Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Non-War War on Iraq and Syria (Updated 09/20/2014)

President Obama's Non-War War on Iraq and soon-to-be Syria is proceeding, with no small amount of confusion among the public about whose side we're on. Or maybe it would be better to say how many sides we're on.

Andrew Bacevich wrote an essay published in 2001 called "Neglected Trinity: Kosovo and the Crisis in U.S. Civil-Military Relations" that dealt with a range of issues affected the military and US global military strategy (in Andrew Bacevich and Eliot Cohen, War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age [2001]).

Bacevich notes in that essay that the Clinton Administration's marketing of the Kosovo War of 1999 included "avoiding any mention of victory as an objective, indeed, avoiding the term 'war' altogether."

That's not the only way that Clinton's approach to war as Bacevich describes it in that essay resembles the model Obama has tried to adopt.

Clinton adopted a foreign policy strategy based on continuing American global dominance, even if he didn't describe it in quite such belligerent and arrogant terms as the Cheney-Bush Administration did. Stephen Walt recently sketched out a report on that strategy has been succeeding and failing since 1993 in The Way We Were Foreign Policy 09/12/2014.

As Bacevich observed in 2001, "If the Clinton years have produced a broad domestic consensus in favor of a quasi-imperial role, a tacit corollary of that consensus was that the United States must gain and maintain its global hegemony without tears." In Clinton's view, one widely shared among the political and media elites,"American military power is essential to the prospects of globalization. Without it, the misguided and the malicious will wreak havoc."

As Bacevich describes the military strategy that Clinton evolved to meet this challenge:

... Clinton the commander in chief fashioned a doctrine for employing American military power that bridges the gap between his grand strategic objectives and the public's limited willingness to exert itself on behalf of those objectives. The military component of Clinton's strategy requires minimal blood and only modest treasure ... Finessing the deficit between ends and means, the new postliberal civil-military relationship that Clinton ushered into existence seemingly reconciles the irreconcilable. For this achievement, Bill Clinton, in his own way, deserves to rank alongside FDR and Reagan as one of the most influential commanders in chief in modern American history. [my emphasis]
It was an approach based on using military power frequently but keeping the focus off military conflict and especially keeping American troops out of combat as much as possible during those wars.

There are two longer-running assumptions in foreign policy that were entwined with this. One is the notion that American casualties are basically the only thing that makes wars unpopular and politically problematic. The other is an almost magical belief in the usefulness of air power, a belief that has for decades proven to be remarkably resistant to contrary evidence.

As Bacevich explains, Clinton "had been in office less than five months when he first ordered U.S. troops into action - a cruise missile attack against Baghdad in June 1993."

It was Old Man Bush that had begun the strange but small military intervention in Somalia. But Clinton, apparently feeling on the defensive from Republican and hawkish Democrats over military issues (ConservaDem Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia played a major role in raising a stink over gays in the military after Cliton's election), was understandably reluctant to terminate that intervention with nothing to show for it. But he also escalated, as Bacevich relates:

In the same month that he pummeled Baghdad with missiles, Clinton quietly launched a quasi-covert war against the Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. In October of that year, Clinton's war careened out of control. A bungled raid in downtown Mogadishu resulted in a fierce firefight between U.S. forces and Somali militias. By the time it ended, American helicopters had been shot down, a pilot was being paraded in captivity, and 18 U.S. Army rangers lay dead. The political outcry in Washington was immediate and deafening.
Clinton's Kosovo War produced no great public outcry against it and was generally perceived as successful.

But there are important lessons to be learned from what Bacevich calls "the Clinton administration's other war of 1999, the yearlong bombing of Iraq." He describes it this way:

What war? In the administration's view, needless to say, the ongoing hostilities against Iraq, launched in December 1998 with a four-day air offensive known as Operation Desert Fox, failed to qualify as actual war. Indeed, the White House barely acknowledged that military action continued thereafter. This, despite the fact that, in the twelve months after Desert Fox, U.S. and British warplanes unloaded nearly 2,000 missiles and precision-guided bombs against several hundred targets scattered throughout Iraq.

According to administration officials, the aim of U.S. policy was to contain Iraq and prevent it from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, while ultimately removing Saddam Hussein from power. Observers might expect, therefore, that a year's worth of bombing would have pounded weapons research facilities, military headquarters, key government installations, and presidential palaces - in the jargon favored by air power advocates, "all that the regime holds dear."

Such was not the case. Principles of the schoolyard rather than principles of war governed the campaign: It was a game of tit-for-tat. Iraqi air defenses "painted" or otherwise challenged aircraft flying daily patrols in the Northern or Southern No-Fly Zone. Using this pretext, allied bombers flying at high altitudes retaliated against radar sites, surface-to-air missile batteries, and command centers, targets that shared one thing in common: They were all remote from Baghdad. The result testifies to the proficiency of American airmen-tens of thousands of sorties flown without a single loss-but there is no evidence that the attacks caused Saddam to lose sleep, literally or figuratively. [my emphasis]
That year-long action has several important features. It showed that the Democratic President was "tough" on foreign policy. It partially appeased the neoconservatives, who had been obsessing about overthrowing Saddam's regime since the Gulf War of 1991. It didn't use American ground troops. It blew lots of stuff up. It kept the war limited, thus minimizing any public or Congressional grumbling over it. Bacevich describes aspects that made it attractive to policymakers and generals:

Meanwhile, although the bombing of scattered Iraqi installations, by any standard measure of effectiveness, was pointless, senior military leaders themselves found no cause for complaint. Flying live-fire missions beyond the reach of Iraqi defenses provided American pilots with a welcome opportunity to enhance their skills. Commanders and staffs gained invaluable operational experience. Aging stocks of munitions were expended and then replenished with the latest that money can buy. Back in the Pentagon, arguments for additional force structure or for new weapons systems accrued. Best of all, no one got hurt-at least not on our side. Even after Clinton had departed the White House, squadrons continued to deploy, rotate home, and prepare to deploy again, their movement like their operations all but unnoticed by the public.
But it also used means that were plainly inadequate to the declared aims of the military action. And it escalated rather than moved toward resolving tensions with Iraq. It maintained, intensified and further normalized the active military role that the US and Britain had been playing with their no-fly zones in Iraq since the Gulf War. And under the next Administration, it escalated into a full-blown invasion. And now, nearly 16 years after the pathetically named Operation Desert Fox, a new Democratic President is starting yet another war in Iraq, this one to extent to Syria. Just as the neocons wanted to do after the first few weeks of the Cheney-Bush Iraq War.

And he seems to be doing so under assumptions strikingly similar to those of the Clinton Administration with its Iraq Non-War War.

Brave New Films has done a brief spot warning about how things can go very wrong - in similar ways to the past, How Does This End? :

Gene Lyons discusses the risks of Obama's Non-War War in ISIS Forces Obama Toward Foreign-Policy Fantasies National Memo 09/17/2014:

... as President Obama clearly understands, the problem’s less military than political. Always was. But having recently argued that an army of “moderates” in a three-sided Syrian civil war was basically a fantasy, the president now finds himself needing to train one.

Another fantasy he’s obliged to entertain is of America’s Middle Eastern “allies” sending ground troops to fight there. At best, they’ll maybe cut off ISIS funding and make it harder for foreign jihadists to enter Syria.

Iran and its client Hezbollah are likelier to join the fight, so long as neither they nor we have to admit it. The U.S. cannot be seen as backing Shiites in a religious war.
And Juan Cole explains in Shiite Militias of Iraq Reject US Return, Threaten to Attack US Forces Informed Comment 09/18/2014 and Changing US-Iran Relations: Kerry: Iran has a Role in Defeating ISIL Militants 09/20/2014 some of the complications of our relations to Iraq in this war. In the latter, he writes:

US hard liners in Congress and Iranian hard liners in the Revolutionary Guards continue to use the old rhetoric of enmity, and may attempt to find ways of sabotaging any budding thaw in Washington-Tehran relations. But it seems increasingly clear that Obama and Kerry think some sort of opening to Iran is both necessary and possible at this juncture.

The relationship is complicated because while the US is de facto an ally of Iran in Iraq against ISIL, in Syria the two sides are backing different victors (Iran favors the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad while other donors have settled on.
William Pfaff also takes up the difficulties in US-Iranian relation in the context of Obama's Non-War War in U.S. Coalition Excludes Countries Already Fighting Islamic State Truthout 09/16/2014:

The American ban on public friendship with Iran is the result, of course, of two ancient grudges, the first when in a democratic election in 1951 the Iranians elected a popular populist figure, Mohammad Mosaddegh, leader of the National Front Party, as prime minister. His government nationalized the country’s British-controlled oil industry, as its party program had promised. The Shah of Iran condemned this, and fled the country. The U.S. joined with its British friends in organizing a coup d’état that deposed the elected prime minister and restored the Shah, who then rearranged the government in the expectation of preventing new ‘changes of regime’ in the future.

Alas, this proved a failure, and in 1979 another upheaval, led by supporters of a popular and long-exiled Muslim ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini, made him the nation’s leader, and the Shah again found it prudent to flee. The ayatollah’s followers expended their enthusiasm by attacking the U.S. Embassy and taking prisoner its occupants.

There is a well known third obstacle as well. Israel has forbidden the U.S. to deal normally with Iran, alleging that Tehran is developing a nuclear weapon to use against Israel, and want Iran destroyed, as the single surviving Islamic major power in the region since Iraq was disarmed by American invasion and occupation in 2003. Never mind that new evidence is available that this nuclear program, like the imaginary mass destruction weapons that drew the U.S. into attacking Iraq in 2003, is the product not of Iranian laboratories but of Israeli propaganda.

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