The Iraqi Surge and Alternative Facts

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An Alternative Fact

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway didn’t invent alternative facts.  The U.S. government has been peddling those for decades.  Consider the recent history of the Iraq War.  Recall that in 2002 it was a “slam dunk” case that Iraq had active programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  (We couldn’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud, said Condoleezza Rice.) In 2003, President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq – mission accomplished!  And in 2007, the “surge” orchestrated by General David Petraeus was sold as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq.  All of those are “alternative facts.” All were contradicted by the facts on the ground.

Nowadays, most people admit Iraq had no active WMD programs in 2002 and that the mission wasn’t accomplished in 2003, but the success of the surge in 2007 is still being sold as truth, notes Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com.  Sjursen, who participated in the surge as a young Army lieutenant, notes that it did succeed in temporarily reducing sectarian violence in Iraq, but that was precisely the problem: it was temporary.  The surge was supposed to allow space for a stable and representative Iraqi government to emerge, but that never happened.

A short-term tactical success, the surge was a strategic failure in the long-term.  Partly this was because long-term success was never in American hands to achieve, and it certainly wasn’t attainable by U.S. military action alone.  In sum, the blood and treasure spilled in Iraq was for naught.  But that harsh truth hasn’t stopped the surge from becoming a myth of U.S. military triumph, one that led to another unsuccessful surge, this time in Afghanistan in 2009-10, also conducted by General Petraeus.

These surges sustain an alternative fact that the U.S. military can “win” messy insurgencies and sectarian/ethnic wars, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen or elsewhere.  They contribute to hubris and the idea we can remake the world by using our military, a belief that President Trump and his bevy of generals (all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) seem to share and want to put into practice again.  This time, they promise to get it right.

The President and the Pentagon are currently considering sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan.  This mini-surge is being advertised as America’s best chance of defeating terrorists in the AfPak region.  Even though previous, and much bigger, surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures, the alternative fact narrative of “successful” surges remains compelling, even authoritative, among U.S. national security experts.  They may grudgingly admit that, yes, those previous surges weren’t quite perfect, but we’ve learned from those – promise!

Prepare for more troop deployments and more surges, America.  And for more “victories” as alternative facts, as in lies.

General Flynn’s Resignation: A Holy Warrior Derails Himself

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Flynn waiting for an elevator in Trump Tower back in December (NBC)

W.J. Astore

General Michael Flynn’s resignation as National Security Adviser is good news, and not only because of his lack of candor in regards to Russia.  Flynn is a believer in religious war.  He sacralized the war on terror and saw himself as a holy warrior against radical Islamist terrorists.  (Of course, he couldn’t perceive his own extremism and radicalism.)

Both in religious terms and in predatory terms, men like Flynn and Steve Bannon see radical Islamists as the enemy.  These “animals” cut off heads!  A creed war that treats the enemy as animals is a combustible combination.  When you see the enemy as an inferior yet insidious “Other,” there is no opportunity for compromise.  Vermin can only be exterminated.  Especially when they are allegedly out to destroy your “Judeo-Christian” values.

Flynn’s war against radical Islamists would be unending, driven as it would be by outrage against what he saw as a verminous enemy.  In such a “holy” war, killing acquires quasi-sacred meaning.  Flynn’s war was not to be a Clausewitzian war of politics by other means. Nor was it a greed-war driven by money and empire.  His war was far more insidious.

When you conceive of the enemy as predators who simultaneously have the human ability to enslave you with their own creed (Sharia Law): Well, this enemy is a shape-shifting monster. Small wonder that Flynn infamously tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”

What was the source of his fear?  In theory, what is the biggest threat to humans?  Not tigers or snakes or other predators; they can be identified.  The biggest threat is something human but not quite human.  Something that looks human, has human skills, human smarts, but is ruthlessly inhuman, even as it readily blends in with “normal” humans.

The tight Islamophobic circle around Trump (one weaker, with Flynn’s resignation) appears to view Muslims in this way.  It’s a little like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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They look like us — act like us — and that’s precisely the problem!  Even a five-year-old Muslim refugee, no matter how innocent-looking, is seen by Sean Spicer and crew as an opening to an unstoppable invasion of America, hence Trump’s hurried and sweeping ban on Muslim immigration.

Flynn’s ideology supported the dynamic of permanent religious war.  His writings and tweets were consistent with an exterminatory struggle for existence of the worst kind.  His actions and views would only perpetuate jihad, a struggle he apparently sees as inevitable.

Until we neutralize jihadists like Flynn (and Bannon) and his Islamist counterparts, until we see a common humanity instead of viewing the enemy as insanely ferocious predators who are out to destroy our way of life, there is no hope for even a semblance of peace in this world.

The Attack in Nice, France

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W.J. Astore

In Nice, France, 84 people were killed by a maniac who drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day (French Independence Day).  The driver, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was a French-Tunisian with a criminal record but with no known terrorist links.

Much remains unknown about this attack.  Was the driver acting alone?  Was he “radicalized,” killing for a political/religious purpose?  Was he working with a terrorist sect, or perhaps he sympathized with one?  We should be careful not to jump to conclusions.

I want to make one rather obvious point: It’s easy to politicize such horrendous attacks. It’s easy to say things like: “It’s all the fault of radical Islam!  The West is at war with radical Islam!  Muslim immigrants are to blame!”  And so on. Before reaching any conclusions, let’s gather all the evidence.

There’s a natural tendency to resort to the rhetoric of warfare here.  Politicians are especially prone to this.  And if you don’t agree with them, they dismiss you as naive or delusional — or worse.

The problem with warfare rhetoric is that it answers questions before they’re even asked. It imposes solutions before you even fully understand the problem.  For example, if it’s a “war,” the inevitable solution is more militarization.  More surveillance.  More police. More weapons.  Perhaps more military strikes as well.

But what if more military strikes actually aggravate the problem?  What if more police, more surveillance, more raids combine to abridge the freedoms that France fought for, the very freedoms which the French celebrate each year on Bastille Day?

Liberty, equality, and fraternity are noble goals.  They need always to be nourished and protected, not just from terrorists and other criminals, but from those in authority who may overreact in the name of protecting the people.

Guns and Grievances

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Guns look way too cool in our movies

W.J. Astore

The news out of Orlando is shocking.  Another mass shooting in America.  Another 50+ people dead with an additional 50+ wounded.  And then I saw this headline:

“America has 4.4% of the world’s population, but almost 50% of the civilian-owned guns around the world”

The ready availability of guns in America, to include military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips, makes it far easier for shooters bent on murder to kill large numbers of people.  It doesn’t matter what you call these shooters, whether you label them terrorists or lone wolves or crazed lunatics or whatever.  Apparently the latest shooter bought his guns legally, had a grievance against gay people, expressed some last-minute allegiance to ISIS, and then started blasting away at innocent people in a club that was friendly to gays.

Sure, guns alone are not to blame.  The primary person to blame is the shooter/murderer himself.  But (to repeat myself) the guns sure make it a lot easier to kill, and in large numbers.

We live in a sick society, often a very violent one, certainly a disturbed one, one that places enormous stress on people.  Another exceptional headline that I first heard on Bill Maher is that America, again with 4.4% of the world’s population, takes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Guns and drugs – the two don’t mix, even when they’re legal.   Americans are over-armed and over-medicated.  Add to that mix the fact that Americans are under-educated, at least compared to our peers in the developed world, and you truly have a toxic brew.

Over-armed, over-medicated, and under-educated: surely this is not what our leaders have in mind when they call us the exceptional nation, the indispensable one, the greatest on earth.  Is it?

 

 

The Right Approach to Terrorism

A replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels tourist attraction, is seen among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Brussels international airport of Zaventem, in Brussels
Replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels attraction, among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels. REUTERS/Yves Herman

W.J. Astore

I grew up during the Cold War when America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country’s very existence.  Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat.  Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.  But terrorism was and is nothing new.  We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it.  The question is how best to face it.

Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it.  Restricting liberty is the wrong way.  An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way.  Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way.  Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international).  Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems.  The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old “body count” from the Vietnam War era).

Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill.  We’re helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop.  The more we “hit” various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.

One of the first Rand primers I read as young Air Force lieutenant was “International Terrorism: The Other World War,” written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985.  Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly “aimed at the people watching,” that terrorism can’t be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose (“causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order”), that terrorism is a form of political theater.  As Jenkins notes:

“Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding.  News coverage focuses on action not words.  Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy. “

Furthermore, “terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack,” though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.

What can we learn from Jenkins’s primer on terrorism?  Three big lessons:

  1. Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don’t panic.  And don’t exaggerate the threat.
  2. Don’t sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That’s what the terrorists want.  They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
  3. Finally, don’t change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want.  They want to turn people against one another.  To divide is to conquer.

The question is, when will Americans recognize the complexity of the terrorist threat while minimizing fear and over-reaction?

Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action.  But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized over-reaction simply play into the terrorists’ hands.  Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote.  Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.

Defeating ISIS: Do We Even Have A Strategy?

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Image showing Jihadi John.  Apparently killed, then quickly replaced by a new “Jihadi John” — a visual metaphor of “progress” in the war on ISIS (AP photo)

W.J. Astore

An overarching strategy for defeating ISIS is simple enough to state:  A concerted effort by regional power brokers to tamp down Islamic extremism while reducing the violent and chaotic conditions in which it thrives.  Regional power brokers include the Israelis, the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks, joined by the United States and Russia.  They should work, more or less cooperatively, to eliminate ISIS.

Why?  Because you never know when a spark generated by extremists will ignite an inferno, especially in a tinderbox (a fair description of the Middle East).  We know this from history.  Consider the events of the summer of 1914.  A Serbian “Black Hand” extremist assassinates an archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans (that era’s tinderbox of extremism).  Most of Europe yawned, at least initially.  A small brush fire between the Serbs and the Empire, easily containable, people said.  Yet within weeks European troops were marching in the millions to their deaths in what became World War I.

In today’s Middle East, we’ve been lucky (so far) to avoid the kind of provocation and miscalculation that led to World War I.  But consider the actions of a new president, say a Chris Christie.  During a presidential debate, Christie promised to declare a no-fly zone over Syria and to shoot down any Russian plane that violated it.  It’s the kind of ultimatum that very well could lead to another world war.

Provocations and ultimatums can rapidly spiral among nations that lack uniformity of purpose.  For many of the power brokers engaged in the Middle East, defeating ISIS is either not the goal, or it’s not the primary one. Put differently, there are too many forces involved, working to discordant ends.  Their actions, often at cross-purposes, ensure that entities like ISIS survive.

Let’s take the United States, for example.  Every American politician says he (or she) wants to destroy ISIS.  Yet in spite of this nation’s enormous military strength, we seem to be too weak, psychologically as well as culturally, to deal with Russia, Iran, et al. as diplomatic equals.  The “exceptional” country thinks it must “lead,” and that means with bombing, drone strikes, troops on the ground, and similar “kinetic” actions.  Rather than dousing the flames, such actions fuel the fire of Islamic extremism.

Consider America’s domestic political scene as well.  ISIS is incessantly touted as a bogeyman to fear, most notably by Republican presidential candidates seeking to draw a contrast between themselves and Barack Obama, the “feckless weakling” in the words of Chris Christie.  But the Republican “alternative” is simply more bombing and more U.S. troops.  Making the sand glow is no strategy, Ted Cruz.

Strategy is a synthesis of means, ends, and will.  Currently, the means is military force, with a choice of more (from Obama) or even more (from Republicans).  Our leaders have no idea of the ends at all, other than vague talk of “destroying” ISIS.  The will they exhibit is mostly bombast and fustian.

A nation lacking will, with no clear vision of means and ends, is a nation without a strategy.  And a nation without a strategy is one that’s fated to fail.

School Cops with Assault Rifles: Make My Day — Not

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Keeping American TV “safe” since 1975

W.J. Astore

At Northeastern University in Massachusetts, members of campus security are now routinely carrying military assault rifles in their vehicles. The rationale is that you never know when and where terrorists will strike, so you have to be prepared to outgun them at all times.

Many Americans equate guns with safety — and bigness with value. So, the bigger the gun, the safer you are.  Right?

It didn’t used to be this way.

Back in the 1970s, I remember when the police got by with .38 revolvers. Up-arming the police meant going from .38 specials to .357 magnums.  Of course, these were six-shot revolvers.  Then cops started carrying 9mm handguns with clips that could carry 15-18 rounds.  Now some cops carry .40 caliber semi-automatics, which are more powerful than the 9mm but also more difficult to control.

You might call it the “Dirty Harry” syndrome (that bigger guns are better), except that that’s being unfair to Harry (played so memorably by Clint Eastwood).

As a teen, I was a big “Dirty Harry” fan, so I remember the rationale for Harry’s Smith & Wesson .44 magnum.  He carried it because he was a pistol champion (as he said, “I hit what I aim at”), and because he wanted a round with “penetration” (he noted that .38 rounds “careen off of windshields”). Finally, Harry said he used a “light special” load to limit recoil, saying it was like firing a .357 with wadcutters.  (All of this is from memory, which shows you the impression those “Dirty Harry” movies made on a typical teen interested in guns.)

Soon after Harry started boasting about his .44 magnum, a new TV show aired in America: SWAT (standing for “special weapons and tactics”). Police SWAT teams are now common in America, but they were somewhat of a novelty forty years ago.  I recall that the team carried AR-15 assault rifles along with specialized sniper rifles and shotguns.  They drove around in a big police van and arrived each week just in the nick of time to save the day.  My favorite character was the guy who carried the sniper rifle.

My excuse?  Heck, I was a teenager! What’s disturbing to me is how my teen enthusiasm for guns is now considered the height of maturity in the USA.  So much so that we arm campus police with assault rifles and see it as a prudent and sensible measure to safeguard young students.

The ready availability of guns of all types has created our very own “arms race” in America — an arms race that is being played out, in deadly earnest, each and every day on our streets and in our buildings.  We’ve allowed the cold, bold “Dirty Harry” of the early 1970s to be outgunned not only by today’s hardened criminals but by campus cops as well.

Assault rifles and SWAT teams are part of America’s new normal. Rare in the 1970s, they are now as American as baseball and apple pie.

I don’t think even Dirty Harry would be pleased with America’s new reality.  Make my day — not.