Ruminations, June 15, 2014
Between Iraq and a hard place
***President Barack Obama is in a tough situation vis-à-vis Iraq. And since he is the president, that means that the United States is in a tough situation. But a lot of Obama’s and our problems stem from Obama’s world view.
Last September, he told us that he was “elected to end wars, not start them.” That remarkably facile statement was indicative of his foreign policy. Speaking as if it were a new revelation, it didn’t seem to dawn on him that no presidents are elected to start wars. Yet, presidents are often elected or re-elected to win wars. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was re-elected in 1944 not to end the war but to win it. Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 to win the Civil War. And George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 to win the war in Iraq.
They were all successful and, at least in the immediate aftermath, the United States was safer. But each was wary of success. They knew that after bringing the troops home, it could be a political impossibility to reintroduce troops into the same hostile territory, so they maintained a force there for some time. The stationing of troops in former enemy territory would serve not only as a deterrent to any recalcitrant enemy forces but could, if the need arose, combat those forces.
In 2011, Obama marked the end of combat in Iraq, by telling the returning servicemen and -women, “All the fighting, all the crying and all the bleeding as well as the building, training and partnering has all led to this moment of success. Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead, but we are leaving behind a solid, stable and self-reliant government that was elected by its people. We are building a new partnership between our nations, and we are ending a war not with a final battle but a final march home -- an extraordinary achievement that was nine years in the making."
Well, the “moment of success” is over. By not leaving behind a substantial force and not working with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq was left with neither military nor political guidance. When President Eisenhower ended the Korean Conflict, he left behind some 50,000 troops (even today, some 60 years after the end of hostilities in Korea, there are almost 30,000 American troops there), and Ike had to work with the South Korean President Syngman Rhee (who was at least as difficult to deal with as is Maliki).
Obama has called the war in Iraq a “dumb war.” Whether or not you agree with Obama on the war, there is little doubt that the peace that followed the war has proved to be even dumber.
The problem is that all this is hindsight. Neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney is president. Barack Obama is and he has acknowledged that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) "poses a danger to Iraq and its people, and given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well." (Hmm. That almost sounds like something George Bush might say).
What will Obama do? Initially he said that all options were on the table. It was a good opening statement and would keep ISIL guessing. Then his administration decided that politics was more important than keeping ISIL guessing and said that American troops would not be reintroduced to Iraq. This last statement has political resonance at home but is at cross purposes in dealing with the enemy -- but that’s Obama’s approach.
Wars, military strategist Carl von Clausewitz told us, are politics by other means. Precisely. That means you cannot hope to be victorious unless you strive for and achieve a political objective. But war can, when necessary, provide the time to achieve that political objective.
Obama has correctly stated that Iraq’s number one problem is political. The two questions are: (1) can Iraq and Maliki resolve their political problems on their own or do they need help? (2) Do they have enough time or is military action necessary?
The political problems will undoubtedly involve coaching. Shia Maliki has essentially isolated himself from the Sunni and, if the United States does not step in, will be aided by Iran. We have to remember that Maliki is the duly elected head of state and replacing him is not an option. (Remember when we replaced Ngo Dinh Diem in Viet Nam; the war then became our war.) Who helps Iraq on its political problems and how they do it becomes a tricky proposition.
Do we need to provide military assistance and, if so, how much? Some think we need to provide air power through fighters and attack drones. However, the equipment is useless unless there are those who can efficiently use it. In the case of Iraq, it appears that equipment must be accompanied by American operatives – and pilots and drone operators cannot effectively use those weapons unless they are directed by someone in the field; “boots on the ground.”
There are many who say that we need not worry about Baghdad falling to ISIL. It is largely Shia and the Shia imams have been calling all good Shia to the aid of their country (or religion). But this silver lining also has a cloud. A successful defense of Baghdad by the Shia will probably revive the militias of seven years ago who work independently of the government. It may also emphasize the religious aspects of the war.
These are tough times for Obama. He seems to be challenged on all sides by those who question his foreign policy and leadership. Solving the problems of Iraq from a position of strength would be difficult enough but with a crescendo of second guessing, it is much worse. It has been said that God looks after drunks, fools and the United States of America. I sure hope so.
The Tea Party supports immigration reform
The problem is that the left has taken the term “immigration reform” and redefined it to fit their objectives. There is no doubt that the Tea Party adherents and others support immigration reform. But here is what appears to be their definition:
1. Enforce border security. This is being done rather haphazardly at this point so to rigorously securitize it would be a reform.
2. Withhold citizenship, government benefits and working papers from criminal aliens. By definition, those who have entered the United States illegally are criminals because they broke American laws.
3. Withhold any federal funds from cities, towns and states that refuse to support U.S. immigration laws.
If these three reforms are enacted and enforced, the initiation of a guest worker program and other immigration issues can and will be entertained.
A new museum
In 2005, in the wake of Argentina defaulting on its foreign debt and the internal calamity that it caused, the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) established the Museo De La Deuda Externa or, the Museum of Foreign Debt.
In 2001, Argentina defaulted on $100 billion of foreign debt. As a result, capital fled the country, foreign investment disappeared, the Argentine peso dropped to ¼ of its previous value, inflation soared by 40 percent, the interest rates on new borrowings went over 12 percent and GDP dropped by 11 percent.
This was a learning moment and UBA decided to take that moment and put the lessons in a museum. The new museum “aims at developing a critical reflection scenario and, in turn, disseminating the Argentine foreign debt issue, which emerges as a clear-cut sign of the Higher Education Social Role, which is part of the Secretariat for Students´ Welfare agenda.” In other words, it highlights the dangers of borrowing more than you can expect to repay. It tracks the history of debt, its causes and its ramifications and identifies the culprits.
Argentina hasn’t solved its debt crisis (currently at $226 billion). Indeed, its crises seem to be getting worse, but, at least the museum has planted the seed of fiscal responsibility in the heads of its students. Maybe the United States could use a similar museum.
The righteous man
A rabbi once told me a story that went something like this. Two equally wealthy men were walking down the street when they encountered a homeless person. The first wealthy man looked at the homeless person as a tear rolled down his cheek. “You poor man,” he said. “Life has been cruel to you and has dealt you a horrible blow.” With that, he handed to homeless guy five dollars.
The second wealthy man looked at the homeless person disgustedly. “You bum,” he said. “You’re filthy and you stink. Why don’t you get off your backside and get a job.” Then he handed the homeless guy a one hundred dollar bill.
The rabbi asked, which of the two wealthy men was the more righteous? It was, the rabbi said, the second wealthy man because you have to consider at the results.
That story came to mind when I read of the Koch Brothers donating $25 million to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). The reaction from the extreme left was swift and, unfortunately, predictable. Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor was worried that it put the Koch brothers in a positive light and, by accepting the money, it would also make the UNCF a “puppet.” Senator Harry Reid (D, NV) said that the Koch Brothers only do things that are in their own interest.
The UNCF donation follows the Koch brothers $100 million donation in March to construct a cancer treatment wing at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Needless to say, the donation was protested by New York State Nurses’ Association, The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
To put this in the context on the rabbinical parable: who is more righteous? The Koch brothers or the leftists who protest their generosity? Your call.
Quote without comment
Peter R. Mansoor, Chair of Military History at Ohio State University, retired U.S. Army Colonel and, during the Iraqi war surge, executive officer to General David Petraeus, writing in his 2013 book Surge: “That al-Qaeda in Iraq was allowed off the ropes to a degree in subsequent years was due to our inability to remain sufficiently engaged in Iraq and to lingering shortcomings of Iraqi security operations, not to the failure of the surge as a strategic concept. President Bush used to emphasize that Iraq needed to look like South Korea, where U.S. forces remain in place more than a half century after the armistice ended the fighting and not like Vietnam, where the withdrawal of U.S. forces led to defeat within two years of their departure.”