More than a century has passed since Norman Angell, a British journalist and politician, published “The Great Illusion,” a treatise arguing that the age of conquest was or at least should be over. He didn’t predict an end to warfare, but he did argue that aggressive wars no longer made sense — that modern warfare impoverishes the victors as well as the vanquished.
He was right, but it’s apparently a hard lesson to absorb. Certainly Vladimir Putin never got the memo. And neither did our own neocons, whose acute case of Putin envy shows that they learned nothing from the Iraq debacle.
Angell’s case was simple: Plunder isn’t what it used to be. You can’t treat a modern society the way ancient Rome treated a conquered province without destroying the very wealth you’re trying to seize. And meanwhile, war or the threat of war, by disrupting trade and financial connections, inflicts large costs over and above the direct expense of maintaining and deploying armies. War makes you poorer and weaker, even if you win.
The exceptions to this dictum actually prove the rule. There are still thugs who wage war for fun and profit, but they invariably do so in places where exploitable raw materials are the only real source of wealth. The gangs tearing the Central African Republic apart are in pursuit of diamonds and poached ivory; the Islamic State may claim that it’s bringing the new caliphate, but so far it has mostly been grabbing oil fields.
The point is that what works for a fourth-world warlord is just self-destructive for a nation at America’s level — or even Russia’s. Look at what passes for a Putin success, the seizure of Crimea: Russia may have annexed the peninsula with almost no opposition, but what it got from its triumph was an imploding economy that is in no position to pay tribute, and in fact requires costly aid. Meanwhile, foreign investment in and lending to Russia proper more or less collapsed even before the oil price plunge turned the situation into a full-blown financial crisis.
Which brings us to two big questions. First, why did Mr. Putin do something so stupid? Second, why were so many influential people in the United States impressed by and envious of his stupidity?
The answer to the first question is obvious if you think about Mr. Putin’s background. Remember, he’s an ex-K.G.B. man — which is to say, he spent his formative years as a professional thug. Violence and threats of violence, supplemented with bribery and corruption, are what he knows. And for years he had no incentive to learn anything else: High oil prices made Russia rich, and like everyone who presides over a bubble, he surely convinced himself that he was responsible for his own success. At a guess, he didn’t realize until a few days ago that he has no idea how to function in the 21st century.
The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated, but let’s not forget how we ended up invading Iraq. It wasn’t a response to 9/11, or to evidence of a heightened threat. It was, instead, a war of choice to demonstrate U.S. power and serve as a proof of concept for a whole series of wars neocons were eager to fight. Remember “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”?
The point is that there is a still-powerful political faction in America committed to the view that conquest pays, and that in general the way to be strong is to act tough and make other people afraid. One suspects, by the way, that this false notion of power was why the architects of war made torture routine — it wasn’t so much about results as about demonstrating a willingness to do whatever it takes.
Neocon dreams took a beating when the occupation of Iraq turned into a bloody fiasco, but they didn’t learn from experience. (Who does, these days?) And so they viewed Russian adventurism with admiration and envy. They may have claimed to be alarmed by Russian advances, to believe that Mr. Putin, “what you call a leader,” was playing chess to President Obama’s marbles. But what really bothered them was that Mr. Putin was living the life they’d always imagined for themselves.
The truth, however, is that war really, really doesn’t pay. The Iraq venture clearly ended up weakening the U.S. position in the world, while costing more than $800 billion in direct spending and much more in indirect ways. America is a true superpower, so we can handle such losses — although one shudders to think of what might have happened if the “real men” had been given a chance to move on to other targets. But a financially fragile petroeconomy like Russia doesn’t have the same ability to roll with its mistakes.
I have no idea what will become of the Putin regime. But Mr. Putin has offered all of us a valuable lesson. Never mind shock and awe: In the modern world, conquest is for losers.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 21, 2014
Near the very end of his Wednesday speech to the U.N. General Assembly — a speech that pundits described as “Wilsonian” and “the most liberal foreign policy address” of his career — President Obama acknowledged that despite its claim of global leadership, the United States sometimes falls short of living up to its self-professed values. “I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals,” Obama said. “In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri,” Obama continued, “where a young man was killed, and a community was divided.”
This was the geopolitical equivalent of a boss trying to prove to her employees she’s relatable by noting that even she sometimes makes mistakes. And if they noticed this moment at all, most people likely saw it for what it was: a harmless act of genuflection, delivered by a U.S. president in service of his ultimate goal, rallying global opinion behind another American war in the Middle East. In other words, nothing to see here, folks; keep it movin’.
But as we now know all too well, neoconservatives are not like most people; their response to Obama’s Ferguson remark was nothing short of apoplectic.
“I was stunned,” neocon hero and former Vice President Dick Cheney said of the Ferguson reference during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show later that night. The president’s rhetorical pairing of the turmoil in Ukraine and the Levant with that in Ferguson, Cheney said, was simply unacceptable. “In one case, you’ve got a police officer involved in a shooting, there may be questions about it to be sorted out by the legal process, but there’s no comparison to that with what ISIS is doing to thousands of people throughout the Middle East,” Cheney said, before huffing: “To compare the two as though there’s moral equivalence there, I think, is outrageous.”
Washington Post columnist and fellow neoconservative Charles Krauthammer hit a similar note in his response (also delivered on Fox News, naturally) by dusting off a circa 2009 anti-Obama talking point and describing the speech as “a continuation of the apology tour.” Echoing Cheney, Krauthammer declared Obama “intended [to draw] a moral equivalence” between ISIS and America. He then snarked about the silver lining of having Obama “talking about our sins” at the U.N. in New York City, rather than doing so while on foreign soil. (Like, say, Montreal, where Krauthammer spent his childhood.)
Last — and considering this is the man who helped organize the smear campaign against Bowe Bergdahl — very much least, there was Richard Grenell, former top aide to every neoconservative’s fantasy presidential candidate, ex-U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Writing at, yes, Fox News’ website, Grenell argued the president’s mentioning Ferguson was “a big mistake.” Grenell conceded that “humility and self-reflection are admirable leadership qualities” but nevertheless warned how Obama’s speech “gives foreign diplomats from Arab countries and Russia the excuse they need to dismiss America’s condemnation of their actions.” Because they were otherwise so primed for genuine cooperation…
To state the obvious, it is not surprising to find neoconservatives blasting the president, even if he’s currently launching a war against ISIS that, in significant respects, justifies itself intellectually through neoconservative-friendly arguments. Dedicated neoconservatives tend to be rigid partisans when it comes to politics, uninterested in compromise and focused primarily on controlling U.S. military power. What’s striking about the neocon attack isn’t its churlishness, therefore, but rather its transparency. Think of the characteristic emotional tics of neoconservatism — its paranoia, its insecurity, its obsessive fear of looking weak — and look back again at the words of the president’s neocon critics. They’re all there.
An example: For Cheney, Krauthammer and Grenell, the obvious but unstated assumption is that an American president addressing the United Nations must do so as if he has something to hide. Obama’s attempt to emphasize the U.S.’s role as both leader and member of the international order — to approach the world as an eager partner instead of an overbearing hegemon — is offensive to them because it treats the idea of a global community as an aspiration instead of a nuisance. Most neoconservatives, as Grenell’s old boss Bolton infamously made plain, aren’t much interested in the idea of a U.N. Since the U.S. can militarily do almost whatever it wants, they don’t see the purpose.
Along the same lines, the response from all three men included expressions of outrage at the president’s supposedly drawing a moral equivalence between ISIS and Ferguson’s police. The fear of the pernicious results of moral equivalency can be found throughout the right, but in the realm of foreign policy, it’s most pronounced among neoconservatives, for whom any recognition of the most basic shared humanity between the U.S. and its foes — and I’m talking basic, here; like the capacity to make mistakes — is tantamount to swearing off any claim to moral legitimacy. The fact that the United States is a more humane, responsible and decent global citizen than the genocidal ISIS is obvious enough to most of us (and not saying much, either). But, again, the neocons are the exception.
Finally, the neocon pushback also highlights what is to my mind one of their most distinctive and revealing features — their utter lack of interest in domestic policy. Neo-imperialists that they are, neocons often see domestic politics solely through the lens of foreign affairs. And because they’re so zeroed-in on what they imagine the world’s perception of the U.S. is (as well as what it should be), they’ll not infrequently analyze domestic events with a kind of myopia that prioritizes the U.S. #brand above all else. Richard Grenell doesn’t know enough about the goings on in Ferguson to understand that Michael Brown’s killing had nothing to do with his alleged robbery, which officer Darren Wilson did not know of when he came into conflict with the teen. He refers to it as a “burglary-turned-shooting.” (I suppose we could chalk Grenell’s mistake up to laziness and/or a desire to mislead, but I’m feeling generous.)
At this point, nearly 13 years after they set up shop in the White House and spent years directing and discrediting U.S. foreign policy, I’d forgive you for wanting a break from having to transport yourself into the gloomy world of the neocons’ minds. But as the ongoing war with ISIS and the aforementioned freakout over Bowe Bergdahl have recently made clear, neoconservatism still has an outsized influence in Washington, if nowhere else. That’s partially because any theory justifying neo-imperialism is bound to have nine lives among the D.C. elite. But it’s also in part the consequence of too many analysts and observers coming across statements like those of Cheney, Krauthammer and Grenell and declining to cut through the bullshit and acknowledge the truth — namely, that these men are very, very silly.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, September 25, 2014
It takes a lot of gall for people like Dick Cheney to utter even one critical word about President Obama’s strategy to eliminate the threat of ISIL in the Middle East.
In fact, it was the unnecessary Bush/Cheney Iraq War that created the conditions that led directly to the rise of the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL).
Former George H.W. Bush Secretary of State James Baker said as much on this week’s edition of “Meet the Press.” He noted that after the first President Bush had ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. had refrained from marching on Baghdad precisely to avoid kicking over the sectarian hornet’s nest that was subsequently unleashed by the Bush/Cheney attack on Iraq in 2003.
But it wasn’t just the War in Iraq itself that set the stage for the subsequent 12 years of renewed, high-intensity sectarian strife between Sunni’s and Shiites in the Middle East. It was also what came after.
Bush’s “de-Baathification program” eliminated all vestiges of Sunni power in Iraqi society and set the stage for the Sunni insurrection against American occupation and the new Shiite-led government. Bush disbanded the entire Sunni-dominated Iraqi Army and bureaucracy. He didn’t change it. He didn’t make it more inclusive of Shiites and Kurds. He just disbanded it. It is no accident that two of the top commanders of today’s ISIL are former commanders in the Saddam-era Iraqi military.
General Petraeus took steps to reverse these policies with his “Sunni Awakening” programs that engaged the Sunni tribes against what was then known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the progress he made ultimately collapsed because the Bush/Cheney regime helped install Nouri Al-Maliki as Prime Minister who systematically disenfranchised Sunnis throughout Iraq.
And that’s not all. The War in Iraq — which had nothing whatsoever to do with “terrorism” when it was launched — created massive numbers of terrorists that otherwise would not have dreamed of joining extremist organizations. It did so by killing massive numbers of Iraqis, creating hundreds of thousands of refugees, imprisoning thousands, and convincing many residents of the Middle East that the terrorist narrative was correct: that the U.S. and the West were really about taking Muslim lands.
And after all, contrary to Dick Cheney’s absurd assertion that U.S. forces would be greeted in Iraq as “liberators,” no one likes a foreign nation to occupy their country.
The War did more than any propagandist could possibly do to radicalize vulnerable young people. And by setting off wave after wave of sectarian slaughter it created blood feuds that will never be forgiven.
The Iraq War — and the Sunni power vacuum caused first by U.S. policies and then Al Maliki — created the perfect conditions that allowed a vicious band of extremists to take huge swaths of territory.
And now many of the same people who caused this foreign policy disaster have the audacity to criticize President Obama’s measured efforts to clean up the mess they created. And they do so often without ever saying what they themselves would do to solve the horrific problems that they created.
It reminds you of a bunch of arsonists standing at the scene of a fire criticizing the techniques used by the firefighters who are trying to extinguish the blaze they themselves have set.
Oh, they say: “If you had just left a residual force after the withdrawal of U.S. troops everything would be hunky dory.”
Do they really think that several thousand U.S. troops would have solved Iraq’s problems when hundreds of thousands failed to do so?
And of course they conveniently forget to mention that neither the Iraqi’s nor the U.S. voters wanted a “residual” force to remain in Iraq. And they forget that the Iraqi government would not agree to conditions that would allow a “residual” force to be stationed in Iraq.
Or perhaps they wish U.S. troops were now going door to door in Iraq cities rooting out adherents to ISIL? Only a few neo-con die-hards want more U.S. troops on the ground in the Middle East.
Or then there is the refrain that President Obama should have helped “arm” the moderate Syrian opposition earlier. Let’s remember that had he acted at an earlier point it is entirely likely that many of those arms would now be in ISIL hands — and we must be extremely careful even now to avoid precisely that problem in the days ahead.
The president’s response to ISIL is supported by almost two-thirds of Americans because it seems to be the only reasonable response where the cure is not worse than the disease.
It recognizes that the problem posed by ISIL must first and foremost be dealt with by other Sunni’s in the region. It is aimed at building an international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy the ability of this vicious organization to threaten people in the Middle East or elsewhere. And it relies on American airpower to bolster the abilities of other Sunni forces to accomplish this goal.
But most Americans also realize this will not be easy — and they’re right. It won’t be easy to clean up the horrific mess created by the Bush/Cheney policies in the Middle East.
Frankly, I don’t think that any of the architects of the Iraq War should ever be invited on TV to say one word about foreign policy — and especially the Middle East. They have zero credibility to comment. They have been wrong over and over again and created the conditions that spawned the problems we face today.
But if they are invited to act as “talking heads,” interviewers must at least have the common decency to point out their failed track record — and to demand that they do more than criticize the president’s efforts to clean up their mistakes. They must also be required to tell us exactly what they would do to fix it.
And if any of them actually do propose a course of action, you can pretty much be sure that based on their past track records, that course of action is wrong.
By: Robert Creamer, Partner, Democracy Partners; The Huffington Post Blog, September 15, 2014
“How Absurdly Wrong Neo-Cons Were”: To Defeat ISIS, Ignore Partisan Alarmists And Send Smart Diplomats
It is entirely appropriate that the appalling crimes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which openly declares genocidal intentions, have inspired demands for forceful action to destroy the terrorist entity. Impatient politicians and belligerent pundits express frustration with President Obama because he isn’t bombing more sites or dispatching U.S. troops to Iraq or expanding the conflict into Syria — or just heeding their urgent advice, immediately.
Now any or all of those policies may eventually prove necessary, after careful consideration and consultation with America’s allies. But the president would be wiser to do nothing than to simply parrot the prescriptions of his neoconservative critics. And he would be wiser still to keep in mind that the past enthusiasms and errors of those critics are the underlying causes of the predicament that he and the civilized world confront today.
The undeniable reality is that there would be no ISIS (and no crisis) if the dubious neoconservative desire to invade Iraq had been duly ignored in 2003.
A jihadi movement capable of winning support from oppressed Sunni Muslims in that ravaged country arose directly from the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation, under American auspices, of a sectarian Shiite regime. Not only was that regime unwilling to unite Iraqis into a democratic order, but its political allegiance pointed toward Iran rather than the United States.
For anyone who listened to neoconservative “experts” such as William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, these ruinous developments would have come as a wicked surprise. Soon after the U.S. invasion, after all, Kristol had assured us that religious and ethnic divisions among Iraqis would present no significant problems whatsoever. “There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America,” he told National Public Radio in April 2003, “that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular.”
And the weapons of mass destruction were just around the corner, and the war would pay for itself with Iraqi oil, and the Iranians would rise up next to throw off the mullahs, while the entire Mideast underwent a miraculous transformation under the benign influence of the Bush doctrine, and blah, blah, blah…
By this point, it seems obvious to nearly everyone just how absurdly wrong all those predictions were. Just as salient, however, is that the Iraq war – and the failure of diplomacy that it represents – was the culmination of an enormous squandered opportunity, whose harmful consequences continue today. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the world rallied around the United States, from Europe to Asia; even the Iranians volunteered to help us defeat Al Qaeda.
Instead of assembling an international coalition to confront Islamist extremism – with diplomacy, technology, information, and humanitarian assistance as well as military force – the Bush administration moved against Iraq. By doing so, it alienated nearly all of our allies, forfeited the world’s sympathy, wasted thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, all to create a divided, failed state that now incubates terror.
So when someone like Kristol urges the president to bomb first and think later, as he did recently, the only sane response is bitter laughter. We need sober diplomacy and smart strategy, which President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have vowed to pursue when the United States takes over the leadership of the UN Security Council this month. And we need the patience to muster at last the broad, invincible alliance we could have led against Al Qaeda from the beginning.
By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, The National Memo, September 2, 2014
Hillary Clinton surprised both Republicans and Democrats with her sharp criticism of President Obama over his foreign policy, calling it a “Don’t do stupid stuff” strategy that did not conform to the definition of a policy at all.
Her assessment has merit but is also unfair. America’s foreign policy is definitely scattershot but it is not the fault of the president. It is the fault of our culture. We are getting the foreign policy we have chosen.
On one hand, Americans are the most soft-hearted and empathetic people on earth, capable of feeling the pain of people an entire world away. And yet we also have a visceral hatred of war, preferring diplomacy to settle differences and sometimes even refusing to fight when it is the only way to prevent catastrophe. We do eventually wake up to reality but it is only after a massive humanitarian crisis such as the one now being witnessed in Iraq.
Our foreign policy, to put it succinctly, is reactive and not proactive and allows situations — whether it be the rise of Al Qaeda, Hassad’s regime in Syria, the pro-Russian movement in Ukraine, or ISIS in Iraq — to deteriorate until there is no option from a humanitarian perspective but to commit military resources to it. In the process, we often make a bigger mess than we started, such as we have made in Iraq and Afghanistan. We detest conflict and therefore fail to take action in time to prevent a full-scale disaster.
President Obama is simply meeting this mandate given to him by the American people. It is arguable, of course, that as the commander-in-chief he should lead and not follow, but this particular president has been hamstrung on both sides by the Republicans and the Democrats — each of whom have their own (sometimes hypocritical) belief system and agenda, and have been brutal in holding the President to it.
On the right, the GOP would love for him to launch as many wars as possible to support the defense industry and to appease the party’s hawkish foreign policy beliefs, but also routinely attack him on the budget deficit and the government’s inability to balance the books; and on the left, the Democrats demand that he not risk any U.S. lives but criticize his inability to save the lives of persecuted souls all over the globe. In other words, everyone expects the president to be a magician who can pursue a strong foreign policy and stand up for humanitarian causes without spending any money and without risking any American lives.
The White House’s reactive strategy, then, is a direct response to these contradictory pressures and the best that it can do to address world crises. If we really want a more comprehensive foreign policy and a longer-term strategy for the Middle East, Russia, North Korea, and other problem areas of the world, the American people first need to rethink their own attitudes towards international intervention and only then can their leader really do anything about it. We need to make up our minds — either we are willing to pursue a policy of preventing bloodshed across the world and make the personal financial and human sacrifice needed to do it, or we need to accept that we cannot save everyone and will have to accept the best that our government can do.
Peanut gallery criticism, which is what most of us offer, including at the moment Hillary Clinton, is disingenuous and counter-productive. It also sends a bad signal to the world that we don’t know what we are doing, which is not true. President Obama does know what he’s doing. The problem is that he just can’t do much more given the constraints he works under.
By: Sanjay Sanghoee, Political and Business Commentator; The Huffington Post Blog, August 11, 2014