Tag Archives: Iraq

Trump: Even Truthiness Doesn’t Matter

Al ZarqawiThe man in the photo above is the founder of ISIS (Daesh).  And then there’s this from the latest round of Trump0matic Rhetoric:

“In the wide-ranging phone interview (with CNBC), Trump insisted that President Barack Obama “absolutely” founded ISIS. He also discussed economic issues, including regulation and infrastructure spending.

Asked about them, he doubled down and said “[Obama] was the founder of ISIS absolutely, the way he removed our troops. … I call them co-founders,” he added, referring to his Democratic presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton.”

I know full well that correcting Trumpisms is like shoveling sand up hill, but at least we don’t have to reside in the land of utter stupidity and ignorance.  Let’s focus on “the way he removed our troops.” Obama removed our forces based on the SOFA agreed to by George W. Bush.

December 14, 2008:

“It is true that Bush signed an agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, on Dec. 14, 2008, that said: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s secretary of state, wrote in her 2011 book, “No Higher Honor,” that Bush did not want to set a deadline “in order to allow conditions on the ground to dictate our decisions.” She wrote that she met with Maliki in August 2008 and secured what she thought was an agreement for a residual force of 40,000 U.S. troops. But she said Maliki soon “reneged” and insisted on “the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.” She said Bush “swallowed hard” and agreed to what she called “suitable language” to do just that.” [FactCheck.org]  (emphasis added)

The remainder of the argument depends on a subjective opinion as to how “hard the Obama Administration tried to renegotiate the SOFA.”  Critics of the withdrawal of combat forces charge that the Administration “didn’t try hard enough.”  However, the insistence of the Maliki government that any agreement would have to be put to the Iraqi Parliament didn’t help matters.  This also leaves open the argument that perhaps the Bush Administration didn’t press the Maliki government hard enough either.

Critics of the US policy in regard to Iraq, and the deployment of troops to that country, are caught arguing “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda,” when there are altogether too many variables in a complex situation to make blanket charges of any kind.

And, while Trump says he will continue to say Obama and Clinton are the “co-founders of ISIS” (I prefer Daesh) the timeline rebuts this presumption.  A brief trip down memory land —

2004: Abu Musab Al Zarqawi establishes Al Qaeda in Iraq.

2006: Zarqawi, killed in a US air strike, is replaced by Abu Ayyub Amasri at the head of AQI. October 15, 2006: Al Masri announces the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq; Sunni tribes begin a campaign to kill AQI members, and AQI is rebranded the Islamic State in Iraq.

In reality, the formation of Daesh goes back a bit further, as is explained here:

“ISIS/IS has its origins in an obscure militant group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), that was stood up in 2000 by a Jordanian one-time criminal-turned-Islamist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (AMZ).1 His intent was to fight the Jordanian government, but he failed to gain traction.2 Zarqawi then traveled to Afghanistan to fight on the side of the mujahidin (resistance) in the jihad against the Soviets. Having arrived after their departure, he soon returned to his homeland to fight the well-entrenched Jordanian monarchy. His efforts came to naught, and he eventually returned to Afghanistan, where he ran an Islamic militant training camp near Herat.” [MEPC.org]

And now the plot thickens and becomes more nuanced:

“Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi moved into Iraq. There he developed extensive ties with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), a Kurdish Islamist group. In March 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. A brilliant conventional campaign led to the erroneous belief on the part of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq would stabilize and progress towards democracy. By summer 2003, the disgruntled Sunni minority — toppled from power with the downfall of Saddam Hussein — launched a deadly insurgency. It consisted of five distinct groups, four composed largely of Iraqis from the former regime, nationalists, tribal elements and various Islamist fighters. The fifth group was AMZ’s JTJ, consisting of a smattering of Iraqis and many foreign fighters.”  [MEPC.org]

Not that any of this matters to Donald J. Trump.  However, what we do know is that the Trump pronouncements on foreign policy are as vapid and ill informed as his sloganeering on any other topic.  ISIS (Daesh) morphed from a fifth element in the Iraqi insurgency into a major and deadly part of the conflict in the region, but they certainly didn’t find their origin in the Obama Administration.

Those wishing to get a longer, more historical look at the issues surrounding the current conflict in the Middle East may want to start with David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World.  Also recommended is Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. These are three notable books which will give a person something to do besides listen to Trump’s simplistic sloganeering and sloppy irrationality.

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Get Serious or Get Lost? GOP lack of focus on ISIS

ISIS I’ll take the Republicans, especially the ones in Congress, seriously when they speak of ISIS threats to national security when they take up the bill sent to Congress during the week of February 11, 2015 which authorizes U.S. action against the Islamic State.  The joint resolution had a bit of something for everyone:

“The proposed legislation limits Obama from the use of “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” deliberately vague language intended to win over those on the left wary of mission creep and those on the right who don’t want to restrict possible military action against ISIS.” [TheHill]

As of the moment it merely looks as if the GOP wants to turn foreign and defense policy into a semantic game for the purpose of giving Democrats headaches in an election many months away.  Witness the whinging from Senator Lindsay Graham:

“One by one, nearly a dozen GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage here last weekend for a Lincoln Dinner, each different in style and stature but all joining a rising Republican chorus that lays blame for the Islamic State terrorist group squarely at the feet of President Obama. “If you fought in Iraq, it worked. It’s not your fault it’s going to hell. It’s Obama’s fault,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said to cheers.” [WaPo] …

“This deterioration of our physical and ideological strength has led to a world far more dangerous than when President Obama entered office,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a speech this month. “We’ve seen [the Islamic State] sweep across multiple states, commit brutal atrocities and attempt to establish a caliphate.” [WaPo]

If the Republicans want more U.S. involvement in Iraq, then why not authorize the administration to apply more force in the region – as in bring the joint resolution to the floor for a debate and vote?

Perhaps the delay is because the Republicans don’t want to address key issues, and would rather launch verbal flames than real ones.  Consider the flap over the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government.

If the Obama Administration had been serious about winning in Iraq it would have negotiated a status of forces agreement,” wail the right wingers. Not. So. Fast. It takes two parties to negotiate such an agreement and the al Maliki government wasn’t playing the game:

“But ending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was an overwhelmingly popular demand among Iraqis, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appears to have been unwilling to take the political risk of extending it. While he was inclined to see a small number of American soldiers stay behind to continue mentoring Iraqi forces, the likes of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, on whose support Maliki’s ruling coalition depends, were having none of it. Even the Obama Administration’s plan to keep some 3,000 trainers behind failed because the Iraqis were unwilling to grant them the legal immunity from local prosecution that is common to SOF agreements in most countries where U.S. forces are based.” [Time 2011]

The Iraqi government under al-Maliki, once touted as the harbinger of democracy, proved to be a colossal failure.

The Iraqis wanted stable government, less corruption, economic reconstruction, and all the other things modern governments can provide. However, rather than moving forward from the gains made during the last months of U.S. occupation, the al-Maliki government swung away. The situation fell apart almost immediately.

Maliki’s government used “de-Baathification” laws, introduced to keep members of Saddam Hussein’s regime out of government, to target his opponents — but not his many allies, who also had been senior members of the Baath Party. The 2010 government formation process turned out to be yet another opportunity for politicians of all stripes to grant themselves senior positions which they could use to plunder the state. When tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in February 2011 to protest corruption, they were branded terroristsand were attacked and beaten by security forces and hired thugs. Dozens were killed and thousands arrested and tortured until the protests fizzled. Meanwhile, though terrorist groups were not operating as openly as before, hundreds of civilians continued to be killed every month, particularly in Baghdad, denying Iraqis in many parts of the country even a brief period of normalcy. [ForeignPolicy]

This is not exactly a recipe for popular government, or even a respected one. However, the situation with the Iraqi security forces was even dimmer.

“The security sector, which had an annual budget greater than the budgets for education, health, and the environment combined, was subject to minimal oversight. Soldiers were enrolled and paid monthly salaries without reporting for duty. Overpriced and faulty equipment was procured using the laxest standards. Training sessions were financed on paper but never took place in practice. Appointments were politicized. Officers close to the prime minister’s office who failed to investigate leads on terrorist attacks were almost never held accountable for their actions. Even the most grotesque failures, including the military’s passivity in the face of regular attacks against Christians in Nineveh over a period of years, went unpunished. Morale among the rank and file was low, and there was very little desire to take risks on behalf of political elites who were viewed as wildly corrupt.” [ForeignPolicy]

And we wonder why the Iraqi forces couldn’t hold Mosul, and  can’t hold Ramadi?   By 2006 the political atmosphere was getting obvious, only the willfully blind could avoid seeing the implications of the Sunni-Shia split, and al-Maliki’s role in that disintegration:

“By the time Maliki took office, the police and the Army were overwhelmingly Shiite, packed with former militiamen bent on cleansing Baghdad of Sunni Arabs. In the summer of 2006, each morning brought new reports of sectarian atrocities. Maliki did very little to stop them, according to Matthew Sherman, the civilian adviser to the U.S. Army. “We’d go into his office, we’d tell him about a massacre that had been carried out by his men,” Sherman told me. “And Maliki would just sit there and say, ‘I’m sure they were terrorists.’ We could never get him to act against the death squads.” (Maliki says that he never received any evidence that his soldiers or police had acted improperly.)” [NYorker 2014]

The eggs laid by the parliamentary elections of December 2005 were fully hatched by 2014.   By 2015 the eggs were completely scrambled, and not in a good omelet sort of way.

al-Maliki’s resignation in 2014 didn’t alleviate the situation. As of August 12, 2014 the Iranian government pulled its support for al-Maliki, offered him asylum, and backed his successor Hiadar al-Abadi. [Guardian] The disaffected Sunnis, the former criminal gangs, the death squads and the local militias were now a fact of life in Iraq’s daily existence.  Nor has U.S. policy been all that helpful.  The Iranians, who are positioned to assist the current Iraqi government in its fight with ISIS, are the subject of saber rattling by members of the U.S. Congress who want to do everything from bolster current embargo terms to engage in outright military action against Tehran.

In other, less elegant terms. if we weaken the Iranian government then we risk undermining the Iraqi government’s efforts to retain or retake territory seized by ISIS.

It is very difficult to have a consistent and rational foreign policy when the requirements are (1) opposition to the Iranian government, and to all forms of Iranian involvement in Iraqi military operations against ISIS; (2) opposition to ISIS which doesn’t incorporate Shia interests in Iraq; and (3) support for Sunni participation in Iraqi governance, when the Sunnis could be convinced that their interests would be better served by ISIS than by the governing Shia groups in Baghdad. Perhaps these contradictions help explain why the Republicans don’t want a full blown discussion of U.S. foreign policy vis a vis Iraq, and seem content to snipe from the sidelines?

If the GOP is serious about discussing our policy toward Iraq, then it’s time to bring the joint resolution to the floor, debate the ramifications seriously, recognize the historical and political implications of the policy, and to take a stand on those issues.  The rest is simply political noise making, the equivalent of slide whistles and noise-makers.

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3 Reasons to Ignore Beltway Blather about ISIL

White House Press Room Senator Lindsey Graham (R-Fainting Couch) wants a muscular U.S. policy against ISIL before we’re all murdered in our beds.  However, before we get all pumped up from watching cable news and beltway media blathering it might be a nice exercise to know more pesky details about the situation, especially with regard to ISIL held territory in Syria and Iraq.

#1.  Beltway blathering demonstrates little understanding of the situation inside the area under consideration.  The White House Press corps, which is evidently so shallow they can’t concentrate on major policy statements if the President or speaker is wearing a suit made of any fabric not dark gray or dark blue, persists in analyzing the “optics” or “atmospherics” surrounding such statements without listening to what is being said.  Were they better informed about the political and military situation their opinion pieces would be significantly improved.  Here’s an example:

During the White House press briefing on September 12, the Press Secretary fielded two questions concerning the relatively quiet response from NATO ally Turkey on joining the alliance against ISIS (L).  After Mr. Earnest offered a very diplomatic explanation the second questions was:

But any disappointment that particularly Turkey, a NATO member, would not sign on to something like this?” As if the explanation required more explication.  It did, but had the questioner a bit more background it would have been understood why the Turks are reticent and the White House Press Secretary more diplomatic.  Here’s what the press missed —

On June 11 ISIS (L) captured Mosul, and in the process of doing so attacked the Turkish consulate in that city, taking 79-80 hostages. [WSJ] As of September 1, 2014 the Foreign Ministry of Turkey sought to alleviate concerns about the health and well being of the hostages expressed by some of their family members and sources in the Turkish press. “Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc talked on the latest developments regarding the Turkish hostages held by ISIS militants, claiming they were alive, their location was known and that contact with them was being maintained.”  The Ministry went one step further — “The accuracy and reliability of information in respect to the source is necessary,” Bilgic said. “Since the first day our staff were taken hostage, our government has been conducting extremely sensitive work through all relevant institutions.”

It doesn’t take too much analysis to translate that statement as “We are working really hard with anyone who will cooperate to insure that our people from the Mosul Consulate are where we’ve been told they are, and are being treated humanely.”  After the grisly scenes of what has happened thus far to two American citizens and one British citizen, it is no wonder the Turks are less than enthusiastic about wanting to discuss their contributions to the “war on ISIS(L).”

So, the ill-informed member of the Press Corps asked a redundant and undiplomatic question, inferring that the Turks are not enthusiastic about defeating the ISIS(L) forces – perhaps a better question would have been something like – What are the allied nations doing to assist the Turks retrieve their consulate personnel?

#2The U.S. beltway media too often characterizes elements in complicated situations in simplistic terms.  Nothing illustrates this quite so well as in the case of the Syrian opposition.  There must be good guys and bad guys, and the U.S. should team up with the good guys!  However, what do we do when the coalitions and networks aren’t so conveniently classified? The Free Syrian Army, which some think we should arm, is actually a network of about eight large battalions and many smaller independent groups which are united in their opposition to the Assad Regime. [LATimes]

Consider for a moment the complications of arming the FSA, as described by the GulfNews organization:

“…equipment was in short supply and could not possibly match what the Syrian army had, or received from Iran and Russia. Moreover, Washington demurred when Riyadh readied shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank launchers, and vetoed such transfers. The FSA’s fighting hands were thus tied allegedly because Western powers were not sure if some of these lethal weapons would fall under extremist control. In time, sophisticated American-made anti-tank missiles reached the FSA, though Al Nusra and, more recently, Isil boasted more advanced weapons. Timidity towards the FSA, ostensibly because its leaders maintained correct ties with moderate Islamist factions, translated in an entirely different outlook for Syria.”

Notice the policy of the Iranian government in this brief description, it is aligned with the Assad Regime (Alawite)  against the rebels in Syria – but aligned with the anti-ISIS(L) (Shia)  forces in Iraq.  Also, remember that the U.S. is trying to negotiate an agreement with Iran concerning its capacity to manufacture nuclear weaponry [Reuters] and actions which align with Iran’s interests in Iraq may promote this project, but those not aligned with Iran’s interests in Syria could derail the negotiating process.  In this instance it’s not so easy to shuffle groups into the Good Guys, Bad Guys categories.

#3The D.C. media are seemingly eager to critique policy without much background, especially as it pertains to the Arab states.  Witness this question from the September 12th briefing:

“One is on the Arab states.  They said that they would be prepared to do their share, and they talk about “as appropriate, joining in many aspects.”  But this language is a little amorphous.  It’s hard to get your hands around it.  What are they actually saying that they would do, besides Saudi Arabia hosting the Syrian rebels for training?  Will they provide troops, for example?”

The Saudis have a problem.  In August 2014 they donated $100 million to the United Nations to fund a counter terrorism agency, but they rejected a rotating seat on the UN Security Council.  Why the half in, half out posture? “Amorphous” is simply another way of saying we have a really sticky issue here and we aren’t ready to crawl out on a branch.  Ed Husain, writing for the New York Times explains:

“This half-in, half-out posture of the Saudi kingdom is a reflection of its inner paralysis in dealing with Sunni Islamist radicalism: It wants to stop violence, but will not address the Salafism that helps justify it.

Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe.”

While the reporter might have wanted the Press Secretary to answer for the Saudi government, or explain its position, the question would be better addressed directly to the Saudi government itself.   The issue has profound implications for the Saudi government – and has tentacles reaching back to the 1744 treaty or Holy Alliance:

“Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” an austere form of Islam, arrives in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to “pure” Islam. He seeks protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal. The Al Saud will endorse al-Wahhab’s austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud will get political legitimacy and regular tithes from al-Wahhab’s followers. The religious-political alliance that al-Wahhab and Saud forge endures to this day in Saudi Arabia.” [Frontline]

Thus the Saudis have a 270 year old agreement with ultra-conservative elements in Islam, who represent perhaps 3% of the total number of Muslims world wide, and which produces an ultra-conservative government with the means and intent to spread the ultra-conservative message – to ISIS(L) and other religious fanatics.  And we wonder why the response from the Saudis is “amorphous?

Drafting this post took approximately one hour and forty minutes, during which reporting from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, one D.C. press briefing, and an article from the Gulf News were perused.   Unfortunately, the White House press corps seems not to have taken the time to accumulate background information, or if some members did, they weren’t the ones who were called upon.  And thus we get the Parsing Game, in which sentences are analyzed for political meaning without much attention paid to the underlying policy; followed by endless speculation about the meaning of utterances without context. 

Instead of enhancing our understanding of intricate issues with a myriad of policy options, the press corps is trying to offer us the perfect news story, one with drama (preferably bloody), a hint of mystery, and the capacity for endless speculation.  Sometimes the WH Press Room might as well be empty.

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Pulling Representative Heck Slowly Toward Understanding Foreign Policy

SpaghettiRepresentative Joe Heck (R-NV3) is confused about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.  “I don’t think we have a coherent foreign policy, and that’s part of the problem,” Heck said. “We have not exercised the level of leadership around the globe as we have over the past 20 years. … The world looks toward somebody to kind of set the example. And I don’t think we’ve been setting the example that we have set previously.” [LVRJ]

First there’s a big difference between something which is incoherent and something with which there is disagreement.  The limited engagement portion of what’s lumped together as Obama Doctrine isn’t too difficult to comprehend.  Unilateral force will be used if there is a direct threat to the United States.  That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.  If force is to be used, it should be in a very precise way.  [FP] Also not all that hard to understand.  In case Representative Heck is still confused, let’s apply some examples.

ISIL: A direct threat to Americans or American interests. IS attacks threatening Americans and American interests in Iraq, especially in the vicinity of Erbil in Kurdish controlled areas presented a direct threat to Americans in the region.  Response? Air strikes.  So far so good.  IS momentum in the area has been blunted and American lives and interests protected.  Humanitarian aid and the rearming of the Peshmerga forces associated with the mission was augmented by efforts from the British, the French, and the Germans.  Multilateral, targeted, minimal force applied to secure desired results.  What’s confusing about that?  But, what of indirect threats?

Libya:  What should be done in cases of threats to global security? Once again, we find the Administration employing a multilateral approach. In 2011 an effort by the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, and Great Britain (in a coalition ultimately including 19 nations)  coordinated a campaign of air strikes, naval blockades, no-fly zones, and logistical assistance to Libyan rebels. It worked.

Syria: The civil war in Syria presents a more complicated problem for nations which perceive the situation as a threat to global security.  The Assad government has close ties to Russia, and the rebel groups range from small inexperienced moderate elements, to criminal gangs, to extremist groups, to the really extremist groups like ISIS.  Coalitions, alliances, and coterminous realignments and the creation of new coalitions, make this a very fluid situation.  Problem One was to get the stockpiles of chemical weapons out of the game.  Mission accomplished. Last month a Danish ship delivered the last 600 metric tons of chemical weapons to a U.S. ship (Cape Ray) at an Italian port, where the chemicals will be destroyed. [CNN] Multilateral. Minimal use of force (a show of force at one point) with a maximum use of diplomacy, combined with a specifically focused mission.

Calls for arming the anti-Assad rebels is a simplistic response to a complicated problem.  In December 2013 the BBC published something of a roster of Syrian rebel forces for those wishing to keep track of the players.  There’s a coalition now called the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, the good news is that this is a relatively moderate group, but the bad news is that it is composed of some 30 different militias which retain their own operational independence, command structures, and agendas. In short it is a very loosely joined network of independent brigades. Then there is the Islamic Front, another coalition of about seven groups which wants to topple the Assad government and devise an Islamic state.  This is not to be confused with the Al Qaeda or jihadist groups, such as the Al Nusra Front, and the Islamic State.  But wait, we haven’t listed the independent groups such as the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front, or the group often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the Durou al-Thawra Commission.

Now, just who is it that the U.S. might want to arm?  And by the way, Syria is about 64% Sunni, about 20% of whom are Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, and Palestinians.  The Shia represent most of the other Muslims in Syria, and are divided into three groups: Twelvers, Ismailis, and Alawis.  And then there are the recently discovered by the foreign press —  Yazidis.

Now Representative Heck might want to ask himself: Does he prefer a policy which keeps U.S. interests in mind in Syria by making maximum use of diplomatic multilateral efforts and a minimal infusion of force; or would he prefer getting the U.S. mired in another swampy situation in the Middle East?

If one’s idea of a coherent foreign policy is one of moving in with a maximum use of unilateral force — and with minimal consideration of the consequences — then the Obama Administrations doctrine isn’t going to meet with one’s approval. And, that’s the question which needs to be answered by Representative Heck — If you don’t like a mission specific use of force, applied in conjunction with a multilateral diplomatic and military effort, then what do you want?

The bellicose blustering of the Bush Administration sounded coherent, but ultimately proved to produce incoherent results.  Witness our next example: Iraq.

Iraq: A nation created in the wake of World War I, with significant religious and political internal differences, formerly governed by an intransigent and despicable (albeit secular) dictator, crumbles after Sunni populations in the north and west perceive the Shiite government in the south (Baghdad/Basra) to be ignoring or damaging their interests. Kurdish populations in the northeast see the Shiite government as inimical to their interests, and the compliment is returned by the southern Shia.

The removal of ISF military leaders who are Sunni or former Baathists by the Maliki government creates a security force (army) of questionable utility.  The question is answered as the Iraqis try to form a new government in July-August 2014, and  ISIL moves from Syria into ‘friendly’ territory around Mosul.  ISIL (IS) attracts support from local Sunni groups alienated by the Maliki government, and radicals from surrounding territories.

The fractures in the Iraqi political system, fully identified in a policy review with General Odierno in 2010, are visible today. [FP]  Our goals as set forth in 2010-2011 are to (1) encourage reconciliation, (2) help develop a professional civil service, (3) promote a healthy relationship between the parliament and the executive, and (4) to support the reintegration of refugees and displaced persons.  [FP]

Recent actions by the Obama Administration have sought to get the Yazidis to safety (a multinational effort), re-arm and supply the Peshmerga (a multinational effort), and get the Maliki government in the rear view mirror in order to restore the government and the Iraq Security Force into working order.  Is this too complex for Representative Heck to ponder?

How about we set an example of using multinational cooperation to  diminish threats to global security by applying the least force appropriate in the most multilateral format possible?  Is that too difficult to understand?

Carry a Big Bull Horn and Do What With It?

But wait, Representative Heck’s apprehensions go even further:

“Heck said a lack of follow-through on U.S. threats makes America appear weak. He didn’t cite Syria, but President Bashar al-Assad suffered no serious repercussions for using chemical weapons against his own people.

“Our adversaries need to know that if they do X, then the U.S. is going to do Y,” Heck said. “And there has not been that consistency. That’s why you see actors, not only in the Middle East, but also Russia and China, push the limits.”  [LVRJ]

Breathe.  Did Representative Heck miss the part where the Danish ship met the U.S. ship in the Italian harbor — and Assad doesn’t have his chemical weapons anymore? The serious repercussion is that Assad can’t use his chemical weapons on his own people anymore because he doesn’t have them.  He’s down to barrel bombs.

Breathe, and let the breath condense on the crystal ball Representative Heck seems to have about the intentions and actions of foreign parties. If we tell people we’ll do Y if they do X — What are X and Y?

Let’s explore some of the implications of Representative Heck’s simple formula, in the application of the administration’s doctrine: Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Putin moves against Ukraine.  There is no direct threat to the United States therefore we will address the threat multilaterally and not necessarily with maximum (military) force.  Multilateral action is messy, can be slow, doesn’t make for dramatic headlines, and certainly isn’t conducive to the bellicose bluster approach. However, in this instance it’s a far better approach.

For example, the U.S. does about $160 million in trade with Ukraine, [Cen] by contrast Germany’s trade with Ukraine is estimated at $10 billion. [Siemens pdf] If economic interests are placed in the “threat” category then Germany has far more at stake in the problems between Ukraine and Russia than we do.  So do China, Belarus, Poland, Turkey, Italy, and Hungary. [Bloomberg]

But, but, but, sputter the critics, Putin moved into Crimea and we didn’t do anything.  Come to think of it, neither did the Ukrainians — possibly remembering Crimea was attached to Ukraine in 1954 as a matter of Soviet administrative convenience, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Crimea negotiated terms which allowed it to be an autonomous republic. [AJAM]

While the Russians (Putin) continue to threaten interference with Ukrainian sovereignty, the latest efforts have been rebuffed.  The Russians are putting out the story that the destruction of an armored column is a fantasy — the Ukrainians have another version of events, one in which they destroyed at least half of it. [HuffPo] Meanwhile, the notion of sending arms to Ukraine sounds a bit like carrying coal to Newcastle — at one point Ukraine exported arms to Russia, included in a total of $1.3 billion in arms sales each year. [Bloomberg]

Perhaps there’s not enough drama in the careful ratcheting up of economic sanctions to cool the blood of those who, like Representative Heck, are unable to comprehend the current foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration?  However, it’s not like the Russians didn’t get some warnings as the sanctions were slowly increased until they started to hurt Russians in their grocery stores. [USAT]  Yes, Mr. Putin, if you continue to threaten (X) Ukraine, the western nations will (Y) hit you in the grocery baskets.  Worse still for Mr. Putin’s plans, the Germans, who have taken their own economic interests into consideration during the maneuvering, are now taking a much stiffer stance. [NYT]

Now, what part of Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance. isn’t clear?

China? It’s difficult to tell what Representative Heck might be talking about, other than a generalized appeal to the old Yellow Peril line of jingoism.  However, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows we’re monitoring what is going on between the Philippines, Vietnam and the Chinese regarding the South China Sea. [Reuters] And, that’s what we’re doing — monitoring to see if there has been or will be a de-escalation of tempers in that region.  We will be working with Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China to resolve differences — meaning we will adopt the position that Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Perhaps Representative Heck does understand that the Obama Administration will meet indirect threats with multilateral efforts and not apply the use of maximum force in each instance — then what is the substance of his criticism?  We don’t “sound” strong enough? What does that mean? We don’t “look” strong enough? What does that mean?

Representative Heck may be indulging in theater criticism — should the President’s voice have been louder? Deeper? Should the wording of policy statements have been more aggressive? Should aggressively worded policy statements be issued no matter what our friends and allies may say?  He may assert he doesn’t agree with the foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration, but surely he can’t mean he doesn’t understand it.

Never one to be considered a softy, Gen. George Patton offered this pithy bit of advice on leadership:

“You young lieutenants have to realize that your platoon is like a piece of spaghetti. You can’t push it. You’ve got to get out in front and pull it.”

President Obama seems to have received and understood that message, Representative Heck must still be working on it. Pull too hard on spaghetti and it breaks.

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From AQI to the Islamic State: A Graphic

ISI origins

Source material: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Council on Foreign Relations. International Crisis Group, Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, April 2014. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Al Qaeda in Iraq. (pdf) Visual mapping: What Does ISIS control? New York Times, updated August 6, 2014.

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In case you were inclined to listen

EarIn case you were inclined to listen to the hawkish Senator John McCain (R-Green Room), please click on this link to a compilation of the Senator’s commentary on the war in Iraq.

Should that fail to convince you that the Senator is not exactly a whiz kid when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East, there’s more here.

Still thinking that the Senator from the Green Room might be worth listening to?  Then click here.

If you’d like some more insightful, and better considered information on the problems related to the Iraqi situation, there’s Foreign Affairs’ collection of articles. Some tend to support the “decent interval” strategy employed by the Obama Administration, others not.  One note of caution, beware of the attempt at historical analogies, such as “we still have troops in Germany and Japan,” as we’re no doubt aware — we’re not there to prop up the governments of Germany and Japan. We have regional interests, and they happen to be conveniently located.  This situation is also not analogous to Korea, since no agreement has ever been signed ending the conflict.

The Brookings Institution offers a potpourri or cafeteria style collection of articles ranging from a conservative perspective to more liberal.  These, too, are better than trying to tease out any sense from the Sunday Morning Chatter Boxes.

The prospect of a divided Iraq has some tongues wagging, but there may be something of value in the suggestion, and there’s more information concerning that prospect from Dr. Josef Omert, and from James Kitfield, writing for the National Journal.

Larry Kaplow, (NPR) helpfully offers Four Key Things To Know about the Islamist surge in Iraq, perhaps the most interesting of which is that this may not all be about ISIS.

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The Veterans and their Administration

Veterans PopulationThe Numbers Game: Issues pertaining to the management of Veterans Administration services have special meaning to 225,933 people in Nevada, 169,255 of whom served this country during war time, and 56,678 who served during peace time.  [VA actuary]  69,190 Nevadans served during the Gulf War era, 79,281 served in Vietnam, 20,462 served in Korea, and we have about 9,444 remaining veterans from World War II. [VA actuary]  Meanwhile, 13 years of operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq are adding to these numbers.

The United States deployed 2,333,972 people to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, of whom 1,353,627 have since left the forces, and 711,896 used VA health care services between FY 2002 and FY 2011. [ABC] Veterans during the period 2008 to 2011 saw deployment time increased by 28%. [Rand pdf] The Iraq operations, we were told, could last “six days, six weeks, I doubt six years.”

“We don’t talk about deployments in the specific, but we have brought a good many Guard and Reserve on active duty. Fortunately, a great many of them were volunteers. We have been able to have relatively few stop losses. There are some currently, particularly in the Army, but relatively few in the Navy and the Air Force. And it is not knowable if force will be used, but if it is to be used, it is not knowable how long that conflict would last. It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” [Rumsfeld, Aviano Air Base February 7. 2003] 

We may not want to talk of deployments, but warfare creates veterans and the longer the warfare lasts the more veterans there will be.

Estimates during the debate over initiating operations in Iraq which projected totals over $3 trillion (Stiglitz) were dismissed out of hand. Instead Lawrence Lindsay, Chair of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers estimated the war might cost $200 billion at the most, but during the 2002 campaign season this projection was determined to be “shockingly high,” Lindsay was fired and replaced by Mitch Daniels who argued the Iraq war would cost no more than $50 to $60 billion.  [EconMonitor]

The $60 billion figure is dwarfed by the estimated $135 billion estimated as minimally necessary to provide services to veterans.

Making the situation even more tenuous for veterans, the Sequester budget deal cut  services from other agencies (HUD, Defense, Labor) for veterans while ostensibly leaving the VA untouched — except that “administrative costs” might be cut by 2%, and what constituted an “administrative cost” remained ambiguous. [WaPo]

The Management Game:  The VA Inspector General’s office has expanded its investigation to 26 VA facilities regarding allegations of falsified records and delayed care.  One former administrator in Phoenix, AZ offered his opinion that 40 veteran may have died while waiting for care.  To date no link has been established between the delays and those deaths. [ABC]  The lack of direct linkage notwithstanding, it is certainly possible that care delayed can all to easily become care denied.  Instead of listening to carping, finger pointing, and generally distasteful politicizing of the situation at the Veterans’ Administration, here’s what I’d rather hear from our pontificating pundits and politicians:

Reducing delays and other problems within the VA system, which have long be evident, may well require a significant shift in the way in which services are perceived and administered.

#1. Future Congressional calls for war or large military operations should be accompanied by calculations projecting a reasonable TOTAL cost of the actionsincluding services and benefits for veterans. As there should be an accounting for individuals who falsified records to artificially reduce wait times, there should be an accounting for those whose minimalist estimations for the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan made those actions appear “affordable.”

The failure of the VA to provide timely services is a function of staffing and facilities, infrastructure which should be considered before we launch wars in which we have an option to defer, delay, or avoid action altogether.

#2. Administration of VA services should be predicated on veterans’ needs and not dubious or inappropriate management theories.  The VA is not a commercial or manufacturing entity. Its sole function is to provide customer/client services.  In this wise, the VA perspective ought to be one in which client service is acknowledged to be labor intensive, and hiring should be adjusted accordingly.

For example, while demand for VA care services has increased by 38%, the VA has hired only 9% more medical professionals.  Public-private partnerships with local medical service providers has been applied, and more such partnerships may be one part of a larger strategy to appropriately staff the facilities.   Actions by Senate Republicans who blocked a $24 billion veterans’ health bill in February  2014 which included funding for 27 new medical facilities are unhelpful. [Reuters] [Roll Call 46 – all 41 votes blocking  S. 1982 were cast by Republican Senators]

The treatment of and for veterans should reverse the perspective that all claims are “costs” and “cost containment” is an ultimately desirable institutional goal.  If one is manufacturing widgets for WalMart this might be an acceptable perspective, but we are not talking about a price driven retail commodity — we’re speaking of veterans who have been promised a level of support services (educational, medical, and employment) which have not been delivered on a timely basis.

The much maligned Internal Revenue Service is a far more trusting agency than the VA appears to be.  When I file my return electronically the IRS assumes I am being honest. I may be audited at some point in the future, but for the latest fiscal year the assumption is that I meant what I affirmed at the end of the document — that the return is the most honest and accurate it is within my power to provide.   The VA claims process might be improved by adopting the same attitude.

Unfortunately, the VA is giving the appearance of an institution for which a claim is as much an opportunity for fraud or misuse as it might be a legitimate request for service.  This attitude could quickly spawn a multi-layered bureaucracy  devoted to weeding out any untoward claims. It’s essentially the pre-ACA attitude of health insurance corporations which sought to deny as many claims as possible in order to manipulate its medical loss ratio.  This situation might have been predicted since politicians of every imaginable stripe have loudly proclaimed their affinity for rooting out “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse.”  In the instance of the VA all this cat-calling from the bleacher seats simply serves to reinforce the “cost containment” proclivities and diminish the “service to the client” perspective.

#3 The core of the manipulation problems in the Phoenix office is said to emanate from a bonus system for “meeting the numbers.”  I’ll have to admit to a jaundiced view of bonuses.  Bonuses are what you pay employees when you don’t want to pay them up front what they are really worth. It’s close to an analogy in which the cafe owner justifies sub-minimal wages because the wait staff receives tips.

No one should be particularly surprised when people emphasize on the job what the institution/company/corporation rewards.  If the company rewards speed in delivery, speed we will get — even if a NOAA drone is delivered by FedEx to the wrong address.  If the company/agency rewards fast service, then the service will be fast, and if that can’t be done in the real world then the numbers are fudged to gain the reward and make the boss happy in the bargain.  If the disturbing consequences of the testing furor in education has taught us nothing else, it should have told us that we will get what we measure, not necessarily what we want.

How much less traumatic might the problems with the VA be if we could admit to ourselves that there are immeasurable things which are nonetheless important to the delivery of competent and complete care for veterans and their families?

#4. Technology moves faster than our fingers.  Granted that the inability of computer data systems to share information quickly and accurately is a problem, especially it seems between Department of Defense and VA systems.  At some point we need to acknowledge the hard horrible fact that older stand-alone data systems were never designed to function in a file-sharing world.  No amount of patching or plugging is going to make them compatible.

Until we accept that if we want compatible systems we have to buy them.  They are expensive, they are complicated, and they are unintelligible to most voters — however, the old retail saw holds true — we will get what we are willing to pay for.

Meanwhile there are 225,933 veterans in Nevada who deserve to receive the educational, employment, and medical services they were promised when they signed on to serve us, and who deserve more than a political outrage du jour, and a brief turn in the media limelight.

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Are We Serious About Discussing The National Debt?

OK, let’s talk about the debt and the deficit — but let’s have a serious, adult, conversation.  Here are some suggested rules for this road:

We need to talk about our national debt as a fiscal policy matter, not as a political propaganda talking point.

#1. One of the crucial points we need to acknowledge is that we were involved in two very expensive wars between 2000 and 2013.  We racked up some significant debt during military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.   The military endeavors in Afghanistan have been, and continue to be, exceedingly expensive:

“The fact remains, however, that if the CRS and OMB figures for FY2001-FY2013 that follow are totaled for all direct spending on the war, they reach $641.7 billion, of which $198.2 billion – or over 30% – will be spent in FY2012 and FY2013. This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness.” [CSIS]

The removal of American forces from Afghanistan will curtail future expenditures, but the debt remains.  Whether we like it or not, we have to pay for both the direct expenditures for military operations, and we have to allocate funds for indirect costs which we may reasonably expect to incur.  There will be Veteran’s benefits to distribute, survivors’ benefits, and other VA services.

Although we are no longer a significant military presence in Iraq, the debt for our military actions and “reconstruction” is still on the books.  As of March 2013, the Iraq war cost $1.7 trillion which should be added to another $490 billion in benefits owed to Iraq War Veterans. [Reuters]

However convenient it may be to run on about “out of control” and “rampant” spending — it is absolutely necessary to be honest about the major elements included in the total indebtedness — and we cannot honestly discuss our national debt without acknowledging its major components, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At some point the national discussion must answer the question: How do we pay down what we owe for these wars without jeopardizing the promises we made to the men and women we sent to fight in them?

Secondly, we need to address the issue raised in the CSIS report, i.e. how we account for and administer our military expenditures?  There have been several attempts to improve Pentagon auditing, but the situation remains alarming.  The Defense Contract Auditing Agency, which is supposed to prevent over-payments, fraud, and abuse is in disarray.

The DCAA has a budget of $573 million, and a backlog of 24,000 audits.  This means that at the rate it is operating it cannot clear its backlog until 2016.  [BusinessIns] Note, it isn’t that the Pentagon doesn’t want to audit its contracts, it is that with current personnel and resources — it can’t.   Audits in 2011 (the last year for which figures are available) the DCAA recouped about 9% of the $128 billion in costs  it audited.   If we apply the 9% rate to the current backlog of $574 billion we could expect to recoup some $54 billion. [BusinessIns]

Therefore, another question we need to raise when discussing “waste, fraud, and abuse” in a significant portion of our national expenditures is:  Have we allocated the resources necessary to perform the audits imperative to the reduction of wastefulness?  It makes precious little sense to argue for either a reduction or increase in allocations to the Department of Defense unless we are willing to provide the necessary fiscal oversight of those allocations.

#2.  There needs to be an agreement as to what does and does not contribute to national indebtedness, especially in terms of earned benefit programs.

First, while we may argue about the philosophy underpinning the Social Security program, there is no argument about how it is funded.   The Social Security Administration explains why some have been confused about the “debts owed to the SSA”:

Most likely this question comes from a confusion between the financing of the Social Security program and the way the Social Security Trust Fund is treated in federal budget accounting. Starting in 1969 (due to action by the Johnson Administration in 1968) the transactions to the Trust Fund were included in what is known as the “unified budget.” This means that every function of the federal government is included in a single budget. This is sometimes described by saying that the Social Security Trust Funds are “on-budget.” This budget treatment of the Social Security Trust Fund continued until 1990 when the Trust Funds were again taken “off-budget.” This means only that they are shown as a separate account in the federal budget. But whether the Trust Funds are “on-budget” or “off-budget” is primarily a question of accounting practices–it has no effect on the actual operations of the Trust Fund itself.  [SSA] (emphasis added)

From 1984 onward the Social Security Administration was empowered to hold special issue securities which are non-public securities, not available on the commercial market, that can be redeemed as the SSA determines it needs in order to make its revenues meet the amount of benefits to be paid.  In short, it was the Reagan Administration’s intent that there be a “savings account for the trust funds” to address the retirement of the Baby-Boomers, and the increased number of beneficiaries who would be eligible for benefits.

While it might be advisable to decrease the need for the Social Security Administration to dip into its Special Issue reserves, it cannot be rationally argued that the SSA contributes in any significant way to the national debt.

There are alternatives to decreasing benefits, the most common being an increase in the earnings cap.  The current contribution and benefit base is set at $113,700 meaning that all income above that level is not subject to taxation.  [SSA]

“Currently, earned income in excess of $113,700 is entirely exempt from the 6.2 percent payroll tax that funds Social Security benefits (employers pay a matching 6.2 percent). 5.2 percent of working Americans make more than $113,700 a year.” [NYT] (emphasis added)

When the Congressional Budget Office released its report on Social Security in July 2010 (pdf) altogether too many focused on the problems sections and insufficient attention was paid to the options the report presented.  There was, for example, Option 6, removing the cap:

Under this option, Social Security’s total revenues would increase by about 0.9 percentage points of GDP in 2040, or by about 18 percent relative to current law. This option would improve the 75 year actuarial balance by 0.9 percentage points of GDP and would extend the trust fund exhaustion date beyond the 75 year projection period. As a result, payable benefits would be higher from 2039 onward, especially for people born later. This option would primarily affect taxes paid by high earners. (emphasis added)

When we discuss options regarding the “reform” of earned benefits (“entitlements” if you will) ALL the options should be on the table — including the removal of the regressive cap on income subject to the Social Security taxes.   [See also NYT]

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with discussing “entitlement reform” as part of future budget and funding planning.  However, there is something very wrong about assuming that all such ‘reform’ be borne by the 95% of the U.S. population who are to accept reduced benefits,  for the benefit of the top 5% of income earners.  A person earning an adjusted income of $1,000,000 annually isn’t paying any Social Security tax on $886,300 of his or her income; the equivalent of 16 people who earn the U.S. median wage of $54,000.

Those wishing a fuller account of the elite assault on earned benefits should read, or review, Thomas B. Edsall’s excellent commentary in “The War on Entitlements,” NYT, March 6, 2013.

#3. We need to factor in the impact of the recession.   There’s really no way around this:

“Including all the stimulus spending, tax cuts, bank bailouts and automatic stabilizers, the Great Recession will add about $4.2 trillion to the federal deficit by the time the economy has fully recovered in 2016, based on back-of-the envelope calculations using figures from the Congressional Budget Office and the congressional Joint Tax Committee.”  [MarketWatch]

Or we could review the report from the Dallas Federal Reserve, and the Recession looks even worse if we look at total costs to the overall economy : “Last month, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas published a staff paper estimating the costs of the 2007-2009 financial crisis. The conservative estimate came out at 40 to 90 per cent of 2007 output, roughly US$6 to US$14 trillion.” [INET]

Recessions reduce income, reduced income reduces tax collections, reduced tax collections reduce government revenue, reduced government revenue increases debt.

If “tax reform” is advocated as a way to recoup the losses from the Great Recession, then we need to move beyond the Supply Side Hoax.   The notion that lower taxation would lead to more government revenue, was then — and is now — a theory in search of reality.    From the “been there, done that” corner:

“Supply-side economics starts from the generally accepted economic insight that tax policy can influence private-sector decisions by changing the incentives to work and invest. But supply-side acolytes take this relatively mundane observation to an extreme conclusion. They argue that lowering taxes for people, especially for those who have a lot of money to invest, will always lead to better economic results, and furthermore, that lower taxes is the single most critical intervention the government can undertake to stimulate growth.

This assertion—that lower taxes for the rich will lead to improved economic results—is testable. Of course, pure natural experiments in economics are few and far between, but over the last 30 years the United States alternated between economic policies that were heavily influenced by supply-side ideas, then were not, then were again. This variation allows us to compare economic performance in the various eras. If proponents of supply-side theory are correct, then the supply-side eras should outperform the non-supply side era. But that’s not what happened.” [CAP]

Reduced to a single chart we can see the results of the Supply Side Hoax applied to the U.S. public debt.

Supply Side TrendsWhen we apply Supply Side policies the blue line (national debt) increases, when we don’t the national debt is reduced.

It would follow from this that the “No New Taxes” (aka Supply Side Mantra) line makes a lovely and enticing slogan, but the application of the policy hasn’t resulted in better levels of investment growth, significant gains in productivity, better overall economic growth, better employment numbers, more income for the middle class, or better wages for working Americans.  These are all associated with increased federal revenue levels, we would obviously benefit from adopting a more realistic pro-growth tax policy than simply adhering to the narrow “no taxes = pro-growth” incantations from the Supply Siders.

When the push runs into the shove, a discussion of tax policy in regard to the reduction of the national debt should realistically incorporate the means why which federal revenues can be increased, without exacerbating the already serious level of income inequality, stagnating wages and salaries, and burdens on the American middle class.

If we’re truly serious about discussing the means by which we are to address the level of the national debt, then pontificating and nibbling around the edges of the 15% of the Federal Budget which concerns non-defense discretionary spending doesn’t suffice.   Are the advocates of cutting the food assistance programs really trying to convince us that they are taking important steps to curtail federal spending when those programs comprise some 0.24% of the federal budget? [InteractiveCP]

There are, indeed, some very serious questions to be answered when the question of the National Debt is raised: Not is sound bites and slogans, but in sound economic thinking and earnest efforts on behalf of working Americans.

 

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