The USA in Iraq: Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline

himars_10
Surely, HIMARS will bring peace to Iraq

W.J. Astore

Today brings yet another announcement of more U.S. troops to Iraq.  This time 600 are being sent as logistics support, advisers, and enablers (that term, “enabler,” is fuzzy indeed: enabler of what?  More failure?).  That brings the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to more than 5200, but of course this figure seriously under-represents the American presence in the region.  Nowadays, most “troops” are provided by private contractors, and many of these are U.S. military veterans who discovered they could make a lot more money wearing mufti than in Uncle Sam’s uniforms.  At the same time, the U.S. continues to provide heavy-duty weaponry to the Iraqi military, including Apache attack helicopters and the HIMARS rocket system.  All of this is intended to help the Iraqi military retake the city of Mosul.

That the U.S. is yet again providing more troops as well as heavy weapons as “force multipliers” highlights the failure of U.S. military efforts to “stand up” an effective Iraqi military. The enemy, after all, has no Apache helicopters, no HIMARS system, and no U.S. advisers, although we certainly “enable” them with all the U.S. weaponry they’ve been able to capture or steal.  Despite a lack of U.S. military training and aid, ISIS and crew have proven to be remarkably resilient.  What gives?

Two years ago, I wrote an article at TomDispatch.com on “America’s Hollow Foreign Legions.”  Back then, I said this:

Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

Despite an ongoing record of failure, pulling out of Iraq is never an option that’s considered by the Pentagon.  The only option our leaders know is more: more troops, more weapons, more money.  As I wrote for TomDispatch back in October 2014:

pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

Here we are, two years later, and nothing has changed.  The war song remains the same, as discordant as ever, with a refrain as simple as it is harsh: putting out the fire with gasoline.

U.S. Military Strategy: Of DDT, Bug Zappers, Lawyers, Guns, and Money

ddt_wwii_soldier
Just spray the bad bugs with DDT.  What can go wrong?

W.J. Astore

Today, the essence of U.S. military “strategy” is targeting.  The enemy is treated as vermin to be exterminated with the right bug bomb.  As if those bombs had no negative consequences; as if we learned nothing from the overuse of DDT, for example.

You might recall DDT, the miracle insecticide of the 1950s and 1960s.  It wiped out bad bugs (and a lot of good ones as well) while leading to DDT-resistant ones.  It also damaged the entire ecology of regions (because DDT is both persistent and bio-accumulative).  Something similar is happening in the Greater Middle East.  The U.S. is killing bad “bugs” (terrorists) while helping to breed a new generation of smarter “bugs.”  Meanwhile, constant violence, repetitive bombing, and other forms of persistent meddling are accumulating in their effects, damaging the entire ecology of the Greater Middle East.

The U.S. government insists the solution is all about putting bombs on target, together with Special Forces operating as bug zappers on the ground.  At the same time, the U.S. sells billions of dollars in weaponry to our “friends” and allies in the region.  Israel just got $38 billion in military aid over ten years, and Saudi Arabia has yet another major arms deal pending, this time for $1.15 billion (with Senator Rand Paul providing that rare case of principled opposition based on human rights violations by the Saudis).

Of course, the U.S. has provided lots of guns and military equipment to Iraqi and Afghan security forces, which often sell or abandon them to enemies such as ISIS and the Taliban.  The special inspector general in Afghanistan reported in 2014 that “As many as 43% of all small arms supplied to the Afghan National Security Forces remain unaccounted for – meaning more than 200,000 guns, including M2s, M16s, and M48s, are nowhere to be found.”  A recent tally this year that includes Iraq suggests that 750,000 guns can’t be accounted for, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based charity. The Pentagon’s typical solution to missing guns is simply to send more of them.  Thus the U.S. is effectively arming its enemies as well as its allies, a business model that’s a win-win if you’re an arms merchant.

The essence of U.S. strategy makes me think of a Warren Zevon song lyric, “Send lawyers, guns, and money.”  As we’ve seen, U.S. lawyers can authorize anything, even torture, even as U.S. guns and money go missing and end up feeding war and corruption.  The tag line of Zevon’s song is especially pertinent: “The shit has hit the fan.”  How can you flood the Greater Middle East with U.S.-style bureaucracy, guns and money, and not expect turmoil and disaster?

Back in World War II, the USA was an arsenal of democracy.  Now it’s just an arsenal.  Consider Bill Hartung’s  article on U.S. military weaponry that’s flooding the Middle East. The business of America is war, with presidential candidates like Donald Trump just wanting to dump more money into the Pentagon.

There is no end to this madness.  Not when the U.S. economy is so dependent on weapons and war.  Not when the U.S. national security state dominates the political scene.  Not when Americans are told the only choices for president are Trump the Loose Cannon or Hillary the Loaded Gun.

Take the Oil! Trump the Imperialist

trump

W.J. Astore

Last night’s “commander-in-chief” security forum that featured Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was, not surprisingly, disappointing.  (You can read the transcript here.)  Trump recently stated he was in favor of large increases in defense spending, but he wasn’t asked about this.  He wasn’t asked about his support of torture, nor was he challenged on his remarkably dangerous statement back in March that military officers would obey his presidential decrees, even when they were unlawful.  Hillary was challenged on her email fiasco at the State Department, and rightly so, but she pretty much got a free pass on her support of the calamitous Iraq war and the chaos following the Libyan intervention.  And of course neither candidate was challenged on their blanket support of Israel.

What you got was two self-absorbed candidates, one wonkish, the other one clearly a wanker, both of them posing as warriors as long as someone else’s kids are doing the fighting.  Here’s a question for Trump and Hillary: the next time you deploy troops to Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan or wherever, will you include Ivanka or Chelsea, respectively, and put them in harm’s way?

Most interesting to me was Trump’s old-fashioned imperialism, which explains much of his appeal to the rabid right.  Here’s what Trump had to say about how the Iraq war should have turned out for the USA:

“We [the USA] go in [to Iraq in 2003], we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil.”

You have to hand it to The Donald: at least he’s occasionally honest.  The Iraq war was about oil, among other things, and Trump says the USA as the “victor” should have taken it.  Why?  Because might makes right.  Because, as Thucydides said so many centuries ago, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.

Remember when George W. Bush said Iraq’s oil was the “patrimony” of the Iraqi people and that the USA wasn’t about to take it?  That the Iraq war was about freedom and democracy in the Middle East, not a naked grab for resources?  Trump is having none of that.  Any wonder that he’s so popular among Americans who are tired, as they see it, of losing?

“Take the oil!”  It’s a statement that could easily appear on the next iteration of Trump’s baseball cap.

Obama’s Foreign Policy: Image over Substance

Obama address
Actions speak louder than spin

W.J. Astore

At Salon.com, Patrick Smith has a telling article on the Obama administration’s foreign policy.  He details the way in which style has triumphed over substance, and how tightly the Obama administration controls the narrative in the mainstream media.  Essentially, Smith provides more evidence of the way in which reporters and journalists serve as stenographers to the powerful.

Many journalists, notes Smith, are twenty-somethings who attempt to provide coverage of foreign affairs from inside the Washington Beltway. Under such conditions, even a diligent reporter has to rely far too heavily on official mouthpieces at the Pentagon, State Department, and similar governmental agencies. Those reporters who buck the system risk losing access; in short, they risk losing their privileges — and their jobs. Most end up conforming.

This is nothing new to anyone familiar with Stephen Colbert’s famous take-down of insider journalists at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006.  As Colbert said a decade ago:

But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

Along with that critique, Smith is excellent on critiquing the fundamental unoriginality, the militarized banality, of much of Obama’s foreign policy.  As Smith notes:

There can be no radical shift in American conduct abroad, of course, until goals and purposes are addressed very forthrightly. This means taking on, in explicit fashion, our inherited tropes—our claims to exceptionalism and universalism—as well as the hegemonic ambitions the Pentagon shares with American corporations. It is a question, as noted in a previous column, of techne and telos, two words from ancient Greek. You can change the former—your method, your means—all you like, but it will matter little until you alter your telos, your aims, the ideal you strive for …

What is the new [Obama administration] narrative, then? May we know, please? I address the question to Ben Rhodes, David Samuels and Samuels’ editors at the Times Magazine. All this palaver about a brilliant foreign policy innovator and not one word about his masterstroke innovation, a reimagined frame for American conduct abroad?

The lapse is a symptom of the above-noted problem: style without substance, form without content. We cannot count even the openings to Iran and Cuba as any great departures, given Washington’s behavior since. There is no new narrative, only a new way of telling the old narrative.

Just so.  Consider recent events.  More U.S. “advisers” (troops) to Iraq.  More foreign weapons sales.  The commitment of ABM missiles to Romania.  Sending B-52s (a symbol of the Cold War) to strike at ISIS.  More talk of the dangers of a resurgent Russia.  And (of course) more talk of enlarging the Pentagon and feeding it more money.

Yes, the Obama administration has been more reluctant than Bush/Cheney to commit big battalions of the regular army to overseas invasions and wars, but otherwise the foreign policy song has remained pretty much the same.  Obama just prefers a smaller stage presence or “footprint,” as defined by Washington as drones and special ops, together with privatized militaries and extensive weapons sales, rather than big battalions.

That’s hardly a new narrative in U.S. foreign policy — precisely the point of Smith’s telling critique.

 

Surging to Defeat: Learning from the Germans

armor show

W.J. Astore

I recently read “Armor and Blood” by Dennis Showalter.  It’s about the Battle of Kursk in July of 1943, the massive, last-ditch offensive by the Nazis on the Eastern Front, and how the Soviet Army was able to stymy it, seize the initiative, and take the offensive for good.  As Showalter notes, the Nazi offensive at Kursk in 1943 was much like the Ludendorff Offensives in the Spring of 1918 near the end of World War I.  They were offensives of desperation.  As General Ludendorff said in 1918, first we’ll punch a hole in the enemy’s lines, and then we’ll see.  Tactical zeal (and wishful thinking) took the place of careful strategic calculation.

In 1918 as well as in 1943, the German military was given free rein to pursue a military solution when there wasn’t one to be had.  Germany simply didn’t have the military means for the strategic end they sought to achieve.  In 1918, Ludendorff believed he could defeat the Entente forces (the French, British, and other allies, to include the rapidly arriving Americans) on the Western Front, but his offensives only served to weaken his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and defeat by that November.  In 1943, Hitler gambled he could defeat the Soviet Army at Kursk, but his massive offensive only weakened his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and eventual defeat in the spring of 1945.  Both times, more military action only precipitated defeat and disaster.

Is the United States the inheritor of this Germanic bias?  Instead of punching a hole, the U.S. military speaks of “surges.”  It surged in Iraq in 2007.  It surged in Afghanistan in 2010-11.  But after each “surge,” the situation in those countries was basically the same – and, over time, grew worse.

Of course, U.S. “surges,” in each case involving roughly 30,000 additional troops, were in scale dwarfed by the German offensives in 1918 and 1943, involving millions of men and the movement of entire armies.  But scale is less important than process.  In each case, “victory” was staked on more military action, in part because both Germans and Americans believed themselves to be in the possession of “the finest fighting forces in the history of the world.”  Neither, of course, would admit that they were fighting on foreign soil, that the enemy had agency too, and that the longer the fighting continued, the weaker they grew as the enemy grew stronger.  So, in the name of “victory” the German and American “surges” played themselves out, and nothing changed strategically – there were no victories to be had.

The Germans, of course, drove themselves to utter collapse, both in 1918 and especially in 1945, after which they could no longer fool themselves as to the success of their “surges.”  A superpower with enormous resources, the United States is not yet on the verge of collapse.  But enormous budgetary deficits, driven in part by endless wars and a plethora of imperial commitments and overseas bases, are gradually eating away at the sinews of American strength, even as militarism eats away at the marrow of democracy.

After their utter defeat in 1945, the Germans learned to avoid endless war and the seductions of militarism.  The question is: Will it require a total collapse of the American Empire before its leaders learn the same lesson?

Hillary the Hardheaded Hawk

hillary henry
Birds of a feather …

W.J. Astore

In a lengthy article (April 21st) at the “liberal” New York Times, “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk,” Hillary is variously described as “aggressive,” “tough,” a “military wonk” who’s “more muscular” than President Obama when it comes to advocating for the use of force.  Noted for her “pugnacity” and “hardheadedness,” Hillary is praised for her close relationships with U.S. generals, to include David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.  Indeed, the article highlights the fact that Hillary is sometimes more aggressive in advocating for military force than the generals she confers with.  Nevertheless, or rather because of this, the generals apparently like Hillary.  They really like her!

What are we to make of this puff piece that praises Hillary the Hawk?  Obviously, with Hillary’s victory in New York and her forthcoming, now nearly inevitable nomination as the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton and her allies have decided it’s time to sharpen her beak and claws.  No more nonsense about being a touchy-feely progressive like Bernie Sanders.  It’s time for Hillary the Hawk to take charge and soar, preempting any criticism by Republicans that she’ll be “weak” on defense.

But, tell me again, how did America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere go for the United States?  At least three trillion dollars lost, tens of thousands of U.S. troops killed and wounded, hundreds of thousands of “foreigners” killed and wounded, millions made refugees, and for what, exactly?

Hillary the Hawk wants to double-down on a losing hand.  That’s neither “aggressive” nor “tough”: It’s reckless and dumb.  Worst of all, she’s playing with our chips as well as the lives of our troops, not to mention the lives of all those “foreigners” seeking shelter from American bombs and bullets and drones.  (But we have a word for them: collateral damage.)

Hillary Clinton, like all of the remaining presidential candidates, never wore a military uniform.  Her one child, Chelsea, married well and lives in a posh apartment (price: a cool $10.5 million) in New York City.  Indeed, like most American politicians in Congress, Hillary is a millionaire without children in the military, therefore she risks little in advocating for more U.S. troops to be sent off to war.  Her defenders (including Hillary herself) will say she will use force only as a last resort, yet the “Hillary Hawk” article cited above makes plain that she is no reluctant warrior.  Hell, why not, when she earns such praise for her wonkish warrior posturing from the New York Times?

Admirer of Henry Kissinger, supporter of the Iraq War in 2003, self-styled conqueror of Qaddafi and Libya (“We came. We saw. He died,” Hillary the Hawk laughed), fervid supporter of Bibi Netanyahu and Israel, Hillary Clinton is ready to take on the world.

One thing is certain: We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Reinforcing Failure

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Send in the troops … there ought to be troops … don’t bother they’re here

W.J. Astore

I get a situation report (or SITREP) from FP: Foreign Policy.  I’ve pasted it below.  The gist of it is that Afghanistan is going poorly, therefore there’ll be no U.S. troop drawdown; and Iraq is going poorly, therefore the U.S. is sending more troops and money.

“Poorly” never seems to lead to the obvious conclusion: withdrawal.  Rather it always leads to escalation: more troops and more money.  So the U.S. always reinforces failure, exactly the opposite of sound military strategy.

The illogical nature  of U.S. foreign policy would surely befuddle Mr. Spock. Put differently, U.S. foreign policy has a “logic” of its own.  It goes something like this: Never admit mistakes.  Domestic politics always come first, so never leave yourself open to charges of “cutting and running.”  Never close an avenue to “influence” and future weapons sales, no matter if that avenue is a dead end.

No foreign policy update would be complete without a Republican charge of weakness or pusillanimity leveled against the Obama administration, hence the concluding comment by John McCain.

Here is the FP SITREP:

“The Institute for the Study of War recently released a map of Taliban strongholds throughout the country, showing the Taliban gains in the south.”

“A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul tells SitRep that no U.S. servicemembers were caught up in the attack. In a statement, Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO troops in the country, said that the attack “shows the insurgents are unable to meet Afghan forces on the battlefield and must resort to these terrorist attacks.” Nicholson, who took command of America’s longest war last month, is still working to draw up a list of recommendations for what assets he’ll need. It’s expected he will ask that troop numbers remain at the current level of 9,800, and not drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year.”

“All eyes on Mosul. There are another 217 U.S. troops headed to Iraq to help security forces fight their way toward the ISIS-held city of Mosul, bringing the official number of American servicemembers there to just over 4,000. Hundreds more are in country but are not counted on the official rolls, meaning the real number is over 5,000, defense officials have said.”

“As part of the new aid package announced in Baghdad by Defense Secretary Ash Carteron Monday, the Pentagon will also start handing over $415 million to the Kurdish government to help pay their fighters, who have gone without pay amid a budget crunch due to falling oil prices.”

“The new troops will move out with Iraqi forces, advising local commanders at the battalion level, potentially putting them closer to the fight as the Iraqi army pushes north toward Mosul. Until this point, American advisors generally stayed at the division level or above. The new troops will also fly Apache helicopters that will strike ISIS fighters and man artillery systems, including the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), which can fire multiple 200-lb. GPS-guided rockets over 40 miles. The HIMARS has already been used by U.S. forces to pound ISIS around Ramadi, and one U.S.-manned system has fired from Jordan into Syria in recent months. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the new deployment the kind of ‘grudging incrementalism that rarely wins wars.'”