Archives For: Keepers

President Obama Delivers Statement On Situation In Iraq

[Re-posted from earlier today]

If you’re looking for a majestically sweeping indictment of everything president Obama has achieved in foreign policy over the last six years, go read Walter Russell Mead’s screed. The rise of an ISIS-led Sunni insurgency in Iraq is, apparently, “a movement that dances on the graveyard of his hopes.” No one wants to take on the emperor with no clothes or “the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure.” He’s not done yet: “Rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed.” And on it goes. The Obamaites “have piled up such a disastrous record in the Middle East” that they couldn’t be trusted to “negotiate their way into a used car lot.” And the final denouement:

The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next.

Inevitably, when one reads a piece like this, you expect the author to tell us what he would do next. If the results of specific Obama policies have been so disastrous, then surely he must be able to point to several mistakes, offer an alternative in hindsight, or, heaven forfend, provide a constructive proposal today. But you will, alas, find no such thing in the screed. The most you’ll get it this:

How could the U.S. government have been caught napping by the rise of a new and hostile power in a region of vital concern? What warning signs were missed, what opportunities were lost—and why? What role did the administration’s trademark dithering and hairsplitting over aid to ISIS’s rivals in the Syrian opposition play in the rise of the radicals?

Indeed, I’m sure those questions will be debated by pundits and historians. But Mead has no answers. He supported arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels, sure, but even he acknowledged this could end up in tears. And when you grasp his admiration for ISIS’ strategic chops, it seems quite likely that American arms could have ended up in the Jihadists’ hands. After all, one result of the US’ arming, training and equipping the moderate Iraqi army are the humvees and arms being paraded around Iraq by the Sunni-ISIS insurgency today. Arming any single side in a complex, metastasizing conflict is fraught with unintended consequences and the constant risk of blowback. But even if we’d been able to arm genuinely “moderate” Syrian rebels, does anyone believe they would prevail in an internecine war with the true fanatics? From the record of the last year or so, almost certainly not.

Mead also manages to blame Obama for the failure of the democratic revolution in Egypt. Quite how the US president could have changed the course of Egyptian politics in a period of massive unrest and revolution is not entirely clear. And that’s really the deepest flaw in the case against the president. There is an assumption – even now! – that the world is controlled by the US and that everything in it is a result of American hegemony. So there are no places on earth where the US is not a factor, and any bad things that happen are ipso facto a consequence of poor foreign policy. The planet is “Obama’s brave new world,” and the actual actors in it, from Moscow to Fallujah, from Qom and Cairo, are denied the real agency they have and keep exercising. And of course, whatever Obama has done has failed. When we don’t intervene, as in Syria, the result is a disaster. When we do intervene, as in Libya, the result is “an unmitigated disaster from which not only Libya but much of north and west Africa still suffers today.” So what does Mead suggest? This is as good as it gets:

The U.S. might do better to try to strengthen the non-ISIS components of the Sunni movements in Syria and Iraq than to look to Tehran and the Kremlin for help.

As they still say in Britain’s Private Eye, er…. that’s it. We should actually be arming the very Sunni forces that are trying to take Baghdad, and somehow hoping they’ll turn around and beat the fanatics if we ask nicely. Well, thank you very much, Mr Mead. How could the administration have ignored your genius for so long?

I think what’s missing from Mead’s harrumph is any sense that the world is, in the end, not about us; that the Arab and Muslim worlds are in a historic convulsion that has been fed by countless tributaries from the past and will forge many unexpected paths in the future; that the generational shifts, the impact of new technology and media, the decay of traditional Islam, the rise of an Internet Islamism, the legacies of the sectarian war in Iraq and the Assad despotism in Syria, and the rise of a new Shiite awareness … all these represent forces we have no way of arresting, let alone controlling, let alone micro-managing, as Mead suggests. Our role, if we are not to become insane, is not to manage the unmanageable; it is to understand that some historical processes have to take place and that some of them will not necessarily be in our interests.

Interventionists, in other words, can become like addicts.

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I watched the HBO documentary on the Prop 8 case over the weekend – and also had a drink in Ptown and then a lively breakfast discussion with the directors, Ryan White and Ben Cotner, who were as intelligent and as sincere as you could hope for in two young documentarians. And the first thing to say about the doc is that it is not as egregious or as misleading as the Becker book or the Olson-Boies exercize in self-love and credit-grabbing. Instead, its main impact on most viewers will be a net-positive in its portrayal of the moral and legal arguments for marriage equality. And the focus is mercifully on the human story of the plaintiffs, the best angle for a documentary that won’t bore you. I found its most affecting scenes to be toward the end, as the two plaintiff couples finally get their chance for a civil marriage that cannot and will not be taken away. You have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. And there are internal trial preparations that really spell out why civil marriage is non-negotiable if equal protection means anything in a civilized society. It was indeed great to hear arguments many of us honed in earlier, lonelier times come back in the words of the trial.

Maybe it’s because I’m used to these arguments at this point, but the film dragged a bit for my taste. It lost what would have been a key opportunity as it was being filmed – because the trial was supposed to be televised and then wasn’t. Without those scenes, the film focuses, understandably, on the plaintiffs. The trouble with this strategy is that, in a highly-visible lawsuit, they’ve been selected precisely because they are picture-perfect, squeaky-clean representatives of the gay community. There are no quirks in their background that could be exploited by the other side in the legal drama (or appeal to viewers); their families are all supportive; their blond, attractive children are behind them; their only conflicts, so far as we can tell, are which ornament to place where on the Christmas tree (a scene that is included in the soft-lens political-ad style of the movie). Similarly, there are no flaws whatsoever in any of the “good guys” and all the opponents are hateful, irrational bigots. No one among the good guys has a fight in the movie; no one even as so much as a disagreement. Ted Olson and David Boies get a treatment like subjects in an old Catholic “Lives of the Saints” primer. Griffin is portrayed as in the trailer above: a lone bucker of the trend who single-handedly brought gay equality to America. The number of hugs per frame is beyond counting.

It all feels like a really slick p.r. campaign – or a propaganda movie they’d show at some endless gay fundraiser – rather than an objective or inquisitive documentary. That was Hank Stuever’s view as well. It’s a movie not about a civil rights moment, he argues, but about “the values of show business and mass marketing.” And when you’re marketing something, you show no wrinkles or flaws. You carefully stage every single thing to advance the product.

So there are no interviews with any marriage equality opponents to make their case. There are no interviews with anyone who worried about the lawsuit’s possibly unintended consequences (they are dismissed by Chad Griffin in the film as in-fighting cowards). There is no mention of Olson’s unique demand in the history of marriage equality litigation to be paid $6.4 million rather than work pro bono. There is no interview with Charles Cooper, their chief legal opponent. No facts or ideas of arguments are allowed to get in the way of the triumph of Chad Griffin’s will. And that includes the actual denouement of the case, which was, as Mark Joseph Stern notes today, a clear and demonstrable failure.

Everyone knew from the get-go that this case could well turn on the rather mundane legal issue of “standing,” rather than on any deeper constitutional issues regarding the civil rights of gay citizens. That was one reason I was fine with the suit – because I thought it could play a role in the public education necessary to overturn Prop 8 at some point, and would probably not do any real harm on a federal level because it would likely be dismissed on technical grounds. But that’s emphatically not how the film portrays it.

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One might be forgiven for thinking that the catastrophic war in Iraq was designed to bring democracy and sovereignty to that nation after a brutal, foul dictatorship. That, after all, was what we were told from the get-go, along with the alleged threat of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Many service-members died to bring that democracy about; almost 200,000 Iraqis died in the bloody transition. And they elected a prime minister; and re-elected him in fair elections. And yet now, courtesy of the CIA’s unofficial spokesman, David Ignatius, we hear that Maliki is nonetheless going to be deposed by the US:

President Obama sensibly appears to be leaning toward an alternative policy that would replace Maliki with a less sectarian and polarizing prime minister — and then begin using U.S. military power on behalf of this more broadly based government. The White House is already mulling a list of alternative prime ministers.

So the whole pretext of Iraqi democracy was a sham, and we now know this without a shadow of a doubt. The next leader of Iraq will be IRAQ-UNREST-VOLUNTEERSpicked in Washington, and not by the people of that country. And the right of an elected government to choose its own policies and direct its own governance – for good or ill – has been effectively rendered null and void. There’s never any welfare reform with imperial welfare. They are to be dependents for ever. And, of course, the CIA’s previous regime changes in the Middle East – Iran, anyone? – do not even merit a mention. Just because they have screwed it up every single time doesn’t mean they don’t have the absolute right to screw it up again. Because the residue of their own disasters can be used to justify yet more ones. Just ask Fred Hiatt.

As with most imperial projects – and what other word can be used to describe the embedded assumptions in Ignatius’s column? – Washington will use local power-brokers to implement its designs. Ignatius is perfectly candid about the rawness of the imperialism involved:

The people who will pull the plug on Maliki are Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi kingmakers. The United States should push them to signal unmistakably that Maliki is finished. And they must do so in coordination with Iran, which will effectively have a veto on the next Iraqi prime minister, whether we like it or not.

Notice the lack of any subjunctive. The Kurdish leader will do what he is told; the Sunni tribes must cooperate with Iran. This is the mindset of the CIA, a beyond-the-rule-of-law organization that has done more damage to this country’s interests and values than any other organ of state. The contempt of these imperialists (who brought torture into the American bloodstream) for the autonomy of any other country is a striking as their contempt for American values.

So Ignatius admits that this illegal intervention needs “political cover”from other interested parties in the region (all of whom have ulterior motives and almost all of whom have contributed to this burgeoning sectarian warfare). And the goal now is to intervene simultaneously in Syria’s civil war, to the tune of training up to 10,000 “Syrian moderates” (try not to laugh out loud or burst simultaneously into tears).

And the entire point of this exercise is to get another war up and running – and soon – in Syria and Iraq:

Targeting ISIS perhaps could begin with its safe havens and infiltration routes along the Syria-Iraq border, where there’s less chance of hitting Sunni tribesmen. “We know where their base camps and training camps are, which is where we can start — and it’s important to start,” says U.S. Central Command adviser Derek Harvey.

Yes, “it’s important to start”. Sure, we don’t know where any of this could lead – but the one thing we have learned this past decade and a half is to launch a war first and figure out those questions later. Intervening in two sectarian countries just adds to the challenge, I guess. It’s so good to know someone advising Central Command has absorbed the lessons of the past so well.

I’m distressed by the news out of DC and alarmed by Obama’s presser, but I haven’t given up on the president yet.

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Bush Asks Congress For $74.7 Billion In War Aid

Noah Millman responds to me by insisting he does not favor military intervention in what’s left of Iraq, but that my own formulation of “letting go of global hegemony” is too glib and too blithe. As for the US having an indirect responsibility to the people of Iraq, having invaded their country eleven years ago, here’s the money quote:

My definition of “indirect responsibility” is simply to say that once you have positioned yourself as a global hegemon, declared yourself “indispensable” and arrogated to yourself rights that are not granted to any other state, of course you are indirectly responsible for just about everything that happens, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the situation. The madness lies not in my description of reality but in the reality itself. We should seek to change that reality. Perhaps I am overly pessimistic, but I assume that this will be a difficult and lengthy labor, with many setbacks along the way. I am hard-pressed to name another hegemonic power that acceded peacefully to a more multi-polar reality.

And on that point, we can surely agree. There are, indeed, very few empires that “let go” without hanging on indefinitely and then succumbing to a sudden collapse. One wonders what would have happened to the British Empire without the Second World War. But that’s only the case with respect to meddling in other countries’ internal affairs, trying to shape the form of government in other countries, or feeling obliged to prevent evil whenever it emerges. It seems to me perfectly possible for the US, by virtue of its naval and air power to secure the critical shipping lanes for international trade and travel, to bolster democratic allies with trade, intelligence, and mutual security arrangements, while eschewing the kind of global micro-management that was once justified by the Cold War or rationalized by unchallenged unipolar power from 1989 – 2001. Will that mean some regional actors filling the vacuum?

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No Drama Obama And Iraq

Jun 16 2014 @ 12:00pm

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While Iraq unravels, Lexington appreciates Obama’s temperament:

In and of itself, his cool, cerebral analysis is often more rational and less hypocritical than the criticism raining down on him from his political opponents. Republicans in Washington, knowing full well that voters have precisely no appetite for a return to Iraq, content themselves with accusing the president of allowing the world to fall apart and emboldening wicked men and dangerous foes through a lack of attention and “weakness”. By this they seem to mean that Mr Obama should stop saying that American force may not be capable of fixing the world. They do not mean that they actually want Mr Obama to do anything with American force.

Which merely goes to show there is only one grown-up in Washington these days, and we’re lucky he is in the White House. I was particularly impressed with the president’s insistence on continuing his California fundraising trip. What he’s doing by this business-as-usual approach is to try and defuse the Beltway’s cable-news-driven hysteria of the minute – usually larded up with insane levels of parochialism and partisanship – so that a saner foreign policy can be realized. Amy Davidson also sees Obama’s even keel:

It is not a simple matter, if it ever was, of the people we really like (and who like us) against the ones who don’t. (Try factoring in the role of ISIS in fighting the Assad regime, in Syria, and our possible shared interests with Iran in Iraq, and you’re left with a chalkboard of squiggly equations.) One question to emerge from our wars is our susceptibility to a certain sort of blackmail by regimes we support: without me, there is Al Qaeda and chaos. When Andrea Mitchell, of NBC, asked Senator John McCain, who had been railing against the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw troops in Iraq, whether Maliki could really be persuaded to change his ways, McCain replied, “He has to, or he has to be changed.” How that would be accomplished was, as always in Iraq—a land we seem to associate with the granting of wishes—left unclear.

That “he has to be changed” remark tells you a lot. It comes from a very 20th Century mindset that saw the world as essentially a “garden to tend,” in David Brooks’ metaphor, and that views other countries as mere objects of American fire-power and will. It usually comes from an essentially benign place – McCain doesn’t want to unleash terror or mayhem or sectarian massacres – but that’s not often how it goes down (see “Shock and Awe” and Abu Ghraib). Davidson later quotes a segment of the president’s interview with David Remnick as a lens into his current thinking. Obama said:

You have a schism between Sunni and Shia throughout the region that is profound.

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A tip of the hat to Terri Gross who simply and persistently tried to get out of Clinton why she supported the Defense Of Marriage Act in 1996, and why and when she changed her mind on marriage equality. Listen to the full exchange here:

Clinton says she didn’t support gay marriage in the 1990s but subsequently changed her mind. When and why she changed her mind is what Gross was trying to get at. Had she changed it by the time she and her husband left the White House? Or when George W Bush endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004? Was she still opposed to marriage equality when Massachusetts became the first state to enact it legislatively in the same year? The answers to these questions remain mysterious.

But one thing isn’t mysterious: she was not just another evolving American. She was the second most powerful person in an administration in a critical era for gay rights. And in that era, her husband signed the HIV travel ban into law (it remained on the books for 22 years thereafter), making it the only medical condition ever legislated as a bar to even a tourist entering the US. Clinton also left gay service-members in the lurch, doubling the rate of their discharges from the military, and signed DOMA, the high watermark of anti-gay legislation in American history. Where and when it counted, the Clintons gave critical credibility to the religious right’s jihad against us. And on the day we testified against DOMA in 1996, their Justice Department argued that there were no constitutional problems with DOMA at all (the Supreme Court eventually disagreed).

What I’d like to hear her answer is whether she regrets that period and whether she will ever take responsibility for it. But she got pissed when merely asked how calculated her position on this was.

Here’s my guess:

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Dexter Filkins assigns three reasons for the continuing disintegration of a country destroyed by the US invasion and occupation. The first two are the sectarian implosion in Syria and the sectarian authoritarianism of Nouri al-Maliki. But he then blames the Obama administration for not fighting harder to keep a minimal force in Iraq over Maliki’s and the American people’s wishes as the occupation came to a merciful close in 2011. IRAQ-UNRESTSomehow, that residual force would have restrained Maliki in his Shiite excesses, as the US did from 2006 onward, in the middle of a swirling civil war. The old guard in Washington will jump at this conclusion – with the neocon right and neocon left (what else do we call the liberals who never see a conflict in which the US should not be involved for the betterment of humankind?) rallying behind a new interventionism or, worse, a Captain Hindsight desire to pummel Obama again, while offering no real alternative.

It’s always a tempting idea that if we had stayed a little longer, all would have been well. It’s worth recalling the neocon desire to stay in Iraq for decades if necessary, in order to somehow forcibly impose a democratic structure on a sectarian, authoritarian and pathological non-state. But this is based on the fundamental illusion that the surge achieved anything of substance in altering sectarian divisions or Islamist extremism and thereby we ever had a success to sustain. We didn’t. We were able to temporarily pacify – by bribes and military maneuvering – a civil war that had always simmered below the Iraqi surface and had flared brutally even as we had 100,000 troops in the country. The idea that a few hundred could have prevented Iraq’s return to its historic sectarian entropy strikes me as absurd. It is not crazy for a Maliki ally to air this idea to Filkins in order to exonerate Maliki in the ensuing blood bath. What’s crazy is to take it at face value.

Yes, we broke Iraq in 2003. But another eight years of occupation, and billions in expense, fulfilled what obligation we had to the place. Does its disintegration mean more peril for the US?

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Our Cold Civil War Intensifies, Ctd

Jun 12 2014 @ 12:49pm

In 2007, I gamely hoped that Obama’s liberal pragmatism could somehow overcome the deep cultural and political split in the country that had opened up in the Vietnam era and had defined the entire boomer generation. I remain of the view that Obama’s policies have remained moderate – on healthcare, immigration, the deficit, and foreign policy. But the cultural churn of polarization has only intensified in the country at large. In fact, the polarization seems to have intensified in the Obama years, rather than moderating, as a fascinating Pew survey 856551367of 10,000 subjects reveals. The GIF at the right can mesmerize after a while, but watch it a few times.

The late 1990s sees a shift by both parties to the relative left, and in the early Bush years, there’s a shift by the GOP to the left as well. Since this is a measure of consistently liberal or conservative positions, it may be scrambled by the response to 9/11. The only three years in which the parties showed signs of moving toward each other were 2000 – 2003. From 2004 on, the GOP moves relentlessly rightward, while the Democrats move to the left more firmly from 2010 onward. Yes the two seem to reinforce each other in their mutual alienation.

But what’s truly depressing is how ideology now trumps virtually everything else in American politics. Geography matters less and less in sustaining mixed and moderate electoral districts; gerrymandering has intensified the process; but deeper cultural shifts help explain a lot of the rest. The urban/rural divide is a chasm; as is the racial one. And ideology seeps deep into everyday life. So inter-marriage between the Union and the Confederacy the consistent Democrats and the consistent Republicans is becoming rarer:

Three-out-of-ten (30%) consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter (23%) of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law.

The reason that I don’t think a cold civil war is too hyperbolic is the following chart. It doesn’t just show increased differences between the two parties; it reveals profound and growing antipathy, with each of the respective partisans believing the other is a threat to the country as a whole:

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Our Cold Civil War Intensifies, Ctd

Jun 12 2014 @ 12:00pm

So marriage equality is now either legal or bans on it have been found unconstitutional in 27 states. Has the GOP adjusted? Yes – by lurching even further to the anti-gay position. Rick Perry went to San Francisco yesterday to compare homosexual orientation to alcoholism, and to recommend reparative therapy for gays, even after the ex-gay movement has effectively collapsed. And a budding young Tea Party Republican in Oklahoma is ambivalent about whether gays should be stoned to death or not. The Southern Baptist Convention is also doubling down on reparative therapy for transgender people and for gays, if Al Mohler’s response to Matt Vines is any indicator.

There seems to be no middle ground here. And in this case, this has meant that marriage equality is winning. I wonder if the Republicans have yet grappled with that fact – and worry about its broader ramifications. They could have championed civil unions a long time ago and defused the issue; but they couldn’t for fundamentalist religious reasons – so we now have the prospect of full marriage rights for gays across the country far sooner than might otherwise have been the case. The same with healthcare reform.

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Our Cold Civil War Intensifies

Jun 12 2014 @ 11:15am

Maybe it’s the sea air up here on the Cape but I spent last night again watching Fox News. It was like slipping into an alternative universe. Sure. I expected criticism of the president and a few outrageous zingers – but not the picture of reality that seemed to undergird the entire enterprise. But here’s the gist: the president is a lawless dictator, abetting America’s Islamist foes around the world, releasing Taliban prisoners to aid in his own jihad on America, fomenting a new caliphate in Iraq, and encouraging children to rush the Mexican border to up his vote-count, while effectively leaving those borders open to achieve his “fundamental transformation of America.”

I watched Megyn Kelly, who is regarded as more centrist than Sean Hannity. You could have fooled me. The guests were Brent Bozell, far right veteran, and Andy McCarthy, pro-torture activist touting his book calling for Obama’s impeachment. The only pushback Kelly provided to a relentless stream of hysteria was to ask whether the president sincerely wanted another terror attack on America – since it would hurt his approval ratings. And that provided the only qualification to the picture of a Jihadist in the White House determined to destroy the America he loathes. The “chaos” at the border and the emerging caliphate in Iraq may have been merely the unintended consequences of fecklessness rather than a deliberate attempt to destroy everything valuable in the United States.

At no point was any context provided to make sense of any of this. So, for example, it is axiomatic for Fox viewers that Obama has presided over a massive wave of illegals flooding the country. The truth is quite different:

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