Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why clever covert ops can lead to un-clever wars

We're officially bombing in Syria now.

But the intervention there wasn't sudden. And the potential for escalation is huge. As Paul Pillar writes, "There is significant danger of the campaign against ISIS and the costs it incurs getting far, far out of proportion to any threat the group poses to U.S. interests." (The Anti-ISIS Campaign: Beware the Seeds of Escalation The National Interest 09/22/2014; also available at LobeLog Foreign Policy.)

Marcy Wheeler explains that we've been actually funding an armed group opposing the Syrian regime since last year in The Covert Operation Undermining US Credibility against ISIS Emptywheel 09/22/2014:

But it is a fact that the US has had a covert op since at least June 2013 funding Syrian opposition groups, many of them foreign fighters, in an effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Chuck Hagel confirmed as much in Senate testimony on September 3, 2013 (the NYT subsequently reported that President Obama signed the finding authorizing the op in April 2013, but did not implement it right away). We relied on our Saudi and Qatari partners as go-betweens in that op and therefore relied on them to vet the recipient groups.

At least as Steve Clemons tells it, in addition to the more “moderate” liver-eaters in the Free Syrian Army, the Qataris were (are?) funding Jabhat al-Nusra, whereas Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan gets credit for empowering ISIS — which is one of the reasons King Abdullah took the Syria portfolio away from him.
So we became committed to an actual belligerant party over a year ago. Now we've escalated to bombing Syria. Getting drawn into a country's civil call lead to more intervention, and more, and more after that.

In the abstract, the US could change direction and just stop its covert intervention. But that's not how it's working in Syria.

Juan Cole warns of the danger of escalation: "The US dropped enormous numbers of bombs on Iraq since 2003, and in the end its sponsored government lost 40% of the country to ISIL. Bombing positions in Syria in the absence of an allied ground force is highly unlikely to be decisive in and of itself." (Shock & Awe In Syria: It never Works Informed Comment 09/23/2014)

Conor Fridersdorf in The Best Way to Build 'Momentum' for a War Atlantic Politics 09/17/2014 reminds us that Obama's national security team is hawkish:

It's no fluke that momentum would build behind war.

What else did Obama expect when he staffed his administration with hawkish Iraq War proponents? Any attempt to measure the momentum for war must include Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling ISIS "beyond anything we've ever seen," heated rhetoric from Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Joe Biden vowing that the United States will follow ISIS "to the gates of hell." Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been a prominent hawk.
And he comments, with a touch of bitterness toward Obama loyalists on the Iraq-Syria Non-War War:

Obama deserves credit for being more levelheaded than John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Hillary Clinton, but he's also paved the way for people like them to have their way as soon as he leaves the White House. He has done nothing to institutionalize his somewhat less reckless temperament, and everything to expand the discretion of all future presidents. He is either not what he presents himself to be or extremely shortsighted. Oh to give him a Texas twang and cowboy hat so more progressives realize this.
We Americans do need to be concerned about both excessive Executive Power and about having war and war and military action after military action, even if they are approved by Congress. Joan Walsh writes in The Dick Cheney view of presidential power is winning Salon 09/23/2014:

Now that the bombs are dropping, few in Congress are even bothering to argue that they ought to deal with the question when they get back after the election. Sen. Tim Kaine is an exception: he is accusing his colleagues of accepting Dick Cheney’s view of the president’s power to wage pre-emptive war.

“[Congress has] sort of allowed the Cheney pre-emptive war doctrine to exist by another name,” Kaine told the Huffington Post Tuesday. “In this instance, they allowed the president to say, ‘ISIL [the Islamic State] is the bad guys, and I can go after them even though there has been testimony that they pose no imminent threat of attack on the United States.’ If the president just gets to do this without Congress, then we will be embracing the Cheney pre-emptive war doctrine, which I think is just brutally wrong.”
We also have another Evil Enemy in Syria, it seems: "The White House insists it doesn't need U.N. or Syrian approval, eiher [sic], presumably because it has now declared that it was striking a group we hadn't known about until last week, Khorasan, an al-Qaida offshoot, which is reportedly preparing 'imminent' operations in the U.S. and Europe."

We need less war. We need a foreign policy and national strategy that is based on something more modest than global dominance. With that kind of broad strategy, we can have periods of more sensible actions and periods of more reckless ones. But it inevitably requires us to prosecute war after war. "Permanent war" is the right description for this state of things.

Digby gave an account last week of the new villain, Khorasan: So they aren't more dangerous to us than al Qaeda after all? Why would they have said that? Hullabaloo 09/13/2014. See also: How “Khorasan” Went From Nowhere To The Biggest Threat To The U.S. Buzzfeed 09/23/2014.

Are we getting to the place where any tiny group that posts a Middle-Eastern sounding name for itself on the Internet can now serve as justification for going to war? The rollout of fear-mongering over "Khorasan" over the last few days that Digby describes certainly has the look of piling additional scariness into the justification for war.

As Marcy points out, claiming an al-Qa'ida affiliate as a target may help provide another fig leaf of legal cover for the air war in Syria (Obama Starts Syrian Bombing using Cover of Khorasan Claims Emptywheel 09/23/2014):

It appears the legal logic behind the attack (besides the fact that Congress hurriedly approved funding for war through December so it could get back to the campaign trail) is that in addition to striking ISIS in Syria (an attack we don’t have any reasonable legal justification for) we are also attacking a group that James “Too Cute by Half” Clapper just rolled out, “Khorasan,” which unlike ISIS has not been kicked out of Al Qaeda and therefore might be targetable under the 2001 AUMF.
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