Levees Not War
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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.

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.”

(Was somebody saying something about the centenary of the outbreak of the war to end all wars?)

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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How Deep Is Our Disgust with Obama and PussyDems

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

Obama and Democrats Must Defend Social Security, Medicare—and the Middle Class—Before They’re Gone

In “Our Cowardly Congress,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out that last week’s Shutdown standoff happened only because the cowardly Democrats—the PussyDems, we now call them—opted not to vote on a full year’s budget last fall when they had a majority in both houses of Congress:

. . . this mess is a consequence of the Democrats’ own failure to ensure a full year’s funding last year when they controlled both houses of Congress. That’s when the budget should have been passed, before the fiscal year began on Oct. 1. But the Democrats were terror-stricken at the thought of approving spending bills that Republicans would criticize. So in gross dereliction of duty, the Democrats punted.

Right, we remember now: Facing a tidal wave in the mid-term elections, and seeking to deny Republicans any more openings for attack (as if that would stop them), Democrats opted not to cast a vote for more spending. They chose not to speak up for social spending or investments in infrastructure during a depression; feared to speak up for their own money-saving health care reform bill, and so on. And why? Because they knew the President would not back them up. Had Obama been more forceful—or the least bit audacious—in defending domestic spending in a nation with at least 10% unemployment, with some 24 million unemployed or under-employed, the Democrats would have had more courage. The president shows little interest in being the leader of what we thought was his own party.

Last fall and summer, before the midterm elections, was also when the Democrats, again lacking protection by the putative head of their party, shrank from voting against extension of the Bush tax cuts. This made room for the Tea Party–drunken Republicans to come roaring in in their domineering way and force an extension of the tax cuts for billionaires while Obama sang “Kumbaya.”

Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the Democrats’ ranking member on the House Budget Committee, told Rachel Maddow last week that when House Majority Leader John Boehner demanded $32 billion in cuts, Obama came back and offered $33 billion. As the G.O.P.’s threats and demands escalated through the week, they ended up with $38.5 billion in cuts—in a struggling economy that needs all the spending it can get. Firm negotiating, there, Mr. President. You really held the line. Paul Krugman observes that it looks as though “the president’s idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions” (“The President Is Missing”). Did we mention this was the same week Obama officially announced he’s running for re-election?

Why Re-Elect a President Who Won’t Lead His Party?

We contributed money and volunteered for his campaign in 2008, but we really don’t see why Obama deserves reelection, or what he would do with a second term other than cave in to Republicans week after week. To us he is more of a Republican than our idea of a Democrat. Can we have a real stand-up, fighting Democrat instead, or at least some protector of the middle class and the social safety net? Anthony Weiner for president, anyone? At the rate we’re going, Obama and the Democrats will stand aside while Medicare and Social Security are shredded, and Obama will praise the Republicans for their willingness to compromise.

“Someone’s crying, Lord, kumbaya . . . Someone’s sleeping, Lord, kumbaya . . .”


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Notes for Tonight’s Oval Office Script

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Very briefly, what we’re hoping to hear in the president’s address is a strong commitment to progressive energy legislation—the best of the Kerry-Lieberman and Waxman-Markey bills currently in Congress. (Here are some good, sensible specifics proposed by the Center for American Progress: “Obama’s Oil Reform Opportunity.”) We want to see the president’s hand firm and resolute in compelling BP’s compliance in stopping the volcano of oil and forcing much stronger efforts by BP in stopping the oil from spreading into the Louisiana wetlands. The half-assed band-aid booms they’ve laid out are not enough and are too sparsely monitored—and we also don’t want these “toxic tampons” dumped in Louisiana landfills as BP has been doing at Port Fourchon—at least 250 tons’ worth. We also want greater transparency by BP with information and an end to blocking reporters and photographers from doing their work.

But we don’t just want to hear about BP and its Deepwater Horizon gusher, because the current crisis could have happened to other oil companies, too, or at other BP rigs now drilling elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico (such as BP’s ominously named Atlantis rig, a well 7,000 below the surface and 150 miles from the coast of Louisiana—too close). We also want the president to tell us what he is going to do about cracking heads at the troubled Minerals Management Service division of the Interior Department that has allowed Big Oil to regulate itself—with evident results. Tim Dickinson’s stunning report in the June 24 issue of Rolling Stone (“The Spill, the Scandal and the President”) shows that MMS is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent and needs to be flushed out like the Augean stables. It may well be that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should be banished to the same distant pasture where we’d like to see Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner grazing in exile.

We’ll be back with more soon after the president’s address. Note, though, that Obama will be addressing the nation from the Oval Office for the first time in his presidency, a sign of the gravity of the situation. This is the office from which John F. Kennedy apprised the nation of a buildup of Soviet missiles in Cuba in October 1962, and other presidents have set the stage for declarations of war.

Will we hear President Obama declare the equivalent of a manned mission to the moon, as even Joe Scarborough has said he needs to do? (“This president can say . . . by the end of a decade, America will break its dependence on foreign oil.”) Good idea, though we’re not holding our breath. But we are going to be pressing Obama and Congress for full-blown energy reform. As we said about ten days ago (“Welcome Back, Mr. President”), “Mr. President, a major, massive, fully committed national shift toward alternative energy must begin now. . . . Push for Energy Reform on the scale of the Manhattan Project, the Interstate Highway System, the TVA, or the Apollo mission—or all of these combined.”

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Help for Haiti

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Montreal La Presse, Ivanoh Demers

A 7.0 magnitude earthquake has rocked and toppled much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the most powerful quake to strike there in 200 years. The quake lasted a full minute; the Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, also 7.0 on the Richter scale, lasted only 15 seconds. (We were there, and believe us, a full minute would feel like days of terror.) Haitian president René Préval says likely thousands are dead. Click here for a video report. (Meanwhile, the very Christian Rev. Pat Robertson helpfully explains that Haiti is “cursed” because “a long time ago . . . they got together and swore a pact to the devil” for help in gaining freedom from the French. “True story.”) • Relief agencies are listed below.

President Obama’s Remarks

“. . . for a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible. . . . this is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share. With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are neighbors of the Americas and here at home. So we have to be there for them in their hour of need.” [click here for transcript]

Ricardo Arduengo.AP

HOW TO HELP

New York Times list of relief agencies

American Red Cross

Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières has been in Haiti since 1991; has 3 hospitals; perhaps the most established humanitarian presence there: an excellent organization to contribute to.

UNICEF (for children)

Text “HAITI” to “90999” to donate $10 to be charged to your cell phone bill.

Family members concerned about the status of loved ones in Haiti can call the U.S. State Department at 888-407-4747.

Despite the fact that we are experiencing tough times here at home, I would encourage those Americans who want to support the urgent humanitarian efforts to go to whitehouse.gov where you can learn how to contribute. We must be prepared for difficult hours and days ahead as we learn about the scope of the tragedy. We will keep the victims and their families in our prayers. We will be resolute in our response, and I pledge to the people of Haiti that you will have a friend and partner in the United States of America today and going forward.” —President Obama

HaitiQuake

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Deeper into Afghanistan: 360 Degrees of Damnation

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

we must rebuild our strength here at home . . . . the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” —President Obama, Dec. 1, 2009

NYTWe wanted to take time to try to make sense of President Obama’s speech at West Point last week in which he announced his decision to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by 30,000 over the next six months. We pray he knows what he’s doing. We can only imagine the risks and variables he has been weighing. Because he is a peaceful man by nature (the Nobel may have been awarded at the wrong time but it was not given to the wrong man), we are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. And yet, even though he knows more than we’re privy to, we are still skeptical. Our favorite lines in the address were those quoted above. Perhaps the most painful part of the speech is its overall contrast with and cancellation of those fine-sounding sentiments.

There are truly no good options—all are fraught with unacceptable consequences: 360 degrees of damnation—and yet we feel the president has made a tragically wrong decision. Even though we were impressed by his methodical and deliberative approach to a maddeningly complex issue, and even though it is theoretically possible that with unlimited time, money, and the blessings of fortune this new “Way Forward” can work, we do not believe it will. There is too much reliance on military force, too many moving parts that have to come together just so. (There is a saying that whenever you have two Afghans you have at least three factions.) Of course the generals say they can do it—give ’em enough troops  and they’ll promise you anything. Hendrik Hertzberg writes in The New Yorker that Obama would have faced “a probable Pentagon revolt” had he chosen to withdraw starting now, and if such a decision had been followed by a large-scale terrorist attack he would face “savage, politically lethal scapegoating.” Very likely. This is the situation we’re in. Nicholas Kristof observes in his New York Times column that amid all the president’s consultations of experts, one important set of players not consulted were the tribal elders of Afghanistan. Without their cooperation, nothing will work.

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Warming Up for Obama

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Senators: Support Public Option, Kennedy’s HELP Committee Plan

UScapitolTonight President Obama gives a rather important speech to a joint session of Congress. To say we wish him well would be an understatement. We spent most of the day warming up his audience by faxing and mailing letters to the Democratic senators, starting with Harry Reid (he got his own personalized letter because he’s the Majority Leader). Here are some excerpts. It’s not “Obama’s English,” but we do our best.

To Senator Reid:

. . . support a strong public option: authentic health care reform that will cover all Americans and will give voters a reason to “vote Democrat” for generations to come. We don’t want co-ops and we don’t want “triggers.” . . . What we really want is a single-payer system that’s easy to understand—a Medicare-for-all bill. Why was that never on the table? We agree with the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s call for a public option built on the Medicare provider system, with reimbursement based on Medicare rates—not negotiated rates.

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Senator Kennedy’s Gulf Coast Rebuilding Plan

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

EMK-official Senate portrait

“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

While others have gone quickly online with some very affectionate and stirring tributes to Senator Kennedy, we wanted to take a little time to reflect on his life and work (plus, we’ve been busy fine-tuning our newly redesigned web site). As usual, we look at things in relation to New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast. It may be only accidental that the great senator’s death falls within days of the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but there’s an important connection people should know about, and surely some credit goes to the Louisiana woman he married, Victoria Reggie Kennedy.

It was Senator Kennedy who proposed a Gulf Coast Rebuilding Plan soon after the storm. This comprehensive rebuilding plan was said at the time to have been modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority; as usual, Senator Kennedy thought large, seeing the scope of the effort the crisis called for. (Note that here, once again, he found a cosponsor for a bipartisan bill in Republican senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.)

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Feingold Asks Obama for Timetable on Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

ThinkProgress.org

ThinkProgress.org

Think Progress calls attention to a report by ABC News that Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) is calling on President Obama for a timetable for when the U.S. will withdraw forces from Afghanistan. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after the attacks of September 11, but attention and resources were soon diverted to the U.S. invasion of Iraq (March 2003). President Obama began a build-up of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to intensify military pressure on resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda forces earlier in 2009. The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 22 that there are now 58,000 troops in Afghanistan and nearly 74,000 military contractors. The AP reports that military officials expect that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the chief U.S. commander in Afghanistan, may ask for an additional 20,000 troops—and even that increase may be less than what McChrystal really needs to get the situation under control. But what would “under control” mean?

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