It’s the Stupid, Stupid
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers (crisispapers.org)
Barack Obama is not stupid and he says he doesn’t want his administration to do “stupid things” in foreign policy. So why, then, has he done a reckless, stupid thing by starting a new, two-theater war in the Middle East? And why did that war in Syria have to commence immediately as an existential necessity?
Even though I don’t agree, I can at least somewhat understand a rush to war when it comes to Iraq. The corruption and vacuum of leadership in that country opened up a rich shaft for the extremist jihadis of ISIS to mine — and they are moving inexorably toward Baghdad. But what was the absolute moral hurry to bomb inside Syria?; you mean the operation couldn’t have waited a few weeks so there could be a full-scale national debate, both in Congress and in the American polity in general, about the wisdom of such a dangerous move?
We should always be wary of hurry-up wars; someone (usually with $omething to gain) is trying to rush things along before the public remembers the previous such wars and how disastrous those turned out.
This whole Mideast situation is a chaotic mess, which cries out for more rational analysis. So let’s try to parse out as much as we can in terms of possible motives for war, along with pointing out the scary ramifications that always attend The Dumb. Here are 10 places to start.
1. MUSCLE BEACH
Ronald Reagan and CheneyBush were celebrated by the Right and some Independents for their “muscular” military policy — that is, taking the country to war. So Obama for years has been covering his, and Democrats’, perceived electoral vulnerability of being seen as “weak” and wishy-washy when it comes to national-security issues.
The speeches Obama has given in the past few weeks, justifying his somewhat amorphous military plans to crush and destroy ISIS could have been delivered word for word by George W. No wonder the Hard Right Republicans are celebrating — while they lobby for sending foot-soldiers into Iraq and Syria ASAP. And no wonder the liberal left is discombobulated by their formerly anti-war leader’s dash toward militarism, especially with regard to bombing inside Syria.
2. NEO-CONS 2.0
The Cheney-ite neo-conservatives have a simple way of viewing the world: To them, the U.S. is the last remaining superpower and thus it should move aggressively to mold the world in its image, even if it takes a few more wars. The problem with such thinking is that such a geopolitical strategy didn’t work in the 1990s and it won’t work now: so many modern-day wars are asymmetrical and difficult for large, musclebound nations like the U.S. to fight successfully (see Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.)
From the standpoint of these smaller countries, “success” in this context means to bleed the superpower with a thousand cuts over many years. Stalemate becomes victory, since eventually the American citizenry grows weary of military quagmires and withdraws from the battlefield.
Why the rush to war in Syria? I suspect that Obama and his military advisors saw a golden window of opportunity they couldn’t resist: a greatly distracted Assad, an enemy in ISIS that almost invited the initial bombing runs and missile attacks by massing men and materiel right out in the open, a violent Sunni/Shia split in Islam, some Arab cheerleaders anxious to rein in extremist jihadis, the president free to act on his own since the U.S. Congress wanted to keep its fingerprints off a new Middle East war (hence, no debate), especially right before the midterm election.
3. A TRUE BELIEVER?
Another possibility: What if Obama’s war posture is not an act? Maybe he really believes what he’s saying. The progressive Left chose to see Obama as a liberal activist when he actually was much closer to the center-Right and beholden to the prevailing corporate worldview. He certainly was no pacifist. Recall that when the President received his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, his acceptance speech to the assembled diplomats in Oslo inexplicably was a defense of going to war — the “just war” argument.
Obama today may truly believe in his own propaganda, that ISIS is the latest manifestation of pure evil and must be eradicated; forget the fact that many of the ISIS fighters originally were recruited, armed and encouraged by the U.S. as tough fighters in the Syrian opposition. Now Obama wants ISIS to be ripped, root and branch, from the face of the earth, despite opposition from potential allies.
Surely, Obama sees that no country is champing at the bit to put its soldiers on the ground in Syria. If other nations want to help at all in the Syrian theater, it will be mostly from the air and will mainly be in service to the U.S. air force and drones. (A somewhat reluctant Turkey seems willing to send combat troops, if it has to.)
As for the U.S., Obama promises no boots on the ground, unless there’s a damn good reason to do so. And, as the American people have figured out (see recent polls), there will be a “damn good reason” to do so.
Since Obama is not stupid, he must know that it won’t take much to make the U.S. change its mind about BOTG (boots on the ground). All it will take is a U.S. aircraft shot down by ISIS or Syrian missile, or when U.S. military members are taken prisoner and threatened with beheading, or when some major act of ISIS terrorism occurs inside “The Homeland” — or that can be blamed on ISIS Central, even if done by free-lancing jihadis. You can bet that in such circumstances, there will be BOTG very quickly, whether those of active-duty soldiers or large numbers of special forces operators.
4. THE TRUE TARGET IN SYRIA
The bombs raining down on Syria from the air are aimed at ISIS facilities and troops, but the actual goal is regime change in Damascus. (And, after that, maybe Iran.)
Surely, Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, can see the handwriting on the wall, that he’s next in the U.S. crosshairs, so why is he being so relatively quiet as his country’s sovereignty is violated every day by U.S. bombers and missiles?
It seems clear, at least to me, that some accommodation with Assad — perhaps with tacit promises of weapon and cash — was reached before the U.S. bombing campaign began. In its most simplistic tactical form, that deal might have been something like this: “You stay out of our way — we will let you know in which regions of Syria we will be operating on that day — and you can continue to rule.” Assad perhaps figured: “I need to regroup and grow stronger, so if the U.S. wants to be my air force for a year or two, I’ll take it. In the interim, I can try convincing the U.S. that I’m their best hope in the region, even if they say they abhor my methods of control. That might mean that I would effectively be in the same camp as Israel, but ‘politics makes for strange bedfellows’ and ‘the enemy of my enemy is my (temporary) friend’.”
In addition, Assad is playing the nuclear card as further insurance the U.S. will not overthrow him: He’s revealed four heretofore secret chemical facilities which, if ISIS were to get ahold of, could ignite a firestorm of death and mass destruction all over the region and beyond.
5. ISIS STRATEGY
ISIS, at the moment, seems content to be the leading jihadi force in the Middle East region, even though its spokesmen like to poke a verbal stick in the eye of the “Great Satan” by promising attacks eventually on the American homeland.
The eventual goal of ISIS is to establish the modern equivalent of the 7th-century caliphate for all Muslims, and perhaps re-create the Islamic Empire over much of the rest of the world.
One key to doing this is to enrage the United States and its Western allies enough to draw them into the maelstrom that is the Middle East. Just as Osama bin Laden did with the attacks of 9/11. The naive, angry U.S. snaps up the bait and invades another Muslim land.
Right now, ISIS is reaping the whirlwind from the air. Lots of damage, losing some momentum and so on, but bearable. What is likely to transpire: ISIS at some point ordering its troops to melt into the villages and urban settings for awhile, while it sharpens its guerrilla tactics and uses its social-network smarts to help round up thousands of new recruits. I would expect terrorist bombings in the capitals of Europe and in those Arab countries (Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, etc.) supporting the U.S.-led war.
Since it’s difficult to root out ISIS fighters from the air, eventually the U.S. and its allies will feel obliged to put boots on the ground, and the mousetrap will snap shut.
6. “UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES”
Wars look so contained and tidy on the map charts when they are started. It doesn’t take long before all hell breaks loose and there’s no way to put the bloody genie of war back in the bottle. And then the unintended consequences start, and battle plans have to be rethought as the casualties and slaughters commence.
There will be plenty of surprises as the new Syria/Iraq war unravels. But even now, we can anticipate some, such as factions switching sides, high-tech weaponry winding up in ISIS and other jihadi hands, new fighters coming onto the field, alliances breaking apart, key nation-state actors in Europe starting to change their minds, Putin’s Russia causing mischief, anti-war protests worldwide starting to grow in size, free-lance terrorists bombing inside the U.S. and its coalition partners, the broadcasting of videos of U.S. coalition tortures, etc.
Yes, the U.S. military can be amazingly successful at times. But in these wars, there will be no victory. Just slow bleeding — of U.S. men and materiel and Americans’ sense of themselves as a moral people.
Does that mean that ISIS’ barbarities should be ignored? Of course not. Their medieval mentality and cruelties and desire to force conversions on a mass scale to re-establish the Islamic caliphate — all these must be confronted. Right now, the default mode of that reaction is violence (not that far removed from the extreme wars of The Crusades). The U.S. should be seeking more creative ways, involving larger alliances, and economic and political sanctions, to build a stronger moral/diplomatic/economic/political shield against ISIS. It may not ultimately work, but it can’t hurt and might actually help repel the advances of this group of cutthroats.
7. WISE ADVICE
As the old colonial system broke apart after World War II, the active principle for Western countries was “never fight a war on the landmass of Asia.” The new warning should be “never fight a war in the Middle East.” In that roiling, unstable part of the world, the social and political infrastructures are infinitely complex, virtually impossible for outsiders to understand, easy to get bogged down in the tribal, clan, religious miasmas, with constantly shifting alliances. In short, it’s easy to use missiles and bombs from thousands of feet in the air, but actually getting on the ground and trying to decipher the shadowy social/political rules and subrosa ways of doing business is the very definition of ill-advised policy. Has America learned nothing from its defeats in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan (lessons already learned by the Brits and the Russians in Afghanistan)?
As the U.S. gets bogged down in these new Mideast wars, it will spend down its treasury, its aging infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, the economy will collapse once again, the environment will continue to be degraded, the results of climate change will wreak more havoc on cash-starved localities, the gap between the uber-wealthy and the rest of us will grow larger, social revolution will become more necessary and real in the streets, etc.
8. ELECTORAL FALLOUT
It may turn out that the American Left will find itself joining forces, at least temporarily, with the rightist Rand Paulites to demand up-or-down votes on use of military force in Syria/Iraq.
Normally, the ruling party in power can count on the polity rallying around the flag and the troops doing the fighting. But whether the U.S. citizenry will continue to support these newest wars in the Middle East is unclear. It’s not even clear which political party is “in power” — the one that controls the White House? the one that controls the House? — or which military policies the populace might support: boots on the ground? drone and air force bombing??
My guess as I write this in early October is that the GOP is gaining traction using ISIS (“the terrorists are coming!”) to generate fear and anxiety, and that may be enough to tilt the midterm elections in their direction. The Democrats are split on the advisability of Obama’s war policies, and may not react in enough time (we’re less than a month away from election day) to win enough victories.
Needless to say, if the Hard Right continues to dominate the House, and becomes the majority in the Senate, the country is in for a catastrophic, post-election hard landing in every area imaginable, from economics to judicial appointments (especially to the Supreme Court) to educational slidebacks to fundamentalism and authoritarianism making massive gains in the public arena.
9. A HUMUNGOUS GAMBLE
Obama, it seems to me, is gambling that the good patriotic zeal of finally hitting back at somebody will accrue to the benefit of the Democrats in the midterm elections in November. But I’m not sure Obama can pull it off, hence the gloomy assessments above. Especially if Turkey and then NATO get sucked into the larger war, and Russia feels compelled actively to join the other side. WW3, anyone?
If the Syria/Iraq campaign is still going on in stasis in 2015 and the following year, and is viewed by the U.S. population as “Obama’s War,” stalemated and unwinnable, the Democrats may pay a high price at the polls in 2016, losing the White House and any hope for real traction in the years following.
10. WHAT CAN BE DONE?
What the U.S. needs is a full-scale social/political revolution, but though the need is certainly there, the “objective conditions” don’t seem to be in forceful play. This is true even as it’s becoming more obvious that we are moving slowly, incrementally toward a revolutionary tipping point.
Less than a month before Election Day, there doesn’t seem to be much direction and passion among the liberal/progressive left. Which means that the Democrats’ GOTV campaign will amount to little more than reducing the electoral damage rather than offering viable, creative, populist-Democratic alternatives.
If the electoral train hasn’t yet left the station, there may still be enough time for the Democrats to kick their strategy into high gear. But the Dems are notorious for snatching defeat out of the jaws of possible victory. As Tiny Tim might have said: “God help us, everyone.”#
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and now serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (crisispapers.org). Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org .