Monthly Archives: October 2015

Image

Cruz head

Advertisements

Naked Capitalism on Our Middle East Mess

Iraq-chaos-cartoon

What Could Possibly Go Wrong (Next) in the Middle East?

By Peter Van Buren, who blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He writes about current events at We Meant Well. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. His next work will be a novel, Hooper’s War. Originally published at TomDispatch

What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history? Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”

Let the History Begin

In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.

The Precipitating Event

Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.

There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!

The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).

Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.

And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.

Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.

The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.

The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.

In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.

Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.

As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”

In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.

Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.

Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.

An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.

Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers.

The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.

The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.

World War I

As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)

Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?

As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.

What Is This All About Again?

What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.

The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?

The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.

Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.

Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.

Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?

Naked Capitalism on the Worst of Corporate Greed

 ask-yourselves-this-did-this-happen-fighting-for-your-freedom-of-corporate-greed

5 of the Biggest Acts of Corporate Hypocrisy in America

Posted on October 20, 2015 by
By Paul Buchheit, who teaches about economic inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of the Web sites UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org and RappingHistory.org, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org. Originally published at Alternet

American ‘exceptionalism’ exists in the minds of super-patriots who are more than willing to overlook their own faults as they place themselves above other people. The only question may be which of their self-serving hypocrisies is most outrageous and destructive.

1. Corporations Hoarding $2 Trillion in Profits, Asking Taxpayers to Pay Their Employees’ Wages

Citizens for Tax Justice just reported that Fortune 500 companies are holding over $2.1 trillion in accumulated profits offshore for tax purposes, with estimated taxes due of over $600 billion. But high-profile businessmen Peter Georgescu and Warren Buffett both recently recommended that government subsidies be used to increase worker wages, and Marco Rubio agreed, suggesting that government should pay the sick leave for corporate employees.

Georgescu proclaimed: “This country has given me remarkable opportunities.” In return, he concludes, taxpayers should “provide tax incentives to business.”

2. Mourning American Lives, But Not Foreign Lives

Two days after President Obama expressed grief and anger about the Oregon school shootings, a hospital in Afghanistan was bombed by the U.S., killing 22 people. Our government admitted its mistake. But we haven’t apologized for funding Saudi Arabia’s attacks in Yemen, which are killing hundreds of civilians. Or for our drone strikes in Pakistan, which led one 13-year-old to say, “I no longer love blue skies…The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman assured us that “If necessary, the President would implement changes that would make tragedies like this one less likely to occur in the future.” But these are empty words. Professor Marc Herold’sresearch has shown that “as the U.S. bombs get smarter, civilian casualties increase.” The military is encouraged to “drop bombs on sites which previously might not have been hit for fear of causing widespread civilian deaths.”

3. Caring About Unborn Children, But Not Living Children

The anti-abortion element keeps attacking Planned Parenthood, even though the long-successful and essential organization saves women’s lives through breast cancer screenings, and reduces abortions by providing contraceptive services.

Little mention is made of the 65% rise in homeless children in less than ten years. Or of the fact that only the United States and South Sudan have failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s a curious phenomenon that a safe and secure fetus garners more attention than a child exposed to the harsh realities of the world outside.

4. Demanding Self-Reliance of People Who Can’t Find a Living-Wage Job

The Koch-funded Heritage Foundation proclaimed, “Helping the poor should mean promoting individual freedom through self-reliance..” The Cato Instituteadded, “SNAP helps breed dependency and undermines the work ethic.”

Here are the facts: Nearly two-thirds of all working-age poor are actually working, but unable to earn a living wage, forcing them to rely on food stamps, which only provide about $5 a day per person for meals. In addition, over 83 percent of all benefits going to low-income people are for the elderly, the disabled, or working households.

Black families have the least opportunities, and are most maligned. The Wall Street Journal blurted: “..Too few blacks…have taken advantage of the opportunities now available to them.” But a recent study found that job applicants were about 50 percent more likely to be called back if they had “white” names. A hiring analysis study found that white job applicants with criminal records werecalled back more often than blacks without criminal records. Over half of the black college graduates of recent years were underemployed in 2013, working in occupations that typically do not require a four-year college degree.

Perhaps worst of all, Congress vilifies the poor for laziness while doing little to provide employment opportunities. In 2011 Senate Republicans killed a proposed $447 billion jobs bill that would have added about two million jobs to the economy. Members of Congress filibustered Nancy Pelosi’s “Prevention of Outsourcing Act,” even as a million jobs were being outsourced, and they temporarily blocked the “Small Business Jobs Act.” In April, 2013 only one member of Congress bothered to show up for a hearing on unemployment. When asked what he would do to bring jobs to Kentucky, Mitch McConnellresponded, “That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.”

5. Turning Away People Who Were Displaced by Our “Free Trade” Pacts

Many Americans have sympathized with Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiments, despite his cruel assessment of Mexican people: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Apparently few Americans are aware of, or concerned about, the hardships faced by Mexican families since the beginnings of NAFTA. Subsidies to U.S. corn farmers led to lower prices and a tripling of corn exports to Mexico over the first ten years of the trade pact. Prices collapsed in Mexico. Corn that earned growers 2.00 pesos per kilogram in 1994 dropped to .50 pesos in 2001. Production became concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy landowners. Over 1.3 million jobs were lost in agriculture since 1994, while 500,000 manufacturing jobs were gained, most of them at lower wages than before NAFTA, and many of them in the crime-filled and disease-ridden maquiladora factory towns at the U.S. border.

Ana Luisa Cruz would leave her house in Ciudad Juarez at 5 AM to work at a maquiladora factory for $7.60 a day, which was not enough to pay for both food and school fees for her three younger children. Mexico’s wages fell further as factory jobs were lost to even lower-wage countries. For many like Ana Luisa, there was nothing else to do but seek work across the border, in the United States.

More…

Banks get bailouts, but homeowners and students can’t declare bankruptcy. Drug companies increase prices by 5,000%, but Medicare is not allowed to negotiate for lower drug prices. Charter schools are public when the money is being passed out, but private when we want to look at their books.

The list goes on and on.

Image

edward g. ryan

Naked Capitalism: Waging the Wrong Wars

 global-war-on-terror-main

Andrew Bacevich: On Building Foreign Armies and Watching Them Fail

By Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, among other works. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Random House), is due out in April 2016. Originally published at TomDispatch

First came Fallujah, then Mosul, and later Ramadi in Iraq.  Now, there is Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan.  In all four places, the same story has played out: in cities that newspaper reporters like to call “strategically important,” security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. military at great expense simply folded, abandoning their posts (and much of their U.S.-supplied weaponry) without even mounting serious resistance.  Called upon to fight, they fled.  In each case, the defending forces gave way before substantially outnumbered attackers, making the outcomes all the more ignominious.

Together, these setbacks have rendered a verdict on the now more-or-less nameless Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Successive blitzkriegs by ISIS and the Taliban respectively did more than simply breach Iraqi and Afghan defenses. They also punched gaping holes in the strategy to which the United States had reverted in hopes of stemming the further erosion of its position in the Greater Middle East.

Recall that, when the United States launched its GWOT soon after 9/11, it did so pursuant to a grandiose agenda. U.S. forces were going to imprint onto others a specific and exalted set of values. During President George W. Bush’s first term, this “freedom agenda” formed the foundation, or at least the rationale, for U.S. policy.

The shooting would stop, Bush vowed, only when countries like Afghanistan had ceased to harbor anti-American terrorists and countries like Iraq had ceased to encourage them. Achieving this goal meant that the inhabitants of those countries would have to change. Afghans and Iraqis, followed in due course by Syrians, Libyans, Iranians, and sundry others would embrace democracy, respect human rights, and abide by the rule of law, or else. Through the concerted application of American power, they would become different — more like us and therefore more inclined to get along with us. A bit less Mecca and Medina, a bit more “we hold these truths” and “of the people, by the people.”

So Bush and others in his inner circle professed to believe.  At least some of them, probably including Bush himself, may actually have done so.

History, at least the bits and pieces to which Americans attend, seemed to endow such expectations with a modicum of plausibility. Had not such a transfer of values occurred after World War II when the defeated Axis Powers had hastily thrown in with the winning side? Had it not recurred as the Cold War was winding down, when previously committed communists succumbed to the allure of consumer goods and quarterly profit statements?

If the appropriate mix of coaching and coercion were administered, Afghans and Iraqis, too, would surely take the path once followed by good Germans and nimble Japanese, and subsequently by Czechs tired of repression and Chinese tired of want. Once liberated, grateful Afghans and Iraqis would align themselves with a conception of modernity that the United States had pioneered and now exemplified. For this transformation to occur, however, the accumulated debris of retrograde social conventions and political arrangements that had long retarded progress would have to be cleared away. This was what the invasions of Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom!) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom!) were meant to accomplish in one fell swoop by a military the likes of which had (to hear Washington tell it) never been seen in history. POW!

Standing Them Up As We Stand Down

Concealed within that oft-cited “freedom” — the all-purpose justification for deploying American power — were several shades of meaning. The term, in fact, requires decoding. Yet within the upper reaches of the American national security apparatus, one definition takes precedence over all others. In Washington, freedom has become a euphemism for dominion. Spreading freedom means positioning the United States to call the shots. Seen in this context, Washington’s expected victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to affirm and broaden its preeminence by incorporating large parts of the Islamic world into the American imperium. They would benefit, of course, but to an even greater extent, so would we.

Alas, liberating Afghans and Iraqis turned out to be a tad more complicated than the architects of Bush’s freedom (or dominion) agenda anticipated.  Well before Barack Obama succeeded Bush in January 2009, few observers — apart from a handful of ideologues and militarists — clung to the fairy tale of U.S. military might whipping the Greater Middle East into shape.  Brutally but efficiently, war had educated the educable.  As for the uneducable, they persisted in taking their cues from Fox News and the Weekly Standard.

Yet if the strategy of transformation via invasion and “nation building” had failed, there was a fallback position that seemed to be dictated by the logic of events. Together, Bush and Obama would lower expectations as to what the United States was going to achieve, even as they imposed new demands on the U.S. military, America’s go-to outfit in foreign policy, to get on with the job.

Rather than midwifing fundamental political and cultural change, the Pentagon was instead ordered to ramp up its already gargantuan efforts to create local militaries (and police forces) capable of maintaining order and national unity. President Bush provided a concise formulation of the new strategy: “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” Under Obama, after his own stab at a “surge,” the dictum applied to Afghanistan as well. Nation-building had flopped. Building armies and police forces able to keep a lid on things now became the prevailing definition of success.

The United States had, of course, attempted this approach once before, with unhappy results.  This was in Vietnam.  There, efforts to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces intent on unifying their divided country had exhausted both the U.S. military and the patience of the American people. Responding to the logic of events, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had a tacitly agreed upon fallback position. As the prospects of American forces successfully eliminating threats to South Vietnamese security faded, the training and equipping of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves became priority number one.

Dubbed “Vietnamization,” this enterprise ended in abject failure with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Yet that failure raised important questions to which members of the national security elite might have attended: Given a weak state with dubious legitimacy, how feasible is it to expect outsiders to invest indigenous forces with genuine fighting power?  How do differences in culture or history or religion affect the prospects for doing so? Can skill ever make up for a deficit of will? Can hardware replace cohesion? Above all, if tasked with giving some version of Vietnamization another go, what did U.S. forces need to do differently to ensure a different result?

At the time, with general officers and civilian officials more inclined to forget Vietnam than contemplate its implications, these questions attracted little attention. Instead, military professionals devoted themselves to gearing up for the next fight, which they resolved would be different. No more Vietnams — and therefore no more Vietnamization.

After the Gulf War of 1991, basking in the ostensible success of Operation Desert Storm, the officer corps persuaded itself that it had once and for all banished its Vietnam-induced bad memories. As Commander-in-Chief George H.W. Bush so memorably put it, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

In short, the Pentagon now had war figured out. Victory had become a foregone conclusion. As it happened, this self-congratulatory evaluation left U.S. troops ill-prepared for the difficulties awaiting them after 9/11 when interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq departed from the expected script, which posited short wars by a force beyond compare ending in decisive victories. What the troops got were two very long wars with no decision whatsoever. It was Vietnam on a smaller scale all over again — times two.

Vietnamization 2.0

For Bush in Iraq and Obama after a brief, half-hearted flirtation with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, opting for a variant of Vietnamization proved to be a no-brainer. Doing so offered the prospect of an escape from all complexities. True enough, Plan A — we export freedom and democracy — had fallen short. But Plan B — they (with our help) restore some semblance of stability — could enable Washington to salvage at least partial success in both places.  With the bar suitably lowered, a version of “Mission Accomplished” might still be within reach.

If Plan A had looked to U.S. troops to vanquish their adversaries outright, Plan B focused on prepping besieged allies to take over the fight. Winning outright was no longer the aim — given the inability of U.S. forces to do so, this was self-evidently not in the cards — but holding the enemy at bay was.

Although allied with the United States, only in the loosest sense did either Iraq or Afghanistan qualify as a nation-state. Only nominally and intermittently did governments in Baghdad and Kabul exercise a writ of authority commanding respect from the people known as Iraqis and Afghans. Yet in the Washington of George Bush and Barack Obama, a willing suspension of disbelief became the basis for policy. In distant lands where the concept of nationhood barely existed, the Pentagon set out to create a full-fledged national security apparatus capable of defending that aspiration as if it represented reality. From day one, this was a faith-based undertaking.

As with any Pentagon project undertaken on a crash basis, this one consumed resources on a gargantuan scale — $25 billion in Iraq and an even more staggering $65 billion in Afghanistan. “Standing up” the requisite forces involved the transfer of vast quantities of equipment and the creation of elaborate U.S. training missions. Iraqi and Afghan forces acquired all the paraphernalia of modern war — attack aircraft or helicopters, artillery and armored vehicles, night vision devices and drones. Needless to say, stateside defense contractors lined up in droves to cash in.

Based on their performance, the security forces on which the Pentagon has lavished years of attention remain visibly not up to the job. Meanwhile, ISIS warriors, without the benefit of expensive third-party mentoring, appear plenty willing to fight and die for their cause. Ditto Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The beneficiaries of U.S. assistance? Not so much. Based on partial but considerable returns, Vietnamization 2.0 seems to be following an eerily familiar trajectory that should remind anyone of Vietnamization 1.0. Meanwhile, the questions that ought to have been addressed back when our South Vietnamese ally went down to defeat have returned with a vengeance.

The most important of those questions challenges the assumption that has informed U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East since the freedom agenda went south: that Washington has a particular knack for organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies. Based on the evidence piling up before our eyes, that assumption appears largely false. On this score, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, a former military commander and U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, has rendered an authoritative judgment. “Our track record at building [foreign] security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” he recently told the New York Times.  Just so.

Fighting the Wrong War

Some might argue that trying harder, investing more billions, sending yet more equipment for perhaps another 15 years will produce more favorable results. But this is akin to believing that, given sufficient time, the fruits of capitalism will ultimately trickle down to benefit the least among us or that the march of technology holds the key to maximizing human happiness. You can believe it if you want, but it’s a mug’s game.

Indeed, the United States would be better served if policymakers abandoned the pretense that the Pentagon possesses any gift whatsoever for “standing up” foreign military forces. Prudence might actually counsel that Washington assume instead, when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.

Exceptions may exist.  For example, U.S. efforts have probably helped boost the fighting power of the Kurdish peshmerga. Yet such exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule. Keep in mind that before American trainers and equipment ever showed up, Iraq’s Kurds already possessed the essential attributes of nationhood. Unlike Afghans and Iraqis, Kurds do not require tutoring in the imperative of collective self-defense.

What are the policy implications of giving up the illusion that the Pentagon knows how to build foreign armies? The largest is this: subletting war no longer figures as a plausible alternative to waging it directly. So where U.S. interests require that fighting be done, like it or not, we’re going to have to do that fighting ourselves. By extension, in circumstances where U.S. forces are demonstrably incapable of winning or where Americans balk at any further expenditure of American blood — today in the Greater Middle East both of these conditions apply — then perhaps we shouldn’t be there. To pretend otherwise is to throw good money after bad or, as a famous American general once put it, to wage (even if indirectly) “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” This we have been doing now for several decades across much of the Islamic world.

In American politics, we await the officeholder or candidate willing to state the obvious and confront its implications.

Garrison Keillor Saved for Posterity

We’re Not in Lake Wobegon Anymore

How did the Party of Lincoln and Liberty transmogrify into the party of Newt Gingrich’s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk?

BY GARRISON KEILLOR

Something has gone seriously haywire with the Republican Party. Once, it was the party of pragmatic Main Street businessmen in steel-rimmed spectacles who decried profligacy and waste, were devoted to their communities and supported the sort of prosperity that raises all ships. They were good-hearted people who vanquished the gnarlier elements of their party, the paranoid Roosevelt-haters, the flat Earthers and Prohibitionists, the antipapist antiforeigner element. The genial Eisenhower was their man, a genuine American hero of D-Day, who made it OK for reasonable people to vote Republican. He brought the Korean War to a stalemate, produced the Interstate Highway System, declined to rescue the French colonial army in Vietnam, and gave us a period of peace and prosperity, in which (oddly) American arts and letters flourished and higher education burgeoned—and there was a degree of plain decency in the country. Fifties Republicans were giants compared to today’s. Richard Nixon was the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward the poor.

In the years between Nixon and Newt Gingrich, the party migrated southward down the Twisting Trail of Rhetoric and sneered at the idea of public service and became the Scourge of Liberalism, the Great Crusade Against the Sixties, the Death Star of Government, a gang of pirates that diverted and fascinated the media by their sheer chutzpah, such as the misty-eyed flag-waving of Ronald Reagan who, while George McGovern flew bombers in World War II, took a pass and made training films in Long Beach. The Nixon moderate vanished like the passenger pigeon, purged by a legion of angry white men who rose to power on pure punk politics. “Bipartisanship is another term of date rape,” says Grover Norquist, the Sid Vicious of the GOP. “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The boy has Oedipal problems and government is his daddy.

The party of Lincoln and Liberty was transmogrified into the party of hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, misanthropic frat boys, shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, nihilists in golf pants, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, hacks, fakirs, aggressive dorks, Lamborghini libertarians, people who believe Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was filmed in Roswell, New Mexico, little honkers out to diminish the rest of us, Newt’s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk. Republicans: The No.1 reason the rest of the world thinks we’re deaf, dumb and dangerous.

Rich ironies abound! Lies pop up like toadstools in the forest! Wild swine crowd round the public trough! Outrageous gerrymandering! Pocket lining on a massive scale! Paid lobbyists sit in committee rooms and write legislation to alleviate the suffering of billionaires! Hypocrisies shine like cat turds in the moonlight! O Mark Twain, where art thou at this hour? Arise and behold the Gilded Age reincarnated gaudier than ever, upholding great wealth as the sure sign of Divine Grace.

Here in 2004, George W. Bush is running for reelection on a platform of tragedy—the single greatest failure of national defense in our history, the attacks of 9/11 in which 19 men with box cutters put this nation into a tailspin, a failure the details of which the White House fought to keep secret even as it ran the country into hock up to the hubcaps, thanks to generous tax cuts for the well-fixed, hoping to lead us into a box canyon of debt that will render government impotent, even as we engage in a war against a small country that was undertaken for the president’s personal satisfaction but sold to the American public on the basis of brazen misinformation, a war whose purpose is to distract us from an enormous transfer of wealth taking place in this country, flowing upward, and the deception is working beautifully.

The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few is the death knell of democracy. No republic in the history of humanity has survived this. The election of 2004 will say something about what happens to ours. The omens are not good.

Our beloved land has been fogged with fear—fear, the greatest political strategy ever. An ominous silence, distant sirens, a drumbeat of whispered warnings and alarms to keep the public uneasy and silence the opposition. And in a time of vague fear, you can appoint bullet-brained judges, strip the bark off the Constitution, eviscerate federal regulatory agencies, bring public education to a standstill, stupefy the press, lavish gorgeous tax breaks on the rich.

There is a stink drifting through this election year. It isn’t the Florida recount or the Supreme Court decision. No, it’s 9/11 that we keep coming back to. It wasn’t the “end of innocence,” or a turning point in our history, or a cosmic occurrence, it was an event, a lapse of security. And patriotism shouldn’t prevent people from asking hard questions of the man who was purportedly in charge of national security at the time.

Whenever I think of those New Yorkers hurrying along Park Place or getting off the No.1 Broadway local, hustling toward their office on the 90th floor, the morning paper under their arms, I think of that non-reader George W. Bush and how he hopes to exploit those people with a little economic uptick, maybe the capture of Osama, cruise to victory in November and proceed to get some serious nation-changing done in his second term.

This year, as in the past, Republicans will portray us Democrats as embittered academics, desiccated Unitarians, whacked-out hippies and communards, people who talk to telephone poles, the party of the Deadheads. They will wave enormous flags and wow over and over the footage of firemen in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and bodies being carried out and they will lie about their economic policies with astonishing enthusiasm.

The Union is what needs defending this year. Government of Enron and by Halliburton and for the Southern Baptists is not the same as what Lincoln spoke of. This gang of Pithecanthropus Republicanii has humbugged us to death on terrorism and tax cuts for the comfy and school prayer and flag burning and claimed the right to know what books we read and to dump their sewage upstream from the town and clear-cut the forests and gut the IRS and mark up the constitution on behalf of intolerance and promote the corporate takeover of the public airwaves and to hell with anybody who opposes them.

This is a great country, and it wasn’t made so by angry people. We have a sacred duty to bequeath it to our grandchildren in better shape than however we found it. We have a long way to go and we’re not getting any younger.

Dante said that the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral, so I have spoken my piece, and thank you, dear reader. It’s a beautiful world, rain or shine, and there is more to life than winning.

Humor: The Borowitz Report

PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW HARRER / BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) – Americans who are opposed to being shot, a constituency that has historically failed to find representation in Washington, are making a new effort to make its controversial ideas heard in the nation’s capital.

“When you bring up the idea of not wanting to be shot with members of Congress, there’s always been pushback,” Carol Foyler, founder of the lobbying group Americans Opposed to Being Shot, said. “Their reaction has been, basically, ‘Not being shot: who’s going to support something like that?’”

Foyler, however, believes that the right to not be shot, much like women’s right to vote, the right to same-sex marriage, and other rights that were deemed controversial in their day, may be an idea whose time has finally come.

“For years, we’ve been talking about the right to not be shot and people have been looking at us like we’re out of our minds,” she said. “But recent polls show that a vast majority of Americans, in fact, do not want to be shot.”

While Foyler and other anti-being-shot activists believe that Washington may finally be receptive to their radical ideas, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, is doubtful. “People who don’t want to be shot are a very narrow interest group,” he said.