What if other countries mourned their national tragedies the way we do? The United States reads off the names of the dead during annual commemoration ceremonies and builds walls with names. Other countries have far bigger death counts, often due to us, but the scale of the carnage makes it impossible for them to wallow in such niceties.
Reader Brian McManus asks:
“Just wondering if you can find time to post a piece on what the U.S. should do (or not do) regarding the current situation with ISIS in Iraq. Not so much on how the situation got to be where it is, but what the U.S. and/or other nations should do in situations like this. Would appreciate your thoughts on the issue.”
Thanks for writing, Brian.
Americans are “can do” people. Optimism is an appealing national personality trait but it comes with the unfortunate tendency to overestimate what can be done and its more dangerous corollary, the will to act when doing nothing would be preferable.
We saw the pitfalls of can-do following 9/11. Initial reactions to the attacks were shock and confusion. Traditional ideological divides were blurred, but in those early days one could still discern the pre-GWOT liberal tendency toward treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue, versus the old hawkish rightist desire to lash out militarily. Then the Right trotted out a line that resonated across the spectrum and caused the antiwar left to dissolve as into mist:
We have to do something.
In the United States, “something” means military action.
The thing we “have” to do “something” about always refers to foreign policy.
Americans don’t feel that “have to do something” about domestic problems. Poverty? No need to act. Corrupt bankers? Inaction is fine. But if a crisis flares up overseas (a civil war as in Syria or Libya, a siege of civilians as in Sarajevo or Iraqi Kurdistan, cross-border encroachment as in ex-Soviet Georgia or Crimea), and especially if it involves opponents the media categorizes as “bad guys” (regional economic rivals such as Iran, China or Russia, radical Islamists who may or may not have gotten their guns from us), “we” “have” “to” “do” “something” (military action).
This is not true.
There are always alternatives to military action. The success of the formerly Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria insurgency, which controls half of both countries, is no exception. Half-measures come in both military (money and weapons) and non-military (political advisors) forms.
We can do nothing.
Albania is doing nothing in Iraq. Cuba is doing nothing in Iraq. Vietnam is doing nothing in Iraq. These countries have not been harmed by their refusal to intervene militarily in Iraq.
As I see it, Brian, whatever appetite ordinary Americans have for Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS and other attempts to prop up the current regime in Baghdad stems from the investment of lives and treasure the U.S. has made since the 2003 invasion.
“To be sure, the cost was high,” then-Secretary of State Leon Panetta said when Obama ordered the main troop withdrawal from Iraq. “But those lives were not lost in vain. They gave birth to an independent, free, and sovereign Iraq.”
If ISIS captures Baghdad and establishes Taliban-style Sharia law throughout Iraq, complete with amputations of accused thieves and stonings of wayward women — leaving Iraq, already in worse shape than it was under Saddam, an unequivocal nightmare for its people and a base for radical jihadis out to overthrow U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia — Panetta’s statement will have been belied.
The war will have been exposed as a total waste.
Which it was. Every American who lost a life or a limb in Iraq was sacrificed stupidly, predictably, in a war that never could have been won even had the generals and politicians in charge of it weren’t idiots.
The attempt to salvage Iraq by saving the rump Iraqi state inside the Green Zone is a refusal to accept defeat. But that doesn’t change reality.
We lost the Iraq War years ago. The sooner we accept that there is nothing to be saved there and move on, the better off we’ll be.
Undeniably and regrettably, washing our hands of Iraq — aside from leaving ISIS alone, we ought to evacuate the embassy and other government personnel Obama says we need to “protect” — will result in awful consequences. Whether or not ISIS can close the deal by capturing Baghdad, the sectarian conflict will escalate. Areas within ISIS control will be lost for the foreseeable future. More civilians will die, many as the result of “ethnic cleansing.”
We know these things will happen because we’ve lost wars before. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam created the “boat people” crisis, opened space for wars between Vietnam and its neighbors China and Cambodia, and permitted a communist regime hostile to U.S. interests to consolidate power, and exclude American business for decades.
But consider the alternative.
Remaining in Vietnam would have required pouring more money and more soldiers down a hole, and slaughtering countless more Vietnamese. We still would have lost. All that post-withdrawal stuff — the civil conflicts, reprisals against our former local collaborators — would still have happened. It just would have happened later.
After we accepted defeat and walked away from Vietnam, on the other hand, things eventually worked out. Vietnam is now a major U.S. trading partner; nearly half a million American tourists visit Vietnam each year.
A guy named Barack Obama once summarized his foreign policy as “Don’t do stupid stuff” like invading Iraq in the first place. Hillary’s jibes and Obama’s actions aside, it’s good advice. To which I’ll add Ho Chi Minh’s legendary order to his general Vo Nguyen Giap, who was planning the decisive 1954 battle that would expel France from Indochina: “If victory is certain, then you are to attack. If victory is not certain, then you must resolutely refrain from attacking.”
Victory against ISIS is anything but certain. Therefore, in this and similar situations, I would refrain from attacking.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” out Sept. 2. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
As Iraq spirals into sectarian civil war, one of the recurring stories on American media outlets is the mixed feelings of the American veterans who served in the invasion and subsequent occupation. While it’s understandable that they are wondering whether their sacrifices were worth it (hint: no way), shouldn’t we be giving at least equal time to the Iraqis who are living through the consequences of our war there?
Heavily-armed men who took over Crimea last week refused to say who they were, so foreign media outlets dutifully refused to accuse Russia of invading Ukraine until after it had happened. Imagine how much better the invasion of Iraq would have gone if nobody had been able to blame the United States for it?
Wars and Prisons Move, Wars and Torture Never Ends
Most Americans—68 percent—oppose the war against Iraq, according to a November 2011 CNN poll. So it’s smart politics for President Obama to take credit for withdrawing U.S. troops.
As it often is, the Associated Press’ coverage was slyly subversive: “This, in essence, is Obama’s mission accomplished: Getting out of Iraq as promised under solid enough circumstances and making sure to remind voters that he did what he said.”
Obama’s 2008 campaign began by speaking out against the war in Iraq. (Aggression in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was not only desirable but ought to be expanded.) However, actions never matched his words. On vote after vote in the U.S. Senate Obama supported the war. Every time.
As president, Obama has claimed credit for a December 2011 withdrawal deadline negotiated by his predecessor George W. Bush—a timeline he wanted to protract. If the Iraqi government hadn’t refused to extend immunity from prosecution to U.S. forces, this month’s withdrawal would not have happened.
“Today I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” Obama bragged reporters on October 24th.
The UK Guardian noted: “But he had already announced this earlier this year, and the real significance today was in the failure of Obama, in spite of the cost to the U.S. in dollars and deaths, to persuade the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to allow one or more American bases to be kept in the country.”
Obama’s talk-no-walk approach to foreign policy is also on display on Guantánamo, the torture camp set up by the Bush Administration where thousands of Afghans and other Muslim men, including children, were imprisoned and tormented without evidence of wrongdoing. Only 171 prisoners remain there today, held under appalling conditions.
Yet the “war on terror” mentality remains in full force.
Obama ordered the construction and expansion of a new concentration camp at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to house thousands of new and current inmates in the U.S. torture system. Now The New York Times has discovered that the Obama Administration has developed “the other Guantánamo, an archipelago of federal prisons that stretches across the country, hidden away on back roads” inside the United States. Hundreds of Muslim men have been imprisoned by means of the thinnest veneer of legality.
“An aggressive prosecution strategy, aimed at prevention as much as punishment, has sent away scores of people. They serve long sentences, often in restrictive, Muslim-majority units, under intensive monitoring by prison officers. Their world is spare,” announced the paper.
Aware that “his” war against Afghanistan isn’t much more popular among voters than the occupation of Iraq, Obama set a 2014 for withdrawal from the Central Asian state several years ago.
Dexter Filkins called it “the forever war”: a post-9/11 syndrome that drives the United States to shoot and bomb the citizens of Muslim nations without end. You can’t end a forever war. What if you had to sit down and get serious about taking care of the problems faced by regular, boring, American people?
And so Obama is having his ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, release trial balloons about staying past 2014…forever, in so many words.
Talking to reporters, Crocker said that the U.S. would stay longer if the Karzai regime—its handpicked puppet—asked them to. “They [the Afghans] would have to ask for it,” he said. “I could certainly see us saying, ‘Yeah, makes sense.'”
Vampires can’t come inside unless they’re invited.
The Iraq War, at least, seems to be coming to an end. According to the Pentagon, there will only be 150 U.S. troops in Iraq next year—those who guard the embassy in Baghdad.
Just shy of 10,000 “contractors”—the heavily-armed mercenaries who became known for randomly shooting civilians from attack helicopters—will remain in Iraq as “support personnel” for the State Department.
As they say, war is an addiction. If we wanted to, we could quit any time.
Any time. Really.
COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL
Calls for a return to post-9/11 “unity” in the US, flirt with the elementary constructs of fascism, author says.
In the days and weeks after 9/11 the slogan was everywhere: T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards that previously read “Your Ad Here” due to the dot-com crash, inevitably next to an image of the American flag.
The phrase carried with it a dark subtext. It wasn’t subtle:
United We Stand —or else.
Or, as George W. Bush, not known for his light rhetorical touch, put it: “You’re either with us or against us.”
“Us” was not meant to be inclusive. Le Figaro’s famous “nous sommes tous américains” headline aside, non-Americans were derided on Fox News (the Bush Administration’s house media organ) as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” (Never mind that that phrase, from the TV show “The Simpsons,” was conceived as derisive satire of the Right, which frequently derided the French as intellectual and thus weak and effete.)
Many Americans were disinvited from the “us” party of the early 2000s. Democrats, liberals, progressives, anyone who questioned Bush or his policies risked being smeared by Fox, right-wing talk radio hosts and their allies. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, for example, called me “the most anti-American cartoonist in America.”
For a day or two after the attacks on New York and Washington, it was possible even for the most jaundiced leftist to take comfort in patriotism. We were shocked. More than that, we were puzzled. No group had claimed responsibility. (None ever did.) Who was the enemy? Sure, there was conjecture. But no facts. What did “they” want?
“We watched, stupefied—it was immediately a television event in real time—and we were bewildered; no one had the slightest idea of why it had happened or what was to come,” writes Paul Theroux in the UK Telegraph. “It was a day scorched by death—flames, screams, sirens, confusion, fear and extravagant rumors (‘The Golden Gate Bridge has been hit, Seattle is bracing’).”
Politically, the nation reminded deeply divided by the disputed 2000 election. According to polls most voters believed that Bush was illegitimate, that he had stolen the presidential election in a judicial coup carried out by the Supreme Court. Even at the peak of Bush’s popularity in November 2001—89 percent of the public approved of his performance—47 percent of respondents to the Gallup survey said that Bush had not won fair and square. During those initial hours, however, most ordinary citizens saw 9/11 as a great horrible problem to be investigated, analyzed and then solved. Flags popped up everywhere. Even liberal Democrats gussied up their rides to make their cars look like a general’s staff car.
Dick Cheney and his cadre of high-level fanatics at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were salivating over newly-drawn-up war plans. “There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell. “We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around.”