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Avoiding Apocalypse on the Korean Peninsula

Pyongyang
Photo by AdobeStock/Mieszko9

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Defense Secretary James Mattis remarked recently that a war with North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” No kidding. “Tragic” doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors that would flow from such a conflict.

The Korean peninsula, all 85,270 square miles of it, is about the size of Idaho. It contains more soldiers (2.8 million, not counting reserves) and armaments (nearly 6,000 tanks, 31,000 artillery pieces, and 1,134 combat aircraft) than any other place on the planet. The armies of North and South Korea face each other across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, and Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is a mere 35 miles away as the artillery shell flies. More than 25 million people inhabit that city’s greater metropolitan area, home to about half of South Korea’s population. Unsurprisingly, untold numbers of North Korean missiles and artillery pieces are trained on that city. Once the guns started firing, thousands of its denizens would undoubtedly die within hours. Of course, North Koreans, too, would be caught in an almost instant maelstrom of death.

And the war wouldn’t be a bilateral affair.  South Korea hosts 28,500 American troops. In addition, there are some 200,000 American civilians in the country, most of them in Seoul.  Many in both categories could be killed by North Korean attacks and the United States would, in turn, hit multiple targets in that country.  Pyongyang might retaliate by firing missiles at Japan, where 39,000 American troops are stationed, concentrating on the network of American bases and command centers there, especially the U.S. Services Headquarters at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo.

And that’s without even considering the possible use of nuclear weapons.  If anything, Mattis’s description is an understatement.  And don’t assume that the danger of a Korean conflagration has passed now that President Trump has become trapped in the latest set of political scandals to plague his administration.  Quite the opposite: a clash between North Korea and the United States might have become more probable precisely because the president is politically besieged.

Trump wouldn’t be the first leader, confronted with trouble at home, to trigger a crisis abroad and then appeal for unity and paint critics as unpatriotic.  Keep in mind, after all, that this is the man who has already warned of “a major, major war” with North Korea.

Trump vs. Kim

So far the coercive tactics Trump has used to compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and cease testing ballistic missiles have included sanctions and asset freezesmilitary threats, and shows of force — both serious, as in the recent Key Resolve and Operation Max Thunder joint military exercises with South Korea, and farcical, as with a supposedly northward-bound naval “armada” that actually sailed in the opposite direction. 

Such moves all involve the same presidential bet: that economic and military pressure can bend Pyongyang to his will.  Other American presidents have, of course, taken the same approach and failed for decades now, which seems to matter little to Trump, even though he presents himself as a break-the-mold maverick ready to negotiate unprecedented deals with foreign leaders.

By now, this much ought to be clear, even to Trump: North Korea hasn’t been cowed into compliance by Washington’s warnings and military muscle flexing.  In 2003, after multilateral diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea ran aground, Pyongyang ditched the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and two years later declared that it possessed nuclear weapons.  In October 2006, it detonated its first nuclear device, a one-kiloton bomb.  Four other tests in May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, and September 2016, ranging in explosive yield from four to 10 kilotons, followed.  Three of them occurred after the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power in April 2012.  

A similar pattern holds for ballistic missiles, which North Korea has been testing since 1993.  The numbers have risen steadily under Kim Jong-un, from four tests in 2012 to 25 in 2016.

Clearly, the North’s leaders reject the proposition that American approval is required for them to build nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.  Like his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK, North Korea’s official name), Kim Jong-un is an ardent nationalist who regularly responds to threats by upping the ante.  Trump’s national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, characterized Kim as “unpredictable.”  In reality, the Korean leader, like his father and grandfather before him, has been remarkably consistent: he has steadfastly refused to stop testing either nuclear weapons or their possible delivery systems, let alone “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula, as McMaster demanded.  

Indeed, from Pyongyang’s perspective Trump may be the unpredictable one.  On one day, amid press reports that the Pentagon was considering a preventive strike using means ranging from Tomahawk cruise missiles to cyber attacks, the president declared ominously that North Korea “is a problem, a problem that will be taken care of.”  He followed up by warning Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he was then hosting at his Mar-a-Lago estate, that if China wouldn’t rein in Kim, the United States would act alone.  Not so long after, Trump suddenly praised Kim, calling him a “pretty smart cookie,” presumably impressed that the North Korean leader wasn’t even 30 years old when he succeeded his father.  On yet another day, the president announced that he would be “honored” to meet Kim under the right circumstances and would do so “absolutely.” 

The roller-coaster ride otherwise known as the presidency of Donald Trump has many people perplexed. Trump’s boosters believe that the president’s unpredictability gives him leverage against adversaries.  But in the event of a military crisis on the Korean peninsula, Trump’s pendulum-like behavior could lead North Korea’s leaders to conclude that they had best prepare for the worst — and so strike first.  That prospect makes the Kim-Trump combination not just dangerous but quite possibly deadly. 

Old Claims, New Possibilities

Standing in the way of a fresh policy toward North Korea are a set of assumptions beloved within the Washington Beltway and by the foreign policy establishment beyond it — and rarely challenged in the mainstream media.

Perhaps the most common of them is that diplomacy and conciliation toward North Korea won’t work because its leaders only respond to pressure.  So pervasive and deeply rooted is this view that it makes fresh thinking about Pyongyang next to impossible.

Given the failure of both sanctions and saber rattling, however, a new approach would have to involve diplomacy (in case you’ve forgotten that word) and serious negotiations with the North. Here’s one possible way to go that might, in fact, make a difference.

North Korea would agree, in principle, to dismantle its nuclear weapons installations, rejoin the NPT, and allow comprehensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify its compliance.  Concurrently, the United States would pledge not to attack North Korea or topple its regime and to move toward normalization of political relations.  

Major steps taken by North Korea on the path to denuclearization would be matched by cuts in American military forces in South Korea.  Once Pyongyang delivered completely, the United States would remove all its forces and fully lift economic sanctions on the North.  

The United States, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia would undertake to fund and, for some of its future energy needs, build new Light-Water Reactors (LWRs), which reduce the risk of bomb-grade plutonium production.  These would be subject to regular inspections and electronic surveillance by the IAEA and all spent fuel would be transported out of North Korea.  The dismantling of the North’s nuclear facilities, verified by intermittent inspections and continuous electronic monitoring, would — as in the nuclear deal with Iran — prevent the production of weapons-grade plutonium (PU-239) or uranium (UR-235)

Once these steps were completed, both Koreas would begin to pull back their troops massed along the Demilitarized Zone and so create an even wider region free of weapons and troops between the two countries.  They would agree not to reintroduce troops and armaments into the vacated areas and to allow monitoring by international observers.  Over perhaps a 10-year span the two states would commit to additional military pullbacks plus reductions in the number of weapons each possessed, focusing on retiring those most suited to offensive warfare.

If Trump is indeed prepared to meet with Kim, it should be to do a deal along these lines, not to deliver in person the sort of ultimatums that the North has rejected for years.

The Diplomacy-Won’t-Work Trope

Typically, proposals like these are dismissed on the grounds that they combine the worst of all worlds: the appeasement of a despotic regime and reckless naïveté. 

Let’s start with the appeasement charge, the gist of which seems to be that Pyongyang’s cruelties bar diplomatic engagement with it.  This claim amounts to sanctimonious puffery and historical amnesia.  The United States has, in various forms, supported a vast array of despotic regimes, including Greece during the brutal “regime of the colonels” (1967-74); Indonesia under Suharto (who presided over the slaughter of half a million people in 1965-1966); and Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, when his government was gassing Kurds and razing their villages.  And of course in South Korea there was the U.S.-backed government of President Syngman Rhee (1948-1960), whose security forces killed more than 100,000 people, 30,000 to 60,000 in the infamous 1948 Cheju massacre alone, as part of an effort to decimate any left-wing opposition in the country.

North Korea’s state, while undeniably repressive, has persisted for more than 60 years and must be part of any plan to reduce the risk of war on the peninsula.  Attempting “regime change,” à la Iraq in 2003 or Libya in 2011, would certainly prove disastrous.  In comparison, the upheaval and death that followed the ousters of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi would seem minor and the bloody reverberations of such an event would extend far beyond the peninsula. 

Counting on China, Pyongyang’s principal benefactor, or Russia to squeeze North Korea so that it undertakes far-reaching reforms amounts to wishful thinking.  Neither country wants to trigger instability there for fear that the country might collapse, creating mayhem on its borders and releasing a floodtide of refugees that they would have to deal with.  In addition, China views the North as a buffer with South Korea, an American ally and a forward base for U.S. military power.  From Beijing’s vantage point, if changes in North Korea careened out of control, the eventual result could be a unified Korean state allied with Washington.  For the Chinese, the status quo on the peninsula, while anything but ideal, beats such a roll of the dice.  Beijing has been willing to impose sanctions on Pyongyang and sees it as mercurial and reckless, but it is not about to strangle it economically.

As for the charge of naïveté when it comes to a proposal to begin the partial demilitarization of the peninsula, that’s part and parcel of prevailing Washington orthodoxy, a deep conviction that North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons as part of a grand bargain.  In fact, progress toward just such a denuclearization was made during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the sticks were briefly put aside and the carrots brought out.  In October 1994, negotiations led to what was called the Agreed Framework.

Its details are complicated, so brace yourself for a barebones summary: North Korea agreed to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon, place the plant’s spent fuel in sealed containers for shipment out of the country, stop construction on two larger reactors (at Yongbyon and Taechon), remain a party to the NPT, and permit the IAEA to inspect its nuclear sites to verify the agreement’s implementation.  In exchange, the United States, Japan, and South Korea undertook, through a consortium, to build two light-water reactors (LWRs) suitable for generating electricity but not for producing weapons-grade plutonium and to provide Pyongyang with 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil pending the completion of the reactors. 

Eventually the Agreed Framework fell apart, a development for which all the parties share blame.  North Korea’s ongoing missile tests, while not banned by the deal, bolstered the accord’s critics in Washington.  It also faced resistance in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, which in 1994 were, for the first time in four decades, in Republican hands, while the Clinton administration proved inept in defending the agreement.  Having stopped producing plutonium at Yongbyon, North Korea complained about the delay in building the LWRs.  (Work on the first reactor didn’t start until August 2002.)  The South Korean government, stuck with partially funding those plants, was unenthusiastic, too.

The Bush administration arrived in office in 2001 ready to shred the Agreed Framework.  Soon enough, however, it sought to resurrect a version of that deal during the “Six-Party Talks,” which began in 2003 and included both Koreas, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. 

Here again the details are labyrinthine, but the basic formula that emerged did indeed resemble the Agreed Framework: North Korea was to receive both those LWRs and economic aid in exchange for freezing and then dismantling its nuclear program.  The North Koreans even allowed American and other technical experts to observe it shutting down the Yongbyon reactor.  It also provided reams — 18,000 pages to be exact — of documentation on its nuclear program.  Most importantly, having frozen plutonium production in 1994, it continued to do so until 2003.

For its part, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the State Department’s list of countries accused of sponsoring terrorism and exempted it from the Trading with the Enemy Act.  

There were also threats, theatrics, and setbacks aplenty.  In the end, the Six-Party Talks failed for reasons similar to those that killed the Agreed Framework: quarrels over the nature and scope of verification procedures, North Korea’s missile tests and confirmation of reports that it had embarked on efforts to build uranium-based nuclear weapons, and U.N. sanctions.  President George W. Bush, of course, included that country, along with Iran and Iraq, in what he infamously termed the “axis of evil,” which he called a “grave and growing danger” in his January 2002 State of the Union address.  His administration also listed North Korea in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review as one of the states that might become the target of a preventive strike.

The lessons to be drawn from this grim record are not that North Korea will not negotiate, let alone that it won’t ever agree to freeze, or even terminate, its nuclear program.  Instead, the history of these failed deals should be looked to for ideas on better ways to reach a consensus-based solution. 

This much remains clear: the more Pyongyang suspects that Washington’s real goal is regime change, the less likely it will be to relinquish its nuclear weapons for fear of suffering the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who shut down his nuclear program only to be toppled in what began as a U.S. and NATO humanitarian intervention to protect civilians but morphed quickly into a campaign to take him out.

North Korea and the Legacy of War

The notion that North Korea couldn’t possibly fear an American attack and that its claims to the contrary amount to paranoia reflects a stunning ignorance of history.  Between 1950 and 1953, North Korea experienced firsthand the devastation the American military machine was capable of inflicting.  As Charles Armstrong, a historian of Korea, has written, in those years “American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea — that is, essentially North Korea — including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific theater of World War II.” Armstrong estimates that 12%-15% of the North Korean population might have died, “a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.” 

As happened during the Anglo-American terror bombing of Germany and Japan, the distinction between civilians and soldiers, so central to International Humanitarian Law and Just War Theory, was defenestrated.  Many Americans know about the bombing of Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki and the deliberate targeting of civilians in an attempt to break their morale.  But few know what happened to North Korea in the early 1950s.  In his haunting book, On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald writes that Germans did not discuss the wartime bombings because Nazi crimes made them hesitant to cast moral judgments on other states, no matter what they had done to Germany.  There has been no such repression of memory or reticence by the state or the citizenry of North Korea.  

As a result, the usual dismissals of Pyongyang’s apprehension about what the United States might do to a denuclearized country are both callous and foolish.  Successful negotiations would mean taking its security concerns seriously, not rejecting them as paranoid demands, especially given that American military power remains so close, that Washington has threatened to attack the North more than once, and that the American president only recently boasted to the president of the Philippines (in a conversation leaked online) of the two U.S. nuclear submarines that were evidently somewhere off the North Korean coast at that moment.

Cutting the Umbilical Cord

A grand bargain that combines aid and political normalization in return for denuclearization and the pullback and reduction of troops on the Korean peninsula could be made even more attractive to Pyongyang if it included a phased withdrawal of the 28,500 American troops in South Korea.  The standard claim — that this would leave South Korea defenseless — is ludicrous.

South Korea has twice the population of the North: 50.6 million to 25.2 million, and they are better educated, far better fed, and much healthier. Just look at the data on life expectancyinfant mortality, and the amount and quality of calories consumed.  The South, then, has far more and better human capital.

The gap in economic power is gargantuan.  South Korea, an industrial and technological powerhouse, has a $1.5 trillion gross domestic product (GDP), the world’s 12th largest.  Valued at $30 billion, North Korea’s ranks 115th internationally, barely ahead of Senegal’s.  In other words, South Korea’s economy is about 50 times larger than the North’s, and its per capita GDP ($37,900) exceeds North Korea’s ($1,800 — and so comparable to South Sudan’s) by a factor of 21.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about investments in education and technology or living standards, South Korea inhabits a different universe than the North.

Confronted with such economic comparisons your garden variety Washington military wonk might quip, “Fine, but GDP doesn’t fight.”  Fair enough, strictly speaking.  So let’s ignore the multiple ways in which wealth shapes military power and consider the military data alone.  The results may surprise you.

According to the most recent State Department estimate, South Korea spends more than seven times what North Korea does on its armed forces. And given the South’s technological prowess and purchases of American arms, it has a far more modern military than the North, which still uses Soviet and Chinese armor and aircraft developed during the 1950s and 1960s.  Then there’s the relative burden of military spending. South Korea allocates 2.6% of its GDP to its armed forces, North Korea, 23.3%. In other words, South Korea can easily increase military spending without undue hardship.  Not so North Korea.

Remember this the next time you hear that the North has many more troops, tanks, artillery, and submarines. Remember as well that the numerical balance is about even or substantially favors the South in other armaments, such as combat aircraft, frigates, and destroyers.  

In other words, in a future settlement that includes a stage-by-stage U.S. military withdrawal, South Korea will hardly be left defenseless.

Averting Apocalypse?

Since the end of the Korean War, crises on the peninsula have come and gone.  Some have been dangerous indeed.  In the run-up to the 1994 Agreed Framework, for example, Defense Secretary William Perry proposed military options that included increasing the number of American troops in South Korea and readying long-range bombers and aircraft carrier battle groups to strike the Yongbyon reactor.

Still, the current crisis has no equal.  Sitting in the White House is a president whose narcissism knows no bounds, whose ignorance of the world is staggering, who talks blithely about war and nuclear weapons, and who is besieged by political scandals.  Meanwhile, North Korea’s ruler, like his predecessors, refuses to be cowed by American shows of force and continues to test ballistic missiles — three in May alone.

A deal resembling the one sketched above may never be reached and, given past history, it won’t be arrived at easily. Yet threats and displays of military power by the United States haven’t worked.  Ever.  If President Trump acts on the assumption that he and “his” generals can make them work and that North Korea will become reasonable only when faced with the certainty of war, there could be a conflagration on the Korean peninsula the likes of which would be almost unimaginable.


Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Rajan Menon

America’s Iran Hysteria

 Iran
Photo by Adobe Stock/Borna_Mir

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

“Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters on a mid-April visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, “you find Iran.”

I must admit that when I stumbled across that quote it brought up uncomfortable personal memories.

East Baghdad, January 25, 2007: my patrol had missed a turn and so we swung onto the next grimy avenue instead.  As platoon leader, I rode shotgun in the second of our four vehicles, yakking away on the radio.  The ensuing explosion rocked the senses: the sound, the blinding dust, and the smell — a mix of burnt metal and, well... I still can’t bring myself to describe it.

Our lead HMMWV, a military utility vehicle, aimlessly swerved right and came to rest beside a telephone pole. Only then did the screams begin.

The “cost” would be two wounded and two dead: my then-unborn son’s namesakes, Specialist Michael Balsley and Sergeant Alexander Fuller.  These were our first, but not last, fatalities.  Nothing was ever the same again.  I’m reminded of poet Dylan Thomas’s line: “After the first death, there is no other.”

The local militia had shredded our truck with an advanced type of improvised explosive device that was then just hitting the streets of Baghdad — an explosively formed projectile, or EFP.  These would ultimately kill hundreds of American troops.  Those EFPs and the requisite training to use them were provided to Iraqi militias by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s a detail I’m not likely to forget.

Still, there’s one major problem with bold, sweeping pronouncements (laced with one’s own prejudices) of the sort Secretary of Defense Mattis recently offered on Iran: they’re almost always wrong.  It’s the essential flaw of “lumping” — that is, of folding countless events or ideas into one grand theory.  But, boy, does it sound profound!  The truth is that Iran is simply not behind most of the turmoil in the Middle East, and until Washington’s policymakers change their all-Iran-all-the-time mental model, they are doomed to failure.  One thing is guaranteed: they are going to misdiagnose the patient and attack the wrong disease.

Look, I’m emotionally invested myself.  After all, I fought Iranian-trained militiamen, but a serious, workable national strategy shouldn’t rely on such emotion.  It demands a detached, rational calculus.  With that in mind, perhaps this is the moment — before the misdiagnosis sets in further — to take a fresh look at the nature of America’s thorny relationship with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s true place in the pantheon of American problems in the Greater Middle East.

Let’s start this way: How many Americans even realize that there are only three countries in the world with which their country has no ongoing diplomatic relations at all? Actually, the number was four until the Obama administration began slowly normalizing bilateral ties with one longtime member of the naughty list: Cuba.  How many could name the three remaining states on that roll of shame?  The first and easiest to guess is surely North Korea; the most obscure is Bhutan (the “Switzerland of the Himalayas”).  And, yes, of course, last but by no means least is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Think of all the scoundrels not on that list: Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe; our Pakistani “frenemy”; Vladimir Putin’s Russia; Equatorial Guinea with its craven, 40-year dictator, accused of cannibalism; and, until 2012, Bashar al-Assad’s grim Syrian regime.  Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. kept an embassy in the Soviet Union and it similarly maintained formal relations with apartheid South Africa.  As of 2014, the State Department officially dealt with nine-tenths of the globe’s most abusive regimes, according to the Human Rights Risk Atlas.

So, is the secretary of defense correct? Is Iran really behind all regional trouble in the Greater Middle East?

Hardly.  In fact, such an assertion — and the language of absolutes that goes with it — is by definition problematic.  In a Washington filled with Iranophobes, the demonization of that country is already a commonplace of everyday political chatter and it almost invariably rests on three inflated assumptions about Iran’s menacing nature: that it is on an eternal quest to develop and perhaps employ nuclear weapons (especially against Israel); that it massively supports regional “terrorists” and their proxies; and that it regularly exhibits an unquenchable desire to establish its regional hegemony by force of arms.  All three suppositions rest on another faulty assumption: that Iran has a straightforwardly dictatorial system of fundamentalism led by irrational “mad mullahs.”

Let’s consider each of these propositions.

The Iran Exaggeration

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a Middle Eastern country — no, not Israel — but one with a sizeable, protected Jewish community, a place where Islam is the state religion but its president regularly tweets Rosh Hashanah greetings for the Jewish New Year.

Sounds like somebody’s wild fantasy, but it’s actually Iran.  In fact, the Islamic Republic sets aside one mandatory seat in its parliament for a Jew, three for Christians, and another for a Zoroastrian.  It would be a mistake to conclude from such token gestures that Iran is a paragon of tolerance.  But they do speak to the complexity of a diverse society full of paradox and contradiction.

It certainly is a land in which hardline fundamentalists chant “Death to America!” It’s also a country with an increasingly young, educated populace that holds remarkably positive views of Americans.  In fact, whatever you might imagine, Americans tend to have significantly more negative views of Iran than vice versa.   Don’t be shocked, but Iranians hold more positive views of the U.S. government than do the citizens of Washington's allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey.  In reality, there’s long been a worrying paradox in the region: an inverse relationship between the amiability of a government’s relationship with Washington and the favorability ratings of this country among its people.

In other words, when it comes to Iran... well, it’s complicated.  The trouble is that Americans generally don’t do nuance.  We like our bad guys to be foreign and unmistakably vile, even if such a preference for digestible simplicity makes for poor policy.

If you want to grasp this point more fully, just think about Secretary of Defense Mattis’s recent statement again. He assures us that Iran’s shadow hovers over every regional crisis in the Middle East, which is empirically false.  Here, for instance, are just a few recent conflicts that Iran is not behind or where its role has been exaggerated:

* The Arab Spring and the subsequent chaos in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.  Iran didn’t start or significantly influence the uprisings in those countries.

* Turkey’s decades-long war with separatist Kurds in its southeast provinces.  Again, not Iran.

* The ongoing spread of al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and on the Arabian Peninsula.  Iran actually abhors such groups, and certainly wasn’t behind their rise.

* Or, if you want, take Yemen, since supposed Iranian meddling in the Middle East’s poorest state happens to be one of the favorite drums Washington’s Iranophobic hawks like to beat.  And yet a range of credible reports suggest that the much-decried collusion between Iran and the Houthi rebels, who are the focus of the Saudi war in that country, is highly exaggerated.

Look, Iran is a significant, if often thwarted and embattled, regional power and a player, sometimes even a destabilizing one, in various regional conflagrations.  It supports proxies, funds partner states, and sometimes intervenes in the region, even sending in its own military units (think Syria).  Then again, so does Saudi Arabia (Yemen and, in funding terms, elsewhere), the United Arab Emirates (Yemen), Russia (Syria), and the United States (more or less everywhere).  So who’s destabilizing whom and why almost invariably turns out to be a matter of perspective.

The State Department and various other government agencies regularly label Iran the world’s leading “state sponsor of terrorism” — and that couldn’t sound more menacing or impressively official and authoritative.  Yet to tag Iran as #1 on any terror list is misleading indeed.  The questions worth asking are: Which terrorists?  What constitutes terrorism?  Do those “terror” outfits truly threaten the U.S. homeland?

As a start, in 2016, the State Department’s annual survey of worldwide terrorism labeled ISIS — not Iran, Hezbollah, or the Houthis — as "the greatest [terror] threat globally." How do we square that “greatest sponsor” stamp with an Iran that has proven both thoroughly hostile to and deeply invested in the fight against ISIS and various al-Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq and Syria?

Iran does support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.  However, lumping regionally focused nationalist organizations like Hezbollah with genuine global jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda (in its proliferating forms) is deceptive, often purposely so.  The Lebanon-based Hezbollah, for example, is largely fixated on Israel, but has sometimes even fought ISIS in Lebanon and Syria.  In other words, Hezbollah, though it had previously attacked U.S. troops in the region, isn’t sending its operatives to crash planes into American buildings.

To think of it another way, more foreign ISIS volunteers hail from Belgium or the Maldives Islands than from Iran. In fact, most of the top sources of ISIS’s foreign recruits (Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan) turn out to be “friendly” American “partners.”  From 1975 to 2015, Iranian-born terrorists inflicted zero deaths in attacks on U.S. soil.  In contrast, citizens of key U.S. allies — Saudis, Egyptians, and Lebanese — killed thousands on 9/11.  In fact, since then, 85% of domestic terrorists turned out to be American citizens or permanent residents.  Most were American-born.  Of the 13 U.S. citizens involved in such fatal terror attacks, none were Iranian-American.

As to the charge that Iran is by nature an aggressive power, there can be little question that the Islamic Republic aggressively pursues its regional interests.  That, however, by no means makes its moves automatically antagonistic to Washington’s interests in the region.  If anything, as a Pentagon assessment concluded in 2014, its military strategy is ultimately defensive in nature and based on a feeling of being threatened, which makes sense when you think about it.  After all, when it comes to American power — from the 1953 CIA-British coup that overthrew Iran’s elected prime minister and installed the autocratic Shah to Washington’s support for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against Tehran (1980-1988) to the present administration’s all-in support for the autocratic Saudis in an anti-Iranian partnership, they have legitimate reasons to feel threatened.

In addition, unlikely as it may seem to most Americans, on certain issues like a Taliban-free Afghanistan, the U.S. and Iran actually have had converging, if complex, interests. Additionally, though Iran once promoted Iraqi Shiite militias that attacked and killed U.S. troops (including my soldiers, Mike Balsley and Alex Fuller), today, both countries desire a relatively stable, ISIS-free Iraq. None of this is easy to swallow (least of all by me), but prudent strategy demands a dispassionate, rational assessment of inherently emotional issues.  Unfortunately, when it comes to Iran, that’s hardly an American predilection at the moment. 

The Company We Keep 

In 1957, the U.S. supplied a key regional leader with his first (“peaceful”) nuclear reactor, as well as the necessary scientific training for those who would run it and some weapons-grade uranium to power it. Then, in the 1970s, American experts began to fear that their partner might be seeking to develop nuclear weapons on his own.  A few years later, revolutionaries overthrew him and inherited that American-originated program. That leader was, of course, the man the Americans had installed as ruler of Iran in 1953, Reza Shah Pahlavi.

It always struck me as odd that Iran made the cut for the very exclusive membership in George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”  After all, unlike those 15 Saudi hijackers and perhaps even the Saudi government, it had no connection to 9/11 and was “comprehensively helpful” in the initial takedown of the Afghan Taliban and the arrest of fleeing al-Qaeda fighters.

By contrast, consider just a few of Washington’s “partners” in the region:

* Saudi Arabia: this monarchy enforces a strict brand of conservative Wahhabi Islam not so terribly different from the basic theology of ISIS.  The Saudi government publicly executes an average of 73 people per year, including juveniles and the mentally ill.  Beheading is the favored technique. (Sound familiar?)  Nor are all the victims convicted murderers.  According to a 2015 Amnesty International report, “Non-lethal crimes including adultery, robbery, apostasy, drug-related offenses, rape, ‘witchcraft,’ and ‘sorcery’ are punishable by death.”  In addition to its citizens carrying out the 9/11 attacks, Saudi Arabia supported a branch of al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) in the Syrian conflict.  Furthermore, its ongoing U.S.-backed air strikes against Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been killing numerous civilians and may have helped to cause and further intensify a disastrous famine. The U.S. response: a record-breaking $110 billion arms deal for the Saudis.

* Egypt: In the wake of a 2013 coup d’état led by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi against an elected government, that country’s military gunned down hundreds of demonstrators.  Since then, its strongman has used “mass, arbitrary arrests,” tortured detainees, and conducted “extrajudicial executions” — all in the interest of retaining power.  The U.S. response: $1.4 billion in (mostly military) foreign assistance in fiscal 2017.  To top it off, President Trump recently invited Sisi to the White House, lauded the dictator’s “fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” and is planning a future visit to Egypt.

* Turkey: this formal ally boasts NATO’s second largest military and hosts an important U.S. airbase.  Unfortunately, Turkey is increasingly unstable thanks to a recent coup attempt, its ongoing war with Kurdish separatists, and an escalating intervention in Syria’s civil war.  Worse yet, after relaunching an internal war against Kurdish rebels, its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken the country into distinctly autocratic terrain in the wake of a narrow victory in a referendum that does away with the office of prime minister and further centralizes executive power in his hands.  Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record includes the pre-trial detention of more than 40,000 coup “suspects,” the summary dismissal of 90,000 civil servants, the shuttering of hundreds of offices of nongovernmental organizations and media outlets, and the imposition of a 24-hour curfew in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of the country. The U.S. response: $3.8 million in direct (military) assistance in fiscal 2017, and promises to continue arms sales which topped $2.3 billion last year.

This motley crew has one thing in common — they’re no angels. 

“Rip It Up”

Iran hawks live on both sides of the political aisle.  In 2015, for example, Hillary Clinton told an audience at Dartmouth College that Iran represents “an existential threat to Israel.”  Though she expressed tacit support for Obama’s then-pending nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — she added that “even if we do get such a deal, we will still have major problems... [Iran is] the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism.”

When it comes to real rancor toward Iran, however, you have to look to the right.  Senator John McCain, for instance, immediately cried foul about the JCPOA, calling it a “bad deal” likely to “nuclearize” the Middle East.  More colloquially, as both a candidate and as president-elect, Donald Trump repeatedly vowed to “rip it up,” while former governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee accused President Obama of “marching the Israelis to the door of the oven.”

Despite the bellicose rhetoric, intelligence and congressional testimonyindicate that Iran is complying with the JCPOA.  Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey — not exactly a dove — believed that the deal reduced the risk of Iran weaponizing its nuclear power. All the appeals from the president, various pundits, neocons of every sort, and congressional hawks to withdraw from it also neglect an obvious reality: the JCPOA is a multilateral deal and none of our partners (Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany) will support “tearing up” the agreement.  Imagine the optics of a future American unilateral abrogation of an agreement Iran is complying with: the onus will be on Washington alone; its allies will continue to abide by the deal and, with genuine justification, Iran’s leaders will be able to depict the Americans as destabilizing “cowboys.” 

Here’s the reality of the present situation: despite decades of sanctions and the military containment of Iran, the U.S. has not significantly affected its policies or stance in the region.  Few in Washington display the courage to ask the crucial question: Why continue?  Why not a creative new approach — the gradual normalization of relations?

Though you wouldn’t know it, given the prominence of Iranophobes in Washington, the U.S. has little to lose.  Current policy is counterproductive in so many ways, while Washington’s never-ending bellicosity and threats to “rip up” the nuclear agreement only undercut Iran’s moderates and the eminently sensible President Hassan Rouhani, who recently won a smashing electoral victory against a hardline, fundamentalist opponent in which a stunning 73% of Iranian voters cast ballots. Why not make it more, not ever less, difficult for Iran’s conservatives to vilify the U.S.?

Forty Years of Failure

There’s an uncomfortable truth that Washington needs to face: U.S. policy toward Iran hasn’t achieved its goals despite almost four decades of effort since an American-installed autocrat was overthrown there in 1979.  Foreign policy hawks — Democrats and Republicans alike — will undoubtedly fight that reality tooth-and-nail, but as with the Cuban embargo, Iranian isolation has long outworn any imagined usefulness.  That ostracizing Iran remains fashionable reflects domestic political calculus or phobic thinking, not cogent strategy, and yet our new president just traveled to Saudi Arabia, a truly autocratic country, and in the wake of an Iranian election that was by all accounts resoundingly democratic, denounced that land as despotic and all but called for regime change

So here’s a question that, believe it or not, is okay to ask and is not actually tantamount to treason: What exactly does Iran want and fear?  It wants international legitimacy, security, and a reasonable degree of regional power (not world domination). It fears continued isolation, any coalition of hostile Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia (assisted by Israel), and U.S.-sponsored attempts at regime change. If you think that makes the Iranians sound paranoid, just check out the recent celebratory get-together in Saudi Arabia or remember how, just before the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Newsweek quoted a senior British official summing up the situation in Washington this way: “Everyone wants to go to BaghdadReal men want to go to Tehran.”

In sum, U.S. policy in the Middle East is confused, contradictory, counterproductive, and dangerous.  It could leave Washington involved in a war with Iran. (And given our recent wars in the region, imagine where that’s likely to land us.)

The U.S. doesn’t require more enemies. Its hands are already full enough without additional faux “existential” threats or, as John Quincy Adams warned so long ago, eternally going “abroad seeking monsters to destroy.”

Oddly enough, the Trump administration has a unique opportunity to normalize relations with Iran.  While President Obama’s modest overtures toward that country were greeted with scathing partisan scorn, President Trump might just be able to garner enough Republican support to do so much more, were he ever to try.  At the moment, he clearly possesses no such plans, and yet, as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only Trump can go to Tehran!

My small bit of advice, however: don’t hold your breath...


Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen

Making Sense of the Deportation Debate

 Border Patrol
Photo by AdobeStock/sherryvsmith

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Ever since he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and swore to build his “great wall” and stop Mexican “rapists” from entering the country, undocumented immigrants have been the focus of Donald Trump’s ire. Now that he’s in the Oval Office, the news has been grim. A drumbeat of frightening headlines and panicked social media posts have highlighted his incendiary language, his plans and executive orders when it comes to immigrants, and the early acts of the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents when it comes to round-ups and deportations. The temperature has soared on the deportation debate, so if you think we’re in a completely unprecedented moment when it comes to immigration and immigrants, you’re in good company.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are flooding the United States, causing crime waves, and depleting social service budgets.  Never mind that the number of such immigrants has been in steady decline since 2008, that immigrant crime rates are lower than citizen crime rates, that the undocumented have no access to most social welfare programs, and that crime figures, too, have generally been on the decline in recent years.

The media has played its own role in fanning the flames.  Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, news reports have proliferated about rising raids, arrests, detentions, and deportations.  These suggest that something new, terrifying, and distinctly Trumpian -- something we’ve simply never seen before -- is underway, including mass sweeps to deport individuals who would have been protected under the previous administration.

The numbers tell a different story.  A Washington Post scare headline typically read: “ICE Immigration Arrests of Noncriminals Double Under Trump.”  While accurate, it was nonetheless misleading.  Non-criminal immigration arrests did indeed jump from 2,500 in the first three months of 2016 to 5,500 during the same period in 2017, while criminal arrests also rose, bringing the total to 21,000.  Only 16,000 were arrested during the same months in 2016.  The article, however, ignores the fact that 2016 was the all-time low year for arrests under President Obama.  In the first three months of 2014, for example, 29,000 were arrested, far more than Trump’s three-month “record.” 

And even though arrests went up during Trump’s first three months in office, deportations actually went down, mostly due to the fact that the number of immigrants crossing the border declined.

To those who have been following deportation politics in this country, Trump’s policies, as they are now unfolding, have an eerie resonance.  They seem to be growing directly out of policies first instituted in the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  True, President Obama liked to talk about “our tradition of welcoming immigrants,” while our new president has tossed such liberal humanitarian rhetoric in the garbage can, instead playing up a harsh nativism.  Still, the fact is that two Democratic presidents laid the groundwork for Trump’s developing policies.

It was, after all, President Clinton who oversaw the draconian “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act” of 1996.  It drastically increased all levels of immigration “enforcement,” expanding the Border Patrol, criminalizing numerous types of low-level immigration violations, and facilitating and expanding deportation procedures.  (A similar emphasis on casting blame on individuals for structural and systemic problems was also at the heart of Clinton’s welfare reform of that same year.)

In many ways, Donald Trump is only reiterating, with more bombast, ideas and policies pioneered under Clinton, that then became a basic part of Barack Obama’s approach to immigration. Those policies drew directly on racist tough-on-crime and anti-terrorism police tactics that also helped foment white racial fears.

Anecdotally speaking, there have already been numerous cases of detention and deportation that appear to go far beyond what was occurring in the Obama years.  But a closer look at those cases and at the numbers suggests surprisingly more continuity than change.  Both the mainstream media and social media have highlighted what appear to be extreme cases of the arrest of DACA (“deferred action for childhood arrivals”) youth, also known as “Dreamers,” as well as of individuals appearing for routine check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, or other arbitrary detentions and deportations.  Most of these cases, however, have been far more in line with Obama-era policies than readers of such news might imagine.  Then, too, “low-priority immigrants” were swept up surprisingly often in what the New York Times in 2014 called “the net of deportation.”

Obama’s Legacy: A Three-Part System

At first glance, President Obama’s legacy on immigration enforcement appears contradictory indeed.  He claimed to be a humanitarian who sought to deport only “felons, not families,” while granting relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.  At the same time, he was dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” for a reason.  He oversaw historic rises in deportation rates.

To grasp the contradictory nature of his policies, it’s necessary to explore three geographically different policy realms when it comes to the undocumented: interior enforcement, border enforcement, and the Mexican Southern Border Program.  In the area of interior enforcement, Obama created several protection and priority programs for undocumented immigrants already in the country that did indeed shield whole groups of people from deportation.  Immigrant rights supporters who emphasize the humanitarian nature of what Obama did focus on such protections, while downplaying the two border prongs of his policies.  Yet, though not much attended to, even the humanitarian programs incorporated a darker side, criminalizing and targeting those not eligible for them. 

When it came to interior enforcement, President Obama called on ICE to exercise “prosecutorial discretion.”  Immigrants who were parents, students, hard-working, had close family and community ties, or served in the military, he suggested, should be granted relief from deportation. 

In the process, however, he offered a language of innocence versus criminality and the illusion that, when it came to immigrants, the notion of criminality was self-evident and universally agreed upon.  By dividing them into felons versus families, he actually contributed to the criminalization of large groups of immigrants and so fed directly into Trump’s future rhetoric.  He also drew on Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies in ways that linked the criminalization of people of color with the deportation of “criminal” immigrants (also overwhelmingly people of color).

As immigration scholars Alan Aja and Alejandra Marchevsky explain:

“The criminalization of immigrants in part resulted from more aggressive policing of communities of color. In the 1980s and '90s, law enforcement agencies across the nation implemented broken windows and stop-and-frisk strategies, claiming that mass arrests for low-level offenses would prevent more serious crime. As the immigrants who lived in these communities fell victim to racialized policing and mass incarceration, the federal government’s rosters of the criminal immigrant exploded.”

Once criminalized, they then fell into a separate-and-unequal immigration enforcement system in which due process was eliminated and deportation, the ultimate draconian penalty, could be implemented regardless of the seriousness of the “crime.”  Worse yet, the ever harsher over-policing of communities of color and the expansion of mass incarceration produced, Aja and Marchevsky point out, “a reservoir of immigrants with criminal records, creating an endless chain of detentions and deportations.”

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has made strikingly clear, all of this -- the redefinition of minor crimes as felonies, the increasing pressure on those charged to plea bargain, and measures that then excluded felons from public housing, employment, welfare rolls, voting booths, and other aspects of society -- relegated a significant number of black men to a permanent underclass. Undocumented immigrants were also caught in this web, with some special twists.

In the wake of Clinton’s 1996 immigration law, for instance, convictions of just about any sort, including the most minor crimes, became grounds for deportation -- even retroactively.  So a long-ago violation that resulted in probation and community service, or a small fine, now became evidence of an immigrant’s “criminal” status from which deportation naturally followed.

And there was another new catch-22 category as well: so-called immigration crimes. Those with a record of illegal reentry and those who engaged in what was termed “immigration fraud” were automatically re-categorized as “criminals” under President Obama’s priority enforcement policy.  “Illegal reentry” is, in fact, the most curious of crimes, since it distinguishes between those who succeed in entering the country without inspection on their first try and those who are caught and only succeed on a subsequent try.  “Immigration fraud,” a broad category, includes common practices like using a false social security number in order to work.

Obama’s interior deportation scheme relied heavily on this expansive notion of the criminality of the undocumented, who might otherwise have qualified as people trying to get by as best they could.  Now, President Trump is extending that criminalization further by ruling that anybody convicted of, charged with, or even suspected of a crime constitutes a priority for deportation.  In the process, he’s expanded the concept of the “criminal” even as he’s built directly on the Clinton-Obama legacy.

At the Border and Beyond

What earned President Obama the moniker of “deporter-in-chief,” however, was his policy towards border enforcement, since it was there that the number of deportees rose most sharply.  This was in part because he prioritized “recent border crossers” for deportation; everyone, that is, who had crossed without authorization, which essentially meant everyone apprehended in the border region, was now criminalized.  Under previous administrations, most of those caught there had been granted what was called “voluntary departure.”  In other words, they were returned to the Mexican side of the border without legal sanction.  During the Clinton and Bush administrations, more than a million people a year were returned to Mexico in this manner without being transformed into criminals and so were not included in the usual deportation figures.

In the Obama years, those apprehended at the border began to be formally charged and fingerprinted before being issued a deportation order.  In this way, they were redefined as “criminals,” and if they were caught attempting a second border crossing, as criminal “repeat immigration offenders.”  It also meant that formal deportations began to skyrocket, although the numbers crossing the border, those apprehended at the border, and those sent back to Mexico were all beginning to fall.

Soon enough, immigration crimes came to rival drug crimes in the federal court system.  Obama became the deporter-in-chief not because he deported more people than previous administrations, but because he criminalized more of those he deported. This, then, was how he managed to protect many from deportation, while also racking up deportation statistics far beyond those of his predecessors.  In fact, the situations of many of those caught at the border proved remarkably similar to those being granted prosecutorial discretion in the interior.  They had family, including children, in the United States, or jobs and strong community ties, or had lived in the country for years.  Because they had left and tried to return, however, they were redefined as criminals. 

Finally, one aspect of immigration enforcement under the Obama administration generally goes unmentioned: the president’s role in pressuring Mexico into collaborating by arresting and deporting Central Americans heading north (including families and unaccompanied children) before they reached the border with the United States.  In 2014, under growing pressure from Washington, the Mexican government implemented the Southern Border Program.  While U.S. law was being repeatedly updated to provide humanitarian treatment to families and children apprehended at the border, when the Mexicans got to them first, they simply deported them.

In 2014, only 3% of the minors apprehended in the U.S. were deported; in Mexico, the figure was 77%, or 18,269.  As one report summed up the situation: “The United States is outsourcing its border enforcement to Mexico.”  As in the United States, so Mexico’s increasing militarization and repression on its southern border did not actually slow the flow of migrants. It merely made the voyage far more dangerous, while giving ever more power to smugglers and gangs that now prey upon Central American migrants desperately trying to evade Mexican border controls.

Immigrants, Criminalization, and the Labor Market

Long before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, this “tough on crime” approach to immigration fit into a broader pattern of the criminalization of people of color that fed the prison-industrial complex, made the U.S. the globe’s leading incarcerator, and encouraged the proliferation of private prisons.  It helped justify the increasing militarization of the police in those years and the over-policing of communities of color.  It also fed a national sense of insecurity that contributed to political passivity, disempowerment, and the kind of nativism that Trump has thrived on.

Criminalization plays a role as well in the country’s growing economic inequality.  It justifies both high rates of unemployment and low wages among people of color, while warehousing those whose labor has become superfluous. And it plays a particular role when it comes to immigrants and the labor market.

Immigrants actually experience significantly higher labor force participation and lower unemployment rates than the native-born, making them an exception among people of color.  However, they earn less ($681 week) than do native-born workers ($837 a week), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2015.  For employers in recent years, the criminalization of the already unstable status of immigrants (and their inability generally to access social services), makes them a uniquely exploitable and so desirable work force.  They tend to be hired to do jobs so dismal, arduous, or dangerous that they fail to attract native-born workers.  Anthropologist Nicholas de Genova has suggested that the very “deportability” of undocumented immigrants makes them desirable to such employers.

Meanwhile, the criminalization of people of color and of immigrants in particular lent a distinct helping hand to Donald Trump in his campaign for president, even as it helped the prison-industrial complex and the police justify ever-increasing budgets and employment.

The Trump administration’s multipronged approach to immigration relies on and promotes the criminalization of immigrants.  Whether halting the entry of refugees or persons with visas from particular countries, hiring thousands of new ICE and Border Patrol agents, promising to build a “great, great wall,” denying federal money to sanctuary cities, or publishing lists of crimes committed by immigrants, Trump’s immigration policies follow in the footsteps but also intensify those of his predecessors and continue to create fear, justify exploitation, and rationalize authoritarianism.

Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts and a TomDispatch regular. Her most recent book is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Aviva Chomsky

Forbidden Questions?

Washington DC
Photo by AdobeStock/Celso Diniz

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Donald Trump's election has elicited impassioned affirmations of a renewed commitment to unvarnished truth-telling from the prestige media.  The common theme:  you know you can’t trust him, but trust us to keep dogging him on your behalf.  The New York Times has even unveiled a portentous new promotional slogan: “The truth is now more important than ever.” For its part, the Washington Post grimly warns that “democracy dies in darkness,” and is offering itself as a source of illumination now that the rotund figure of the 45th president has produced the political equivalent of a total eclipse of the sun. Meanwhile, National Public Radio fundraising campaigns are sounding an increasingly panicky note: give, listener, lest you be personally responsible for the demise of the Republic that we are bravely fighting to save from extinction.

If only it were so.  How wonderful it would be if President Trump’s ascendancy had coincided with a revival of hard-hitting, deep-dive, no-holds-barred American journalism.  Alas, that’s hardly the case.  True, the big media outlets are demonstrating both energy and enterprise in exposing the ineptitude, inconsistency, and dubious ethical standards, as well as outright lies and fake news, that are already emerging as Trump era signatures.  That said, pointing out that the president has (again) uttered a falsehood, claimed credit for a nonexistent achievement, or abandoned some position to which he had previously sworn fealty requires something less than the sleuthing talents of a Sherlock Holmes.  As for beating up on poor Sean Spicer for his latest sequence of gaffes — well, that’s more akin to sadism than reporting.

Apart from a commendable determination to discomfit Trump and members of his inner circle (select military figures excepted, at least for now), journalism remains pretty much what it was prior to November 8th of last year: personalities built up only to be torn down; fads and novelties discovered, celebrated, then mocked; “extraordinary” stories of ordinary people granted 15 seconds of fame only to once again be consigned to oblivion — all served with a side dish of that day’s quota of suffering, devastation, and carnage.  These remain journalism’s stock-in-trade.  As practiced in the United States, with certain honorable (and hence unprofitable) exceptions, journalism remains superficial, voyeuristic, and governed by the attention span of a two year old.

As a result, all those editors, reporters, columnists, and talking heads who characterize their labors as “now more important than ever” ill-serve the public they profess to inform and enlighten.  Rather than clearing the air, they befog it further.  If anything, the media’s current obsession with Donald Trump — his every utterance or tweet treated as “breaking news!” — just provides one additional excuse for highlighting trivia, while slighting issues that deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

To illustrate the point, let me cite some examples of national security issues that presently receive short shrift or are ignored altogether by those parts of the Fourth Estate said to help set the nation’s political agenda. To put it another way: Hey, Big Media, here are two dozen matters to which you’re not giving faintly adequate thought and attention.

1. Accomplishing the “mission”: Since the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States has been committed to defending key allies in Europe and East Asia.  Not long thereafter, U.S. security guarantees were extended to the Middle East as well.  Under what circumstances can Americans expect nations in these regions to assume responsibility for managing their own affairs?  To put it another way, when (if ever) might U.S. forces actually come home?  And if it is incumbent upon the United States to police vast swaths of the planet in perpetuity, how should momentous changes in the international order — the rise of China, for example, or accelerating climate change — affect the U.S. approach to doing so?

2. American military supremacy: The United States military is undoubtedly the world’s finest.  It’s also far and away the most generously funded, with policymakers offering U.S. troops no shortage of opportunities to practice their craft.  So why doesn’t this great military ever win anything?  Or put another way, why in recent decades have those forces been unable to accomplish Washington’s stated wartime objectives?  Why has the now 15-year-old war on terror failed to result in even a single real success anywhere in the Greater Middle East?  Could it be that we’ve taken the wrong approach?  What should we be doing differently?

3. America’s empire of bases: The U.S. military today garrisons the planet in a fashion without historical precedent.  Successive administrations, regardless of party, justify and perpetuate this policy by insisting that positioning U.S. forces in distant lands fosters peace, stability, and security.  In the present century, however, perpetuating this practice has visibly had the opposite effect.  In the eyes of many of those called upon to “host” American bases, the permanent presence of such forces smacks of occupation.  They resist.  Why should U.S. policymakers expect otherwise?

4. Supporting the troops: In present-day America, expressing reverence for those who serve in uniform is something akin to a religious obligation.  Everyone professes to cherish America’s “warriors.”  Yet such bountiful, if superficial, expressions of regard camouflage a growing gap between those who serve and those who applaud from the sidelines. Our present-day military system, based on the misnamed All-Volunteer Force, is neither democratic nor effective.  Why has discussion and debate about its deficiencies not found a place among the nation’s political priorities? 

5. Prerogatives of the commander-in-chief: Are there any military actions that the president of the United States may not order on his own authority?  If so, what are they?  Bit by bit, decade by decade, Congress has abdicated its assigned role in authorizing war. Today, it merely rubberstamps what presidents decide to do (or simply stays mum).  Who does this deference to an imperial presidency benefit?  Have U.S. policies thereby become more prudent, enlightened, and successful?

6. Assassin-in-chief: A policy of assassination, secretly implemented under the aegis of the CIA during the early Cold War, yielded few substantive successes.  When the secrets were revealed, however, the U.S. government suffered considerable embarrassment, so much so that presidents foreswore politically motivated murder. After 9/11, however, Washington returned to the assassination business in a big way and on a global scale, using drones.  Today, the only secret is the sequence of names on the current presidential hit list, euphemistically known as the White House “disposition matrix.” But does assassination actually advance U.S. interests (or does it merely recruit replacements for the terrorists it liquidates)?  How can we measure its costs, whether direct or indirect?  What dangers and vulnerabilities does this practice invite?

7. The war formerly known as the “Global War on Terrorism”: What precisely is Washington’s present strategy for defeating violent jihadism?  What sequence of planned actions or steps is expected to yield success? If no such strategy exists, why is that the case?  How is it that the absence of strategy — not to mention an agreed upon definition of “success” — doesn’t even qualify for discussion here?

8. The campaign formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom: The conflict commonly referred to as the Afghanistan War is now the longest in U.S. history — having lasted longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. What is the Pentagon’s plan for concluding that conflict?  When might Americans expect it to end?  On what terms?

9. The Gulf: Americans once believed that their prosperity and way of life depended on having assured access to Persian Gulf oil.  Today, that is no longer the case.  The United States is once more an oil exporter. Available and accessible reserves of oil and natural gas in North America are far greater than was once believed. Yet the assumption that the Persian Gulf still qualifies as crucial to American national security persists in Washington. Why?

10. Hyping terrorism: Each year terrorist attacks kill far fewer Americans than do auto accidentsdrug overdoses, or even lightning strikes.  Yet in the allocation of government resources, preventing terrorist attacks takes precedence over preventing all three of the others combined. Why is that?

11. Deaths that matter and deaths that don’t: Why do terrorist attacks that kill a handful of Europeans command infinitely more American attention than do terrorist attacks that kill far larger numbers of Arabs? A terrorist attack that kills citizens of France or Belgium elicits from the United States heartfelt expressions of sympathy and solidarity.  A terrorist attack that kills Egyptians or Iraqis elicits shrugs.  Why the difference?  To what extent does race provide the answer to that question?

12. Israeli nukes: What purpose is served by indulging the pretense that Israel does not have nuclear weapons?

13. Peace in the Holy Land: What purpose is served by indulging illusions that a “two-state solution” offers a plausible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  As remorselessly as white settlers once encroached upon territory inhabited by Native American tribes, Israeli settlers expand their presence in the occupied territories year by year.  As they do, the likelihood of creating a viable Palestinian state becomes ever more improbable. To pretend otherwise is the equivalent of thinking that one day President Trump might prefer the rusticity of Camp David to the glitz of Mar-a-Lago.

14. Merchandizing death: When it comes to arms sales, there is no need to Make America Great Again.  The U.S. ranks number one by a comfortable margin, with long-time allies Saudi Arabia and Israel leading recipients of those arms.  Each year, the Saudis (per capita gross domestic product $20,000) purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. weapons.  Israel (per capita gross domestic product $38,000) gets several billion dollars worth of such weaponry annually courtesy of the American taxpayer.  If the Saudis pay for U.S. arms, why shouldn’t the Israelis? They can certainly afford to do so.

15. Our friends the Saudis (I): Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudis.  What does that fact signify?

16. Our friends the Saudis (II): If indeed Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing to determine which nation will enjoy the upper hand in the Persian Gulf, why should the United States favor Saudi Arabia?  In what sense do Saudi values align more closely with American values than do Iranian ones?

17. Our friends the Pakistanis: Pakistan behaves like a rogue state.  It is a nuclear weapons proliferator.  It supports the Taliban.  For years, it provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden.  Yet U.S. policymakers treat Pakistan as if it were an ally.  Why?  In what ways do U.S. and Pakistani interests or values coincide?  If there are none, why not say so? 

18. Free-loading Europeans: Why can’t Europe, “whole and free,” its population and economy considerably larger than Russia’s, defend itself?  It’s altogether commendable that U.S. policymakers should express support for Polish independence and root for the Baltic republics.  But how does it make sense for the United States to care more about the wellbeing of people living in Eastern Europe than do people living in Western Europe?

19. The mother of all “special relationships”: The United States and the United Kingdom have a “special relationship” dating from the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.  Apart from keeping the Public Broadcasting Service supplied with costume dramas and stories featuring eccentric detectives, what is the rationale for that partnership today?  Why should U.S. relations with Great Britain, a fading power, be any more “special” than its relations with a rising power like India?  Why should the bonds connecting Americans and Britons be any more intimate than those connecting Americans and Mexicans?  Why does a republic now approaching the 241st anniversary of its independence still need a “mother country”?

20. The old nuclear disarmament razzmatazz: American presidents routinely cite their hope for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.  Yet the U.S. maintains nuclear strike forces on full alert, has embarked on a costly and comprehensive trillion-dollar modernization of its nuclear arsenal, and even refuses to adopt a no-first-use posture when it comes to nuclear war.  The truth is that the United States will consider surrendering its nukes only after every other nation on the planet has done so first.  How does American nuclear hypocrisy affect the prospects for global nuclear disarmament or even simply for the non-proliferation of such weaponry?

21. Double standards (I): American policymakers take it for granted that their country’s sphere of influence is global, which, in turn, provides the rationale for the deployment of U.S. military forces to scores of countries.  Yet when it comes to nations like China, Russia, or Iran, Washington takes the position that spheres of influence are obsolete and a concept that should no longer be applicable to the practice of statecraft.  So Chinese, Russian, and Iranian forces should remain where they belong — in China, Russia, and Iran.  To stray beyond that constitutes a provocation, as well as a threat to global peace and order.  Why should these other nations play by American rules?  Why shouldn’t similar rules apply to the United States?

22. Double standards (II): Washington claims that it supports and upholds international law.  Yet when international law gets in the way of what American policymakers want to do, they disregard it.  They start wars, violate the sovereignty of other nations, and authorize agents of the United States to kidnap, imprison, torture, and kill.  They do these things with impunity, only forced to reverse their actions on the rare occasions when U.S. courts find them illegal.  Why should other powers treat international norms as sacrosanct since the United States does so only when convenient? 

23. Double standards (III): The United States condemns the indiscriminate killing of civilians in wartime.  Yet over the last three-quarters of a century, it killed civilians regularly and often on a massive scale.  By what logic, since the 1940s, has the killing of Germans, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Afghans, and others by U.S. air power been any less reprehensible than the Syrian government’s use of “barrel bombs” to kill Syrians today?  On what basis should Americans accept Pentagon claims that, when civilians are killed these days by U.S. forces, the acts are invariably accidental, whereas Syrian forces kill civilians intentionally and out of malice?  Why exclude incompetence or the fog of war as explanations?  And why, for instance, does the United States regularly gloss over or ignore altogether the noncombatants that Saudi forces (with U.S. assistance) are routinely killing in Yemen?

24. Moral obligations: When confronted with some egregious violation of human rights, members of the chattering classes frequently express an urge for the United States to “do something.”  Holocaust analogies sprout like dandelions.  Newspaper columnists recycle copy first used when Cambodians were slaughtering other Cambodians en masse or whenever Hutus and Tutsis went at it.  Proponents of action — typically advocating military intervention — argue that the United States has a moral obligation to aid those victimized by injustice or cruelty anywhere on Earth.  But what determines the pecking order of such moral obligations?  Which comes first, a responsibility to redress the crimes of others or a responsibility to redress crimes committed by Americans?  Who has a greater claim to U.S. assistance, Syrians suffering today under the boot of Bashar al-Assad or Iraqis, their country shattered by the U.S. invasion of 2003?  Where do the Vietnamese fit into the queue?  How about the Filipinos, brutally denied independence and forcibly incorporated into an American empire as the nineteenth century ended?  Or African-Americans, whose ancestors were imported as slaves?  Or, for that matter, dispossessed and disinherited Native Americans?  Is there a statute of limitations that applies to moral obligations?  And if not, shouldn’t those who have waited longest for justice or reparations receive priority attention?

Let me suggest that any one of these two dozen issues — none seriously covered, discussed, or debated in the American media or in the political mainstream — bears more directly on the wellbeing of the United States and our prospects for avoiding global conflict than anything Donald Trump may have said or done during his first 100 days as president.  Collectively, they define the core of the national security challenges that presently confront this country, even as they languish on the periphery of American politics.

How much damage Donald Trump’s presidency wreaks before it ends remains to be seen.  Yet he himself is a transient phenomenon.  To allow his pratfalls and shenanigans to divert attention from matters sure to persist when he finally departs the stage is to make a grievous error.  It may well be that, as the Times insists, the truth is now more important than ever.  If so, finding the truth requires looking in the right places and asking the right questions.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military Historynow out in paperbackHis next book will be an interpretive history of the United States from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Andrew J. Bacevich

How to Lose the Next War in the Middle East

 Middle East
Photo by Adobe Stock/veneratio

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Make no mistake: after 15 years of losing wars, spreading terror movements, and multiplying failed states across the Greater Middle East, America will fight the next versions of our ongoing wars. Not that we ever really stopped.  Sure, Washington traded in George W. Bush’s expansive, almost messianic attitude toward his Global War on Terror for Barack Obama’s more precise, deliberate, even cautious approach to an unnamed version of the same war for hegemony in the Greater Middle East.  Sure, in the process kitted-up 19 year-olds from Iowa became less ubiquitous features on Baghdad’s and Kabul’s busy boulevards, even if that distinction was lost on the real-life targets of America’s wars — and the bystanders (call them “collateral damage”) scurrying across digital drone display screens.

It’s hardly a brilliant observation to point out that, more than 15 years later, the entire region is a remarkable mess.  So much worse off than Washington found it, even if all of that mess can’t simply be blamed on the United States — at least not directly.  It’s too late now, as the Trump administration is discovering, to retreat behind two oceans and cover our collective eyes.  And yet, acts that might still do some modest amount of good (resettling refugees, sending aid, brokering truces, anything within reason to limit suffering) don’t seem to be on any American agenda.

So, after 16 years of inconclusive or catastrophic regional campaigns, maybe it’s time to stop dreaming about how to make things better in the Greater Middle East and try instead to imagine how to make things worse (since that’s the path we often seem to take anyway). Here, then, is a little thought experiment for you: what if Washington actually wanted to lose? How might the U.S. government go about accomplishing that? Let me offer a quick (and inevitably incomplete) to-do list on the subject:

As a start, you would drop an enlarged, conventional army into Iraq and/or Syria. This would offer a giant red, white, and blue target for all those angry, young radicalized men just dying (pardon the pun) to extinguish some new “crusader” force.  It would serve as an effective religious-nationalist rallying cry (and target) throughout the region.

Then you would create a news-magnet of a ban (or at least the appearance of one) on immigrants and visitors of every sort from predominantly Muslim countries coming to the United States.  It’s hardly an accident that ISIS has taken to calling the president’s proposed executive order to do just that “the blessed ban” and praising Donald Trump as the “best caller to Islam.”  Such actions only confirm the extremist narrative: that Muslims are unwelcome in and incompatible with the West, that liberal plurality is a neo-imperial scam.

Finally, you would feed the common perception in the region that Washington’s support for Israel and assorted Arab autocrats is unconditional.  To do so, you would go out of your way to hold fawning public meetings with military strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and suggest that, when it came to Israel, you were considering changing American policy when it comes to a two-state solution and the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine.  Such policies would feed another ISIS narrative: U.S. support for illiberal despots and the failure of the Arab Spring is proof that practicing Muslims and peaceful Islamists will never successfully gain power through the democratic process.

Key to such a losing strategy would be doing anything you could to reinforce ISIS’s twisted narrative of an end-of-days battle between Islam and Christendom, a virtuous East versus a depraved West, an authentic Caliphate against hypocritical democracies.  In what amounts to a war of ideas, pursuing such policies would all but hand victory to ISIS and other jihadi extremist groups.  And so you would have successfully created a strategy for losing eternally in the Greater Middle East.  And if that was the desired outcome in Washington, well, congratulations all around, but of course we all know that it wasn’t.

Let’s take these three points in such a losing strategy one by one. (Of course "losing" is itself a contested term, but for our purposes, consider the U.S. to have lost as long as its military spins its wheels in a never-ending quagmire, while gradually empowering various local "adversaries.")

Just a Few Thousand More Troops Will Get It Done...

There are already thousands of American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Syria, to say nothing of the even more numerous troops and sailors stationed on bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, and other states ringing America’s Middle Eastern battlefields.  Still, if you want to mainline into the fastest way to lose the next phase of the war on terror, just blindly acquiesce in the inevitable requests of your commanders for yet more troops and planes needed to finish the job in Syria ( and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and so on).

Let’s play this out.  First, the worst (and most plausible) case: U.S. ground forces get sucked into an ever more complex, multi-faceted civil war — deeper and deeper still, until one day they wake up in a world that looks like Baghdad, 2007, all over again.

Or, lest we be accused of defeatism, consider the best case: those endlessly fortified and reinforced American forces wipe the floor with ISIS and just maybe manage to engineer the toppling of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime as well.  It’s V-Day in the Middle East!  And then what?  What happens the day after? When and to whom do American troops turn over power? 

  • The Kurds? That’s a nonstarter for Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, all countries with significant Kurdish minorities.
  • The Saudis? Don’t count on it.  They’re busy bombing Houthi Shias in Yemen (with U.S.-supplied ordnance) and grappling with the diversification of their oil-based economy in a world in which fossil fuels are struggling.
  • Russia? Fat chance. Bombing “terrorists”? Yes. Propping up an autocratic client to secure basing rights? Sure. Temporary transactional alliances of convenience in the region? Absolutely. But long-term nation-building in the heart of the Middle East? It’s just not the style of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country with its own shaky petro-economy.
  • So maybe leave Assad in power and turn the country back over to what’s left of his minority, Alawite-dominated regime? That, undoubtedly, is the road to hell.  After all, it was his murderous, barrel-bombing, child-gassing acts that all but caused the civil war in the first place.  You can be sure that, sooner or later, Syria’s majority Sunni population and its separatist Kurds would simply rebel again, while (as the last 15 years should have taught us) an even uglier set of extremists rose to the surface.

Keep in mind as well that, when it comes to the U.S. military, the Iraqi and Afghan “surges” of 2007 and 2009 offered proof positive that more ground troops aren’t a cure-all in such situations.  They are a formula for expending prodigious amounts of money and significant amounts of blood, while only further alienating local populations.  Meanwhile, unleashing manned and drone aircraft strikes, which occasionally kill large numbers of civilians, only add to the ISIS narrative.

Every mass casualty civilian bombing or drone strike incident just detracts further from American regional credibility.  While both air strikes and artillery barrages may hasten the offensive progress of America’s Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian allies, that benefit needs to be weighed against the moral and propaganda costs of those dead women and children.  For proof, see the errant bombing strike on an apartment building in Mosul last month.  After all, those hundred-plus civilians are just as dead as Assad’s recent victims and just as many angry, grieving family members and friends have been left behind.

In other words, any of the familiar U.S. strategies, including focusing all efforts on ISIS or toppling Assad, or a bit of both, won’t add up to a real policy for the region.  No matter how the Syrian civil war shakes out, Washington will need a genuine “what next” plan.  Unfortunately, if the chosen course predictably relies heavily on the military lever to shape Syria’s shattered society, America’s presence and actions will only (as in the past) aggravate the crisis and help rejuvenate its many adversaries.

“The Blessed Ban”

The Trump administration’s proposed “travel ban” quickly became fodder for left-versus-right vitriol in the U.S.  Here’s a rundown on what it’s likely to mean when it comes to foreign policy and the “next” war.  First, soaring domestic fears over jihadi terror attacks in this country and the possible role of migrants and refugees in stoking them represent a potentially catastrophic over-reaction to a modest threat.  Annually, from 2005 to 2015, terrorists killed an average of just seven Americans on U.S. soil.  You are approximately 18,000 times more likely to die in some sort of accident than from such an attack.  In addition, according to a study by the conservative Cato Institute, from 1975 to 2015 citizens of the countries included in Trump’s first ban (including Iraq and Syria) killed precisely zero people in the United States.  Nor has any refugee conducted a fatal domestic attack here.  Finally, despite candidate and President Trump’s calls for “extreme vetting” of Muslim refugees, the government already has a complex, two-year vetting process for such refugees which is remarkably “extreme.” 

Those are the facts.  What truly matters, however, is the effect of such a ban on the war of ideas in the Middle East.  In short, it’s manna from heaven for ISIS’s storyline in which Americans are alleged to hate all Muslims. It tells you everything you need to know that, within days of the administration’s announcement of its first ban, ISIS had taken to labeling it “blessed,” just as al-Qaeda once extolled George W. Bush’s 2003 “blessed invasion” of Iraq. Even Senator John McCain, a well-known hawk, worried that Trump’s executive order would “probably give ISIS some more propaganda.” 

Remember, while ISIS loves to claim responsibility for every attack in the West perpetrated by lost, disenfranchised, identity-seeking extremist youths, that doesn’t mean the organization actually directs them. The vast majority of these killers are self-radicalized citizens, not refugees or immigrants. One of the most effective — and tragic — ways to lose this war is to prove the jihadis right. 

The Hypocrisy Trap

Another way to feed the ISIS narrative is to bolster perceptions of diplomatic insincerity. Americans tend to be some of the least self-aware citizens on the planet. (Is it a coincidence that ours is about the only population left still questioning the existence of climate change?) Among the rare things that Democrats and Republicans agree on, however, is that America is a perennial force for good, in fact the force for good on Earth. As it happens, the rest of the world begs to differ. In Gallup global polls, the United States has, in fact, been identified as the number one threat to world peace!  However uncomfortable that may be, it matters.

One reason many Middle Easterners, in particular, believe this to be so stems from Washington’s longstanding support for regional autocrats.  In fiscal year 2017, Egypt’s military dictator and Jordan’s king will receive $1.46 and $1 billion respectively in U.S. foreign aid — nearly 7% of its total assistance budget.  After leading a coup to overturn Egypt’s elected government, General Sisi was officially persona non grata in the White House (though President Obama reinstated $1.3 billion in military aid in 2015).  Sisi’s recent visit to the Trump White House changed all that as, in a joint press conference, the president swore that he was “very much behind” Egypt and that Sisi himself had “done a fantastic job.”  In another indicator of future policy, the State Department dropped existing human rights conditions for the multibillion-dollar sale of F-16s to Bahrain's monarchy.  All of this might be of mild interest, if it weren’t for the way it bolstered ISIS claims that democracy is just an “idol,” and the democratic process a fraud that American presidents simply ignore.

Then there’s Israel, already the object of deep hatred in the region, and now clearly about to receive a blank check of support from the Trump administration.  The role that Israeli leaders already play in American domestic politics is certainly striking to Arab audiences. Consider how unprecedented it was in 2015 to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticize a sitting president before a joint session of Congress in an Israeli election year and receive multiple, bipartisan standing ovations.  Even so, none of this prevented the Obama administration, domestically labeled “weak on Israel,” from negotiating a record $38 billion military aid deal with that country. 

While violent Palestinian fighters are far from blameless, for 40 years Israel has increasingly created facts on the ground meant to preclude a viable Palestinian state.  Netanyahu and his predecessors increased illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories, built an exclusion wall, and further divided the West Bank by constructing a network of roads meant only for the Israeli military and Jewish settlers.

Although most world leaders, publics, and the United Nations see the Jewish settlements on the West Bank as a major impediment to peace, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel was once the president of a fundraising group supporting just such an Israeli settlement.  The notion that he could be an honest broker in peace talks borders on the farcical.

All of this, of course, matters when it comes to Washington’s unending wars in the region.  Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, soon after leaving the helm of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recognized that he “paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”  So, you want to lose?  Keep feeding the ISIS narrative on democracy and Israel just as the Trump administration is doing, even as it sends more troops into the region and heightens bombing and drone raids from Syria to Yemen.

Send in the Cavalry...

If the next phase of the generational struggle for the Middle East is once again to be essentially a military one, while the Trump administration feeds every negative American stereotype in the region, then it’s hard to see a future of anything but defeat. A combination of widespread American ignorance and the intellectual solace of simplistic models lead many here to ascribe jihadist terrorism to some grand, ethereal hatred of “Christendom.” 

The reality is far more discomfiting. Consider, for instance, a document from “ancient” history: Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the United States.  At that time, he described three tangible motives for jihad: U.S. occupation of Islam’s holiest lands in the Middle East, U.S. attacks on and sanctions against Iraq, and American support for Israel’s “occupation” of Jerusalem.  If ISIS and al-Qaeda’s center of gravity is not their fighting force but their ideology (as I believe it is), then the last thing Washington should want to do is substantiate any of these three visions of American motivation — unless, of course, the goal is to lose the war on terror across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. 

In that case, the solution is obvious: Washington should indeed insert more troops and set up yet more bases in the region, maintain unqualified support for right-wing Israeli governments and assorted Arab autocrats, and do its best to ban Muslim refugees from America.  That, after all, represents the royal road to affirming al-Qaeda’s, and now ISIS’s, overarching narratives. It’s a formula — already well used in the last 15 years — for playing directly into the enemy’s hands and adhering to its playbook, for creating yet more failed states and terror groups throughout the region.

When it comes to Syria in particular, there are some shockingly unexamined contradictions at the heart of Washington’s reactions to its war there.  President Trump, for instance, recently spoke emotionally about the “beautiful babies cruelly murdered” in Idlib, Syria.  Yet, the administration’s executive order on travel bans any Syrian refugees — including beautiful babies — from entering this country.  If few Americans recognize the incongruity or hypocrisy of this, you can bet that isn’t true in the Arab world.

For ISIS, today’s struggle in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere is part of an unremitting, apocalyptic holy war between Islam and the West.  That narrative is demonstrably false.  The current generation of jihadis sprang from tangible grievances and perceived humiliations perpetrated by recent Western policies.  There was nothing “eternal” about it.  The first recorded suicide bombings in the Middle East didn’t erupt until the early 1980s.  So forget the thousand-year struggle or even, in Western terms, the “clash of civilizations.”  It took America’s military-first policies in the region to generate what has now become perpetual war with spreading terror insurgencies. 

Want a formula for forever war? Send in the cavalry... again.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen

Prepare, Pursue, Prevail!

 Votel
Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

By way of explaining his eight failed marriages, the American bandleader Artie Shaw once remarked, “I am an incurable optimist.” In reality, Artie was an incurable narcissist. Utterly devoid of self-awareness, he never looked back, only forward.

So, too, with the incurable optimists who manage present-day American wars.  What matters is not past mistakes but future opportunities.  This describes the view of General Joseph Votel, current head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).  Since its creation in 1983, CENTCOM has emerged as the ne plus ultra of the Pentagon’s several regional commands, the place where the action is always hot and heavy.  Votel is the latest in a long train of four-star generals to preside over that action.

The title of this essay (exclamation point included) captures in a single phrase the “strategic approach” that Votel has devised for CENTCOM.  That approach, according to the command’s website, is “proactive in nature and endeavors to set in motion tangible actions in a purposeful, consistent, and continuous manner.” 

This strategic approach forms but one element in General Votel’s multifaceted (if murky) “command narrative,” which he promulgated last year upon taking the helm at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida.  Other components include a “culture,” a “vision,” a “mission,” and “priorities.”  CENTCOM’s culture emphasizes “persistent excellence,” as the command “strives to understand and help others to comprehend, with granularity and clarity, the complexities of our region.”  The vision, indistinguishable from the mission except perhaps for those possessing advanced degrees in hermeneutics, seeks to provide “a more stable and prosperous region with increasingly effective governance, improved security, and trans-regional cooperation.”  Toward that estimable end, CENTCOM’s priorities include forging partnerships with other nations “based upon shared values,” “actively counter[ing] the malign influence” of hostile regimes, and “degrading and defeating violent extremist organizations and their networks.”

At present, CENTCOM is busily implementing the several components of Votel’s command narrative across an “area of responsibility” (AOR) consisting of 20 nations, among them Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  As the CENTCOM website puts it, without batting a digital eyelash, that AOR “spans more than 4 million square miles and is populated by more than 550 million people from 22 ethnic groups, speaking 18 languages with hundreds of dialects and confessing multiple religions which transect national borders.”

According to the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, an AOR is the “geographical area associated with a combatant command within which a geographic combatant commander has authority to plan and conduct operations.” Yet this anodyne definition fails to capture the spirit of the enterprise in which General Votel is engaged. 

One imagines that there must be another Department of Defense Dictionary, kept under lock-and-key in the Pentagon, that dispenses with the bland language and penchant for deceptive euphemisms. That dictionary would define an AOR as “a vast expanse within which the United States seeks to impose order without exercising sovereignty.”  An AOR combines aspects of colony, protectorate, and contested imperial frontier. In that sense, the term represents the latest incarnation of the informal empire that American elites have pursued in various forms ever since U.S. forces “liberated” Cuba in 1898. 

To say that a military officer presiding over an AOR plans and conducts operations is a bit like saying that Jeff Bezos sells books.  It’s a small truth that evades a larger one.  To command CENTCOM is to function as a proconsul, to inhabit as a co-equal the rarified realm of kings, presidents, and prime ministers.  CENTCOM commanders shape the future of their AOR -- or at least fancy that they do.

Sustaining expectations of shaping the future requires a suitably accommodating version of the past.  For CENTCOM, history is a record of events selected and arranged to demonstrate progress.  By testifying to the achievements of previous CENTCOM commanders, history thereby validates Votel’s own efforts to carry on their work.  Not for nothing, therefore, does the command’s website include this highly sanitized account of its recent past:

“In the wake of 9-11, the international community found Saddam Hussein's continued lack of cooperation with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions regarding weapons of mass destruction unacceptable. Hussein's continued recalcitrance led the UNSC to authorize the use of force by a U.S.-led coalition. Operation Iraqi Freedom began 19 March 2003. 

“Following the defeat of both the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (9 November 2001) and Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq (8 April 2003), CENTCOM has continued to provide security to the new freely-elected governments in those countries, conducting counterinsurgency operations and assisting host nation security forces to provide for their own defense.”

Setbacks, disappointments, miscalculations, humiliations: you won’t hear about them from CENTCOM.  Like Broadway’s Annie, down at headquarters in Tampa they’re “just thinkin' about tomorrow,” which “clears away the cobwebs, and the sorrow, till there's none!”

(Give the Vietnam War the CENTCOM treatment and you would end up with something like this: “Responding to unprovoked North Vietnamese attacks and acting at the behest of the international community, a U.S.-led coalition arrived to provide security to the freely-elected South Vietnamese government, conducting counterinsurgency operations and assisting host nation security forces to provide for their own defense.”)

In fact, the U.N. Security Council did not authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Indeed, efforts by George W. Bush’s administration to secure such an authorization failed abysmally, collapsing in a welter of half-truths and outright falsehoods.  What much of the international community found unacceptable, more so even than Saddam’s obstreperousness, was Bush’s insistence that he was going to have his war regardless of what others might think.  As for celebrating the “defeat” of the Taliban and of Saddam, that’s the equivalent of declaring “game over” when the whistle sounds ending the first quarter of a football game.

More to the point, to claim that, in the years since, CENTCOM “has continued to provide security to the new freely-elected governments” of Afghanistan and Iraq whitewashes history in ways that would cause the most shameless purveyor of alt-facts on Fox News to blush.  The incontestable truth is that Afghans and Iraqis have not known security since U.S. forces, under the direction of General Votel’s various predecessors, arrived on the scene.  Rather than providing security, CENTCOM has undermined it.

CENTCOM Headquarters (Where It’s Always Groundhog Day)

Even so, as the current steward of CENTCOM’s culture, vision, mission, strategic approach, and priorities, General Votel remains undaunted.  In his view, everything that happened prior to his assuming ownership of the CENTCOM AOR is irrelevant.  What matters is what will happen from now on -- in Washington-speak, “going forward.”  As with Artie Shaw, serial disappointments leave intact the conviction that persistence will ultimately produce a happy ending.  

Earlier this month, Votel provided a progress report to the Senate Armed Services Committee and outlined his expectations for future success.  In a city that now competes for the title of Comedy Central, few paid serious attention to what the CENTCOM commander had to say.  Yet his presentation was, in its own way, emblematic of how, in the Age of Trump, U.S. national security policy has become fully divorced from reality. 

General Votel began by inventorying the various “drivers of instability” afflicting his AOR.  That list, unsurprisingly enough, turned out to be a long one, including ethnic and sectarian divisions, economic underdevelopment, an absence of opportunity for young people “susceptible to unrest [and] radical ideologies,” civil wars, humanitarian crises, large refugee populations, and “competition among outside actors, including Russia and China, seeking to promote their interests and supplant U.S. influence in the region.”  Not qualifying for mention as destabilizing factors, however, were the presence and activities of U.S. military forces, their footprint dwarfing that of Russia and China.

Indeed, the balance of Votel’s 64-page written statement argued, in effect, that U.S. military activities are the key to fixing all that ails the CENTCOM AOR.  After making a brief but obligatory bow to the fact that “a solely military response is not sufficient” to address the region’s problems, he proceeded to describe at length the military response (and only the military response) that will do just that. 

Unfortunately for General Votel, length does not necessarily correlate with substance.  Once upon a time, American military professionals prized brevity and directness in their writing.  Not so the present generation of generals who are given to logorrhea.  Consider just this bit of cliché-ridden drivel -- I could quote vast passages of it -- that Votel inflicted on members of the United States Senate.  “In a region beset by myriad challenges,” he reported,

“we must always be on the look-out for opportunities to seize the initiative to support our objectives and goals. Pursuing opportunities means that we are proactive -- we don’t wait for problems to be presented; we look for ways to get ahead of them. It also means that we have to become comfortable with transparency and flat communications -- our ability to understand our AOR better than anyone else gives us the advantage of knowing where opportunities exist.  Pursuing opportunities also means we have to take risk -- by delegating authority and responsibility to the right level, by trusting our partners, and being willing to trust our best instincts in order to move faster than our adversaries.”

In third-tier business schools, bromides of this sort might pass for “best practices.”  But my guess is that George C. Marshall or Dwight D. Eisenhower would award the author of that paragraph an F and return him to staff college for further instruction.

Frothy verbiage aside, what exactly does General Votel propose?  The answer -- for those with sufficient patience to wade through the entire 64 pages -- reduces to this: persist.  In concrete terms, that means keeping on killing and enabling our “allies” to do the same until the other side is finally exhausted and gives up.  In other words, it’s the movie Groundhog Day transposed from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to Tampa and then to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where the bodies continue to pile up.

True, the document Votel presented to Congress is superficially comprehensive, with sections touting everything from “Building Partner Capacity” (“we must be forward-leaning and empower our partners to meet internal security challenges”) to creating a “Global Engagement Center” (“The best way to defeat an idea is to present a better, more appealing idea”).  Strip away the fluff, however, and what’s left is nothing more than a call to keep doing what CENTCOM has been doing for years now.

To see what all this really means, practically speaking, just check out CENTCOM press releases for the week of March 5th through 10th.  The titles alone suffice to describe a situation where every day is like the one that preceded it:

March 5: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 6: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 7: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 8: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 9: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 10: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

As the good nuns used to tell me back in parochial school, actions speak louder than words.  What the CENTCOM commander says matters less than what CENTCOM forces do.  What they are doing is waging an endless war of attrition.

Ludendorff Would Have Approved

“Punch a hole and let the rest follow.” 

During the First World War, that aphorism, attributed to General Erich Ludendorff, captured the essence of the German army’s understanding of strategy, rooted in the conviction that violence perpetrated on a sufficient scale over a sufficient period of time will ultimately render a politically purposeless war purposeful.  The formula didn’t work for Germany in Ludendorff’s day and yielded even more disastrous results when Hitler revived it two decades later.

Of course, U.S. military commanders today don’t make crude references to punching holes.  They employ language that suggests discrimination, deliberation, precision, and control as the qualities that define the American way of war.  They steer clear of using terms like attrition.  Yet differences in vocabulary notwithstanding, the U.S. military’s present-day MO bears a considerable resemblance to the approach that Ludendorff took fully a century ago.  And for the last decade and a half, U.S. forces operating in the CENTCOM AOR have been no more successful than were German forces on the Western Front in achieving the purposes that ostensibly made war necessary.

To divert attention from this disturbing fact, General Votel offers Congress and by extension the American people a 64-page piece of propaganda.  Whether he himself is deluded or dishonest is difficult to say, just as it remains difficult to say whether General William Westmoreland was deluded or dishonest when he assured Congress in November 1967 that victory in Vietnam was in sight.  “With 1968,” Westmoreland promised, “a new phase is now starting.  We have reached an important point when the end begins now to come into view.”

Westmoreland was dead wrong, as the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive soon demonstrated.  That a comparable disaster, no doubt different in form, will expose Votel’s own light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel assessment as equally fraudulent is a possibility, even if one to which American political and military leaders appear to be oblivious.  This much is certain: in the CENTCOM AOR the end is not even remotely in view.

What are we to make of this charade of proconsuls parading through Washington to render false or misleading reports on the status of the American empire’s outer precincts?

Perhaps the time has come to look elsewhere for advice and counsel.  Whether generals like Votel are deluded or dishonest is ultimately beside the point.  More relevant is the fact that the views they express -- and that inexplicably continue to carry weight in Washington -- are essentially of no value.  So many years later, no reason exists to believe that they know what they are doing.

To reground U.S. national security policy in something that approximates reality would require listening to new voices, offering views long deemed heretical. 

Let me nonetheless offer you an example:

“Fifteen years after launching a worldwide effort to defeat and destroy terrorist organizations, the United States finds itself locked in a pathologically recursive loop; we fight to prevent attacks and defend our values, only to incite further violence against ourselves and allies while destabilizing already chaotic regions..."

That is not the judgment of some lefty from Cambridge or San Francisco, but of Major John Q. Bolton, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan Wars.  Within that brief passage is more wisdom than in all of General Votel’s 64 pages of blather.

I submit that Bolton’s grasp of our predicament is infinitely superior to Votel’s.  The contrast between the two is striking.  The officer who wears no stars dares to say what is true; the officer wearing four stars obfuscates.  If the four-stars abandon obfuscation for truth, then and only then will they deserve our respectful attention.  In the meantime, it’s like looking to Artie Shaw for marriage counseling. 

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Andrew J. Bacevich

The Surge Delusion

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

The other day, I found myself flipping through old photos from my time in Iraq.  One in particular from October 2006 stood out. I see my 23-year-old self, along with my platoon. We’re still at Camp Buerhing in Kuwait, posing in front of our squadron logo splashed across a huge concrete barrier. It was a tradition by then, three and a half years after the invasion of neighboring Iraq, for every Army, Marine, and even Air Force battalion at that camp to proudly paint its unit emblem on one of those large, ubiquitous barricades.

The Surge Delusion
Photo courtesy Danny Sjursen

Gazing at that photo, it’s hard for me to believe that it was taken a decade ago.  Those were Iraq’s bad old days, just before General David Petraeus’s fabled “surge” campaign that has since become the stuff of legend, a defining event for American military professionals.  The term has permanently entered the martial lexicon and now it’s everywhere.  We soldiers stay late at work because we need to “surge” on the latest PowerPoint presentation.  To inject extra effort into anything (no matter how mundane) is to “surge.”  Nor is the term’s use limited to the military vernacular.  Within the first few weeks of the Trump administration, the Wall Street Journal, for instance, reported on a deportation "surge."

For many career soldiers, the surge era (2007-2011) provides a kind of vindication for all those years of effort and seeming failure, a brief window into what might have been and a proof certain of the enduring utility of force.  When it comes to that long-gone surge, senior leaders still talk the talk on its alleged success as though reciting scripture.  Take retired general, surge architect, and former CIA Director Petraeus.  As recently as 2013, he wrote a Foreign Policy piece entitled “How We Won in Iraq.”  Now “win” is a bold word indeed.  Yet few in our American world would think to question its accuracy.  After all, Petraeus was a general, and in an era when Americans have little or no faith in other public institutions, polls show nearly everyone trusts the military.  Of course, no one asks whether this is healthy for the republic.  No matter, the surge’s success is, by now, a given among Washington’s policy elite.

Recently, for instance, I listened to a podcast of a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) panel discussion that promoted a common set of myths about the glories of the surge. What I heard should be shocking, but it’s not.  The group peddled a common myth about the surge’s inherent wisdom that may soon become far more dangerous in the “go big” military era of Donald Trump.

CFR’s three guests — retired General Raymond Odierno, former commander of Multinational Forces in Iraq and now a senior adviser to JPMorgan Chase; Meghan O’Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush; and Christopher Kojm, former senior adviser to the Iraq Study Group — had remarkably similar views. No dissenting voices were included.  All three had been enthusiastic promoters of the surge in 2006-2007 and continue to market the myth of its success.  While recognizing the unmistakable failure of the post-surge American effort in Iraq, each still firmly believes in the inherent validity of that “strategy.”  I listened for more than an hour waiting for a single dissenting thought.  The silence was deafening.

Establishing the Bona Fides of Victory in Washington, If Not Iraq

With the madness of the 24-hour news cycle pin-balling us from one Trump “crisis” to another, who has time for honest reflection about that surge on its 10th anniversary?  Few even remember the controversy, turmoil, and drama of those days, but believe me, it’s something I’ll never forget. I led a scout platoon in Baghdad and my unit was a few months into a nasty deployment when we first heard the term “surge.”  Iraq was by then falling apart and violence was at an all-time high with insurgents killing scores of Americans each month.  The nascent central government, supported by the Bush administration, was in turmoil and, to top it all off, the Sunni and Shia were already fighting a civil war in the streets.

In November 2006, just a month into our deployment, Democrats won control over both houses of Congress in what was interpreted as a negative referendum on that war.  A humbler, more reticent or reflective president might have backed off, cut his losses, and begun a withdrawal from that country, but not George W. Bush.  He doubled down, announcing in January 2007 an infusion of 30,000 additional troops and a new "strategy" for victory, a temporary surge that would provide time, space, and security for the new Iraqi government to reconcile the country’s warring ethnic groups and factions, while incorporating minority groups into the largely Shiite, Baghdad-based power structure.

Soon after, my unit along with nearly every other American already in theater received word that our tours had been extended by three months — 15 months in all, which then seemed like an eternity.  I sat against a wall and chain-smoked nearly a pack of cigarettes before passing the word on to my platoon.  And so it began.

Less than nine months later, the administration paraded General Petraeus, decked out in full dress uniform, at congressional hearings to plug the strategy, sell the surge, and warn against a premature withdrawal from Iraq.  What a selling job it proved to be.  It established the bona fides of victory in Washington, if not Iraq.

The man was compelling and over the next three years violence did, in fact, drop.  The additional troops and “new” counterinsurgency tactics were, however, only part of the story.  In an orgy of killing in Baghdad and many other cities, the two main sects ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, expelling each other into a series of highly segregated enclaves.  The capital, for instance, essentially became a Shiite city.  In a sense, the civil war had, momentarily at least, run its course.

In addition, the U.S. military had successfully, though again only temporarily, convinced many previously rebellious Sunni tribes to switch sides in exchange for money, support, and help in getting rid of the overly fundamentalist and brutal terror outfit, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  For the time being, AQI seemed to the tribal leaders like a bigger threat than the Shiites in Baghdad.  For this, the Sunnis briefly bet on the U.S. without ever fully trusting or accepting Shiite-Baghdad’s suzerainty.  Think of this as a tactical pause — not that the surge’s architects and supporters saw (or see) it that way.

Which brings us back to that CFR panel.  The most essential assumption of all three speakers was this: the U.S. needed to establish “security first” in Iraq before that country’s government, set in place by the American occupation, could begin to make political progress. They still don’t seem to understand that, whatever the bright hopes of surge enthusiasts at the time, no true political settlement was ever likely, with or without the surge. 

America’s man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was already in the process of becoming a sectarian strongman, hell-bent on alienating the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.  Even 60,000 or 90,000 more American troops couldn’t have solved that problem because the surge was incapable of addressing, and barely pretended to face, the true conundrum of the invasion and occupation: any American-directed version of Iraqi “democracy” would invariably usher in Shia-majority dominance over a largely synthetic state.  The real question no surge cheerleaders publicly asked (or ask to this day) was whether an invading foreign entity was even capable of imposing an inclusive political settlement there. To assume that the United States could have done so smacks of a faith-based as opposed to reality-based worldview — another version of a deep and abiding belief in American exceptionalism.

A Surge Believer as National Security Adviser?

Sadly, that panel still epitomizes respectable thought on the Iraq surge and what followed from it.  Here’s the problem: Republican (and some Democratic) policymakers, along with supposedly "outside the box" military commanders, confused new tactics with an effective strategy, which, in the wake of the disastrous decision to invade, may have been a contradiction in terms.  Add in an additional myth — that the U.S. military turned on a dime in 2007, empowering a set of truly creative, open-minded thinkers, who brought America to the edge of victory — and you have the makings of the surge legend.

While surge-era generals like Petraeus and Odierno and younger colonels like John Nagl and Peter Mansoor were intelligent, competent officers, when it came to Iraq their strategic insights and worldview remained surprisingly narrow and conventional.  Their bedrock belief was that somewhere in the Iraqi chaos there just had to be an American military solution.  Enamored with the magical efficacy of counterinsurgency tactics, they bet wrong on the capacity of the U.S. government or its military to transform the chaotic, unmovable facts on the ground in Iraq.

This might matter little today if senior officers who led the Army and Marine Corps during the surge hadn’t found their way into key positions in the Trump administration.  To take one example, new National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is something of a legendary figure in the U.S. Army.  A hero of the First Gulf War of 1991, he taught history at West Point, commanded a regiment in Iraq in the post-invasion years, fought national-level corruption in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, and recently led the Army Capabilities Integration Center — the organization charged with developing the Army’s future concepts and force modernization.

A classic soldier-scholar with a doctorate in history, he authored a well-regarded book on the Vietnam War.  I count myself among his many admirers.  Nonetheless, his elevation to a policy-making position should raise troubling questions, since he, too, is a surge admirer. In 2005-2006, then-Colonel McMaster commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, Iraq, a city wracked by insurgency and riven with sectarian divisions.  According to surge lore, he oversaw a miracle turnaround of the situation in that dangerous city, previewing the Petraeus surge to come.

It’s a story that briefs well and McMaster’s unit did indeed achieve some notable successes during its one-year deployment, but — and this is a big “but” — those gains proved fleeting.  The Sunnis of that city were never reconciled with the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government nor were their grievances addressed, so violence returned.  In 2014, just three years after the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, Tal Afar became one of the first Iraqi cities conquered by the militants of the new Islamic State.

Remember that the whole purpose of the surge had been to provide time and space for Iraqi national reconciliation. That never truly occurred — not in Tal Afar or elsewhere.  McMaster’s own academic expert, Army reservist Ahmed Hashim, recognized the essential issue back in 2006: “The problem is, what happens when this unit leaves? It’s only a one-year vision, and then we rotate out.”

The Real-World Costs of Strategic Failure

Difficult as it is to predict the future, there’s something ominous about seeing Generals H.R. McMaster, James Mattis, and John Kelly, all holdovers of sorts from the surge generation, take key positions in Donald Trump’s administration where they will once again face surge-like issues and dilemmas in the Greater Middle East.  The question is: Has their thinking on such problems developed since the surge era?

Keep in mind that a surprising number of military officers and policymakers still subscribe to the idea that just a little more effort, a couple of more years, a few thousand extra troops, a bit more political gumption, and it might all have spelled victory in Iraq. Such would’ve-could’ve-should’ve apologetics are, of course, historically dangerous.  The German Wehrmacht carefully cultivated a similar “stab-in-the-back” myth to explain that it was the politicians, not the army, that had actually lost World War I.  A decade later, many of those disgruntled German military professionals embraced the bellicose language of a certain well-known fascist demagogue.

In less drastic but still detrimental fashion, in the years after 1973, the new all-volunteer U.S. Army grew increasingly estranged from the civilian population.  This was, in part, because many veteran officers blamed America’s defeat in Vietnam on home-front antiwar protestors who were (gasp!) simply exercising their constitutional rights.  Perhaps in place of self-serving, vindicating myths, an honest, critical, and realistic assessment of the past would better advance future strategy and operations.

Those Council on Foreign Relations panelists, the vast majority of my fellow military officers (in my experience), and a surprisingly bipartisan array of congressional representatives still perpetuate — and seemingly believe — not only the surge myth, but the stale, discredited ideologies at its root: American exceptionalism, this country’s supposed status as the globe’s "indispensable" nation, and the magical capabilities of our high-tech military.

Ironically, U.S. military doctrine purports to value "critical" and "creative" thinking.  Unfortunately, that emphasis hardly fits with the realities of promotion and command selection.  A recent empirical analysis by faculty from West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership concluded that “promotion and command boards may actually penalize officers for their conceptual ability.”  In other words, more intelligent, educated, and skeptical officers – those with “higher cognitive ability,” according to the study — don't fare so well in the competitive promotion game.

Which helps explain much, since truly critical thinkers would have challenged the various myths surrounding the surge and the unbalanced tactics that inspired the legend.  The defense establishment has just given President Trump the “preliminary draft” for the “comprehensive strategy” he requested to beat ISIS.  What will you bet that their suggestions are still infused with surge thinking?

Colonel Dale Eikemeier and Arthur Lykke Jr. have suggested that effective strategy involves the balancing of ends (desired outcomes), ways (methods), and means (available resources), while limiting risk.  At least retrospectively, it boggles the mind that, in 2006-2007, a plurality of political and military thinkers presumed Washington could successfully achieve such an equilibrium in Iraq by military means.  As they defined them at the time, their desired outcomes were outrageous: halt a brutal sectarian civil war, defeat a nationalist-Islamist insurgency, facilitate a political settlement in an ethno-religiously divided synthetic state, and restore essential civil services.  In what universe did policymakers expect our means — a finite professional (non-conscripted) army in an alien land with help from the State Department (whose staff globally is about the size of one army division) — to achieve such wildly inflated ambitions?

As for ways, the outrageous size disparity between that military and an undersized diplomatic corps ensured that either American methods would be almost purely military in nature or require that soldiers transform themselves into diplomats, social workers, and city councilmen. (In those days, it was called “nation building.”)  Armed with eternal, can-do optimism, the Army tried a bit of both.

The band-aid momentarily stemmed the bleeding, but proved predictably incapable of healing the wound.  In the process, the military’s sacrifice was substantial (960 dead in the surge’s first year alone), but the long-term results were negligible. The shocking imbalance between the three strategic “legs of the stool” (ends, ways, and means) guaranteed an unacceptable level of risk. American troops and Iraqi civilians bore the brunt of that peril. No surprise there. Still, it boggles the mind how few dissenting voices emerged from our military and political ranks at the time. Even more frightening is the continuing resonance of the surge myth 10 years later in the face of overwhelming evidence of Iraq’s turmoil and the ineffectiveness of foreign nation-building more generally. (See: Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya.)

Memory is a tricky thing. As historian Dale Andrade wrote, “No matter how the war in Iraq ends, it seems likely that it will soon replace Vietnam as the military’s new touchstone for lessons learned.”  Under the circumstances, that’s scary.  Just as the military and public misunderstood Vietnam, too many contemporary officers and politicians rely on a mythical rendering of the ongoing Iraq War.  That memory will, in turn, deeply influence what Americans learn from the enduring campaigns in the Middle East and so tragically shape future U.S. military strategy.

Now, look at that photo of mine one more time and consider the real-world costs of strategic failure.  Four of those men are dead; one is paralyzed; and three of the others were wounded.  That was 10 years ago, and as for the Middle East, it’s worse than we found it. Thought about a certain way, in the end it wasn’t the U.S. military, but various terror groups that surged most effectively.

Call me a skeptic, but my sense is that those painted concrete barriers in the Kuwaiti desert will one day serve as so many American ziggurats, monuments to a profound failure of the imagination. Let’s hope the Council on Foreign Relations invites some genuinely creative, dissenting voices to its 20th anniversary panel commemorating the famous Iraq surge. But I won’t hold my breath.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Command and General Staff College, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen