The Blind Leading the Blind: Everyone’s Middle Eastern Madness.

“There is a holy mistaken zeal in politics as well as in religion. By persuading others, we convince ourselves,” or so said the forgotten English writer Junius in the mid-18th Century. When I read his words the other day I was reminded of other situations where ideology and ignorance of history replaced reason.

Operation Unthinkable is one of many such examples, a loonie scheme hatched in early 1945 by Winston Churchill. Exhausted by six years of war, drinking heavily, with a loathing for his Soviet nemesis — though he once told Field Marshal Montgomery he and Stalin could resolve all their problems if only they met weekly over dinner fortified with an ample supply of scotch and vodka.

Churchill wanted to forgive the Nazis and instead have 100,000 of their Wehrmacht troops link up with the British and Americans to attack the victorious Red Army as it sped toward Berlin and therefore “impose the will of the Western Allies on the Soviets.” The plan was clearly insane and unenforceable yet Churchill ordered the British Armed Forces Joint Planning Staff to develop his idea until rational members of his inner circle said No. Continue reading “The Blind Leading the Blind: Everyone’s Middle Eastern Madness.”

The Neocons: First in War, Last in Peace

I was hired in 1972 by the American Jewish Committee to serve as editor of a new magazine I named Present Tense. My vague assignment was to be more “Jewish” than the well-established and influential Commentary magazine, which, while also parented by the AJC, had shifted its primary attention to more worldly interests under Norman Podhoretz, its smart and creative editor, who had abandoned his and the magazine’s traditional liberalism and moved right, very far right, into the brawling territory of U.S. foreign policy and national politics. From 1972 to 1990, when we were closed down, my office was one flight below that of Commentary.

From the very beginning Present Tense was “a sort of counter-Commentary,” as Susan Jacoby, one of our regular columnists, shrewdly noted in her illuminating book, “Half-Jew: A Daughter’s Search for Her Family’s Buried Past.” Early on, a reader wrote us that we were doomed to obscurity and worse because the further we veered left, the more we became too liberal for the AJC’s conservative donors (they also had liberal donors, equally unhappy with Commentary). Even so, we lasted for many years, sometimes taking on the Israel Lobby, disdainful of Reagan for Iran-Contra and his proxy war in Central America, while celebrating his anti-nuke huddle in Reykjavik with Gorbachev and publishing all sides of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and I mean, all sides, including right, center and left. We also refused to forgive and forget the ugly legacy of McCarthyism and how its impact still blunted dissent in the American Jewish world, as the novelist and journalist Anne Roiphe, another of our intrepid columnists, pointed out in our final issue. Continue reading “The Neocons: First in War, Last in Peace”

Murray Rothbard Saw Today’s Foreign Policy Coming 24 Years Ago

He identified the neocon agitation to replace the old perpetual war with a new one as soon as it started.


In 1990, Murray Rothbard clearly identified the earliest signs of the ultimately successful decade-long push by the neocons to replace their dearly missed Cold War with a global, imperialist, and permanent War on Islamic fundamentalism and for “Democracy.” He wrote in his April 1990 column “The Post-Cold War World: Whither U.S. Foreign Policy” (which can be found in the collection The Irrepressible Rothbard):

“But if the Cold War died in the Communist collapse of 1989, what can the ruling conservative-liberal Establishment come up with to justify the policy of massive intervention by the U.S. everywhere on the globe? In short, what cloak can the Establishment now find to mask and vindicate the continuance of U.S. imperialism? With their perks and their power at stake, the Court apologists for imperialism have been quick to offer excuses and alternatives, even if they don’t always hang together. Perhaps the feeling is that one of them may stick.

The argument for imperialism has always been two-edged, what the great Old Rightist Garet Garrett called (in his classic The People’s Pottage) “a complex of fear and vaunting.” Fear means alleged threats to American interests and the American people. To replace the Soviet-international Communist threat, three candidates have been offered by various Establishment pundits. (…) [Rothbard here offers international narco-terrorism and reunified Germany as the first two potential bogeymen.]

A third threat has been raised in the Wall Street Journal by that old fox, the godfather of the neocons, Irving Kristol. Kristol, in a rambling account of the post-Cold War world, leaps on the “Islamic fundamentalist” threat, and even suggests that the U.S. and the Soviet Union should discreetly cooperate in putting down this looming world period. Here we see a hint of a new conservative-liberal concept: a benign rule of the world by the United States, joined by the Soviet Union as a sort of condominium-junior partner, along with Western Europe and Japan. In short, an expanded Trilateral concept. Of course, pinpointing Islamic fundamentalism comes as no surprise from the neocons, to whom defense of the State of Israel is always the overriding goal.
Continue reading “Murray Rothbard Saw Today’s Foreign Policy Coming 24 Years Ago”

They’re Baaack: Neocons Launch Push for Regime Change

In most Hollywood horror franchises we know that the villains – take your Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or your rakish Freddy Krueger – always come back. No matter what painful death or injury felled them in the previous romp, an endless string of potential victims means room for one more film. Make that 17 more.

The neoconservative war doctrine of aggressive military force and self-serving regime change did not die after the failed wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which proponents pushed with an enthusiasm not equaled since the world tilted on its axis and Freddy met Jason in an epic hack-off.  No, the neocons went nearly dormant (there is a Bram Stoker trope here, somewhere), reduced really, to sniping at Obama, but more or less biding their time until the next opportunity to manipulate global affairs in the Middle East.

That time, it seems, has come. We’re seeing subtle signs already this week as President Obama takes the country one step closer to air strikes against Bashar Assad’s military assets. We know one thing: neither the administration or military seem particularly interested in pursuing regime change or nation building (their “punitive strike” strategy of course is a topic for another post). However, with Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham as neocon spear points — push, push, pushing for military force, now! —  neoconservative voices, old and new, are starting to hint that “to do it right,” we might be in Syria for a long time afterwards, helping the “new” government find its way.

Take for instance, Elizabeth O’Bagy.

365px-Frederick_and_Kimberly_Kagan_in_Basra
Fred and Kim Kagan consulting the military in Basra in 2008

Never heard of her? She is clearly a protégé of the Kagan Clan, representing Kimberly Kagan’s Institute for the Study of War. Kim Kagan, who is married to Fred Kagan (brother of Robert Kagan), is no doubt happy to put someone besides a Kagan to front her think tank, which frankly, is now aligned with the demise of Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who turned to her and Fred as “consultants” in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last several years, she’s written “The Surge: A Military History,” and numerous magazine articles and op-eds as panegyrics to General Petraeus and “his generals” and their now-discredited COIN pop-doctrine.

So sending out the signal for another regime change must be done carefully and with none of the old baggage.  O’Bagy has a Ph.D but this appears to be her first job. She says she has traveled extensively with the rebel groups in Syria to essentially prove that there are moderates out there who the U.S can work with.  But her recent appearances on FOX and other venues come across as bullet-point briefings with very little color. The bottom line for O’Bagy: the rebel groups can be parsed. We need not worry about the “extremists,” she insists, they are are outnumbered by the “more moderate groups” who will welcome American assistance (echoes of the Iraqi National Congress?).

Elizabeth O'Bagy
Elizabeth O’Bagy

And then for the capstone — “there needs to be more than just punitive measures” she charged on FOX Monday night. “These moderate forces .. could quickly be taken over by the ideology of these extremist groups,” if we don’t do more than just strike, she added. O’Bagy doesn’t say “regime change” is necessary, but she certainly suggests it.

This is fascinating because this is the second time, at least, that O’Bagy has been given over 5 minutes of coveted Special Report time on FOX to describe events in Syria, even though there is a city filled with more experienced foreign policy and military analysts and journalists outside [Note: Special Report gets about 1.9 million viewers each night]. She’s spreading the word at different think tank discussions in Washington, too, like here and here.

While O’Bagy appears to be a gentle enough scout for what will no doubt turn into a full-blown message-control and lobbying campaign, there are more strident neoconservative foot soldiers in the ranks. Like Charles Krauthammer, who all but dared Obama to take out Assad on Special Report tonight. Like former George W speechwriter Michael Gerson, who in Tuesday’s Washington Post laid it all on the line:

The best-case scenario is probably this: a negotiated outcome in which Assad departs and other regime elements agree to form an interim government with the non-extremist members of the opposition. The new government would then need to engage in a multi-year power struggle (aided by the United States) with the jihadists. But this approach would require convincing the regime it can’t win militarily. Which would probably only happen after a Kosovo-style, Western air campaign.

Wow. If I close my eyes and listen to this read out loud and replace “Assad” with “Saddam,” I can almost make out the contours of our failed war in Iraq. If I close my eyes long enough I may see Freddy Krueger, which to tell you the truth is a less scary prospect. Sorry Freddy, maybe it’s time to find another day job after all.

 

UPDATE: We cannot forget the notoriously neoconservative Washington Post editorial page, which on Tuesday warned that seeing “moderate forces prevail … can’t be achieved with one or two volleys of cruise missiles.” Here’s more:

The United States can’t dictate the outcome in Syria, and it would be foolish to send ground troops in an effort to do so. But by combining military measures with training, weapons supplies and diplomacy, it could exercise considerable influence. The military measures could include destroying forces involved in chemical weapons use and elements of the Syrian air force that have been used to target civilians, as well as helping to carve out a safe zone for rebels and the civilian populations they are seeking to protect.

Such military action should be seen as one component of a policy that finally recognizes a U.S. interest in helping to shape Syria’s future.

UPDATE II : The old gang, back together: The Weekly Standard publishes fatuous letter to the president offering assistance with Syria. Supposedly it includes signatories from “all over the ideological spectrum,” but that is a joke. Not when you are talking Bill Kristol, Elliot Abrams, Cliff May, Joe Lieberman, Robert Kagan, Martin Peretz, Karl Rove, Dan Senor …. you get the point. And not a true realist or anti-interventionist in sight. Not surprising, though, when you see the bottom line :

It is therefore time for the United States to take meaningful and decisive actions to stem the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and help shape and influence the foundations for the post-Assad Syria that you have said is inevitable.

What Would Richard Holbrooke Say?

2010_1213_richard_holbrooke_m

Yesterday would have been uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s 72nd birthday. He died December 13, 2010 while on the job as our top envoy to Afghanistan, and one can’t help thinking that whatever 1960’s idealism still existed in terms of making that country a better place, died with him. At least symbolically.

That is not to say that Richard “bulldozer” Holbrooke wasn’t a strident advocate for the use of military force — he was for sure, and I believe it was only to his and our ultimate detriment. But unlike his neoconservative cohorts in Washington, Holbrooke believed in starting wars (Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Iraq) as a matter of humanitarian intervention, not merely for “securing the realm” or for preserving “western interests.” That is not to say his positions on those wars were any better than those of his neocon peers, it’s merely a distinction, one being that humanitarian interventionists like Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton actually believed American power could transform societies. Neoconservatives, on the other hand, have shown time and again that while they are quite good at breaking things (and regimes), putting Humpty Dumpty back together again was never high on the priority list.

I raise the spirit of Richard Holbrooke now because I heard an old clip of him speaking on P.O.T.U.S Radio on Wednesday, in tribute to his birthday. It referred to the day in 2009 he was named special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there were a number of VIPs there to share in what was probably his last true moment in the sun. The radio spot tracked his Associated Press obituary, which noted his early service as a provincial representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam and then as an aide to two U.S. ambassadors in Saigon during the Vietnam War:

Holbrooke spotted an old friend in the audience, John Negroponte, his one-time roommate in Saigon (the former South Vietnamese capital now called Ho Chi Minh City) who later was the first director of national intelligence and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

“We remember those days well, and I hope we will produce a better outcome this time,” Holbrooke said.

This seems so sad, veering into Shakespearean territory. Here is man who spent his entire life grooming to be in a position to produce “a better outcome” than Vietnam, and then he helps, in essence, to duplicate it, by supporting a military invasion that ripped the fabric of Iraqi society apart and turned nearly every religious and ethnic group against us at some point during the last 10 years . The U.S spent trillions and strained its powerful military and sent millions of Iraqis fleeing — and to what end?

By the time the Bush Administration was on its way out and Holbrooke could have put his diplomatic skills to the test for a Democrat in Afghanistan, the world had unfortunately moved on. The military was everything, not just a means to getting men like Holbrooke to the negotiating table. The new president seemed happy to keep the military on this course, whether that was to hell in a hand basket didn’t appear to matter, as long as the brass got blamed and some kind of deadline for withdrawal could be achieved.

So, after a voluminous career that stretched back to the Kennedy Administration, Holbrooke found himself patronized and later ignored by the young whippersnapper President, who never seemed to let him flex his legendary skills to get the job done for “Af-Pak” the way he had presumably did for the Balkans. Afghan President Karzai appeared to hate him, preferring military men like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had gobs of fun at Holbrooke’s expense in 2010, right in front of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. McChrystal lost his job because of it, but Holbrooke looked very much the weaker man throughout the entire episode.

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Holbrooke’s own ego didn’t do him any favors (more than once being called a ‘bull in a china shop’), making him as many enemies as friends during his 2009-2010 stint, one thing is clear: the military was (and remains) in control of the entire war and foreign policy effort in Af-Pak. The State Department as Holbrooke had known it was and is a shell of its former self — strangled by the petty bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom, subservient to the military mission, always begging for scraps at the trough.

Holbrooke Meets With Afghan And Pakistani Foreign Ministers In Washington

And the military was — and is — not negotiating. In fact, “negotiation” and “diplomacy” seem like quaint terms these days, right behind “Geneva Convention” and “law of war.” Depending on the “deal” the Obama Administration makes with Karzai for post-2014 military relations, the U.S could likely leave Afghanistan the same way it left Iraq, a country on the brink of disaster.

Holbrooke seems to have sensed this was coming down the road, perhaps staring up at the future from his diminished perch had made him see things more clearly. James Mann, who wrote extensively about Holbrooke for his book The Obamians in 2012, quotes Holbrook’s wife, Katy Marton:

“He thought that this (Afghanistan) could become Obama’s Vietnam,” she said. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”

There was even a question over his last words, the first reports being that he told his doctor “to stop this war.” The context in which he said this has been in dispute (his doctor says it was made in “painful banter” as he awaited the surgery from which he never emerged, alive).

It was clear that the humiliation, his isolation, the failure of any way forward in Afghanistan had taken its toll, however, and was foremost on his mind when he collapsed. According to Mann’s well documented account:

On Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, Richard Holbrooke played tennis on Long Island with Bill Drozdiak, the president of the American Council on Germany, a former foreign correspondent who became friendly with Holbrooke when both were living in Europe. They played for about an hour. Drozdiak thought Holbrooke seemed unusually pale, pudgy and out of shape, as if he’d been working too hard.

 Afterward, they sat and talked. Holbrooke said he was in despair over his role in the administration. He simply could not establish a relationship with Obama, Holbrooke said. The president seemed remote and cold-blooded, at least in Holbrooke’s presence. And, as if that weren’t enough, Holbrooke’s problem wasn’t just with Obama: Holbrooke thought many in the White House were against him …

The following Friday, Holbrooke was at a meeting in Hillary Clinton’s State Department office when he suddenly became flushed and stricken with pain. He was taken to the State Department medical office, but collapsed and went by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital. He died there three days later of a ruptured aorta.

What would Holbrooke say today, now that his idea of “humanitarian intervention” has been completely discarded in favor of targeted killing, covert “dirty” wars and yes, a relatively low urgency for the humans themselves. Would he justify it, especially if he were given a prestigious inside view? Should he own it, considering that he and his “muscular Democrats” had set the stage for this evolution in the 1990’s, and had supported Obama’s tough “counter-terrorism” approaches from the beginning?

Daniel Ellsberg suggested in this interesting eulogy after Holbrooke’s death in 2010, that for as idealistic as Holbrooke was, his career came first. Perhaps the daily soul sacrifice working in the Obama Administration — for the scraps of condescension he got in return — was too much for the man. He must have known that the war enterprise was as dirty as it was doomed to failure, but he was committed to defending it nonetheless.

But we will never really know. We can safely say however, that this isn’t exactly the legacy Richard Holbrooke wanted to leave behind. Or this. Or this. In fact, it’s probably worse than he would have imagined.