Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, Again
When will we decide to get off the terrorism merry-go-round? The attacks in Paris have already created yet another distorting lens through which Western nations view reality darkly. The tragedy on the ground in the city of light is real enough, but the greater tragedy is the greater reality of assuming that the politics of endless war is some sort of answer to the vicious circle it creates and perpetuates. The impulsive rush to war is also a rush to ignore history and context: French colonial control of Syria ended less than 70 years ago, French bombing of Syria is intensifying.
And then there’s Yemen. Yemen is a key to understanding the perverse puzzle of the Middle East morass. Yemen embodies the collective savagery that American policy unintentionally promotes and spreads.
“Yemen” is a word that went unuttered in the Democratic debate on November 14, 2015 when all the participants shied away from taking a look at realities. To understand Yemen is to understand that there is no candidate for president taking a loud and principled stand against the U.S.-supported illegal war in Yemen, a war led by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies who commit atrocities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity on a daily basis, horrendous acts of war that make Paris look like a picnic.
Yemen is where the Saudis and their allies are waging a merciless, criminal war against one side of the civil war there, the Houthis. The U.S. helps the Saudis bomb and kill mostly civilians, while enforcing the naval blockade that prevents Yemenis from leaving the kill zone in greater numbers. The Houthis are fighting both Al Qaeda and ISIS, which together control most of the country, but a minority of the population. So the Saudis are fighting on the side of ISIS in Yemen, at the same time they have all but stopped fighting against ISIS in Syria. All of this makes a perverse sort of sense from the Saudi perspective, since the Saudis have spent decades nurturing the Wahhabi version of fundamentalist jihadism that has now flowered as ISIS, the Islamic State. Why is endless U.S. war on non-threatening countries not a campaign issue? Given continuing U.S. military escalations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as presumably other, more covert places, the wonder is that there’s still no opposition in the streets or much of anywhere else to the endless wars of the Bush legacy. Almost as wondrous is that the endless warlords like Dick Cheney and his unindicted co-conspirators aren’t cheering on the present president for loyally executing their mindless folly as he extends Bushian madness to the point of achieving the first military quagmire of global scale. At any given moment the U.S. has Special Forces operating in 100 countries, give or take, having carried out operations in at least 147 countries this year.
As the world approaches Orwell’s 1984 totalitarian vision of all-war-all-the-time, mainstream reporters (like those at the Democratic debate) not only fail to illuminate reality, they fail even to probe it. Is it not of interest that the U.S. carries the burden of the Orwellian nightmare almost alone? Of the three superpowers of Orwell’s imagination, Russia and China continue to be reluctant to match the “exceptional” U.S. drive toward military hegemony over the planet.
This cannot be a state of things that our candidates for president have not noticed. Among Republicans, the tendency is to call for more war anywhere, to double down on failure and make it worse as soon as possible. Among Democrats, there is some presentiment of caution, or at least some desire not to make it worse any faster than “necessary.” No one is yet saying that making it worse is not necessary. Serious reporters, if there were any, would be asking all candidates to explain why they think this futile, destructive, irrational status quo is okay by any standard of reason and decency.
When it comes to the U.S. air war on the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, most of our allies are already getting out of harm’s way. They are abandoning the fight against ISIS even though ISIS presents a far more imminent threat to most of them than it ever will to the U.S. Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and the rest of the international criminal coalition are much more interested in bombing the even more defenseless Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to a lengthy front-page report in the November 8 New York Times.
If Saudi Arabia and its allies don’t much care about bombing ISIS, why on earth is the U.S. doing it? We know from long expemrience that bombing doesn’t work militarily and is a disaster politically, as it creates more enemies than it kills. We know that the defeat of ISIS will require ground troops in large numbers, and there are those who want those troops to be American. But why should American troops rush to the defense of the Saudis and their allies when they are not rushing to their own defense? Why should the U.S. continue to enable the Saudi coalition’s crimes against humanity? The Saudi-led onslaught in Yemen deliberately targets hospitals now (as the U.S. did in Afghanistan), and the U.S. continues to support the criminal war on Yemen.
Why isn’t there a single presidential candidate even wondering out loud why the U.S. doggedly pursues a failed policy that costs billions of dollars, a failed policy that keeps thousands of U.S. troops in bases in the region (10,000 in Qatar alone) protecting dictatorships, a failed policy in support of forces that commit crimes against humanity with as much zeal as their enemies?
Democratic candidates appear to be in almost deliberate denial. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders opened the debate with explicit promises to rid the world of ISIS and its ilk. Martin O’Malley seemed to imply as much. Both Clinton and Sanders assumed American leadership of the continued war on terrorism, though both presumed that leadership would be at the head of a significant coalition.
Clinton expressed the inherent contradiction between leading and coalescing when she said: “But it cannot be an American fight.” Clinton elaborated that “…we will support those who take the fight to ISIS. That is why we have troops in Iraq that are helping to train and build back up the Iraqi military, why we have special operators in Syria working with the Kurds and Arabs so that we can be supportive. But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.”
This sounds like a good description of “leading from behind,” which is what the U.S. said it was doing in Libya, which is now in chaos. “leading from behind” is a euphemism for something like: you fight on the ground, we’ll provide some low-risk air support, and if it turns out well, we’ll take the credit, otherwise it’s on you.
O’Malley somewhat incoherently disagreed with Clinton: “This actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight. America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies. America is best when we are actually standing up to evil in this world.” This ignores those allies who have abandoned the fight against ISIS. It also ignores the reality that these same “allies” are committing evil in Yemen. Sanders edged closer to an honest assessment of reality than the other two when he acknowledged that “the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of Al Qaeda and to ISIS.” Sanders argued that, having unleashed the cascading desta- bilization of the Middle East since 2003, the U.S. has some responsibility to try to mend that. Sanders explained his approach: “The United States cannot do it alone. What we need to do is lead an international coalition which includes, significantly, the Muslim nations in that region who are going to have to fight and defend their way of life.” So far, that is a fantasy possibility. And if the fantasy continues, what should be the consequences?
Hearing Sanders make his very challenging formulation, CBS moderator John Dickerson then translated Sanders’ “disastrous invasion” into a “disastrous vote” for war in Iraq. Then Dickerson twisted that into a false attack on Clinton who, in any event, admits her vote and the invasion were both mistakes. In response to Dickerson’s failed food fight sally, Sanders responded: “I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now…. I think that was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States.” Clinton gave a fuzzy response, but she did not disagree. A little later, Sanders returned to the challenging idea that Dickerson had tried to avoid: “…here’s something that I believe we have to do as we put together an international coalition, and that is we have to understand that the Muslim nations in the region—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan—all of these nations, they’re going to have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground. They are going to have to take on ISIS.
“This is a war for the soul of Islam. And those countries who are opposed to [jihadi] Islam, are going to have to get deeply involved in a way that is not the case today. We should be supportive of that effort. So should the UK, so should France. But those Muslim countries are going to have to lead the effort. They are not doing it now.”
Sanders was saying that the emperor has no clothes, and he was right. He was also assuming that there are Muslim nations actually opposed to “radical Islam,” which is a trickier proposition. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has played a double game for decades, promoting jihadi fundamentalism through their Wahhabi evangelism around the world. The Saudis have troops fighting in Yemen, fighting the Houthis who are fighting ISIS. The Saudis have no troops in Syria fighting ISIS, which the Saudis have armed and supplied over the years, directly and indirectly, as have Qatar, Turkey, the U.S., and others.
Turkey is almost as much of a problem as Saudi Arabia, because Turkey has long been at war with the Kurds. The Kurds have turned out to be the most effective ground force fighting ISIS, and the U.S. is supporting the Kurds with special forces on the ground and bombing ISIS from the air. The U.S. bombers fly out of Incerlik air base in Turkey, the same base from which Turkish bombers fly to bomb the Kurds. It should surprise no one that the most effective fighters against ISIS are the Kurds, who are also a stateless, persecuted minority in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Since the Saudis are in Yemen to fight the phantom of Iranian power that is not there, imagining a coalition with both of those countries is a stretch. Including Jordan in that coalition is almost irrelevant, since Jordan will be lucky to survive no matter how this all turns out.
The conventional wisdom across much of the U.S. political spectrum (narrow as it is) is some version of “America must lead the attack on ISIS.” This is a reflexive visceral response, not carefully thought out or well-considered. Given the results of American “leadership” since 2001, what sense does it make to have more of the same? After 9/11, the Saudis got a free pass out of the country and in 2015 they are still not reliable allies, so what does “American leadership” mean in practice? Having been secretary of state for four years, Clinton is still saying things like “We’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries,” as she said in the debate. Have we not been reaching out, even when she was secretary? Has our reaching out been half-hearted or misconceived? Have Muslim countries been unresponsive? Have they played the U.S. for fools? Clarity is absent here, in part because the U.S. has failed to grasp the nettle of Saudi machinations.
O’Malley and Clinton remain committed to traditional “American leadership” that often leads to regime change and killing on a grand scale, but rarely produces anything more stable and safe for the populations we supposedly help than a brutal police state (i.e., Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, etc.). “We are at war with violent extremism,” Clinton said at the debate, with no apparent awareness that she was saying nothing meaningful, that she was saying little more than “we are at war with war,” or that we will use violent extremism to counter violent extremism. Insofar as American leadership can be helpful in the world, it needs to be reconceived with much less self-involvement and irrational fear (“ISIS is coming to Peoria”) and a whole lot more attention to the actual realities on the ground.
Sanders begins to hint at this when he talks about Muslim nations getting their hands dirty, although he’s still too vague. In a real sense, Muslim nations already have very dirty hands with their dictatorships and police states and brutality and support for jihadis and endless internecine Muslim versus Muslim ethnic cleansing. All this predates “American leadership,” but American leadership fosters more chaos and dictatorship wherever it goes. In recent years, after supporting its dictator, American leadership has largely ignored Tunisia, and Tunisia, for now, is a healthy, developing democracy. The implied, unstated logic of the Sanders position is that if Muslim states go on preferring to attack each other (Yemen), then the U.S. should not be part of it.
Rearranging Deck Chairs On The Titanic Is Not A Good Iceberg Policy
President Obama almost surely doesn’t look at the militarized foreign policy of his administration and see success. If he’s honest, he has to see a growing wasteland in the metastasizing cancer caused by the toxic Bush years. To judge by the president’s military escalations in assorted Bush administration wars, he appears to be responding to the Cheney gang’s demand for more war, more torture, more random killing of innocents, and just plain more cold- blooded toughness. At least we know that’s a sure way to keep jihadi forces growing.
In a move all too reminiscent of early U.S. moves and evasions in Viet-Nam more than 50 years ago, the president has ordered a team of some 50 special operations forces to be the first sustained U.S. boots-on-the-ground in Syria. The White House went out of its way to avoid calling this escalation an escalation. The cadre of presidential candidates has gone out of its way to offer no hint of objection. The media have mostly gone out of their way to avoid asking any pointed questions. Democracy Now! is among the honorable exceptions.
Maybe it was too complicated for mainstream media, since Dickerson didn’t ask about the move during the debate. The new Special Forces deployment is headed to Kurdish areas of Syria, since the Kurds have been the most (and only) effective ground force fighting ISIS. U.S. planes flying from the U.S. airbase Incirlik in Turkey have bombed ISIS in support of the Kurds. Turkish planes from the same base have bombed the same Kurds, even though Turkey is supposedly a U.S. ally against ISIS, even though Turkey also supplies ISIS with support.
So the failure of the American political system sustains an absurdity, which is not an entirely new condition. But here, the silence in response to the escalation of absurdity is not merely itself another absurdity, it is an especially corrupt failure of those who would be our next commander in chief. This escalation of Special Ops “advisors” won’t make any difference militarily. Politically this small escalation makes the next escalation that much easier, and the one after that easier still, until U.S. involvement is totally out of hand.
And now the Paris attacks make further escalations harder to resist, if not politically inevitable and politically all but impossible to oppose. But opposition must arise from somewhere if we are ever to break out of this spiral of violence that has led only downward for more than a decade.
Confronting the enormity of American policy is too much to expect from presidential candidates, although it’s what they should do. Congressperson Tulsi Gabbard, a Marine veteran of Iraq and a Democrat from Hawaii, made the case in a perfectly straightforward way that is as true after Paris as it was before—the roots of American policy are corrupt: “Few Americans know of the absurd contradictions of our foreign policy in Iraq and other places over the past few decades, yet I found that many Iraqis and Syrians know the history well. The United States, through covert support of the Iraqi Ba’ath in the 1960s and 1970s, sponsored Saddam’s rise to power as a way to combat perceived communist influence and populist national movements in the Middle East. Throughout that time, the CIA-supported Ba’ath engaged in ‘cleansing campaigns’ which involved door-to-door death squads offing Washington’s enemies based on questionable lists provided through covert liaisons.” Representative Gabbard is just as clear-headed about ISIS, which she identifies as “a monster the United States helped to create: “As if the absurdity of the task of a renewed Iraq campaign mandated by the ‘gods’ in Washington weren’t enough, we will now bomb ISIS locations in Syria while increasing the training and equipping of Syrian rebels.”
Too much truth has not been the traditional path to the White House. But too little truth, as we have seen too often, makes the achievement bitter and pointless. The problem is to put peace on the table in a way that is hard to oppose without seeming to be a monster. And there is an easy approach. Withdraw U.S. support for Yemen, withdraw U.S. support for killing civilians, withdraw U.S. support for a criminal war in which hospitals are routine targets, withdraw U.S. support for the endless crimes against humanity to which the U.S. continues to be an accomplice, withdraw that support and let the nexus of deceit and death begin to unravel.