News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Chuck Hagel testifies during his confirmation hearing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)
Lots of folks felt that when President Obama picked Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense, it augured well for the president’s second term. That’s because Hagel, a skeptic of war with Iran, a critic of Israel, and seemingly prepared to make significant cuts in defense spending, would be a breath of fresh air at the Department of Defense.
But it’s worrying, to say the least, that the pro-military hawk who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, has suddenly become a fan of Hagel. Is that because Hagel is slyly deceiving the crusty old war hawk while intending, all along, to move left with Obama on defense? Or is Hagel, and is Obama, caving in to the generals and the military-industrial complex? Perhaps we’ll find out on Wednesday, when Hagel delivers a major speech on defense policy?
In a New York Times piece previewing Hagel’s speech, and analyzing the budget challenges for DOD, McKeon was quoted expressing his skepticism about Hagel, which, he said, got worse during the confirmation hearings in the Senate:
“I did not know him well before the nomination, and then the things that I had heard about him, well, I was somewhat apprehensive. Then I watched as he went through the process. And some of my concerns were even strengthened.”
Since then, however, McKeon has watched as Hagel beefed up missile defenses in the Pacific, ostensibly in response to North Korea’s bluster (though Pyongyang has no long-range missiles), and announced that he’ll visit Israel next. Reports the Times:
Mr. McKeon said he has come around on Mr. Hagel, swayed in part by the defense secretary’s announcement that reversed an Obama administration decision that had canceled an expansion of missile defenses. Mr. Hagel instead ordered the Pentagon to spend $1 billion to deploy more interceptors along the Pacific Coast to counter the growing reach of North Korea’s weapons. And Pentagon officials have disclosed that Mr. Hagel’s next foreign trip will open with an alliance-building visit to Israel.
“I’m feeling pretty good about where he is heading now,” Mr. McKeon said.
The $1 billion missile deployment program in the Pacific, of course, may have been designed chiefly to placate hawks after the Obama administration, seeking favor with Russia, canceled a missile-defense expansion in eastern Europe.
Hagel, happily, is sounding less apocalyptic that his predecessors at the Pentagon when he talks about defense cuts, sequestration and the road ahead. “We’re going to have to deal with that reality, and that means we’re going to have to prioritize and make some cuts and do what we got to do,” he said recently, and he added: “There will be changes, some significant changes. There’s no way around it.”
The writing seems all over the wall.
In a recent piece in Aviation Week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, suggested that the upcoming, late-May defense review that precedes the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review will not be good news for the military-industrial complex:
That review is due in late May, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is already adjusting the nation’s expectations. “We’ll need to relook at our assumptions, and we’ll need to adjust our ambitions to match our abilities,” Dempsey said during a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
And the magazine added:
The situation has Washington defense analysts in agreement on a couple of things: The military is in the midst of a cyclical downturn in defense spending, and the outlook for navigating it well is grim.
And AFP reports that folks in Washington are questioning America’s continued reliance on vast, and vastly expensive, aircraft carriers, which have been the chief means of projecting US power overseas:
Budget pressures at the Pentagon have renewed a debate about the value of the US Navy’s giant aircraft carriers, with critics arguing the warships are fast becoming costly relics in a new era of warfare.
With the Pentagon facing $500 billion in cuts over the next decade, a Navy officer has dared to question the most treasured vessels in his service’s fleet, saying the super carriers are increasingly vulnerable to new weapons and too expensive to operate.
“After 100 years, the carrier is rapidly approaching the end of its useful strategic life,” wrote Capt. Henry Hendrix in a report published this month by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank with close ties to President Obama’s administration.
Part of the reason for the questioning is that Chinese missiles, which cost almost nothing, could in the future take out an entire aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the stuff is mind-bogglingly costly. A single aircraft carrier, incredibly, costs $13.6 billion and the task force that operates it costs $6.5 million per day, or $2.4 billion a year!
Memo to Chuck Hagel: this stuff is useless, and we can’t afford it anymore. Let’s see what Hagel says this week. Hopefully, at the very least, it will discomfit Representative McKeon.
Meanwhile, congressional hawks hate Obama's stance against nuclear proliferation, Robert Dreyfuss writes. Keep up the good work, Mr. President!
Barack Obama meets with Dmitry Medvedev in 2009. Some conservatives have accused Obama of being soft on Russia. (AP Photo/Jim Young.)
Not often do you get a near-complete summary of just about everything that President Obama is doing right when it comes to arms control, disarmament, and related topics, but there it is in the pages of the Washington Post. Let’s remember to thank Douglas Feith, Jim Woolsey, and the rest of the hardy band of hawks and neoconservatives who, despite their staggering blunders of 2001-2005, keep on tickin’.
In an op-ed entitled “Obama’s ‘nuclear-zero’ rhetoric is dangerous," Feith, Woolsey et al. give the president a backhanded compliment for having “good and idealistic intentions,” but then go on to accuse him of being soft on North Korea, Iran, Russia and other would-be foes and of adopting policies that will lead allies, from Asia to the Middle East, to build more (not less) nukes.
Happily, they provide us with seven items that Obama touts when speaking to "audiences gratified by talk of disarmament,” i.e., pretty much everyone in the world except for Feith, Woolsey and their friends:
When Obama administration officials speak of nuclear weapons, they generally focus on audiences gratified by talk of disarmament, especially US disarmament. Hence, the administration’s (1) opposition to developing a reliable, new nuclear warhead; (2) opposition to ever testing our warheads again; (3) support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; (4) support for deep new cuts in nuclear force levels; (5) eagerness for a new treaty with Russia to make such cuts a legal requirement; (6) hints of funding cuts for US nuclear infrastructure (in violation of earlier promises to increase such funding, which were pledged in 2010 to win Senate votes for the “New START” nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia); and (7) endorsement of “nuclear zero.”
All good ideas, as far as I’m concerned, though it would be good if Obama made each one a slightly higher priority.
The op-ed was a distillation of an Open Letter to Obama from a larger flock of 20 hawks, including John Bolton, who urged the president to beef up America’s nukes, not cut them:
According to published reports, you are considering further, draconian and perhaps unilateral cuts in the numbers of nuclear weapons in our arsenal. We respectfully recommend that this plan be abandoned in favor of the fulfillment of commitments you made at the time of the New START Treaty to: modernize all three legs of the Triad; ensure the safety and deterrent effectiveness of the weapons with which they are equipped; and restore the critical industrial base that supports these forces.
You’d think that having been so catastrophically wrong about everything during the administration of George W. Bush, these folks would have a hard time getting the Washington Post to print their op-ed. Apparently not.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on the $6 trillion price tag for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will be hitting Americans in the wallet for years to come.
Besides replacing equipment, costs of the war down the road include healthcare for veterans and debt-servicing costs. (AP Photo/Dayton Daily News, Ty Greenless.)
Your children, and your grandchildren, will be paying billions upon billions of dollars for George W. Bush’s criminally misguided wars and for Barack Obama’s ill-advised escalation of the war in Afghanistan, according to a new report.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost as much as $6 trillion when all is said and done, the report says:
The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in US history—totaling somewhere between $4 to $6 trillion. This includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs. The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid.
Adds the report’s abstract:
Since 2001, the US has expanded the quality, quantity, availability and eligibility of benefits for military personnel and veterans. This has led to unprecedented growth in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense budgets. These benefits will increase further over the next 40 years. Additional funds are committed to replacing large quantities of basic equipment used in the wars and to support ongoing diplomatic presence and military assistance in the Iraq and Afghanistan region. The large sums borrowed to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will also impose substantial long-term debt servicing costs. As a consequence of these wartime spending choices, the United States will face constraints in funding investments in personnel and diplomacy, research and development and new military initiatives.
And it concludes:
The legacy of decisions taken during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come.
The title of the report, by Linda J. Bilmes of Harvard University, is “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets.” Bilmes is the co-author, with Joseph Stiglitz, of the 2008 study "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict." In the new study, she reports:
The US has already spent close to $2 trillion in direct outlays for expenses related to Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND). This includes direct combat operations, reconstruction efforts and other direct war spending by the Department of Defense (DoD), State Department, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Social Security Administration.
However, this represents only a fraction of the total war costs. The single largest accrued liability of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the cost of providing medical care and disability benefits to war veterans. Historically, the bill for these costs has come due many decades later.
And, she reports:
The decision to finance the war operations entirely through borrowing has already added some $2 trillion to the national debt, contributing about 20 percent of the total national debt added between 2001 and 2012. This level of debt is thus one of the reasons the country faces calls for austerity and budget cuts, which has already had an impact on the military budget through the across-the-board cuts (the “sequester”) that were allowed to take effect in 2013. The US has already paid $260 billion in interest on the war debt. This does not include the interest payable in the future, which will reach into the trillions.
So, the next time some deficit hawk who’s also a warhawk complains about the soaring US debt and the current deficit, send ’em a copy of Bilmes’ study.
Another recent report suggests that the CIA is missing intelligence because it's too busy with drone strikes. Read Robert Dreyfuss on why the agency should get back to what it's supposed to do.
CIA Director John Brennan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
Settling in at the Central Intelligence Agency, Director John Brennan has some tough choices to make. An immediate one, according to an important article in The Washington Post, will be the fate of the agency’s clandestine services director (i.e., covert operations chief), who is tangled in the CIA’s past role as brutal interrogator and torturer.
But a more important, and longer range decision, is what Brennan will choose to do about the agency’s preoccupation, or obsession, with drones and with pursuing kinetic, counterterrorism actions as part of what is no longer called the “Global War on Terror.” The CIA’s too-heavy focus on military-type operations, drones and covert wars that have long since reached their sell-by dates has weakened, perhaps fatally, the CIA’s ability to actually find out stuff, and therefore inform the president of what’s happening around the world.
That’s the conclusion of an important new (classified) report prepared for the CIA by a panel of experts that included, significantly, Chuck Hagel, before he was named secretary of defense.
Let’s start with the unnamed woman who runs covert ops.
According to the Post:
[Earlier] a woman had been placed in charge of the CIA’s clandestine service for the first time in the agency’s history. She is a veteran officer with broad support inside the agency. But she also helped run the CIA’s detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and signed off on the 2005 decision to destroy videotapes of prisoners being subjected to treatment critics have called torture.
The woman, who remains undercover and cannot be named, was put in the top position on an acting basis when the previous chief retired last month. The question of whether to give her the job permanently poses an early quandary for Brennan, who is already struggling to distance the agency from the decade-old controversies.
Along with another covert ops chief, the person in question coauthored the decision to destroy videotape records of CIA-led interrogations at secret prisons in Thailand after 2001, says the paper.
Brennan needs to get rid of her, and fast, if he and President Obama are serious at all about clearing the air on CIA actions during the George W. Bush era and on the current mishmash of policies that govern drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and (soon, see below) Syria.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the CIA is planning to expand the drone program into another war zone: Syria. Says the LA Times:
The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Meanwhile, following reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post that the CIA is actively engaged in training Syrian fighters, including what the Post calls “Sunnis and tribal Bedouins,” at secret locations in next-door Jordan and fostering an expanded flow of arms to who-knows-who in Syria, The Wall Street Journal tells us that the CIA has also engaged with Syrian rebels by providing them with intelligence:
The Central Intelligence Agency is expanding its role in the campaign against the Syrian regime by feeding intelligence to select rebel fighters to use against government forces, current and former U.S. officials said. … The expanded CIA role bolsters an effort by Western intelligence agencies to support the Syrian opposition with training in areas including weapons use, urban combat and countering spying by the regime.
So, for Brennan, as he reviews the CIA’s covert ops, a big question is: Does he want an Afghanistan-1980s-style war in Syria as his first big engagement?
Meanwhile, in the secret report by Hagel and others, the conclusion is that the CIA can’t understand what’s happening in Russia, China, and the Middle East in part because it is too focused on blowing people up:
A panel of White House advisers warned President Obama in a secret report that U.S. spy agencies were paying inadequate attention to China, the Middle East and other national security flash points because they had become too focused on military operations and drone strikes, U.S. officials said.
Apparently, it seems, Brennan agrees, which may have had something to do with why he got the job:
John O. Brennan, Obama’s former top counterterrorism adviser, who was sworn in as CIA director this month, told Congress in February that he planned to evaluate the “allocation of mission” at the agency. He described the scope of CIA involvement in lethal operations as an “aberration from its traditional role.”
Various members of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which prepared the report—including former Senator David Boren and former Representative Lee Hamilton—chimed in with comments that the CIA is losing its focus and that it is too tied to the military. Needless to say, the militarization of the CIA has been underway for decades and long noted. General David Petraeus, who recently resigned in disgrace as CIA director, was the latest in a long line of generals and admirals who’ve either directed the CIA or served as the president’s chief intelligence officer as director of National Intelligence in the White House. “The intelligence community has become to some degree a military support operation,” said Boren. (The current DNI is former General James Clapper.)
Adds the Post story:
The classified document called for the first significant shift in intelligence resources since they began flowing heavily toward counterterrorism programs and war zones after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001
That would be a good start. But the real question is: What kind of CIA ought the United States have? Some liberal-left types might argue to abolish it entirely, but that’s both impractical and a bad idea, anyway. Instead, the CIA ought to be president’s eyes and ears, allowing him good, accurate and reliable information about what’s happening out there in the wide world, without caving in to the latest gossip, pressure from hawks and neoconservatives, and ending up with “slam dunks” like George Tenet’s egregious miscall in advance of the war in Iraq in 2002.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on a former general and friend of Obama who warned of blowback to the US drone program.
Barack Obama meets with Xi Jinping, who has since become China's new president, in 2012. (White House photo courtesy of Flickr.)
The United States and China are going a-courtin’. And the court’s in Moscow. Though none of the three countries are exactly natural allies, both Washington and Beijing are competing for Moscow’s favors.
Let’s start with China. China’s new president, Xi Jinping, made his first official foreign trip abroad last week to Moscow, where he and Vladimir Putin had a lot of nice things to say about each other, and about their relationship. “The fact that I will visit Russia, our friendly neighbor, shortly after assuming presidency is a testimony to the great importance China places on its relations with Russia,” said Xi.
In a speech to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Xi noted that both Russia and China “oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries”—meaning, mostly, that they don’t like it when the United States and its public-private democracy industry tries to tell Moscow and Beijing how to behave. And Xi went on to say:
“China and Russia, as the biggest neighbors of each other, share many commonalities in their blueprints of national development. Currently, China and Russia are both in important periods of national revival, and bilateral relations have entered a new stage in which each provides the other with important development opportunities and treats the other as a major partner.”
A lot of that has to do with energy, naturally. “Oil and gas pipelines have become the veins connecting the two countries in a new century,” said Xi, who reportedly inked a $30 billion deal with Russia’s Rosneft. Reports The New York Times: “The deal said to be in the works with Rosneft would potentially entail a loan of $30 billion from China, to be repaid in oil.” China is also seeking a pipeline via Russia’s Gazprom that would deliver huge quantities of natural gas to China, as well. According to The Wall Street Journal, the gas deal was inked, too:
After more than a decade of talks, Russia has agreed to supply China with natural gas, a deal that could see China surpass Germany as the largest importer of Russian gas.
Officials Friday signed a raft of other energy agreements, including one to double Russian oil supplies and hand China’s state oil company a stake in Russian oil fields, tightening the nexus between Russia, the world’s largest energy producer, and China, the hungriest consumer.
Lots of differences remain between Russia and China, of course, and there are plenty of obstacles in the way of anything like a Russia-China alliance emerging. Still, because the United States needs Russia as a partner on a wide range of issues—from arms control to Afghanistan to Iran’s nuclear program and the civil war in Syria—the Obama administration had better get on the stick in seeking a strong working relationship with Moscow.
The good news: in the last couple of weeks it appears as if that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Earlier in March, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Hagel abruptly canceled the next phase of a missile defense system in eastern Europe that had long been a thorn in the side of US-Russia relations. Leave aside that the system, ostensibly aimed at Iran (which doesn’t have any missiles) is vastly expensive, hasn’t been fully developed, and probably wouldn’t work anyway. By canceling it, Obama and Hagel have made it easier for President Putin to do a deal over nuclear arms, without overly agitating that Russian military. American officials went out of their way to say that it was a decision related to Iran, North Korea, and other missile threats, and that it had nothing to do with Russia, but no one’s buying that.
In fact, a week later, US and Russian negotiators announced what appeared to be a break in the logjam over nuclear talks. As the Times reported:
Russian and American officials on Thursday reported progress in discussions about nuclear weapons reductions, in a sign that renewed cooperation may be under way just days after the United States canceled part of a Europe-based missile defense program that had infuriated the Kremlin.
The Times report went on to quote both sides expressing happy feelings:
After meetings in Geneva on Tuesday and Wednesday, Rose Gottemoeller, the acting under secretary of state for arms control, and Sergei Ryabkov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, each issued positive comments, indicating that the two sides had renewed active talks on nonproliferation efforts, which had been largely stalled for months.
“Busy, but productive few days in Geneva,” Ms. Gottemoeller posted on Twitter.
Mr. Ryabkov was more expansive at a news conference Thursday upon his return to Moscow, where he announced that the dialogue had improved. “Rose Gottemoeller and I share the opinion that there is progress in the negotiations,” he said, according to Russian news agencies.
“We have planned new contacts at various levels for the coming period,” he said. “Intensity of these contacts is not declining but in fact increasing, which shows that the work is moving ahead vigorously.” But he also cautioned that no new agreements had been reached or were even yet on the table.
This is all good news, and yet it comes just weeks after some reports that the United States had decided to “reset the reset” with Russia and to give Moscow the “cold shoulder.” On February 2, 2013, the Times reported in a news analysis:
The intense engagement on the reset led to notable achievements, including the New Start nuclear arms treaty and Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. But after more than a year of deteriorating relations, the administration now envisions a period of disengagement, according to government officials and outside analysts here and in Washington.
Among other things, President Obama reportedly had decided to snub an invite from President Putin to visit Moscow this spring. Instead, said the Times:
The main goal seems to be to send a message that the United States views much of its relationship with Russia as optional, and while pressing matters will continue to be handled on a transactional basis, Washington plans to continue criticizing Russia on human rights and other concerns. As for the anti-Americanism, the new approach might be described as shrug and snub.
Well, that all seems in the past.
It’s not that the visit to Moscow by Xi Jinping convinced Obama that resetting the reset wasn’t a good idea—far from it. But it helps when there is healthy competition for the favors and attention of Moscow. The various irritants in US-Russia relations aren’t going away, but the neoconservatives and other hawkish, reflexively anti-Russia hawks in the United States don’t seem to have the upper hand.
Former general James Cartwright has come out against drone strikes, Robert Dreyfuss writes—will President Obama listen to his old friend?
“Obama’s General” James Cartwright. (D. Myles Cullen/Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Retired four-star Marine General James Cartwright, who’s been close to President Obama for years—hawkish critics called him “Obama’s general”—has spoken out forcefully against the unchecked use of drones. According to the general, who’s been a long-time skeptic of the war in Afghanistan, drones cause anger, bitterness and resentment among Muslim populations targeted in the attacks, and he suggested that their use will cause “blowback,” i.e., attacks against the United States.
In a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, reported by The New York Times, Cartwright said:
“We’re seeing that blowback. If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”
Cartwright also said that he wasn’t enthused about the idea of shifting responsibility for drone warfare from the CIA to the military. Recently, the Obama administration has been hinting that it intends to have drone warfare brought under the Pentagon’s control, at least in places such as Yemen—though not, apparently, in Pakistan, where the vast majority of drone strikes take place. But Cartwright said that he’s concerned that there would be a “blurring of the line” if the military takes control of what is essentially a covert program to wage war in countries where the United States is not technically at war.
If the drones are placed more fully under Pentagon control, they’d be under the purview of the super-secret Special Operations Command, which has become a kind of “mini-CIA” inside the Department of Defense.
Perhaps because of his unorthodox views, Cartwright lost a chance to be named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Obama picked General Martin Dempsey instead—even though Obama and Cartwright were close.
Last year, Cartwright came out in support of large reductions in America’s nuclear weapons arsenal. As the Times reported:
General Cartwright said that the United States’ nuclear deterrence could be guaranteed with a total arsenal of 900 warheads, and with only half of them deployed at any one time. Even those in the field would be taken off hair triggers, requiring 24 to 72 hours for launching, to reduce the chance of accidental war.
That arsenal would be a significant cut from the current agreement to limit Russia and the United States to 1,550 deployed warheads each, down from 2,200, within six years. Under the New Start agreement, thousands more warheads can be kept in storage as a backup force, and the restrictions do not apply to hundreds of short-range nuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals.
“The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the cold war,” General Cartwright said in an interview. “There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”
How sincere was Republican support for Rand Paul's filibuster against drones, Rick Perlstein asks.
A Syrian fighter climbs atop rubble after an air force strike in Azaz. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic.)
Hawks, neoconservatives, liberal interventionists and others—truth be told, in Washington, nearly everyone except President Obama himself—seems to want to get involved militarily in Syria. The latest bugaboo: WMD. Haven’t we heard that someplace before? Say, ten years ago?
The latest to weigh in is Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who, in recent testimony to Congress, waxed eloquent about the moral and humanitarian reasons for the United States to entangle itself in yet another Middle East war:
“In the Syrian civil war we see a confluence of moral imperative and strategic interest; where so often these impulses conflict, here they coincide. The moral case for action is clear—the United Nations has asserted that 70,000 civilians have been killed in Syria since March 2011, and almost four million, out of a population of twenty-two million, forced from their homes, about 1.2 million of whom have fled Syria entirely. These numbers overwhelm comprehension, yet still fail to convey the full extent of Syrians’ suffering.”
Syrians may indeed be suffering, but a great deal of the suffering is due to the predatory and repressive actions by the Syrian rebels themselves, increasingly dominated by the radical-extremist Al Nusra Front.
The Washington Post, to its everlasting credit, ran a scary piece by Liz Sly about the rebels in “liberated” (i.e., rebel-occupied) Syria, imposing Taliban-like laws and punishments. One man, typical of many others, was beaten with a metal pipe. Writes Sly, worth quoting at length:
The beating administered last month offered a vivid illustration of the extent to which the Syrian revolution has strayed from its roots as a largely spontaneous uprising against four decades of Assad family rule. After mutating last year into a full-scale war, it is moving toward what appears to be an organized effort to institute Islamic law in areas that have fallen under rebel control.
Building on the reputation they have earned in recent months as the rebellion’s most accomplished fighters, Islamist units are seeking to assert their authority over civilian life, imposing Islamic codes and punishments and administering day-to-day matters such as divorce, marriage and vehicle licensing.
Numerous Islamist groups are involved, representing a wide spectrum of views. But, increasingly, the dominant role is falling to Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States for suspected ties to al-Qaeda but is widely respected by many ordinary Syrians for its battlefield prowess and the assistance it has provided to needy civilians.
Across the northeastern provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqah, where the rebels have been making rapid advances in recent weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken the lead both in the fighting and in setting out to replace toppled administrations. It has assumed control of bakeries and the distribution of flour and fuel, and in some instances it has sparked tensions with local fighters by trying to stop people from smoking in the streets.
But Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who must be hurting bad now that the third member of their Holy Trinity, Joe Lieberman, is gone, are demanding that Obama jump into the fray. The two cited unsubstantiated reports that either Syria or the rebels had used chemical weapons, echoing (on the tenth anniversary of the criminally misguided invasion of Iraq) charges of WMD. According to The Washington Times:
“President Obama has said that the use of weapons of mass destruction by Bashar Assad is a ‘red line’ for him that ‘will have consequences,’” they said. “If today’s reports are substantiated, the president’s red line has been crossed, and we would urge him to take immediate action to impose the consequences he has promised.”
McCain and Graham were backed by Dianne Feinstein and many others in Congress, adding to the pressure on the president. “This is highly classified and we have been advised to be careful with what we say,” said Feinstein, even though there were plenty of reports that no WMD had been used. The New York Times, for instance, reported:
But neither side presented clear documentation, and two American officials said there was no evidence to suggest that any chemical weapons had been used. A Defense Department official said the claim should be treated with caution, if not outright skepticism.
Can this really be happening again? A phony WMD war in the Middle East? Answer: yes.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on negotiations with Iran and how Barack Obama’s Israel trip could affect them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in 2011. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh.)
Let’s first of all put a positive spin on President Obama’s latest Nowruz message to the Iranian people for its New Year. By now, it’s a tradition for Obama to deliver a text and video message for Nowruz, addressed, says the White House, “directly to the people and leaders of Iran.” Because Obama is headed to Israel this week, where he’ll go mano a mano with a weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama’s message yesterday marks the official start of what might be called “Iran-Israel Week.”
That, in itself, is a victory for Israel, since Netanyahu since 2009 has managed to utterly change the subject from Israel-Palestine to Israel-Iran.
In his remarks to Iran, Obama said that Iran can establish a “new relationship” with the United States:
“I have offered the Iranian government an opportunity—if it meets its international obligations, then there could be a new relationship between our two countries, and Iran could begin to return to its rightful place among the community of nations. ”
And though Obama says that Iran has “been unable to convince the international community that their nuclear activities are solely for peaceful purposes,” he adds:
“If—as Iran’s leaders say—their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution. It’s a solution that would give Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy while resolving once and for all the serious questions that the world has about the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program.”
That studied ambiguity, the parallel ambiguity to “all options are on the table,” doesn’t make clear whether not not Iran can ever negotiate the West’s acceptance of its right to enrich uranium. Nearly all Iran watchers by now, except for neoconservatives and some Israelis, recognize that Iran’s right-to-enrich will be recognized in a US-Iran accord. Obama could accomplish a lot simply by saying that.
Israel clearly worries about exactly that. As The New York Times reports today, in its analysis of Iran-Israel Week:
In the wake of the most recent round of talks in Kazakhstan, some Israelis are concerned that the West might be preparing to cut a deal with Iran that would allow it to keep a stockpile of less-enriched uranium, which it could later purify to nuclear-grade.
Well, not just “stockpile,” but legally enrich, too.
Vali Nasr, who’s emerging as an important critic of the Obama administration’s Middle East and Afghanistan policy, suggested in a New York Times op-ed yesterday that it’s time for the United States to specifically offer to relax sanctions as part of the talks with Iran:
And rather than offering only vague promises that serious concessions might be rewarded someday by dropping all the sanctions as a package, Washington should offer to do away with specific sanctions, piece by piece, in exchange for specific Iranian concessions. In that way, both sides might begin dismantling the most dangerous aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in incremental, verifiable ways.
Sanctions, he says, drive Iranian insecurity, which in turn makes Iran consider seeking nuclear weapons as a defense. Says Nasr:
Iran’s leaders already suspect that America’s real goal is to overthrow their Islamic republic; at the same time, their citizens bitterly resent the sanctions, and generally support the idea of an Iranian nuclear program. Their leaders remember the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein violated international law by using chemical weapons and was never punished for it. Iran’s leaders concluded that they were vulnerable to aggression by their better-armed Arab neighbors, and that international agreements offered no protection.
Obama’s expected kowtowing to Netanyahu, a great deal of which will be for political reasons, won’t make talks with Iran any easier. But once Obama has departed the Zionist state, having placated Netanyahu, he might be freer to make a serious offer to Iran in the next round, in April.
Robert Dreyfuss and other commentators looked back on the Iraq War for OpinionNation on the tenth anniversary of the invasion.
As the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq approached, we asked veteran antiwar activist Tom Hayden, CODE PINK’s Jodie Evans, foreign policy blogger Robert Dreyfuss and activist-writer Nathan Schneider to reflect the legacy of the invasion and the destruction, and disillusionment, that followed. Their responses follow.
The Dove Is Never Free
Tom Hayden, a Nation editorial board member, is a long-time antiwar activist.
Oh the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free.
—Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
Remember how bad things were. Al Gore won the vote but the thieves won the 2000 election. After the terror of 9/11, the peace forces hadn’t been so marginal since the 1950s.
Just in case, the Iraq War itself was designed to avoid provoking the public. No draft would mean no protest. Iraq would cost a bargain price $200 million, with no tax hike. There would be few American casualties to disturb the television watchers, just like the earlier air war in the Balkans. A cakewalk, they called it.
Then in February 2003, millions around the world declared a new generation of winter soldiers on freezing streets. The New York Times pronounced public opinion a second superpower.
During the next five years there were eleven national protests surpassing 100,000 in number, some well over 500,000. Individuals found their boldness and made a difference, among them: Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald, Bradley Manning, Howard Dean and the individual security guard who released the Abu Ghraib photos. One hundred and fifty city governments passed antiwar resolutions. For the first time, the AFL-CIO opposed a war. An American majority soon told Gallup that Iraq was a mistake. MoveOn.org raised tens of millions for antiwar candidates. Voters dumped the House Republican majority in 2006, with the issue of Iraq decisive.
In October 2007, old New Leftists like Marilyn Katz and Carl Davidson finally found a respectable speaker for their Chicago peace rally: state Senator Barack Obama. Months later, Obama won all-white Iowa on his pledge to oppose the Iraq War. He was the first president elected on platform of withdrawing our troops during a war.
In those brief five years, a peace movement arose mysteriously from the margins, spread to the mainstream and drove a stake through neo-conservative dreams of domination. A Shi’a regime came to power in a sovereign Iraq, and Iran was the geopolitical victor. Of course, the Empire didn’t fall, the “War on Terrorism” didn’t abate, neoliberalism proceeded, global warming worsened. In the title of David Kilcullen’s book on counterinsurgency, Iraq was only a “small war” in the course of a longer one.
But it is important to note the impact of the peace movement as a formidable stumbling block and complicating factor for future imperial plans. It’s a tragedy that the peace movement could not be consolidated after Iraq into a version of the NAACP, NOW or the AFL-CIO. The millions raised by Move.ong were not reinvested in a lasting peace constituency. There was no Soros endowment. The political consultants turned a blind eye to the existence of the obvious peace bloc that was critical to winning. To this day, the peace movement is an unrecognized constituent force in the country. Its voice is utterly excluded from the inner circles of national security discussions.
Until this imbalance is corrected, the spectrum of “legitimate” opinion always will tilt toward the military option. And like the legend of Sisyphus, peace advocates always will start at the bottom of the hill.
Long wars require a long peace movement.
We Can’t Afford the Same Mistake Again
Jodie Evans is co-founder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace.
Over ten years ago, we founded CODEPINK in response to the fear-mongering color-coded terrorist alerts that helped scare Congress into an invasion and occupation of an innocent country, Iraq. What I thought I was fighting to stop was so much less shocking than what actually happened. After Bush said it was time for Shock and Awe, the maid in our hotel in Baghdad buried her head in my chest, looked up to the sky and asked, “How do I protect my children?” Even then, with my heart breaking, I couldn’t have imagined what lay ahead.
Could we have imagined more than 5 million Iraqi displaced and possibly a million dead? Could we Americans have imagined the erasure of civil liberties, the deaths of so many young soldiers and over 100,000 horrific casualties? Or the excruciating effects of PTSD or the devastation of rapes in the military and the Military Sexual Trauma suffered by so many women? Could we have imagined that more American soldiers would commit suicide than die in the line of duty? I had argued to members of the Senate and Congress in 2002 that the numbers Rumsfeld was arguing, both in terms of how few months and how little money the war would require, were lies. But could I have imagined the occupation would reach the proportions it has both in time and money? No.
Could I have imagined that we would continue to find new ways to incite anger and violence against the United States with such insane creations as drones? And that no one who lied and manipulated us into war would be held responsible? Or those like Bradley Manning who exposed the torture and abuse would be in jail while those who violated laws and lives would remain free, and arrogantly so?
No, I couldn’t have imagined all that or the trillions of dollars thrown into the incinerator of war instead of spent on schools, healthcare and the needs of our communities.
But what is beyond understanding is that after all that we have suffered the last ten years, we are on the brink of doing it all over again. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are busy trying to scare the American people with stories of weapons of mass destruction in Iran, stories just like the ones that led us into Iraq, even though there is no proof that Iran is enriching uranium to weapons-grade, and top military officials believe war with Iran would make Iraq look like a cakewalk. Now the Senate is moving forward with a resolution that provides a backdoor to war with Iran, S.Res.65, which calls for the United States to offer military support for pre-emptive Israeli strikes on Iran. This resolution would allow us to slip into war without any public debate.
Have we not felt the price? Is no one paying attention? When do we say stop?
Call your senator and say, No more! We can’t afford to make the same mistake again.
This Compulsion to Prevent Something
Nathan Schneider is the author of Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, forthcoming in 2013 from University of California Press. He is an editor of Waging Nonviolence and Killing the Buddha.
Liz was shivering from the cold. A few hundred of us had walked out of classes to gather around the student center on March 20, 2003, and she was one of the main speakers at the top of the steps, the one I knew best. We were both freshmen at Brown. We were friends. Footage taken for a never-completed documentary reminds me that, over long sleeves, she wore a black T-shirt with the words, in white, we can stop the war and that famous picture of a lone man standing before a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square. “This,” she cried out to the crowd, in reference to the rally itself, “is our only weapon against the weapons!”
It amazed me to see her up there—that she, after just a few months on campus, was one of the leaders of our local opposition to what seemed to be the stupidest idea in history: the invasion of Iraq that began the night before. When she talks now about the role she played, there’s an open wound, not least because that time still casts a shadow over her and the web-search results that come up with her name.
Being new to campus was actually what set her up to be an organizer. The previous fall, Liz had been going to every political meeting she could in search of a group to join. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s choreography toward war was progressing, and by the time the need became obvious for a coalition on campus to oppose the prospect of an invasion, she knew people in a lot of the major groups but had particular allegiance to none. Along with another freshman named Emma and some seniors, she threw herself into Students Against War in Iraq, or SAWI (pronounced “say why”). Through the winter, campus groups from the Democrats to the Latin dance troupe came on board. Even the lonely conservative columnist for the newspaper wrote tightly reasoned rebuttals to the arguments for war.
Liz and some of the others leading SAWI, she remembers, were “flailing and searching for catharsis because we were dealing with our own wounds.” She’d lived through the suicides of friends in each of the previous two years. “I had this compulsion to prevent something from happening again that I had experienced—these wasteful deaths.”
By March 20, though, the bombs had started to fall, and there was no turning back. The first casualty of war on campus was the shared, palpable belief that protest—including the largest mobilization in world history on February 15—could make a dent in the neocons’ juggernaut. The second casualty was the unity among students that Liz had helped to amass against the war; once American boots were on the ground and charging toward Baghdad, former doves were afraid to be caught on the wrong side of history.
“There were so many disappointing, confusing conversations that happened after that conservative muscle had been flexed,” she says.
Through college, Liz stuck with the antiwar coalition, but she also turned her attention to other sites of imperial hubris. She studied abroad in South Africa. Upon returning she published, in 2005, an essay in a student magazine arguing that US troops should leave Iraq immediately, that no one had a right to bring democracy to Iraq but Iraqis. This was a time when saying so was a lot less comfortable than it was before the war or is today, because it meant sympathizing with enemy insurgents. Her essay’s boldest words shot across the right-wing radio circuit and blogosphere, exposing Liz to a nightmare of murder and rape threats and an unsuccessful campaign to have her expelled.
She is now pursuing doctoral research about political power in very different contexts. “I don’t operate in the world of super-radical activism the way I did then,” she explains, “though I do struggle with the same questions.” The vitriol against her from 2005 still litters the Internet, and it continues to cause her problems, both personally and professionally. This fallout has been an ongoing reminder of a period ten years ago that now feels remote.
“The fleeting sense that urgent, collective action could make change was lost in the experience of the war,” she says. It taught us, I hope wrongly, about what horrors we simply have to accept.
The Crime of the Century
Robert Dreyfuss is a foreign policy blogger at TheNation.com.
Ten years later, the invasion of Iraq is still the Crime of the Century.
Even as the last of the hanging chads was still fluttering to the floor and the Supreme Court ratified the outcome in Bush v. Gore, the smell of an attack on Iraq was in the air, many months before 9/11. George W. Bush, with what might charitably be called a limited understanding of Iraq—best expressed in his plaintive, though unsubstantiated lament that Saddam Hussein “tried to kill my daddy”—cobbled together a retreaded cabinet of hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who’d failed to topple Saddam in 1991. It was a job unfinished, and to the Cheney-Rumsfeld team Saddam’s ability to survive a decade of brutal economic sanctions was a stunning rebuke, a huge middle finger erected at the center of the Middle East. Revenge was in the air. Back then, I remember telling friends that it was obvious that Bush would go to war against Iraq. As we learned later, in the very first meeting of Bush’s National Security Council, in January 2001, the very first subject was: Iraq.
As 2001 wore on, and especially after 9/11, the roar of the coming invasion of Iraq in 2003 sounded ever louder, like an onrushing freight train. The calm, studied professional foreign policy priesthood that people the US government bureaucracy, at the State Department, at the Pentagon, at the CIA, pressed their collective palms tightly to their ears. They were deep, deep in denial—and, for some of them, even as the first bombs and cruise missiles pummeled Baghdad on March 19, 2003, they went into bureaucratic shock: This is impossible! This can’t be happening!
But Bush hadn’t been bluffing.
In early March, I interviewed Danielle Pletka, the neoconservative who served then, and now, as the vice president for defense and foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute, whose regular Black Coffee briefings on Iraq—orchestrated by Richard Perle et al.—served as a showcase for Ahmed Chalabi and the likes of Douglas Feith. When I told Pletka that an incredulous bureaucracy, including State, DOD and CIA, were almost unanimously opposed to war with Iraq, she played her trump card. We, she said, have the president on our side. And so she did.
A curious, Catch-22 paradox was at the heart of why the United States so badly bungled the invasion and occupation: Anyone who knew anything about Iraq—Middle East experts, diplomats who’d served there, Arabist intelligence officers—were against the war. As a result, they were excluded from planning and managing it by a Bush team that insisted on groupthink. So, who was left to run the war? Why, precisely a bunch of know-nothings. As Chas Freeman once told me, “We didn’t invade Iraq. We invaded the Iraq of our dreams.”
But it wasn’t a dream. It was a nightmare. An entire nation, of perhaps 25 million souls, blown to smithereens. Hundreds of thousands killed. More hundreds of thousands wounded, crippled, mangled, maimed. Millions of children orphaned or psychologically traumatized. A modern nation’s economy nearly obliterated. Iraq’s army, police and governing institutions not just decapitated, but destroyed. A society in which one-third of Iraqis intermarried among sect and ethnic group cleaved into bitter, hate-filled tribes. Ethnic (and sectarian) cleansing. Civil war. And for what? Against a country whose leader had no nuclear weapons, no chemical and biological agents and had never attacked the United States, had no connection at all with 9/11, did not sponsor international terrorism and considered Al Qaeda to be a mortal enemy.
America, of course, will debate Iraq well into the future: Good idea? Bad idea? War crime? And: Did the surge work? But countless Iraqis won’t be debating it, because they’re dead. Perhaps around the time academic historians, puffing on their pipes, come to a conclusion about Iraq—say, a generation from now—Iraq will have just begun to recover.
Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)
If President Obama’s remarks to the Israeli media are any indication, his upcoming (and long-delayed) visit to Israel next week is going to be a troubling one.
Speaking to Israeli reporters, Obama broke little new ground in addressing the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, but curiously—and widely trumpeted by both American and Israeli media covering his remarks—the president chose a weird formulation, namely, that Iran can make a bomb within one year. As quoted by CNN from Israel’s Channel 2 TV, Obama said: “Right now, we think that it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon.”
According to some readings, Obama’s statement was designed to mollify Israeli fears that Iran is getting close to a bomb. But really, the impact of the statement is the opposite, because a year seems like a pretty short time to most people. And, in reality, Iran has taken no steps toward any militarization of its nuclear research. Quite the opposite, Tehran has countered the overblown rhetoric of American and Israeli hawks by changing much of its 20 percent–enriched uranium into fuel for its research reactor, in a manner that guarantees that it can’t be easily converted into material for a weapon.
And, Obama repeated the unfortunate theory that economic sanctions are compelling Iran to come to the negotiating table and that, behind those sanctions is the threat of US military action. “When I say all options are on the table, all options are on the table. The United States obviously has significant capabilities,” said Obama.
The contrary reality, though, is the economic sanctions and military threats make a deal with Iran less likely, not more likely, since Tehran will not make a deal that surrenders its basic right to enrich uranium under pressure and threats. Only a series of important concessions by the United States can lead Iran into an accord, and among those concessions are first, a clear statement from Washington that Tehran has the right to enrich and can continue to do so under international supervision, and second, a clear declaration that economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted as part of a deal.
Ironically enough, Iran’s Press TV, a conservative, government-run news agency, gave a rather positive spin to Obama’s remarks, headlining its story: “Obama pledges more Iran talks, rebuffing Israeli push for military bid.” Its opening paragraph reads:
US President Barack Obama has reiterated his pledge to negotiate with Iran on concerns over its nuclear energy program, once again rejecting Israeli insistence on taking military action against the country.
Despite Obama’s continued talk about options on the table, he’s bluffing. An American attack on Iran would be so catastrophic in its effects in the region and around the world that the White House won’t seriously consider it. In any case, after such an attack Tehran would undoubtedly learn the lessons of North Korea and engage in a crash program to manufacture nuclear weapons in secret, in secure underground facilities—and that’s where Obama’s one-year timetable might actually come into play.
The New York Times, while hyping Obama’s one-year timetable and his warning that Iran could have a bomb within a year, also made the important point that Obama didn’t say that Iran would not be allowed to develop a military nuclear “capability,” only an actual bomb:
In defining the problem as he did—when Iran could get a weapon, rather than when it could have the capability to build one—he subtly indicated that he and Mr. Netanyahu still saw the problem in very different terms. The Israeli position has long been that Iran must be denied the capability to piece a weapon together. Mr. Netanyahu and his former defense minister, Ehud Barak, argue that if Iran is just a few screwdriver turns away from being able to construct a weapon, it will have the same power in the region as if it actually had one.
Like Joe Biden’s address to AIPAC earlier this month, when it comes to Iran President Obama’s visit to Israel will be an attempt to walk a fine line: placate Israel’s hawks, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, while maintaining America’s nuanced policy on Iran. That’s unfortunate, though, because it means Obama will further lock himself into the sanctions-plus-military-threats policy that he’s adopted since 2009. That doesn’t mean that an agreement can’t be reached later this year, but it does make such an accord less likely.