Saturday, September 27, 2014

The week in non-war war

Mark Shields and David Brooks chatted about Obama's Non-War War in Iraq and Syria on the PBS Newshour Political Wrap 09/26/2014

The first three and a half minutes are about baseball. They start talking about Obama's War after that.

Shields is often good on war issues. He blasts Congress in this one for not having a serious debate over the policy.

Mitchell Plitnick in writes of Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly, "President Obama revealed ... just how out of touch his entire country is with respect to reality." (Myth-Making and Obama’s UNGA Speech LobeLog Foreign Policy 09/26/2014)

Plitnick is specifically addressing Obama's lack of seriousness in seeking an Israel-Palestine settlement. But it's obviously relevant to the Obama's new war on the Network Of Death. As Plitnick notes, "The message from Obama comes through, though: We're no longer interested in forcing the parties to the table. The subtext behind that is a US surrender to the stubbornness of the far-right wing government running Israel these days. The US will stop pressuring Israel for talks, and indeed, it already has."

If we're going to make a Thirty Years War in the Middle East, or even McCain's Hundred Year War, it would be very much in America's national interest to be accurately perceived in the Muslim world as making a serious, good-faith effort to promote a permanent and just peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. But it's not happening. And there is very little hope of it happening during the Obama Administration.

War coalitions are always tricky. But this one may set a new standard if it keeps going this way.

Syria's government is claiming (via a govt-friendly paper) that the US is their ally, as Juan Cole reports in Syrian Media Hail America as Damascus Ally, Support UN Ban on Foreign Fighters Informed Comment 09/25/2014:

The newspaper “al-Watan” (The Nation), which is close to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, quoted Syrian diplomatic sources as saying that “The US military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria and on its eastern and southeastern borders.” This is true, the Syrian diplomats said, even though Washington and Damascus cannot acknowledge the cooperation for internal political reasons.

They added that “the Syrian Army will certainly benefit from the American air strikes, especially since it is the strongest force on the ground, possessing both power and flexibility in the way it moves around in the field. It is the one that will benefit from the air strikes.”
But our Sunni coalition friends want to get rid of the Syrian government. (Qatar, a partner in U.S. airstrikes, says Syrian regime main problem Reuters 09/24/2014)

Which we do, too, even though we fighting against the regime's most dangerous opponent, ISIS (aka, the Greatest Threat We've Ever Faced), even though we're backing another opposition group, those famous Moderates. Who aren't entirely happy with us right now. (Danny Postel, The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals Dissent 09/20/2014) Roy Gutman and Mousab Alhamadee report in CIA-vetted Syrian rebels battling Islamic State say airstrikes haven’t helped McClatchy Newspapers 09/25/2014:

Rebel leaders say they’ve stopped the Islamic State’s advance and recaptured several villages. But no one is bragging, because they fear that after the Islamic State finishes its attack on the Kurdish Kobane region to the east, it will send reinforcements to the Aleppo front.

The stalemate north of Aleppo is the latest sign of the United States’ ambivalence toward forces that it is backing covertly already. None of the recent coalition strikes over Syria has targeted the Islamic State positions north of Aleppo.

There are now 10 groups fighting north of Aleppo, near the town of Mare, but the U.S. and its allies “offered very little ammunition support, no information, no air cover, and no collaboration in military plans and tactics – nothing,” said Col. Hassan Hamadi, who defected from the Syrian army and now heads the newly formed umbrella group Legion 5.
Israel intervened in a small way a few days ago, arguably helping an "Al Qaeda" group in the process. (Juan Cole, Syrian regime Propaganda coup as Israel Downs Syrian Plane over Golan Informed Comment 09/24/2014)

And what about our NATO ally Turkey? (What Role is Turkey Playing in the War Against ISIS? The Real News 09/24/2014)

Also: Ceylan Yeginsusept, ISIS Draws a Steady Stream of Recruits From Turkey New York Times 09/15/2014. Juan Cole explains (US strikes ISIL oil fields in Quest to Defund it: But will it Replace oil with Fracking? Informed Comment 09/25/2014)

If things go on this way, in a couple of weeks we'll be fighting both for and against every party to the Syrian civil war.

Bernard Chazelle points to this dilemma in Squaring the Circle of ISIS LobeLog Foreign Policy 09/27/2014

The civil war in Syria gave the West a chance to recover its delusional optimism from the early days of the Iraq war. ... The only forces posing a credible threat to ISIS are Assad’s army, Hezbollah, Iran, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Washington opposes all four of them. Think of FDR preparing for D-Day and refusing help from Britain, Canada, and the French Résistance. Obama is precisely where ISIS wants him to be: fighting the Islamic State while denying himself any chance of success. With ISIS firmly ensconced in urban areas, airstrikes will do little besides boosting recruitment for the group. The Islamic State publicly welcomed the US decision to arm the “moderate” rebels, confident that the weapons will eventually be theirs. In fact, thanks to the cracker jack squads of US-trained Iraqi forces, ISIS is already in possession of a whole arsenal of American weaponry.
Daniel Drezner makes an ironic criticism of the anti-ISIS rhetoric from the Obama Administration in If management consultants were generating the anti-Islamic State strategy Washington Post 09/24/2014.

Michael Tomasky describes what an optimistic scenario in the non-war war could look like in Obama’s Iraq Is Not Bush’s Iraq Daily Beast 09/24/2014.

Tomasky's right on the obvious point that there's a huge difference in an invasion with tens of thousands of ground troops and a bombing campaign alone. If Obama just decides to stop it, it's a lot easier to call off a bombing campaign than to pull 140,000 troops out, shut bases down, etc.

But in practice, it's hard to see how he can quit. He's committed himself already to a three-year conflict with expansive goals. And the usual suspects who are demanding ground troops now!now!now! actually have a point, in the stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day kind of of way. Obama has set the destruction of ISIS (and the rest of the Network Of Death?) as a goal, and it's unlikely that can be achieved by airpower alone.

Our new Army of Moderate Syrian Muslims sounds like it won't be able to do serious combat nearly as quickly as the KLA was in Kosovo in 1999. Much less act right away as an effective battle and ethnic-cleansing force like the Croatian Army did in 1995 to force the agreement that halted the bombing campaign in Bosnia. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Martin Dempsey says it will take a while to get the 15,000 Moderate Rebel fighters he thinks are necessary ready to go (Dempsey: Up to 15,000 Syrian rebels required to dislodge Islamic State militants Stars and Stripes 09/26/2014):

“There’s no airpower alone solution to ISIL either in Iraq or in Syria,” Dempsey said, using an acronym to refer to the Islamic State. “There has to be a ground component to the campaign against ISIL in Syria, and we believe that the path to develop that is the Syrian moderate opposition.”

At present, the moderate rebels are outmatched by their extremist counterparts.

“You’re really talking about a qualitative difference where these Islamist groups… have benefited from massive cash flows [and] from the defection of other fighters,” said Fredric Wehrey, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The opposition is still in a very beleaguered state.”

Dempsey believes it will be a long time before the rebels can become an effective fighting force, even with American training.

“We have to do it right, not fast. The have to have military leaders that bind them together. They have to be have a political structure into which they can hook and therefore be responsive to. And that’s going to take some time,” he said.

Fred Kaplan also makes a case for optimism that the bombing campaign will be effective (The Right Target Slate 09/23/2014).

But both of them express some well-advised caution, too. Tomasky: "There are many ways that what started in Syria Monday night can go wrong." (Yep!) Kaplan: "As for the fate of Syria, air power—whether American or Arabian or both—can do only so much without ground forces."

There is no shortage of high-sounding justifications about America's imperial mission to civilize the heathens. Such as that of Chuck Freilich in A Generational Challenge The American Interest 09/22/2014:

Despite the President's repeated efforts to deny it, the bitter reality is that the West is embroiled in a normative and strategic conflict with much of the Islamic world, a conflict that it did not seek but is nonetheless underway. On the normative level, the conflict is between a West that enshrines the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this life, and the fundamentalists and others, for whom much of this vision is anathema. Theirs is a vision not of life and liberty—and happiness, if it’s possible at all, is only truly available in the next life. It is a vision of the future shrouded in theocratic or authoritarian backwardness, oppression, and poverty. This normative clash is not about mushy, sentimental ideas, but about the fundamental values that will govern international life and, increasingly, our lives at home.
Michael Vickers wrote more prosaically of the Kosovo War, "Whether it is called peace-keeping, humanitarian intervention or (perhaps a more honest term) imperial policing, this function sets its own peculiar operational imperatives for vigilance, safety of both troops and civilians, and duration." (my emphasis) (From "Revolution Deferred" in War Over Kosovo: Politics ans Strategy in a Global Age; Andrew Bacevich and Eliot Cohen; 2001)

Freilich's high-blown words are a propaganda gloss on what is really an extended mission of imperial policing. We need to be realistic about the nature of our Long War against a changing set of enemies over the decades since the Second World War. Obama's non-war war in Iraq-Syria is yet another adventure in just that, imperial policing.

Fortunately, there are critical voices, which the Obama Administration for the immediate future will largely ignore.

Emile Nakhleh warns about the down side of our current regional coalition (How Obama Should Beat ISIS LobeLog Foreign Policy 09/25/2014):

Arab publics will likely see glaring inconsistencies in the president’s speech between his rhetoric and actual policies. They would most likely view much of what he said, especially his global counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, as another version of America’s war on Islam. Arabs will also see much hypocrisy in the president’s speech on the issue of human rights and civil society.

Although fighting a perceived common enemy, it’s a sad spectacle to see the United States, a champion of human rights, liberty, and justice, cozy up to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain, serial violators of human rights and infamous practitioners of repression. It’s even more hypocritical when Arab citizens realize that some of these so-called partners have often spread an ideology not much different from what ISIS preaches.

These three regimes in particular have emasculated their civil society and engaged in illegal imprisonment, sham trials, and groundless convictions. They banned political parties — Islamic and secular — and silenced civil society institutions as well as prohibited peaceful protests.
Samia Nakhoul laments that Islamic State drags Obama back into Mideast quagmire Reuters 09/25/2014:

No one doubts this dramatic escalation presages a long conflict that could spill into neighboring states and that U.S. air power alone cannot win.

Analysts who have watched Islamic State take parts of Syria and seize territory in Iraq believe it may be possible to contain the group but it will hard to dislodge it. ...

What America is joining in Syria is a war that has already cost 190,000 lives and forced 10 million from their homes.

Shi'ite Iran and Gulf Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia are backing their sectarian proxies and Syria is a magnet for foreign jihadi fighters, who overwhelmed mainstream Sunni rebels last year and declared an Islamic "caliphate" in June.
Nakhoul is surely over-generalizing when he says that "no one doubts" that this is a conflict "that U.S. air power alone cannot win." A huge faith in the magic of air war is actually a cornerstone of the approach to imperial policing that will be the Obama Administration's main legacy in foreign policy.

What Nakhoul reports her is especially ominous:

Fighting Islamic State would be easier if Assad were removed, paving the way for coordination between a government under new leadership and mainstream rebels, said an official from a NATO member of the coalition against IS.

“Everybody, including the Americans, knows that to make headway against Islamic State you need Assad to go, just as you needed Maliki to go in Iraq," the official said.

This would require the removal of a “smallish clique” around the president, and those responsible for the worst atrocities – leaving in place institutions including the bulk of the army as foundations for a future transition.

For a post-Assad transition to happen, moderate rebels must recapture momentum on the ground. A U.S. State Department official stressed the need to strengthen those rebels and said the U.S. was not going after Assad for now "because the moderate opposition isn't ready yet".
That line of thinking suggests we have in mind the kind of nation-building that we've been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have some very contemporary experience to suggest the prospects for a constructive outcome.

Jack Shafer writes in War without end: The U.S. may still be fighting in Syria in 2024, 2034, 2044 ... Reuters 09/24/2014: "In a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Army Lieutenant General Bill Mayville called the cruise missiles and bombs flung at targets in Syria 'the beginning of a credible and sustainable persistent campaign.' How long will the campaign last? 'I would think of it in terms of years,' Mayville responded."

Discussing the tangled web of alliances and enmities involved, he writes:

Confused yet? You’ll have plenty of time to catch up. As Mayville promised, this conflict will likely go on for years.

It’s a wild card war in which allies and enemies seem arbitrary and ever-shifting. ...

A war with a conclusion that its participants can’t see or can’t imagine is a war without end. None of the dig-in parties in Syria and Iraq look like pushovers, but neither do any of them look like sure bets. Without American intervention, the current war will likely rage on. With regard to American intervention, not even the Pentagon dares to predict an end.
And he observes, "For Americans, at least so far, this war is rumbling on like background noise."

War as background noise: the shared goal of the Clinton and Obama Administrations' war policies.

Mahmood Monshipouri doesn't come down on the especially hopeful side of thing in considering the range of likely outcomes. (U.S. strategy on ISIL: What’s the endgame? Berkeley Blog 09/19/14) And he has the potential for mission creep very much in mind:

So what is the whole enchilada of the Obama Administration’s new foreign policy initiative? This strategy may result in three possibilities. The first possibility is that after defeating ISIL, the US and its allies might pressure the Assad regime and moderate rebel forces to engage in diplomatic talks over a possible political transition. That possibility appears to be a long shot.

The second possibility may appear counterintuitive, but it is worth considering—that is, the defeat of ISIL may lead to conditions ironically conducive to toppling the Assad regime. Having lost the battle over Ukraine to Russia, some US strategists may decide to take the fight to the southern and western parts of Syria, where Russians have vested interests in the city of Tartus’ ports.

The potential for mission creep may now seem highly unlikely, but if the United States infiltrates Syrian borders — with the tacit or explicit approval of the Assad regime — to initially degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL forces, and if this involves cooperation with so-called “moderate” anti-Assad forces, which have in the past proven inept in overthrowing the Assad regime in Damascus, these operations could serve to pave the way for targeting the Assad regime. It is too often the case that military missions and plans become new grounds for evolving goals.

The third possibility is that Syria remains in the status-quo ante, regardless of the outcome of the war against ISIL. That scenario appears unlikely given that the threat of extremism is growing exponentially with every passing day. In all these scenarios, the issue is not the unintended consequences over which policymakers may or may not have much control.

Quite the contrary, U.S. officials may at some point seriously consider the possibility of supporting deliberate actions against the Assad regime from inside Syrian territory. Recent history is very instructive. US forces invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled Saddam Hussein, and subsequently captured and surrendered him to Shiite groups, who eventually executed him. All this despite the fact that his regime intimately cooperated with the United States during its bloody eight-year war with Iran, which the US government deemed compatible with its interests as it kept the Islamists' power in Iran at bay. [my emphasis]
Obama's escalated intervention in Iraq-Syria that began this summer is likely to define his foreign policy legacy more than anything else.

Up until that, we could still imagine that Obama's sticking to the withdrawal schedule from Iraq established by the Bush Administration and winding up active US participation in the Afghanistan War could put the US on the road to fewer hots war in the Long War than the ones he inherited and to some kind of qualitative reduction in the militarization of foreign policy, in which war and the threat of war have become such driving forces.

It strikes me that such is very unlikely to be his legacy now.

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