Soviet Communism crumbled, partly because of a changing world and culture, partly because being a Russian non-Communist economic and political oligarch is much more lucrative than being a party apparatchik.

When we were attacked by the Muslim Middle East, our policy was to strike back, just as we had after Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the policy was sixty years old, and that the complexities of the world could not possibly be much affected by those approaches. Sadaam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is descending at some speed into chaos. Afghanistan is or soon will be about where we found it. Osama Bin Laden is dead, but just as with the Taliban, even if Al Qaeda is diminishing, movements with other names are already rising up to take its place.

All that is preface to our incoherence in Syria.

It is easy to see why the chemical weapon “red line” matters and why proving that it has been crossed matters.

The brutality of World War I made us rethink just far we would go and where as a ‘civilized” world we would draw the line. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits their use. The community of nations has, more or less, stood behind this and its successors.

(Another digression: If the world had considered the real possibility of atomic weapons in this period between the wars, would these also have been put in the same prohibited category as chemical and biological weaons?)

The reason for taking such care about making sure the line is actually crossed of course goes back to Iraq. Having cried wolf so recently, the U.S. could not stand having its credibility questioned, internally or externally, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

But as the drumbeat for “doing something” gets louder in the wake of the U.S. now being completely confident that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, so many questions are not being asked, and if asked, not discussed or answered.

If we are already confident that thousands are killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, and a nation is being destroyed from inside, why was the imperative waiting for this line at all? There is a global political answer, of course, which is that chemical weapons are a bigger and less assailable common ground upon which most or all can agree. That is indeed a pragmatic strategy, but we also have to talk about moral imperatives, no matter which way the discussion goes.

What exactly can and should we do? And if we do act, what do we expect and hope will be the result? And if we do act, what are the potential consequences?

Our leaders can talk about the red line in Syria, but they should stop pretending that this amounts to coherent and deep consideration. The three questions of actions, expectations and consequences should be the topic that consumes us. If we have principles and doctrines, let’s put them on the table and inspect them and see how aspirational and practical they are. If we believe in sovereignty in some cases but not others, let’s make sure that we know what the cases are and why the distinctions matter. If we do or don’t intervene in foreign political matters or insurrections or civil wars, let’s talk about it and how we act or react.

Instead, what we get are red lines and, in the case of Egypt, the sight of the U.S. being unwilling to call a coup a coup, and otherwise being paralyzed in figuring out what to do or say, so that “subtle” back channel goings on can go on.

Subtle goings on or silence can also may mean that you don’t know what to do or say, or that you don’t want the greater citizenry to hear what you are actually thinking. Maybe our leaders really aren’t very good at being statesmen. Maybe that citizenry isn’t up to the task of having discussions about what we believe, what we can accomplish and what we can’t. The only way to know this is to have it out in the open.

We seem to be more comfortable in the black and white and red line world of the Truman Doctrine. That wasn’t even a true picture of the world seventy years ago, and it definitely isn’t today. Can we talk, without slogans, without the fairy tale that the world of 2013 is a place that will resolve to our political and moral satisfaction soon—or ever? Before we make one more mistake, we have to find out.

Analogies to Egypt

Rosetta Stone

Who doesn’t love analytical analogies—situations past that bear a resemblance to current circumstances and might offer at least a little usable insight.

The current state of Egypt, like many situations in the new global age, is a bit sui generis—a unique thing of its own that we neither know how to classify or handle. For some, it is like going to watch a sports competition where you don’t exactly understand the game, don’t know nearly enough about the teams, and yet are being expected to choose sides—to root for somebody.

Here are a few of what we might call impressionistic analogies: examples from recent history that won’t withstand close scrutiny as directly related scenarios, but do have a certain similarity that at least gives us food for thought.

Iran – The impending release of Mubarek by the military government—ostensibly because the fraud case leading to his arrest would not hold up—brings to mind Iran and the last Shah. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the Shah and ended the West-friendly dynasty that the U.S. had long supported. One of the small but historically high-profile early incidents was President Jimmy Carter allowing the very ill Shah to seek medical help here in 1980—a factor in the subsequent hostage-taking, that in turn was (just one) of the reasons that Carter was not re-elected.

The U.S. is not alone in having to bet on somebody in turbulent times. Leaders are both real and symbolic in these contests. In Iran, our betting on the Shah—who was like us, who we understood, and who wss not like “them”—has proven disastrous. In the case of Mubarek in Egypt, what we wanted with him all those years was stability and moderation, but when it became apparent during the Arab Spring that we were looking decidedly anti-democratic, we opted to cut him loose and hope for democracy to follow. When that democracy started looking theocratic, possibly militantly so (Muslim Brotherhood), we were very confused and concerned—and so were the remnants of Mubarekism still in or near power. Military and stability or democracy and “adventure”. The Egyptian military made their decision, but we seem unable to decide. Will the military try to re-install Mubarek, or just leave him as a symbol of better days. Do we wish that we had handled Iran better, maybe helping to ease out the Shah and autocratic rule? It probably would not have prevented theocracy, but we didn’t try.

Iraq – Iraq, like Egypt, is another example of wanting to act strategically, while looking like the “good guy” and trying to figure out what a good guy looks like or acts like in these times. We supported Saddam Hussein, we refused to topple him, we toppled him, we executed him. All hell broke loose, and that fire may burn for generations. Whatever our skill at playing a real-world version of Risk globally, our track record in the Middle East is atrocious. At this point, we may want to consider where we stand relative to the historic record of the British and the French. (Note: We seem to have a bizarre predilection for following in their footsteps with little more, or even less, success than they had. See, e.g, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.)

Latin America – Our experiences in Latin America may serve as the most interesting of these tenuous analogies. The policy and history is easy to understand. We feared (still do) the incursion of Communism into the continent. We would support just about anybody who promised to keep the threat of socialism/Communism down. This put us in bed with a very bad lot, alliances that have had two lasting impacts. American fingerprints are all over the legacy of some despicable regimes. And now that many of those regimes are in the dustbin of history, residual anti-Americanism lingers on.

None of these alone, or even taken together, may offer much guidance in figuring out what to do in Egypt. Maybe a general lesson is that being powerful is not the same as being smart or being right. Maybe it’s that America is not as powerful as it thinks—back then, or even more so now—in a world it does not fully understand (again, ask the British and the French).

Egypt today is not that different from Egypt two years ago, or Syria now, or Iran or Iraq or Latin America. America has to expressly define and transparently decide how to stack our values and principles. Do we want American-style democracy or are we willing to settle for one of its other versions? Do we want democracy no matter what the results, or are we willing to trade democracy for authoritarian rule? Is authoritarian rule better than democratic or quasi-democratic Islamism, socialism or Communism? What is regional or global stability worth? What is peace worth? What is a Syrian or Egyptian or American life worth? Could billions in Egyptian aid, aside from whether or not we continue or suspend it, be better used to help Americans in an age of sequestration and austerity?

Grown up questions for grownups at the table.

Donald Trump, The Birth Certificate And The WMDs

Donald Trump continues to pump up the question of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, even on the eve of the Republican National Convention. In fact, the big “surprise” he has in store for the convention may have something to do with that (publication of the President’s “actual” birth certificate, perhaps?)

There are two sides to the question of Barack Obama’s birth: one small group that seemingly refuses to accept the reality that he was born in the United States, and one very large group—including plenty of Republicans—who can’t understand how there is a small group still denying that reality.

This is all about reality, and the way that politics deals with it.

The underlying truth about the curious stubbornness of “birther” partisans is not that they deny the President was born in Hawaii. It’s that they deny and refuse to accept that he is the President, wherever he was actually born. They will never be satisfied by any proof that Barack Obama wasn’t born outside the United States, because as a necessary political matter, he really was born outside.

We faced a similar issue nine years ago. In the prelude to the Iraq War, two possible realities fought it out, and there were large numbers of both believers and skeptics about the reality of WMDs, which was the casus belli. Some circumstantial evidence was offered for their existence, which didn’t quite satisfy a number of reasonable people. But as a political matter, WMDs had to exist, and since there was no way of definitively answering the question short of invasion, invade we did. All these years later, there is broad consensus that there were no WMDs. But that hasn’t stopped a small but durable band of believers from still insisting that they were there, because as a political matter they have to have been. For them, there will never be enough proof to the contrary.

It may not seem like it in the midst of this election season, but politics actually has some good uses. Denying reality is not one of them. Politics is supposed to serve reality, not the other way around.