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“Let’s Talk Specifics”: Seven Things That Show The GOP Candidates Are Clueless About The Islamic State

As everyone knows, when it comes to fighting the Islamic State, Barack Obama is a weak and feckless president who has no strategy to defeat this terrifying enemy. The Republicans running to replace him, on the other hand, are ready to go with their strong and decisive strategies — just put one of them in office and let him implement his strategy, and this whole thing will be mopped up forthwith.

That’s what they say, of course. But the truth is that they have no clue what to do about this problem. To a degree, you can’t blame them — if there was an easy solution, the administration certainly would have been more than happy to use it. The trouble is that there are nothing but bad options. But presidential candidates aren’t supposed to express caution and concern about unintended consequences. They have to be confident and strong, assuring voters that there’s no problem they can’t solve.

But if you want to know how to spot a candidate who has no idea what to do about the Islamic State, a good place to start is this interview with Ted Cruz by Molly O’Toole of Defense One. O’Toole does exactly what I’m constantly begging reporters to do — not accuse the candidate of being a hypocrite or asking him to criticize his opponents, but demand specificity. That’s how we learn whether he’s just blowing smoke. Unfortunately, Cruz is a champion smoke-blower, and he evades most of her questions until they get too uncomfortable, at which point he literally shuts a door in her face (an elevator door, in this case).

In the course of this brief interview, Cruz hits on most of the key tells that make clear Republicans have no more of a strategy for the Islamic State than anybody else. Here’s a list of things to watch out for when candidates are talking about their “strategies”:

  1. We need a leader who leads, with leadership. This idea is expressed in various ways; in this case, Cruz starts explaining how he’d fight the Islamic State by saying that “We didn’t win the Cold War until we had a president who stood up and led…” Another way of putting it is, as Marco Rubio and others have said, that Obama lacks the proper “sense of urgency” about the problem. But that’s not a strategy, it’s a feeling. Saying “I’ll feel differently than Obama does when I’m in the Oval Office” doesn’t tell us anything about what a candidate would actually do.
  2. Bomb the hell out of them. This sounds strong and resolute, but it’s important to keep in mind that we’ve been bombing pretty much every target we can find. According to the Air Force, as of the end of November we had dropped 31,873 bombs and missiles in this operation. It’s true that the military has taken care not to kill significant numbers of civilians, which is a challenge because the Islamic State controls a number of cities. In theory we could just “carpet-bomb” those cities, as Cruz proposes (he says “carpet-bomb ISIS,” but when it’s pointed out to him that they’re located in cities, he evades the question of whether he actually wants to carpet-bomb cities), but that would be extraordinarily counter-productive, not to mention morally abominable and probably a war crime. And yes, despite what Republicans would have you believe, we are bombing their oil facilities. So “Bomb them, but, you know, more” isn’t a strategy either.
  3. Arm the Kurds. This sounds like a good idea — the Kurds are our allies, and they’ve been extremely successful in fighting the Islamic State where they have chosen to do so. The problem (other than the fact that our ally Turkey is deeply opposed to anything that would strengthen them) is that the Kurds have their own agenda in Iraq and Syria, one that isn’t exactly the same as ours. They’ll happily fight to take control of Kurdish areas, but they aren’t interested in becoming an occupying army in Arab areas. You can make a case that arming the Kurds is a good thing, despite Turkey’s objections. But giving them more arms isn’t going to rout the Islamic State out of most of the places where it exists.
  4. Get somebody else’s boots on the ground. With the partial exception of Lindsey Graham, all the Republican candidates acknowledge to one degree or another that an American invasion is going to cause more trouble than it’s worth. So the answer many offer is to assemble an army of boots from our coalition partners, preferably Sunni Arabs, who can go in there and occupy the area without generating so much resistance and resentment from the local population. And how will they convince countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have been unwilling so far to contribute those troops to do so? Well…they just will. With strength and resolve, I guess. If they can’t say why those countries will be willing to do a year from now what they’re unwilling to do today, they’re expressing a fantasy, not a plan.
  5. A no-fly zone. There are reasonable arguments for and against establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. But it has nothing to do with the Islamic State, which doesn’t have an air force. If you want to argue that a no-fly zone is necessary to stop Bashar al-Assad from bombing civilians, that’s fine. But you can’t pretend it does something to hasten the Islamic State’s demise.
  6. Do whatever is necessary. This is a clear tell that the candidate has run out of ideas, but just wants to communicate toughness and resolve. Ted Cruz says this a lot. It’s a way of saying you’ll do something without actually saying what you’ll do. And of course…
  7. Call it “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” This magical incantation, once uttered by the commander in chief, is supposed to bring us to the very brink of victory. But how? Here’s a question I’d like to hear a Republican candidate answer. Let’s say that tomorrow, President Obama said, “You know what? My critics are right. We are facing Radical Islamic Terrorism.” What would change?

The answer is: nothing. And if someone is arguing that the most important thing we need to do in order to accomplish a goal is something that will do nothing to accomplish that goal, it’s a good sign that they don’t have any actual ideas.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, December 11, 2015

December 15, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, ISIS, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Word-Salad Foreign Policy”: Trump Wants To Re-Invade Iraq; Bomb Things

Republican primary front-runner Donald Trump pledged Tuesday morning, in a factually-challenged screed, to send American troops to invade Iraq and Syria so as to “take the oil” in ISIS-controlled territories.

“I would go in and take the oil and I’d put troops to protect the oil. I would absolutely go and I’d take the money source away. And believe me, they would start to wither and they would collapse,” Trump said on CNN’s New Day. “I would take the oil away, I’d take their money away.”

Asked last month whether U.S. troops were needed to protect the oil, Trump said, “You put a ring around them. You put a ring.”

Ironically, Trump said he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying in May that he would “have never been in Iraq.” Some 200,000 troops were required for that invasion.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the most hawkish members of the GOP presidential field, has called for between 10,000 and 20,000 troops to bolster the anti-ISIS campaign.

Trump’s word-salad foreign policy also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of ISIS. While it does make some money from oil sales, the so-called Islamic State does not derive its main source of revenue from oil revenue, as The New York Times points out. The vast majority of its operating resources in 2014 came from extortion, taxation, and theft.

The U.S.-led coalition has struck portions of ISIS’s oil infrastructure as recently as three weeks ago. On July 20, military airstrikes hit three ISIS crude oil collection points near the Deir Ezzor. A recent CNN article, citing military experts, points out that destroying oil infrastructure would be counterproductive to the future recovery of territories held by ISIS if and when the terrorist organization is expelled.

“You have to understand the issues a little bit better than just bombing things,” retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling told CNN.

Nor does Trump seem to understand the basic dynamics of the Middle East. “Believe it or not, Iran is funneling money to ISIS, too,” Trump said Tuesday morning. Iran’s government is a theocracy based on Shia Islam, while ISIS is a terror group based on a jihadist branch of Sunni Islam. They see each other as mortal enemies. In fact, Iran has been willing to offer Iraq an “open check” to fight the extremist group, Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily has said.

Trump also criticized the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration. His Iran deal would be “a hundred times better,” he told CNN. “They didn’t read The Art of the Deal, obviously.” First Trump would have “doubled the sanctions,” demanded Iranian-held American prisoners back, and then “made a good deal.”

“It’s going to go down as one of the dumb deals of all time, and one of the most dangerous deals ever signed,” Trump said.

When challenged by CNN about how America’s allies weren’t likely to go along with additional sanctions, Trump gave a bewildering answer. “I don’t care—that’s part of leadership, you got to get the allies with you. You got to get them… The different people that are involved aren’t going to be with you. You know why? Because they have no respect for our president.”

CNN host Chris Cuomo almost seemed like he was apologizing to Trump for asking tough questions about national security.

“Forgive me if it sounds if I’m teaching you about the world. You know it, and I know you know it. But I’m saying that there’s a tendency to oversimplify situations, people buy into that, and you’re setting them up for disappointment,” Cuomo said.

“Sometimes oversimplification is a good thing. Sometimes we make it too complicated,” Trump said, before going on to call the Chinese currency the “wan.” It is called the yuan.

 

By: Tim Mak, The Daily Beast, August 11, 2015

August 13, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Iran Nuclear Agreement, Iraq | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“An Iraqi Army That Can’t Or Won’t Fight”: Why Fight For The Iraqis If They Are Not Going To Fight For Themselves?

If Iraqis won’t fight for their nation’s survival, why on earth should we?

This is the question posed by the fall of Ramadi, which revealed the emptiness at the core of U.S. policy. President Obama’s critics are missing the point: Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many troops he sends back to Iraq or whether their footwear happens to touch the ground. The simple truth is that if Iraqis will not join together to fight for a united and peaceful country, there will be continuing conflict and chaos that potentially threaten American interests.

We should be debating how best to contain and minimize the threat. Further escalating the U.S. military role, I would argue, will almost surely lead to a quagmire that makes us no more secure. If the choice is go big or go home, we should pick the latter.

The Islamic State was supposed to be reeling from U.S.-led airstrikes. Yet the group was able to capture Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and is now consolidating control over that strategically important city. Once Islamic State fighters are fully dug in, it will be hard to pry them out.

Among the images from Sunday’s fighting, what stood out was video footage of Iraqi soldiers on the move — speeding not toward the battle but in the opposite direction. It didn’t look like any kind of tactical retreat. It looked like pedal-to-the-metal flight.

These were widely described as members of the Iraqi army’s “elite” units.

In their haste, Iraqi forces left behind U.S.-supplied tanks, artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers and Humvees. Most of the equipment is believed to be in working order, and all of it now belongs to the Islamic State. The same thing has happened when other government positions have been overrun; in effect, we have helped to arm the enemy.

Obama pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. His strategy is to use U.S. air power to keep the jihadists at bay, while U.S. advisers provide the Iraqi military with the training it needs to recapture the territory the Islamic State holds.

But this is a triumph of hope over experience. The United States spent the better part of a decade training the Iraqi armed forces, and witness the result: an army that can’t or won’t fight. The government in Baghdad, dominated by the Shiite majority, balks at giving Sunni tribal leaders the weapons necessary to resist the Islamic State. Kurdish regional forces, which are motivated and capable, have their own part of the country to defend.

If the Islamic State is to be driven out of Ramadi, the job will be done not by the regular army but by powerful Shiite militia units that are armed, trained and in some cases led by Iran. The day may soon come when an Iranian general, orchestrating an advance into the city, calls in a U.S. airstrike for support.

The logical result of Obama’s policy — which amounts to a kind of warfare-lite — is mission creep and gradual escalation. Send in a few more troops. Allow them to go on patrols with the Iraqis. Let them lead by example. Send in a few more. You might recognize this road; it can lead to another Vietnam.

What are the alternatives? One would be to resurrect Colin Powell’s doctrine of overwhelming force: Send in enough troops to drive the Islamic State out of Iraq once and for all. We conquered and occupied the country once, we could do it again.

But the Islamic State would still hold substantial territory in Syria — and thus present basically the same threat as now. If our aim is really to “destroy” the group, as Obama says, then we would have to wade into the Syrian civil war. Could we end up fighting arm-in-arm with dictator Bashar al-Assad, as we now fight alongside his friends the Iranians? Or, since Obama’s policy is that Assad must go, would we have to occupy that country, too, and take on another project of nation-building? This path leads from bad to worse and has no apparent end.

The other choice is to pull back. This strikes me as the worst course of action — except for all the rest.

The unfortunate fact is that U.S. policymakers want an intact, pluralistic, democratic Iraq more than many Iraqis do. Until this changes, our policy goal has to be modest: Contain the Islamic State from afar and target the group’s leadership, perhaps with drone attacks.

Or we can keep chasing mirages and hoping for miracles.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 21, 2015

May 23, 2015 Posted by | Iraq, ISIS, Syria | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Distracting From The Proper Focus Of The Debate”: Drone Strikes Aren’t Any More Immoral Than Manned Airstrikes

While I am a reliable and often radical progressive in most respects, I must admit that there are some shibboleths of the left that make me scratch my head. The most important of these is the insistence that we can somehow go back to the economy of the 1960s but without all the prejudice (we can’t, nor should we really want to), but there are a few others as well.

One of those is the forceful antipathy to drone strikes. Opposition to drones has found its place among a myriad other neo-Luddite positions on the left, ranging from certain aspects of anti-GMO thought to the anti-vax movement to the anti-automation movement. In most of these cases, legitimate opposition (say, concern about Monsanto’s corporate control over seed production) bleeds into anti-science fearmongering (the belief that “frankenfoods” will somehow give us cancer.)

In the case of drones, there is a legitimate antipathy against interventionist airstrikes that all too often have unacceptable collateral damage–or hit the wrong targets entirely. There’s a fair case to be made that no matter how many terrorists we may be killing with the strikes, we’re doing more harm than good by creating more furious people and eventually more terrorists and anti-American governments. And there’s also a Constitutional case to be made when airstrikes hit American citizens without judicial process.

But somehow these fully legitimate grievances have fallen behind a less reasonable concern over “killer robots” and drones. Polling shows that Americans approve the drone strikes overall, so progressives have a tough hill to climb to force opposition on any account. That difficult road makes finding an effective and credible argument all the more important.

The opposition to using drones for airstrikes seems to boil down mostly to two arguments:

1) It’s easier and less psychologically difficult for a drone operator to pull the kill trigger than a manned plane pilot; and

2) The ability to conduct strikes without putting American lives at risk makes it easier for politicians to order the strikes.

There’s precious little evidence for the first argument. For human empathy to trigger a pacifist response, soldiers generally need to view their targets at reasonably close range. Even a simple mask seriously reduces empathy-based trigger withholding. Pilots at airstrike height don’t get close enough to trigger the effect, or to realize when a mistake is potentially being made. Drone operators tend to see pretty much the same visuals as a pilot does, and they undergo the same psychological guilt and aftereffects. And in any case, failure to pull the trigger would violate a direct order and lead to a court martial.

As to the second argument, it’s fairly callous as well as deeply unpopular and unpatriotic to use the potential for dead American pilots as leverage against hawkish politicians. It strains ethical credibility. It’s also a moot point as developed nations increasingly move toward robotic armies not only in the air but on the ground as well. As with the workforce, nation-states have every incentive to achieve their national interests at minimal risk of their service members’ lives and will inevitably do so no matter how progressive activists feel about it.

And while that may scare some people, neither national leaders nor their citizens are going to cry many tears if bad guys ranging from the next Bin Laden to rhino poachers can be dissuaded or neutralized with greater efficiency and zero risk. It’s simply inevitable.

The key argument isn’t the technology being used to make the strikes, but whether the strikes themselves are necessary. The technology will be used and developed whether we like it or not–and in many cases it will be a force for good. It just means we need to be ever more vigilant about how and in what circumstances we use it.

Marshaling Luddite arguments that hint at a desire to put Americans in harm’s way in order to constrain political choices is not only wildly ineffective at moving public opinion away from callous airstrikes, it will distract the proper focus of the debate while marginalizing progressive foreign policy in the process.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 2, 2015

May 3, 2015 Posted by | Drones, Progressives, War Hawks | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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