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Foreign Policy – Green Dragon
Dec 282014

It’s pretty evident by now that this President isn’t afraid of the so-called third rail. In fact, he has shown a willingness to contradict the prevailing wisdom on issue after issue: DADT, tax increases on the wealthy, financial reform, health care, immigration, regulating carbon emissions from power plants, Israel, Cuba, and many other do-not-touch political quagmires which have been assiduously avoided by his predecessors.

As he is now clearly looking at his last two years as an opportunity to make major changes to address entrenched problems, I have one to add to the list.

Today, the President declared the war in Afghanistan over. There is a Status of Forces Agreement and we’ll leave behind some trainers and counterterrorism people, but that will be a tiny fraction of the 140,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan when he took office.

In 2011, similarly, he drew the Iraq war to a close. Of course, Iraq has since proven unable to govern itself or to defend itself against ISIL, but that’s another story. The boots-on-the-ground war there—Bush’s shame—was finally dispensed with.

My hope is this: that before leaving office, President Obama will declare the war for which the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Miltary Force provided legal authority has been completed. I hope he will specify that the people who are conspiring against us through the lens of Islamic extremism are not the same people, nor the same organizations called out in the AUMF, and that the AUMF is therefore now null and void.

The 2001 AUMF has been used as a blank authorization for military action anywhere in the world so long as it can be tied to “Al Queda or its affiliates”, but that language does not appear in the legislation itself. It would be a strong move on the part of the President to rein in the dangerous precedent that the Presidency may use 9/11 as a pretext for a broad range of future military actions.


Oct 152014

Let me start here: it really is a dangerous old world out there. The United States does have legitimate strategic and economic interests around the globe; there are those who would very much like for us not to have them. And the biggest military power in the world does bear some responsibility to weigh in when something ghastly is going on, like chemical warfare against civilians or genocide.

So I am not going to argue here that the U.S. is always the Black Hat, or that we are a maniacal imperialist juggernaut, or any of the other standard left castigation of American usages of power. I have done so about specific instances of such usage, such as the disastrous Bush Iraq con job/fiasco. Nearly every American use of military force during my lifetime has been a tragic mistake, in my opinion. But I’m not going to argue–nor do I believe–that the United States is overall or in every instance a force for evil in the world, nor that any use of military might is wrong. I believe such a position to be uninformed and naive.

If I lost you there, you should probably stop reading this now.

However, it is starting to look to me as though there is less and less of a point to such extensions of military power, because they don’t work.

It is remarkable how few wars in recent decades have been “won” by anyone but the home team. During the era of empire, it was routine for European powers–and later, the U.S.–to march into any backwater it pleased, fling about a bunch of bullets and shells, and then run up the flag. Whatever local resistance was proffered never amounted to much to worry about, which had the deleterious effect of encouraging more of this behavior.

Since the second World War, however, that kind of outcome has become increasingly rare. More often, guerrilla insurgencies and indigenous resistance have made “winning” impossible, and holding areas in dispute debilitatingly expensive in both lives and treasure.  If you don’t think things have changed, consider Belgium’s savage and near-instantaneous conquest of the region now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo and compare it to the mess the United States finds itself mired in in Afghanistan.

You can draw a line from Korea through Southeast Asia and into Central America, Afghanistan (twice), Iran and Iraq, and Ukraine, and the common denominator is that militarily superior invaders and proxy armies have simply been unable to hold territory they think they have won. The moment–sometimes within minutes–they turn their backs, that territory is back in the hands of popularly supported insurgencies.

As I see it, there are two major drivers of this. One has been with us forever, but the second is brand-new to the latter half of the 20th, and now the 21st century.

PROXY GAMES. The first is the principle of a proxy war, in which Greater Powers battle using smaller ones as proxy armies. The Korean War was a fine example: the US and its allies were fighting the Chinese in that war, yet we still don’t really talk about it in those terms. Today, Ukraine is shaping up as a fine opportunity for a proxy war, though the fact that it is so close on the doorstep of Russia means Western powers may decline to play.

WEAPONS, WEAPONS EVERYWHERE. This is the more important point, and one I don’t hear anyone else talking about. Empires used to win their colonial wars of conquering because they had better arms and training. That is still, by and large, true, but there is a matter of diminishing returns. If everyone in a country you are trying to invade has an AK-47 and one in every 25 has a rocket-fired grenade launcher, it doesn’t matter how superior your weapons are: you still can’t hold a hostile population that is armed to the teeth. It’s impossible. You would need a 1-to-1 soldier to inhabitant ratio even to attempt it, and you’d have to commit massive civilian slaughter in the process.

Since the second World War, the United States and its allies (like the UK, France, Sweden and Israel) have been the arms merchants to the greater world, and China and the USSR/Russia have done their best to follow suit. World arms trade is staggering in scope, and is the lion’s share of so-called “foreign aid” provided around the world.

The result has been a world awash in weapons. So many, in fact, that even though the “good stuff” is carefully guarded, it simply doesn’t matter. Unless you have the hearts and minds of most of the population of the area you are trying to occupy–in which case, you probably don’t need to be fighting a war in the first place–you cannot possibly hold and stabilize a significant region of the modern world, because pretty much every native population of areas under conflict is thoroughly armed with weapons of enough sophistication and enough deadliness to make it impossible.

Yes, we make lots of money selling death technology. So do our friends, and so do our enemies.

But when it comes to war, the outcome of this tidy business is that we are hoist on our own petard.

At publication, the Dragon was IRONIC

Aug 202014

Lately, it kinda feels as though the wheels are coming off the bus, doesn’t it?

Psychopaths openly voicing deranged and bigoted nonsense are a growing voting constituency, have hijacked one of our political parties, and are fighting madly against such evils as equality and health care and contraception, fer chrissakes.

Maniacs are murdering their way across swathes of the Middle East…including one such entity which is a major beneficiary of US taxpayer support. Cops are out of control and killing people–especially black and brown people–on a whim. A man who millions knew as fundamentally decent and warm-hearted and generous kills himself, and voices from said aforementioned crowd of psychopaths stand up and cheer.

Oh, and one of the most lethal diseases ever known to humanity is loose in West Africa, where it doesn’t make the front page most of the time because…well, you know…Africa.

And then there’s the carbon thing. Enjoying the hottest summer on record, are we?

It’s all pretty dispiriting. Even though great progress has been made on some fronts in recent years–and overall violence in the world is down considerably from, say, a century ago–the past couple of months have made reading the news something you have to psych yourself up for. And then go take a shower, or wash your eyeballs with bleach, or something.

It’s outrageous. It’s all simply outrageous.

And I think that’s why outrage is exactly the wrong response right now. The bad actors in most of this mess are the ones who specialize in outrage. They’re the Anger Kids, and we have to be something else.

It’s hard, I know, to see the fear behind the awful behavior, and find empathy for it. Doesn’t mean we should be any less firm about opposing the behavior, but for pity’s sake let’s turn the heat down rather than up, shall we?


At publication, the Dragon was APPALLED

Oct 022013

Over the past few months, I have been cranking an awful lot of my thought and wordsmithing into the insatiable maw of Mark Zuckerberg. A vigorous discussion—okay, knock-down-drag-out brawl—with my friends whose one-size-fits-all impulsive response to all prospective actions by institutions they don’t like (e.g., military, intelligence, or corporate institutions) is NOOOOOOO simply couldn’t get their minds around why I thought putting some consequences alongside use of chemical weapons on civilians was a good idea.

All of that content went up onto Facebook, instead of here. Which means that’s where whatever eyeballs happened to point at it helped to line Zuckie’s pockets instead of giving me a little bump in Green Dragon visits.

My fault–I decided to do it that way, and as a lot of the conversation involved very long comment threads with much meandering into sinkholes, I’m not going to try to reconstruct it over here. It’s all old news now.

Anyway, the end result is that what could—and should—have been a set of pieces about why enforcing international WMD laws is important, why leverage is a necessary precursor to diplomacy, and why it was therefore completely against the cause of peace or human rights to screech that Obama should stand down and not threaten to strike Syria’s Assad for his actions…are not here.

Oh, well.

As it happens, *cough cough*, I was right. Gunboat diplomacy worked for Teddy Roosevelt, and it has now worked for Barack Obama: Vladimir Putin—the world’s poster child for Short Man Syndrome, turned up to 11—has blinked, and his puppy Assad is now going to have his chemical weapons taken away under international UN supervision.

Leaving the option for US use of force if he doesn’t on the table, in case you doubt who won the face-off.

In recent days, the President and the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, have begun stating to the press that each of them wishes/hopes there is a way for the US and Iran to begin to talk about the issues that divide them—in particular, the Iranian nuclear program. A few days ago, Barack Obama had a conversation with the Iranian President: the first time that has happened since 1979.

I don’t think this is a separate development from Russia’s cave on Syria.

At all.

I think there is an absolute connection between POTUS’ having just stared down Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s new interest in diplomatic engagement.

Of course, former Iranian President Ahmoudinejad had to be replaced first. But after 30 years, it would have been the status quo for Iran to maintain radio silence.

Here’s my read:

Obama has pretty consistently been up for reconsidering the nature of US postures v/v problematic states (including Israel, Libya, Egypt, and Syria). He has led the US not to follow the established script on these countries, which has had the effect of toppling Mubarak (previously propped up) and Qaddafi (previously left alone), shaking up Israeli politics (formerly no meaningful pressure on human rights & Palestine), and preventing Russia from coming to Syria’s aid by recognizing the opposition.

If I’m Iran, I think: Well, okay, there’s only one superpower in the neighborhood.

And I also think: opportunity. When is the next time I’m going to get a US President who doesn’t reflexively follow the dictates of AIPAC? Those sanctions hurt–a LOT–and if we didn’t have them, we could have a pretty sweet economy here. So screw the bluster and the usual line: I’m gonna condemn the Holocaust in the strongest possible terms, signal willingness to deal on the nuclear program, and pick up the phone.

Remarkable things are happening in the Middle East right now. Ugly and brutal as the conflict areas may seem, many of the indicators are actually positive. The era of despotism-as-norm has stumbled, certainly, if not ended completely. Yes, it was at the hands of the military, and it’s a mess, but the toppling of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in the name of trying to have a pluralistic state is a defiance of the radical Islamist idea of establishing theocracies in the wake of military dictators. Sizeable democratic oppositions exist in Iraq, in Egypt, in Libya and in Syria. All are a mess, of course. But the only way they could be unmessed right now would be to have terrifying torture generals like Mubarak and Assad and Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi oppressing them.

The idea of the public franchise has entered the marketplace in the Arab world in a way it had not before. The President deserves some credit for encouraging this. Yes, it faces terrible opposition from the angry, bitter fanatics who want to pull the world back to the 16th century. But it is not going meekly into a hole and accepting its fate. Not even in Iran, which is one reason this unfreezing is now possible.

The sad thing to me is that because the administration has chosen deliberate, mostly undramatic, strategic chess moves instead of either a) doing nothing about use of chemical weapons on civilians to satisfy peaceniks, or b) bombing the shit out of everything in sight to please John McCain and the neocons, he gets no credit for this. Everybody is mad because he threaded the needle instead of trying to drive the thread through the eye with their favorite hammer.

Pundits are bizarrely trying to cobble recent events into some cohesive “Obama Doctrine”, and completely missing the point, which is that a doctrine is a one-size-fits-all policy that may look great in the news, but actually leads you into nothing but trouble in reality. The world is complex. If there is an “Obama Doctrine”, it is: don’t have a doctrine. Understand the context, look at the board, and make the best moves to advance your goals and values. Don’t get caught in the trap of ideology. Instead, solve problems.

(It bears pointing out that exactly the same approach brought us health care reform. If he’d had a “single payer doctrine”, no bill would have passed and nothing at all would have changed for at least a decade.)

Given the tinderbox that is the Middle East, this is not to say everything is going to be ducky. There is no possible approach which would lead to that in the short term.

But this has been played out about as well as I can imagine it being played, not only for US interests, but for the values of peace, democracy and human rights. Well done, Mr. President.

At publication, the Dragon was DIGGIN’ IT

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