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Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

Annus Horribilis : 2014 in Review

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

New Year
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Good Riddance to a Bad Year

In a speech in late 1992, Queen Elizabeth II used the phrase “annus horribilis” to describe Great Britain’s no-good, very bad year (tabloid-quality marital troubles of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, a fire at Windsor Castle, etc.). The term is derived from the Latin annus mirabilis (wonderful year). As the queen said about 1992, we feel about 2014: “not a year on which [we] shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”

First, though, let’s open with some good things that happened in 2014 that give us cause to hope that 2015 may bring more mirabilis and less horribilis.

Public health. Overall, the American medical establishment, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, managed pretty well in handling the cases of Ebola that arose in the U.S. (Try not to be freaked out by TV “news” coverage of this topic; as with weather events, the more alarmist their coverage, the better for their ratings.)

ACAIn other healthy developments, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, brought more good news for the general public (though not for Fox News). In “Tidings of Comfort” (12/26/14), New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says that in its first full year of full implementation (its provisions were phased in gradually after its passage in 2010), “the number of Americans without insurance fell by around 10 million. . . . premiums were far less than predicted, overall health spending is moderating, and specific cost-control measures are doing very well. And all indications suggest that year two will be marked by further success.”

Economy. Krugman points out that although economic recovery from the 2008 crisis has been slow, recent performance has been comparatively healthy, with steady increases in job creation and 5 percent growth in the U.S. economy overall. Some 6.7 million jobs have been created since Obama took office, compared with 3.1 million at the six-year mark under George W. Bush. If it were not for congressionally mandated austerity, the recovery would have been much better.

(Krugman does not mention this, but the recovery was strong enough in 2014 that, if we were living in normal, level-playing-field political conditions, without the artificial factors of gerrymandered congressional districts and unlimited dark money mentioned below, this year’s midterm elections should have gone more than usual in the favor of the president’s party.) For more on the president’s performance, see Krugman’s excellent and persuasive “In Defense of Obama” (Rolling Stone, 10/8/14).

Executive actions. President Obama took several positive actions on several important issues that do not depend on the constipated Congress to take effect. In November he used an executive action to grant a reprieve to nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants and to strengthen border security.

People’s Climate MarchAlso in November, Obama made a landmark agreement with China to cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 and to rely more on renewable sources of energy and on nuclear energy. Following on the massive People’s Climate March of Sept. 21, 2014, in which more than 400,000 marched in New York City as delegates were gathering at the United Nations, this agreement provided substantial good news for the environment and reason to hope for more progressive green achievements. (They can’t come too soon: the “climate change” the earth is undergoing may already be irreparable. But enough: we’re trying to focus on the positive here.)

And, in the kind of bold surprise we welcome and hope to see more of, in mid-December, President Obama announced that after nearly 55 years of diplomatic estrangement, the United States will normalize relations with Cuba and unfreeze the trade embargo, an agreement worked out with behind-the-scenes assistance from Pope Francis and the Vatican and the government of Canada.

About That Annus Horribilis . . .

We each have our own reasons, but it seems to be a widely shared view that even by the standards of this grim new century 2014 was a bad year—and it was already looking bad by the summer. “In this summer of global tumult” began a piece in The New York Times (“As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way,” 8/16/14). A general sense of gloom and dread was helped along by the fact that 2014 was, as many news outlets were commemorating, the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War.

In international affairs, there was Russia’s annexing of Crimea and troublemaking in Ukraine; the continuation of the dreadful Syrian civil war (two years and counting: some 76,000 died in Syria this year, including 3,500 children) and the related rise of ISIS (aka ISIL, or Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq; the very destructive Israel-Gaza war that erupted in July; and of course the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. But wait: there’s more.

In a nation whose middle class was still struggling if not drowning in a protracted recession and widespread unemployment since the economic collapse of 2008, while corporate profits reached record highs (“In 2013, after-tax corporate profits as a share of the economy tied with their highest level on record [in 1965], while labor compensation as a share of the economy hit its lowest point since 1948.” [NYT 8/31/14])—the already poor and jobless were further stressed by interactions with heavily armed police. In the first eight months of 2014 in the United States there were more than 400 deaths from police shootings.

Disturbances of the Peace

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Here in the homeland, American society was disturbed by the still mysterious shooting on August 9 of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The death sparked outrage and dramatic protests against brutality and excessive militarization of police departments around the United States. The choking death on July 17 of a black man named Eric Garner while in police custody (“I can’t breathe,” he gasped eleven times)—he was suspected of illegally selling loose cigarettes near the Staten Island ferry—was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. In December a grand jury decided to not indict the police officer in the death; this decision, just a week after a similar decision in Missouri to not prosecute the officer who shot Michael Brown, prompted widespread protests in New York and around the nation with the themes “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.” Tension persists in (among other places) New York City, where the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio are not seeing eye to eye. Large numbers of officers physically turned their backs on the mayor when he spoke at the funeral service several days ago of one of two officers killed in Brooklyn by a lunatic from Baltimore seeking revenge for African Americans killed by police.

“Hell No You Can’t!”

MoneybagsOne more category that should be mentioned, like it or not, is the depressing outcome of the 2014 midterm congressional elections. (So depressing, in fact, that this blog was at a loss for words for several months.) Although victorious, empowered Republicans crowed that the American people had spoken (for them and against Obama, naturally), we attribute their success to (1) gerrymandered congressional districts tailor-made for conservative dominance; (2) unlimited “dark money” from corporations and political action committees following the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision (2010); and (3) voting rights restrictions that limited voting by minorities, college students, and other likely Democratic constituencies after the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). (See “Dark Money Helped Win the Senate,” The New  York Times Editorial Board, 11/8/14.)

Perhaps equally disheartening, though, and certainly more infuriating, is the chronic cowardice of establishment Democrats. Dem candidates distanced themselves from President Obama and shrank from speaking up about the party’s accomplishments and defending its historic programs. (See “A Failure to Communicate—Not a Failure to Govern” [LNW 11/3/10].) As our friend Cousin Pat from Georgia at Hurricane Radio has said many times, the Democratic Party cannot ally itself with Wall Street and still expect support from the middle class and working class at election time. (See his “Why the GOP Is Going to Win in November” [9/28/10])

We pray that progressive activists will multiply and press the Democrats and independents to push for progressive policies. One of the developments to which we’re not looking forward is the looming 2016 presidential election. We do not salivate at the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ candidate, but if she is the candidate the Republicans most fear, then perhaps she should be the Democrats’ leader in 2016. But HRC is a Wall Street, big-money Democrat, like Chuck Schumer, and her credentials do not bode well for peace or progressive causes. On our wish list is more of populist, independent thinkers like senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. We hope that, at the very least, Warren and other liberals and defenders of the middle class will be able to push Clinton toward more progressive talk and action.

Falling Stars in the Obituary Pages

Another way of looking at the year’s toll is by considering the obituaries of entertainers and authors in 2014—some of which were not death from natural causes. Philip Seymour Hoffman (46) and Robin Williams (63), among the greatest talents of any age, both took their own lives after giving immeasurably to world culture, both in humor and in pathos. Other great lives that ended this year include Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers, Shirley Temple Black, poets Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, and the global-stature novelists Gabriel García Márquez and Nadine Gordimer, as well as the popular mystery writer P. D. James.

Power to the People

LNW_USA.sleeveWe hope for a better year this next time around, but we know that 2015 is not going to be better just because the previous one was a grind. But we will do our part, “every day, in every way,” and will try to contribute to a better city, a better nation, a better world. We hope you’ll join us in trying to give to civic affairs, for example, not only through occasional contributions to progressive groups (see our blogroll, lower right column, for Anti-War and Environment groups), but also by making our views known to newspapers and elected officials: phoning mayors, members of Congress, writing letters to the editor, and so on. Let’s encourage, congratulate, thank, and support those who do good, and when elected officials are off-track, let them know. (See our Political Action page for contact information.)

Wishing you and yours a better time in 2015, and strength through peace.

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Top illustration from New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Ferguson, Missouri, photograph by BBC News.

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Obama Has Plans for ISIS; Now Congress Must Vote

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

obama-strategy-isis-videoSixteenByNine1050 2

The Guns of August, September, October . . .

Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy. Statement by the President on ISIL, Sept. 10, 2014

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Happy 9/11, everyone, on the centennial of the outbreak of the war to end all wars.

We listened closely to President Obama’s speech last night, we have read the transcript, and, like many around the world, we are profoundly uneasy. It is clear that this president is seriously reluctant to get the United States re-involved in Iraq and to start anything with Syria. He and his national security team have drawn up a four-part plan “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.”

We are nervous, with a sense of dread, at the prospect of more war in the Middle East. We support the president’s preference for diplomatic solutions, for involving as many neighboring countries as possible, and assembling a coalition at the recent NATO summit meeting. It is right to push the Iraqi government to be more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds (as the previous, U.S.-backed prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, was not). It is right to involve neighboring countries in the counterterrorism fight against ISIS; this cannot be the U.S. against ISIS. (That is what they want.)

. . . this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. 

But when the president says “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” we have no confidence that the situation is controllable (see “dogs of war” below). With the new deployment of 475 more service members to Iraq, there will be 1,500 soldiers in Iraq (there were none in early June). As we wrote in mid-June, it’s beginning to smell like early Vietnam. Drone strikes and aerial assaults alone will not suffice, and the troops we’re supposedly partnering with, even the Kurdish pesh merga, are less than reliable. ISIS has captured serious military hardware from the Iraqi army that dropped its arms and fled. Anti-aircraft weaponry could be part of their arsenal. If one of our planes is shot down, and if the crew are taken prisoner, what happens then? The U.S. won’t abandon them on the battlefield.

BBC-mapISIS’s videos of beheading American journalists have (predictably) made the public revolted and angry—even individuals who a month earlier were not inclined to support any more U.S. military involvement anywhere. Now, most Americans say “We’ve got to do something”—and we agree—but it is important not to respond emotionally. We must not go into war angry. ISIS wants to provoke the U.S. into a fight—so did al Qaeda—and this is where the president’s patient assembling of a coalition of neighbors of Iraq and Syria is essential; this must not be a U.S. vs. ISIS (or Muslim) fight. It was good that President Obama made clear, early in his speech, that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ . . . It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. . . . ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

And, let’s not forget, contrary to the neocons’ assertions, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003. (Al Qaeda hated Saddam, a secularist too cozy with the West.) ISIS’s commanders include former generals from Iraq’s army that was disbanded, along with Saddam’s Baath Party, in 2003 by Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul Bremer, with disastrous results. These are among the reasons why we feel the U.S. is obligated to try to help clean up the mess—very carefully. (Click here for more background, and see links below.)

Congress Must Vote on This

Congress must step up and vote on whether to authorize additional force against ISIS. We want to see some “profiles in courage.” (Click here to contact your members of Congress; let’s bug hell out of ’em.) There is not a single member of Congress—Democrat, Independent, or Republican—about whose reelection hopes and job security we frankly give a damn; we want to see them do their jobs and fulfill their constitutionally required responsibility to declare war (or authorize the use of force). Per Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution:

[The Congress shall have Power . . .] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

Further, the congressional Republicans who have blocked votes on more than 40 ambassador nominations—to Turkey, among other nations—should end their dangerous games and vote already. The diplomatic angle of the anti-ISIS struggle will not work without Turkey’s cooperation; we must have an ambassador now. (For much of this year—this year of all years—the U.S. did not have an ambassador to Russia because of GOP stonewalling. Country first.)

Senator Bernie Sanders makes an excellent point: that ISIS must be resisted, but we have severe problems here in the U.S. that must be tended to—a collapsing middle class, veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are not being taken care of by an underfunded Veterans Administration, and much more. National security begins at home.

Iraq War Is Already Costing $3 to $5 Trillion

Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes estimated the Iraq war would ultimately cost the United States some $3 trillion when all health care costs over the soldiers’ lifetimes are factored in. In 2008 they raised their estimate to $4 or $5 billion.

As noted by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Jason Fields of Reuters has reported that the American airstrikes against ISIS (150 and counting) are destroying millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment the U.S. gave to the Iraqi army—the army we trained for years (“As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” said George W. Bush), the one that melted before the ISIS onslaught this year. Worse, Fields writes,

Now, U.S. warplanes are flying sorties, at a cost somewhere between $22,000 to $30,000 per hour for the F-16s, to drop bombs that cost at least $20,000 each, to destroy this captured equipment. That means if an F-16 were to take off from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey and fly two hours to Erbil, Iraq, and successfully drop both of its bombs on one target each, it costs the United States somewhere between $84,000 to $104,000 for the sortie and destroys a minimum of $1 million and a maximum of $12 million in U.S.-made equipment. 

So here is what we want: For every dollar spent on new munitions fired at ISIS, fuel for jet fighters, etc., we want three dollars spent on veterans’ health care (including psychiatric counseling), three dollars on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and five to ten dollars spent on education, housing, and social services.

Because the escalated, re-upped war is being waged in part to make business and shipping conditions safe for the oil industry in and around the Persian Gulf, we want ExxonMobil and all the other U.S.-based oil companies doing business in the Middle East to pay higher corporate taxes—at least, say, 25 to 50 percent higher—and for the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department to enforce timely payment to the U.S. Treasury. The five largest oil firms doing business in Iraq are BP, Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron.

On paper, statutorily, corporations are supposed to pay a tax rate of 35 percent. A 2011 study by Citizens for Tax Justice found that, over 2008–2010,

Exxon Mobil paid an effective three-year tax rate of only 14.2 percent. That’s 60 percent below the 35 percent rate that companies are supposed to pay. And over the past two years, Exxon Mobil’s net tax on its $9.9 billion in U.S. pretax profits was a minuscule $39 million, an effective tax rate of only 0.4 percent.

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There is very much we do not know, but, as far as we can see, the Obama administration has been careful and methodical about using diplomacy, preferring to withdraw troops (not precipitously), not rushing into conflict, and judicious and cautious regarding the super-complicated, internecine snake pit of the Syrian civil war. Just because the president is not exaggerating the threat ISIS poses to the Homeland; just because he is (apparently) not lying to us as some presidents have done (weapons of mass destruction 2003; Gulf of Tonkin 1964), does not mean that the renewal of war in Iraq won’t go badly out of control. They cannot tell us how this will end.

We worry, as does David Corn at Mother Jones, whether the dogs of war can be controlled once they are unleashed. This new escalation of the counterterrorism fight against ISIS is likely to last years, into the next administration. We worry when we consider that the U.S. not always have a president with the patience for deliberation that the current president has. Just look at the attention span and patience exhibited by Obama’s predecessor, and the consequences thereof.

Now, tell us again about the guns of August . . .

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Further Reading

What Obama Didn’t Say  (Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker)

Five Questions About the War Against ISIS That No One Should Be Embarrassed to Ask  (Think Progress)

The Twenty-Eight Pages: A Void in the History of September 11 (Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker)

Levees Not War on ISIS, Iraq, and Syria

Must We? For Now, But for How Long? A Reluctant, Tentative Endorsement of (More) U.S. Military Action in Iraq  (8/10/14)

Obama Sends Troops to Protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad  (6/17/14)

Congress, Now Is the Time to Vote “Hell No”  (9/4/13)

Here We Go Again  (6/14/13)

Syria Seen as a Backdoor to War with Iran  (5/2/13)

How Many Wars? After Libya . . . ?  (3/26/11)

As “End” of Iraq War Is Announced, U.S. Digs In, Warns Iran  (10/30/11)

How Many U.S. Soldiers Were Wounded in Iraq?  (12/31/11)

As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?  (8/19/10)

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Natl Security Team

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Top photo from The New York Times: pool photo by Saul Loeb; map in middle by BBC.

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Must We? For Now, But for How Long?

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

A Reluctant, Tentative Endorsement of (More) U.S. Military Action in Iraq

“As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. . . . American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”President Obama, Aug. 7, 2014

ISIS areasOn Aug. 7 President Obama announced on live TV that he had authorized U.S. military strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq and humanitarian airlifts of food and water to some 5,000 to 12,000 Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority, who have fled into the hills of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq to avoid being slaughtered by ISIS. On Aug. 9 he made a follow-up statement to prepare the public for what will be an extended operation. (President’s remarks here.)

Using Predator drones and Navy F-18 fighter jets, the U.S. has launched airstrikes against ISIS forces around Erbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq where U.S. advisers are stationed. (The Kurds, long persecuted by Saddam Hussein, have been friendly to the U.S. since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

The American objectives at this time are primarily humanitarian and strategic: to prevent more deaths among the starving and dehydrated Yazidis, and to halt the already unnerving incursion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) into northern Iraq. ISIS is a militant Sunni group  founded in 2006 with ties to Al Qaeda—in fact they called themselves Al Qaeda in Iraq—but Al Qaeda has disowned ISIS as too extreme. (Indeed, it is difficult to say whether “Iraq” as we have known it still exists, as ISIS has declared a “caliphate,” an Islamic state, that includes both Syria and Iraq; they have effectively erased the border between the two nations.) ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq in early June alarmed the Pentagon and White House enough that Obama ordered some 300 armed forces personnel to Baghdad to protect the U.S. embassy, then about 500 more personnel later. (See “Obama Sends Troops to Protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad” 6/17/14.)

Sometimes It’s Not Easy Saying No

Yazidi children in IraqWe want very much to oppose this new use of U.S. military force in Iraq, but it’s complicated, and it’s hard to say Absolutely No. For one thing, we trust the judgment of this president who is so reluctant to send U.S. forces into action—in Iraq of all places, from which he worked hard to extricate our too-long-entrenched troops. This is partly a humanitarian mission—we agree with humanitarian missions in principle—and also, whether we like it or not, the United States is obligated to help clean up a mess that Obama’s neocon predecessors started by the mad, obsessive rush to war against Iraq in 2003.

“Complicated” doesn’t begin to describe the current predicament, but if the U.S. can help ease Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, out of office and help coordinate Iraqis’ organizing in a more representative government in Iraq, one that comprises Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish representatives, then the fury of ISIS may abate somewhat. For now, however, Maliki refuses to relinquish or even to consider sharing power. To a great extent, Maliki is the problem, but he’s not the only problem.

We feel strongly that the U.S. must not get involved (any more than we are already secretly, covertly involved) in the Syrian civil war. ISIS’s commanders apparently are based in Syria. We think President Obama was right to pull back from firing on Syria last year around Labor Day when he gave signals that the U.S. was about to fire on Syria for having used chemical weapons against their people. (See “Congress, Now Is the Time to Vote ‘Hell No’ ” 9/4/13) Obama had unwisely said that such would be a “red line” that Bashar al Assad could not be allowed to cross. Just because the president misspoke, however, did not obligate him to go ahead and make further mistakes by escalating a highly complicated conflict. America’s involvement would just blow the whole thing up, and we think Obama was right to step back, however embarrassing it was for the administration, and even though it added more ammunition to the conservative hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who criticize Obama’s foreign policy no matter what he does.

We Kind of Owe It to Them, After All

The United States has been involved in Iraq since at least the mid twentieth century, well before Saddam Hussein. In 1960 the CIA was making plans to incapacitate the communist-inclined dictator Abd al-Karim Qasim, who in 1958 had deposed the Iraqi monarchy that had been friendly to the West. (Oil, remember.) See “Plan to Oust Qasim” in Wikipedia’s entry here. (The CIA and the U.K. had engineered a coup in Iran in 1953 to overthrow democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh; why stop there?)

As with Iran next door, U.S. relations with Iraq have long been complicated and murky, to say the least, but our nation has interfered with Iraq’s internal affairs in order to have access to oil—the primary reason for the 2003 invasion, after all—and it seems to us only fair that the United States try to help restore some order in a nation where we have wrought untold damage. Now, whatever is done will naturally be tilted primarily in what is perceived as the United States’s best interests, but if it must be done, we would sooner trust a Democratic administration to handle the cleanup than the other party; we saw how well Republicans handled matters when George W. Bush was in office.

We kind of owe it to the Iraqis to give some protection and assistance in cleaning up a mess largely of our making, but for how long, and at what cost? We don’t pretend to know, and we remain profoundly uneasy about the whole affair.

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ISIS’s Real “Shock and Awe”

Addendum: At Talking Points Memo, a reader who has worked as a U.S. military intelligence and counter-terrorism specialist in Iraq since the late 1980s writes in to explain who ISIS (or ISIL) are and why they have been so successful in sweeping bloodily through Iraq. He also makes clear why the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have a reputation as fierce fighters (and were allies of the U.S. against Saddam Hussein and Islamic insurgents), need help against ISIS:

As for ISIS, they are just a resurgent and re-named al-Qaeda in Iraq. They have the same combat capability they have always had. They fight with suicide bombers, AK-47s and RPG-7 rocket launchers, single vehicle long range battlefield rocket launchers and are mobile in what we call TTFs – Toyota Task Forces. They use extremely simple Taliban inspired “complex attack’ tactics. First they collect intelligence, covertly move into position, launch a wave of suicide bombers to breach gates and soften the objective up, then they bombard with battlefield rockets and launch a multiprong “Allahu Akhbar” infantry attack supported by heavy machineguns on Toyotas. . . . 

Why is ISIL so successful? Simply put they attack using simple combined arms but they hold two force multipliers – suicide bombers and a psychological force multiplier called TSV – Terror Shock Value. TSV is the projected belief (or reality) that the terror force that you are opposing will do anything to defeat you and once defeated will do the same to your family, friends and countrymen. . . . 

Keep reading at Talking Points Memo . . .

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Obama Sends Troops to Protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

ISIS supporters Mosul

ISIS supporters rally in Mosul, Iraq. BBC photo.

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White House Considers Special Forces to Advise Iraqis; Smells Like “Early Vietnam” Again

“The United States has provided a $14 billion foreign military aid package to Iraq that includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and M-16 rifles. It has rushed hundreds of Hellfire missiles as well as ScanEagle reconnaissance drones. A second round of counterterrorism training between American Special Operations commandos and Iraqi troops started in Jordan this week.”New York Times (6/11/14)

The Guardian and other news outlets report that President Obama yesterday notified Congress that the U.S. is sending “up to approximately 275 U.S. Armed Forces personnel to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.” The president’s letter to Congress continued:

This force is deploying for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary, and is equipped for combat. This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed. 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney added this:

The personnel will provide assistance to the Department of State in connection with the temporary relocation of some staff from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to the U.S. Consulates General in Basra and Erbil and to the Iraq Support Unit in Amman. These U.S. military personnel are entering Iraq with the consent of the Government of Iraq. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains open, and a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place and the embassy will be fully equipped to carry out its national security mission.

Sectarian LinesThis action is a response to the sudden offensive last week by the jihadist militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that charged through Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities in northern and central Iraq to within 75 miles of Baghdad, routing the Iraqi army, robbing banks, and executing Iraqi soldiers and police, and freeing Sunni prisoners. ISIS, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is a militant Sunni group founded in 2006 with ties to al Qaeda (though al Qaeda has disowned ISIS as too extreme), and the area it has swept through is also Sunni, thus sympathetic and more likely to cooperate than to resist.

The security situation is dire enough that the U.S. and Iran, already holding talks in Vienna about Iran’s nuclear program, have discussed the possibility of joint diplomatic efforts to halt the insurgents’ advance through Syria and Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry initially would not rule out military cooperation, but other administration officials quickly downplayed the likelihood of military cooperation. In another sign of Iran’s alarm at the threat, the (Shiite) Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a call to arms for all able-bodied men to resist ISIS’s advance toward Baghdad.

Baghdad, a city of 7 million, is ruled by a Shiite government under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who, to the U.S. administration’s dismay, has refused to include Sunni and Kurdish representatives within the governing elite. President Obama has been criticized for not leaving a residual force in Iraq when U.S. troops were withdrawn at the end of 2011, but al-Maliki refused to allow any U.S. forces to stay behind. “Matters worsened after American troops left in 2011,” writes The New York Times’s Serge Schmemann, “effectively turning the Iraqi Army into a hated and corrupt occupation force in Sunni areas. When ISIS forces approached, most Iraqi Army soldiers simply shed their battle fatigues and fled, leaving behind huge stores of American arms, including helicopters, for the rebels to harvest.”

“This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.” —President Obama, letter to Congress, June 16

Where’s That “Mission Accomplished” Feeling?

This move by the Obama administration, only days after the president vowed not to send U.S. combat forces back to Iraq, is in itself is not necessarily cause for alarm, but it does raise serious concerns, especially when we hear the too-familiar flapping of the wings of neocon war hawks (see below). The U.S. has a vast embassy in Baghdad, and the U.S. must show that it intends to protect its assets (people, property, files, etc.).

Rumsfeld-Hussein handshake 1983We are not alone in seeing the United States—or the five or so most forceful members of the George W. Bush administration, anyway—as responsible for igniting a conflagration between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein, dismantled the central government and effectively split Iraq into three autonomous regions. For all of his faults, the Sunni strongman, long a friend of the U.S., did keep a lid on sectarian tensions in Iraq—often brutally (see also former Yugoslavia). But we will always believe that the “liberation” of Iraq, cynically branded “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” had more to do with U.S. access to Iraqi oil, and that the chaotic forces loosed by the American-led war are something that Bush-Cheney Inc. never bothered to prepare for. Defense was king, and the nuances and subtleties of the State Department’s diplomats were scorned by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, & Co. (The illustration above shows Iraqi president Saddam Hussein greeting Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on Dec. 20, 1983.)

Then, compounding countless other errors already made through arrogance, lack of planning, and shunning of the State Department’s expertise, the U.S. through its Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army and sought to neutralize the Ba’ath Party that was Saddam’s. A formerly proud and cohesive military—after all, with some help from Uncle Sam, Iraq held tough in a war against Iran for eight years in the 1980s—was scattered, and the ex-soldiers, many of them, became fierce fighters against the U.S. occupation forces. This is one reason why the U.S. had to stay as long as it did, training a new army. (Why the Iraqi army had to be disbanded was never clear, and none of the brains behind the operation will take responsibility for the decision.) You may recall former president Bush saying, over and over, “When the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” The disbanding of the Iraqi army was one of the worst of many disastrous decisions made by the U.S., and it haunts us—and Iraq—still.

“The Past Is Never Dead,” or, Beware the Neocon “Experts”

neocon1At the same time Obama is vowing not to send combat forces but is sending 275 embassy guardians, neocon hawks such as John McCain, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, and Kenneth Pollack, who in 2002 and 2003 pushed relentlessly for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, are again appearing on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, in The New York Times, and on other mainstream network news talk shows and urging strong action against the jihadist forces. McCain has said that Obama should fire his entire national security team and has called for the ouster of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

John McCain also said, in April 2003, that there was “not a history of clashes that are violent” between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, “so I think they can probably get along”—he was a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time—and he told MSNBC that he had “no doubt” that U.S. troops would be “welcomed as liberators.” McCain also said repeatedly in his 2008 campaign for president that Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation, had been training and supplying al-Qaida, a Sunni Islamist organization. Undersecretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz said in congressional testimony, “we have no idea what kind of ethnic strife might appear in the future, although as I’ve noted it has not been the history of Iraq’s recent past,” and said that money from Iraq’s oil would pay for the (brief) war. William Kristol said “it’s going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war.” It turned out to be a nearly nine-year war (2003–11), and it may not be over. Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst who is invariably identified as a Middle East expert, wrote in his very influential 2002 book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq:

“. . . critics tend to exaggerate the likely costs to the United States of pursuing the Reconstruction Approach. In purely economic terms, Iraq itself, with its vast oil wealth, would pay for most of its reconstruction. . . . it is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars. The United States probably would have to provide $5 to $10 billion over the first three years to help get Iraq’s oil industry back on its feet, initiate the reconstrution of Iraq’s economy, and support the Iraqi people in the meantime . . .” [Emphasis per Mondoweiss, where this quotation was found.]

These guys—always wrong, always called back and still taken seriously by the news producers.

James Fallows at The Atlantic puts the point nicely:

“. . . we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrong. Wrong as a matter of analysis, wrong as a matter of planning, wrong as a matter of execution, wrong in conceiving American interests in the broadest sense. 

“. . . we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while. They helped create the disaster Iraqis and others are now dealing with. They have earned the right not to be listened to.”  [LNW’s emphasis]

new rule titlenew rule

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One more thing: Ominously, the U.S. aircraft carrier that has been sent into the Persian Gulf in case any air strikes are deemed necessary is the USS George H. W. Bush.

 

USSGHWBush-bbc

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Further Reading

The New York Times Middle East index

The Guardian on the ISIS crisis in Iraq

New York TimesThe Iraq-ISIS Conflict in Maps, Photos and Video

New York Times, “Rebels’ Fast Strike in Iraq Was Years in the Making” (6/15/14)

New York Times, U.S. Said to Rebuff Iraqi Request to Strike Militants” (6/11/14; quoted in epigraph above)

Nafeez Ahmed, “Iraq blowback: Isis rise manufactured by insatiable oil addiction” in The Guardian

The mess in Iraq proves Obama was right to leave” by Matthew Yglesias

Juan Cole, “Seven Myths about the Radical Sunni Advance in Iraq

Steve Benen @ MaddowBlog, “[Neocons] have earned the right not to be listened to

James Fallows in The Atlantic, “The Return of the Iraq War Hawk

Andrew J. Bacevich in Commonweal, “The Duplicity of the Ideologues: U.S. Policy & Robert Kagan’s Fictive Narrative

Enter Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman– the Iraq experts!” James North at Mondoweiss

The Best and the Brightest: (Former Clintonite) Kenneth Pollack” by Philip Weiss at Mondoweiss (6/1/06)

Levees Not War posts on the Iraq War

As “End” of Iraq War Is Announced, U.S. Digs In, Warns Iran  (10/30/11)

How Many U.S. Soldiers Were Wounded in Iraq?  (12/31/11)

As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?  (8/19/10)

“Kill the Bill” vs. “Stop the War”: A Tale of Two Protests  (4/11/10)

Omigod! Infinite Iraqi Freedom! We’re Never Leaving!  (4/7/08)

OMG! Operation Iraqi Freedom Isn’t Free!  (11/11/07)

Let the Eagle Soar . . .”  (10/23/07)

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