503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting

No comment on this item except to say “I told you so”:

More flexibility for American commanders appears to be coming. Representative Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he expected the White House to remove “artificial troop caps” in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current “force manning level” for Syria sets a limit on the number of American military personnel in Syria at 503. But the limit does not count temporary reinforcements, like the roughly 400 personnel who were deployed in Syria when the Marine artillery battery and Army Rangers were sent to the country.

There was another telling indication on Wednesday that American Special Operations would continue to play an important role. Col. Jonathan P. Braga, the chief of staff of the Joint Special Operations Command and the former deputy commander of Delta Force, has been named as the next senior operations officer for the American-led command that is leading the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Surely you remember President Obama’s “no boots on the ground” promise (“promise”)? It took less than three years for the promise to evaporate and be forgotten. Continue reading

The “No Boots on the Ground” Fraud

I spent a fair bit of time during the fall of 2014 boring the readers of this blog with my insistence that despite Obama’s “promise(s)” not to put “boots on the ground” in Syria, he would eventually find some disingenuous, incremental way of putting them there. Since “boots on the ground” doesn’t really mean anything, military speaking, the phrase is practically designed to guarantee plausible deniability: you can promise not to put “boots on the ground,” then send military personnel to the relevant place, and then deny that that’s what you meant by “boots on the ground.” No, no: “boots on the ground” referred, all along, to those military personnel that we haven’t (yet) sent, not the boot-wearing ones that now happen to be there.

I may be a newly-minted Democrat, but I’m not dumb, amnesiac, or loyal enough to our President to forget that this is just a tired variant on the semantic game that the Bush II Administration played with the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” As we all by now know (or ought to know), very strictly speaking, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq as a result of the 2003 invasion; it’s just that the WMD we found found bore no relation to the WMD that furnished the rationale for the invasion. So if the invasion of Iraq was predicated on “finding weapons of mass destruction,” very narrowly conceived, well, it was a great success: weapons were found. But this is just a pathetic way of saving a pathetic thesis. The war was predicated on finding usable stockpiles of WMD, and precisely none of those were found.

Continue reading

Are You There, ISIS? It’s Me, Irfan

It is unlawful for a believer to kill a believer except by accident…He that kills a believer by design shall burn in Hell forever. He shall incur the wrath of Allah, who will lay His curse on him, and prepare him for a woeful scourge.

Qur’an, Surah An-Nisa’a, 4:92-93, tr. N.J. Dawood

Not that I’m saying that they should go around killing non-believers. I’m just saying that basic acquaintance with al-Primary Text’ul Qur’an shouldn’t be too much to ask of aspirants to al-Khilafat’ul Muslimin (the Caliphate of the Muslim Community).

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Here’s the “explanation” for the title of my post, for the sadly deprived minority of you who didn’t spend fourth grade memorizing the Qur’an while reading Judy Blume.

Eid Mubarak to PoT’s Muslim readers, by the way–whenever it was.

Postscript: And yes, the “Eid Mubarak” link goes to a story about a fifteen foot birthday cake baked for the Prophet Muhammad in Faisalabad, Pakistan. You don’t need to know any Urdu or Punjabi to get the gist of the story: they’ve been making this Prophet-Cake for the last 25 years; people come from far and wide to eat it, regardless of their religiosity; it’s really big, and requires this much sugar, and this much milk; etc. etc.

The Criminalization of Curiosity

Here’s another glorious contribution to the “ISIS-is-coming-so-let’s-turn-our-brains-off-in-abject-terror-and-think-of-more-rights-to-violate” literature. This one is by Eric Posner, son of Richard Posner, and evidence for the old saw that some apples fall in close proximity to the trees whence they came.

Eric Posner’s suggestion? Let’s pass a law that criminalizes the act of accessing an ISIS website, on the premise that ISIS’s propaganda has the causal powers of a cognitive virus that incapacitates people’s minds and drags them involuntarily into terrorist acts.

Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions. …

The law would provide graduated penalties. After the first violation, a person would receive a warning letter from the government; subsequent violations would result in fines or prison sentences.

But don’t worry: exceptions “could” be made

for people who can show that they have a legitimate interest in viewing ISIS websites. Press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, employment in a security agency, and the like would serve as adequate proof (my emphases).

What are the chances that “legitimate” and “the like” can be defined in a non-circular way?

And what about people without press credentials, etc.? What about people just starting out in “public commentary,” and therefore lacking a track record? Or people with a sense of curiosity, idle or otherwise, who would simply like to get a first-hand knowledge of what ISIS is about, rather than relying on “experts” picked by “the likes” of Eric Posner? Do non-credentialed people no longer have rights to free speech, or are rights reserved to a special, arbitrarily defined elite with credentials that demonstrate their worthiness to have them?

The latter, evidently. Any remaining worries can be dispatched by that old jurisprudential stand-by, “the balancing test.”

A simple balancing test would permit laws to target dangerous speech that does not advance public debate.

“A simple balancing test”–so simple that every attempt at applying such a test raises more questions than it answers, even if we arbitrarily decide that all jurisprudence must be conducted on utilitarian-consequentialist assumptions. Apparently, public debate about ISIS is not advanced by citizens’ having first-hand evidence of the nature and content of ISIS propaganda. The only permissible evidence is evidence filtered through people with “a track record of legitimate public commentary” on the subject–where “legitimacy” is presumably defined and decided by “like”-minded people with the same credentials.

Posner forgets that the legislators who are tasked with drafting his crackpot law will need access to the banned sites in order to know which sites to ban. But legislators are not on his exception list. Neither are their staffs. Neither for that matter are jurists, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, or juries. The whole idea that law involves an orderly, principled process  seems not to figure in his calculations.

How his law is to be written, enforced, or judged is therefore left a mystery. One possibility is that criminal defendants will be arrested or tried by journalists, academics, or bloggers. Another, I suppose, is that the relevant legal processes will take place by telepathy. A third possibility is that “we” dispense with legal procedures and trials altogether, criminalize access to any site that fits an “ISIS-relevant algorithm,” monitor Internet access at will, arrest anyone who accesses a banned site, and treat access to a banned site as a strict liability offense so as to simplify the process of conviction. It sounds like a reductio, but with a proposal like this, a reductio is just another entailment alongside all the others.

If you think I’m reading Posner uncharitably on the grounds that his weasel phrase “and the like” was intended to cover bloggers and law enforcement officers (legislators, judges, prosecutors, juries…), ask yourself how you would feel if someone demanded to search your home on the basis of his or her affiliation with a blog or online publication, be it BHL, Notes on Liberty, Talking Points Memo, Daily Nous, Slate, or even Policy of Truth. If you asked what the hell they were doing, it wouldn’t help for them to invoke their “likeness” to law enforcement officers. But then it won’t do to invoke the “likeness” of law enforcement officers (etc.) to bloggers while claiming that a reference to the latter ought implicitly to be construed as a reference to the former.

There is, by the way, no reason why academics or bloggers should be less susceptible to seduction by ISIS than anyone else, unless you stipulate in ad hoc fashion that the academics and bloggers who will have access are restricted precisely to those least susceptible to influence-by-ISIS. In that case, you’d probably want to restrict my access before you restricted most other people’s. If ISIS targets bored and angry people of vaguely Muslim sensibilities, beware of the vaguely Muslim academic who has spent time in Palestine, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia; has suggested that Locke’s Second Treatise can be given a Hamas-friendly reading; and who still has piles of grading to do after everyone else at the university has left for break.

Many able commentators have knocked down this or that feature of Posner’s argument on moral, constitutional, legal, and logistical grounds. I would simply point out that the argument relies on metaphors that would need to be cashed out in literal terms for the argument to get off the ground. At a minimum, we would need some empirical evidence for the claim that ISIS websites have the causal powers of a virus, that the virus in question incapacitates otherwise non-culpable minds, and that in doing so, it drags these helpless innocents into sinister terrorist or terrorist-abetting actions they couldn’t otherwise have committed. I’m afraid I don’t really believe any of that, and don’t see any reason to believe it, either.

What I find more plausible is the hypothesis that terrorism and the wars supposedly waged on it have so weakened the critical powers of our commentariat that they fear, possibly with justification, that they lack the capacity to refute what ISIS has to say. Unable to refute the propaganda, and unable to conceive its appeal to those to whom it has appeal, they feel impotent to contribute to a war effort that they have, on the basis of little more than rhetorical self-mesmerization, turned into a categorical imperative for all of us. But they feel the pressing need to do something. So day by day they produce what they like to think of as novel proposals for eliminating this or that right in the futile hope that the fewer rights we have, the more security we’ll enjoy. As for the task of offering a justification for the war “we’re in,” or the hysteria, rights violations, or state-worship it seems to necessitate, don’t hold your breath for an answer, or even an attempt at one. They’re AWOL on all that.

Eight years ago, I wrote a very critical review of Richard Posner’s book, Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency. Several years later, on re-reading the review, I almost wondered whether I’d been too rude or harsh about things. I ended it with this thought:

Posner is right to say that the Constitution is not a ‘suicide pact.’ I wonder, however, whether that phrase might not accurately describe the jurisprudence he defends in his book.

I thought long and hard before I committed those sentences to print. Was I being too snide? Too clever by half? Was I exaggerating?

Re-reading the review now, however, I’m really glad I wrote what I did, how I did. Virtually every move in Eric Posner’s article is one originally made in Richard Posner’s book; the son has simply recycled the father’s adhocrocratic prescriptions and given them a contemporary twist for the current mood.

It occurs to me with a bit of middle aged weariness that this particular malady–apocalyptic rhetoric about the unprecedented danger we face from terrorism, followed by a regrettably unavoidable proposal for more rights violations–is fated to pop up at semi-predictable intervals of our public life, like outbreaks of the measles virus or the re-emergence of the cicadas. I guess that fact implies in turn that some of us are fated to respond over and over again to such proposals in what often seems to others like a histrionic way, like a pedantic version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra engaged in a finger-wagging version of the eternal recurrence.

Well so be it. It is, I’ll admit, boring to read or even write the nth sounding of the alarm over threats to free speech. I can testify from personal experience, however, that there is one thing more boring still–life under a regime of censorship. It’s a bore to sound the alarm, but it’s more boring not to be able to. A “simple balancing test” suggests which bore is preferable to the other.

Postscript, December 29, 2015: I found Eric Posner’s arguments so ridiculous that I almost wondered whether I over-reacted in writing about them at all. No sooner do I have this thought than along comes an article in The New York Times devoted not just to Posner’s Slate piece, but to variants on the theme expressed, among others, by Cass Sunstein and Jeremy Waldron.

Sunstein’s views are laid out in this short piece at Bloomberg View. The first thing to say is that it’s not on the same topic as Posner’s. Posner wanted to criminalize access to ISIS-glorifying websites, even by people who may have no sympathy for ISIS at all. Sunstein is (much more reasonably) discussing the limits on the endorsement of potentially violent activities by those endorsing it.

In particular, he questions the “clear and present danger” test, suggesting that it’s worth asking whether the test is “ripe for reconsideration.” He ends up with this formulation:

If (and only if) people are explicitly inciting violence, perhaps their speech doesn’t deserve protection when (and only when) it produces a genuine risk to public safety, whether imminent or not.

I don’t have a strong objection to that formulation, but it’s a long way from Posner’s view, and it’s also a long way from being clear enough to be susceptible of a response. What it needs and lacks is an account of what it is for a speech act to “produce a genuine risk to public safety”–a tall order.

A speech act can in some sense “produce a genuine risk to public safety” without inciting anything. If what I say fills a large number of people with rage, you might say (misleadingly) that my assertion that p “produced” the rage that (say) led to a riot, whether or not I incited it in the sense of explicitly calling for it. But from a different perspective, the speech act didn’t “produce” anything except speech. The crowd considered the sound and acted on it, and each individual in the crowd produced the riot. In one sense, then, “produce X” means “raise the probability that X will happen.” In another sense, “produce X” means “intentionally bring X about, or try to bring it about.” It’s not clear which one Sunstein means. If he means the latter, I can agree with him, but not if he means the former.

On the latter interpretation, the suggestion I would make would be to regulate incitement by analogy with assault and/or conspiracy. If I incite violence, my act should be legally actionable just in case it credibly calls for violence against some particular victim, the victim credibly fears a threat on the basis of this call, and the threatened act would violate the criminal code (=violate rights).  Celebrating a murder wouldn’t do it, even if you called in the midst of the celebration for more killing. Neither would this shit, vile as it is. (The correct way of handling something like the preceding would be for the guardians of the mosque to deny the speaker the right to speak in the it, i.e., to throw him out, not to arrest him.) I think it’s obvious that we don’t want to say that an Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Theo van Gogh, or Salman Rushdie et. al. should be held responsible for the overwrought reactions people have had to their work, even if the work in question is thought to “incite” (i.e., elicit) violence by its “inflammatory” or “incendiary” style.

In many cases, it seems to me that the dangers Sunstein mentions can be averted by assiduous enforcement of weapons laws, and also by demanding that political protest be regulated so that it’s confined to a specific place and time. If people want to gather in a park, with a permit that confines them to the park for a certain amount of time, and call for the overthrow of the U.S. government–or the mass slaughter of Jews, Muslims, or atheist philosophers–while they’re there during that time, that’s fine. But if they call for those things as they leave the park en masse with a view to enact the overthrow, that’s a different story. And a demonstration with weapons is another story as well. (It’s a tremendous irony that critics of Islam object to the face-concealing features of the hijab, but show up at armed protests against Muslims wearing masks.)

It’s also not clear from Sunstein’s account what counts as a genuine risk to public safety, or even what’s meant by “public safety” in a day and age when college students demands “safe spaces” from ordinary political speech. But that said, Sunstein’s view are light-years away from Posner’s.

Waldron’s views are more obviously objectionable than Sunstein’s (and apparently laid out in his 2012 book, The Harm in Hate Speech).

“I argued, in the adjacent area of hate speech, that the clear and present danger test is inadequate,” Mr. Waldron said in an interview. “You can poison the atmosphere without an immediate danger, but sometimes, waiting for an imminent danger is waiting too long.”

Well, you can “poison the atmosphere” simply by committing the fallacy of poisoning the well–or by committing almost any ad hominem fallacy. Would Waldron want to say that the commission of ad hominem fallacies should be illegal? I have trouble believing that the preceding quotation expresses Waldron’s considered view, but taking it at face value, as stated in the Times, I find it ridiculous. If “poisoning the atmosphere” were enough to trigger legal action, virtually the whole Republican presidential slate would have to be put under arrest, followed by whole college campuses.

I agree with Posner, Sunstein, and Waldron on one thing: legal thinking on incitement is a mess and could use some rethinking, though not I suspect in the direction they seem to want to take things.

Fernando Teson on “The War on ISIS”: How to Start a War with a Non-Sequitur

Fernando Teson continues his dialectical winning streak on Near Eastern topics over at BHL. His latest is an attempt to defend a full-scale war against ISIS via “just war theory.” He presents his “case” (scare quotes, not a direct quote) in the form of a list of numbered propositions. I don’t know if he realizes that a list is not an argument, but this list obviously isn’t one, and doesn’t provide anything that begins to resemble a case for going to war against ISIS. The first item on the list is as follows:

  1. The international community—represented by an appropriate military coalition—has a just cause to wage war on ISIS. That just cause is twofold: (a) the right of humanitarian intervention aimed at saving the populations in Syria and Iraq that are presently victimized by ISIS, and (b) the right of self-defense in response to ISIS’ attacks elsewhere.

I hate to belabor the obvious, but X has just cause to wage war against Y doesn’t entail that X ought, all things considered, to wage war against Y. At best having just cause to wage war is a necessary condition for deciding to wage war, in just the way that having a right to self-defense against someone who threatens you on the street is a necessary condition for deciding to fight back, but not by itself sufficient for deciding to fight back. Among the other considerations: the probability of victory; the nature of the victory envisioned and whether it’s worth fighting for; the price of having to fight relative to the benefits of fighting; the probable unintended consequences of fighting and their costs; etc. Teson doesn’t address any of those obviously relevant issues. He just invokes just war theory, handwaves his way through the details, and somehow concludes that it’s time to wage another Near Eastern war.

Another belaboring of the obvious: is it clear that full-scale warfare will diminish ISIS’s attacks on us? If so, what is the argument for thinking so? For now, the argument is MIA.

This is the mentality of our “expert” class of IR theorists: dominated by theories whose defects and indeterminacies they refuse to acknowledge, they seem incapable of learning from even the most recent history, and incapable of rising to the level of ordinary common sense.  Yet another belaboring of the obvious: it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than Teson’s hand-waving to convince rational people that we ought to be venturing into another Near Eastern war (or any other kind of war) any time soon.

So try again, Teson. Or rather, do us all a favor and don’t try again. The accumulated weight of the unanswered questions in your arguments on this general topic are not exactly a credit to anything you’ve so far said on the subject. Time to hand the shovel up and stop digging.

Postscript, December 11, 2015: Fernando Teson may not regard my objections as worth responding to, and may not regard me as a worthy interlocutor, but I can’t imagine that he regards Andrew Bacevich as someone he can easily dismiss. This article from Wednesday’s New York Times gives a succinct summary, based on Bacevich’s arguments, of some of the most obvious objections to Teson’s “proposal.” And this article, published a year ago, gives readers a sense of the debate on ISIS we haven’t had, and aren’t having.

I have trouble understanding how anyone can be recommending war against ISIS while blithely ignoring issues like these:

If overwhelming firepower alone could guarantee success, the United States would have won the Vietnam War and emerged victorious from Afghanistan and Iraq. And 14 years after 9/11, the threat from Al Qaeda might have disappeared, rather than persisting, morphing and re-emerging as the Islamic State.

As if to underscore the inadequacy of a conventional military approach are terrorist attacks like the one last week in San Bernardino, Calif. It appears not to have been directed by the Islamic State, American officials say, but was simply inspired by it.

Middle East analysts across a broad spectrum — whether they call for more, fewer or different military interventions in the region — say that when it comes to the Islamic State, the West is acting as if it has failed to learn the lessons of the past.

Mr. Bacevich says “the lessons of these failures” are too rapidly forgotten as many Americans succumb to what he calls a form of militarism, “clinging to the illusion that because we have a splendid military, putting it to work will make things come out all right in the end.”

Unfortunately, he says, “little evidence exists to support any such expectation.”

The Princetonian and the Discourses: James Baker III on ISIS

One more post on ISIS-induced militarism, and I promise to let it go. For now.

James Baker III was the speaker at my college graduation. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything he said that day. He also presided (with President George H.W. Bush) over the first Gulf War, which I do remember protesting as a college senior. The argument I made at the time was that a first unfinished war would lead, inevitably, to a second war, and ultimately, to perpetual warfare over Iraq. But the costs of a finished war–one that overthrew Saddam Hussein–were far too high. So no war was better than either one or many. (The argument wasn’t original to me; I got it from my friend Tom Palmer, who came to campus at my invitation in the fall of 1990 to make the case against the war.)

Here is Baker, interviewed in the most recent issue of Princeton University’s alumni magazine, Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a fairly typical performance of the non-descript/pragmatist/faceless bureaucrat variety. This time, however, I’ve decided to take some time out to pay attention to what he says–and what doesn’t get said.

It’s typical of Princeton Alumni Weekly that having managed to land an interview with yet another Big Name Princeton Statesman, they insist on throwing him softball questions carefully calibrated to avoid any and all fundamental issues that might induce discomfort. “The former secretary of state talks about fighting ISIS,” we’re told, “perhaps with Iran’s help.” Predictably, the question that goes unasked throughout the interview is: why must we Americans fight ISIS at all? Having granted the premise that we must, the remaining questions are only a matter of tweaking the details: how do we win on the cheap, by inducing other people to do our fighting for us? Even on this relatively narrow issue, Baker’s answers are illuminating: they reveal the mental processes of a bureaucrat completely indifferent to moral principles, whose basic concern is how to leave all options open in an essentially Machiavellian quest to promote the so-called “interests of the state.”

The fight against ISIS looks like another example of asymmetrical warfare. What would victory over ISIS look like?

President Obama defined it when he said that our goal is to degrade and destroy ISIS, but we’re going to have a really tough time. These people are smart, they’ve acquired a lot of resources, and they’re committed. They’re brutal, of course, but they’re good fighters. I do not think we are going to be able to degrade and destroy them with airstrikes alone. We’ll at least need to have special ops forces on the ground to guide the airstrikes and to help the Iraqi army, which so far has not proven to be of much use. So it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

Our goal is to degrade and destroy them. We’re going to have a tough time. Airstrikes alone won’t do the trick, and the Iraqis can’t do the trick, so we’ll at least need special ops forces on the ground.

A few observations about Baker’s rhetorical techniques:

(1) The repeated emphasis on we stresses to the reader that “we” are already invested in the fight. We can’t stop now: we got involved yesterday. To back out now would be cowardice.  So full speed ahead.

(2) He makes clear that ground forces are needed, and that the existing non-American forces cannot do the job. Since we Americans are already involved, however, we appear to have no choice (or so he implies) but to put some “boots on the ground.” But don’t worry. These boots-on-the-ground will not involve ordinary soldiers of the sort who might be your next-door neighbor or co-worker. They’re “special ops forces.” The mystique of the phrase makes them sound like ninjas of some exotic variety. And they won’t be fighting. They’ll be “guiding” and “helping.”

(3) Having assuaged any fears about putting “boots on the ground,” Baker insists cleverly on leaving his options wide open. He doesn’t say that we’ll only need to send special ops forces. He says that we’ll “at least” need them. Of course, “at least” is perfectly compatible with needing more than special ops forces. How many more is dictated not by James Baker or Barack Obama but by reality. But since “we” are already involved in the fight against ISIS, “how many more” means as many more as “we” need to do the job. And how many is that? Well, that’s an “unknown unknown,” as one of Baker’s successors put it.

That’s why Baker (and Obama) can afford to let the issue of precisely what is needed go unspoken. We only need to “know” that we “need” to fight; we don’t need to know, and can’t know, what the fight will require of “us.” When reality eventually makes its ultimatum–send yet more troops or be defeated by ISIS–reality can be blamed in its typically unpredictable way for “making” us send more than we ever bargained for, leaving the politicians who got us involved immune to criticism. Since no one ever quite decided to get us involved, no one can be held responsible for the degree of our involvement in the fight, and reality can be counted on to draw us further and further in–as it did in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and…Iraq. When it does, the only entity amenable to blame when things go wrong will be reality itself, and the only plausible remedy will be the renewed application of yet more force. “Fortune,” as Machiavelli puts it, “is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force….” (The Prince, ch. 25). Or by guile. He forgot to add that you can also revile her if you fail.

So get ready for a “long, hard slog,” even though no one has explained why any Americans should have to do any of the slogging. And get ready for it, Mr. and Ms. Average American Citizen, even though the slogging is only going to be done by a few special ops “helpers” and “guides” who aren’t supposed to be getting their hands dirty in this all-Sunni cagefight anyway. Taken literally, none of it makes any sense. But you’re not supposed to take it literally. You’re supposed to assume that James Baker, the former secretary of state, knows what he’s talking about–and that you don’t. If people took the James Bakers of the world literally, after all, they wouldn’t be in power.

The next few questions essentially do Baker’s work for him, establishing that no other set of ground forces can do the requisite job, except for the United States and Iran. Does that mean we Americans should send troops over there?

Would the American public support sending our troops back into Iraq?

No, and I’m not suggesting that we do that. This really should be the Sunni Arabs’ fight, but the truth of the matter is that it is more and more a huge civil war between the Sunnis and the Shia. Sending in large numbers of American troops would be a mistake, and I don’t think the public would accept it. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say we’re going to destroy ISIS, but we’re only going to do it from the air.

Note once again the characteristically non-confrontational and irrelevant character of the question asked of Baker. Instead of asking him straightforwardly whether American troops should be sent, the interviewer decides to turn him into an armchair sociologist. By this expedient, the relevant issue becomes the popularity rather than than the justifiability of sending troops (a common and predictable diversion in any Machiavelli-infected culture). The answer to the interviewer’s question is really too obvious to merit a place in the interview: there is no popular support for another “troop surge” in the Middle East, whether in Iraq or anywhere else. (Of course, given the notorious passivity of the American people, it’s not as though there would be much push-back if troops were sent, whether to Iraq or to Syria, or anywhere else. Eyes would still be glued to Kim Kardashian’s butt, one way or the other.) Baker realizes that this question is too soft even for his tastes, so he seizes the opportunity to make clear that he doesn’t intend to advocate anything as unpopular as sending American “boys and girls” (his phrase) to fight over there.

What follows this supposedly clear assertion is a disingenuous set of contortions. The fight over ISIS is really “the Sunni Arabs’ fight,” we’re told. Whew! What a relief! But wait a minute: if it’s a Sunni Arab fight, how is that “we” are so invested in it? We’re not Sunni Arabs. The relief at hearing Baker tell us that it’s not our fight only lasts as long as the realization that while he thinks it would be a mistake to send in “large numbers of troops,” we have no idea what “large numbers” means to him, and whatever it means, it’s compatible with sending in medium-sized numbers of troops. (Though Baker is no longer in power, I’m discussing all this as though he were; he certainly speaks as though he still is, and I don’t think his Obama administration counterpart is all that different from him.)

Baker goes on to point out that we “can’t have it both ways.” (He says “you can’t have it both ways,” as though we were the ones guilty of it, not him.) In other words, we can’t insist that the goal is to “destroy” ISIS but then to choose means insufficient to the end. Very true. But if we haven’t yet figured out how to generate means sufficient to the end of destroying ISIS–and selecting the most obvious and efficacious set of means to the end “would be a mistake”–then why adopt the end at all?  Why wander into a morass without knowing how we’re going to get through or out it? Can it really make sense to adopt the end of defeating someone in war, but not bothering with the question of how it’s to be done–especially when it’s not clear right now that the question even has an answer?

Coming the other way around, suppose that you do adopt the end. Having done so, suppose you reject the optimal means to the end, but hold out for the possibility of endorsing a second-best set of means just slightly different from the optimum. So you won’t send in “large numbers of troops” (whatever that means) you’ll just send a fair number (whatever that means). In that case, aren’t you just playing a game with your audience, in the hopes that they’re either not reading you very carefully or not paying close attention to what you’re saying? It almost sounds Machiavellian.

Baker’s argument involves one last move. He can preserve the consistency of everything he’s said if he introduces a non-American source of anti-ISIS troops whose presence is at least semantically consistent with a non-large American troop presence in Iraq and Syria. The interviewer lobs him just the question to make the point.

It is in Iran’s interest as well to defeat ISIS. Is there an opportunity to find some common ground with the Iranians?

If you accept that winning this war will require troops on the ground, that we don’t have any available, that Turkey is not willing to put troops in, and that the Gulf states don’t have that many troops to send, I’d much rather have Iranian troops in there fighting ISIS than I would American boys and girls. The Iranians helped us in Afghanistan in 2001, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could do it again.

If we did work with the Iranians against ISIS, it would have to be done very quietly, because we would lose our Sunni Arab allies and it would create a firestorm in Congress. But I would be surprised [if] we weren’t working in concert with Iran right now at some level. There’s not one country in the world that doesn’t have an interest in seeing ISIS destroyed, so I think this would be an ideal place to build a truly effective coalition.

Pause on that. It’s a work of art, at least if prevarication is an aesthetic genre.

First of all, if we are not sending troops to fight ISIS, in what sense would Iranian involvement be a case of finding “common ground” with them? In that case, they’d be doing the fighting, and we would not be doing it. That’s not a case of finding “common ground,” but of our free riding on their efforts.

Perhaps I’m overdoing the criticisms here, you say. So let’s suppose, ex hypothesi, that a free rider can seek common ground with the party on whom he’s free riding, at least if they both desire the same outcome. The problem is that in this case, aside from the narrow goal of defeating ISIS, the United States and Iran aren’t seeking the same outcome. Each nation wants to impose its own hegemony over the region, and that hegemony involves radically different interests and goals. (After all, would we cheer if Iran replaced ISIS by Hezbullah? Obviously, the Iranians would.) So it makes no sense to claim that we share common ground with them once one looks past the concern of the immediate moment.

While we’re on this subject: if we had common ground with the Iranians, it wouldn’t be problematic that they happen to be the unintended beneficiary of our having overthrown Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But it’s Baker who tells us elsewhere in the interview that the Iraq war led to a problematic augmentation of Iranian influence in the Gulf. How problematic could it be if we’re both on the same side?

For that matter, if the Iranians can be trusted to be our allies in the fight against ISIS, then why begrudge them the atomic bombs they appear to want to build? We don’t begrudge such things to the Israelis, the Pakistanis, or the Indians, after all. Recall that the fight against ISIS is motivated in part by fears about ISIS’s acquiring the remnants of Iraq’s WMD program. Are the Iranians to be trusted with that, but not with their own weapons program?

Second point: the Iranians “helped us in Afghanistan” in the sense of facilitating our invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. (The Iranians were opposed to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and wanted us to do the work of defeating their natural Sunni enemies.) In that case, they were free riding on us. Does Baker really mean that because we allowed them to free ride on us, they’ll now decide that it’s time for a bit of reciprocation and therefore allow us, in turn, to free ride on them? I wouldn’t bank on it. Obviously, if they decide to fight in a “common” cause with us, they will want a quid pro quo that involves our putting some “skin in the game.” But that is just what Baker is at pains to (half) deny.  I suspect that that’s why, amidst all of the rhetorical and semantic confusion Baker introduces, he makes sure to end the whole passage with the word “coalition.” “Large numbers of American troops” may not be “available,” but ultimately, we must remember that we are part of a “coalition.” So maybe fewer-than-a-large-number of American troops will have to become available, lest we lose our place in the “coalition.” If that’s not what “working” with the Iranians means, I’m almost afraid to find out what it does mean.

Finally, note Baker’s assumption that Iranian involvement all has to be done on “the down low”–very, very quietly. Shhh! It might even be happening right now!  So let’s keep it a secret, shall we? It’ll be between you, me, and James Baker. Granted, this is the age of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Wikileaks, where secrets have a tendency to get out, and yes, Mr Baker just let the secret of “our” Iranian operations out in the online version of Princeton Alumni Weekly. But hey, we’re gentlemen, aren’t we? What happens in Princeton Alumni Weekly stays in Princeton Alumni Weekly. If we’re very, very discreet, there’s still a chance that the Sunnis and Congress can be kept in the dark about our pro-Iranian tilt, just as they were kept in the dark about our pro-Iraq tilt back in the 1980s, or for that matter, our paradoxical pro-Iran tilt at the same time (cf. the Iran-contra scandal).

Perhaps we ought to give Machiavelli the last word here.

A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them…[T]hose [princes] who have been best able to imitate the fox have succeeded best. But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so read to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived. (Machiavelli, Prince, ch. 18).

All I can say is: they don’t call James Baker’s alma mater “Princeton” for nothing.

P.S., November 16, 2014: This morning’s New York Times Book Review contains a trio of must-read reviews of books on the aftermath and costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: John Nagl’s Knife Fights; Yochi Dreazen’s The Invisible Front; and Daniel Bolger’s Why We Lost. It makes for vital but depressing reading. If you aren’t depressed enough yet, feel free to read Gary Bass’s review of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, which ends with this cheery thought:

When democratic hopes for a perpetual peace inevitably withered, the fascists and totalitarians seized their fatal chance. As World War I was drawing to a close in 1918, Wilson said he was “thinking now only of putting the United States into a position of strength and justice. I am now playing for 100 years hence.” With only a few years to go until then, we are still reckoning with the awful aftershocks of that era’s failures.

Postscript 2, December 10, 2014: Just in case you thought that a discussion of James Baker, secretary of state in a previous administration, was irrelevant to the machinations of the current secretary of state, consider this article in today’s Times. In the hard copy New York edition, the title is, “Kerry Argues Not to Ban Ground Troops in Fight Against Islamic Militants.” Verbal gymnastics don’t get better than this:

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry urged Congress on Tuesday not to preclude the use of ground forces to fight the Islamic State as lawmakers consider setting limits on the nature and extent of American involvement in the military campaign against the group.

Mr. Kerry made his request in testimony before an unusual session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He underscored that the administration was prepared to negotiate over a measure authorizing the use of force, but he made clear that the administration believes it needs greater flexibility than many lawmakers seemed ready to allow.

“The president has been crystal clear that his policy is that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL,” Mr. Kerry said, using an alternate name for the group. “It doesn’t mean that we should pre-emptively bind the hands of the commander in chief or our commanders in the field in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee,” he added.

Got that? The president has been crystal clear that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIS. And that’s why the president is demanding that you give him the flexibility to deploy U.S. military forces to conduct ground combat operations against ISIS. It would be unreasonable, after all, for anyone to “pre-emptively bind” the president by a solemn promise that he himself made.

How is it that holding the most powerful man in the world accountable for not starting a war he promised not to start ends up sounding like a collective imposition of BDSM on an unwilling captive?

Postscript 3, December 14, 2014: I just happened to notice this article, “Following the Rise and Fall of Machiavelli,” in the Travel section of last week’s New York Times. It’s an interesting article, and obviously, I have no objections to the idea of visiting Florence to take a look at the world he inhabited (or visiting Florence for any other reason). But why the need to valorize Machiavelli as a political thinker and whitewash the argument of The Prince?

But even as Machiavelli was creating his masterpiece, he had fears it would be misinterpreted, seen by the court as less a letter of forgiveness to the Medicis than a master plan for Machiavelli and other ambitious types to orchestrate their own takeovers. After “The Prince” was written in 1513, his fears were almost immediately realized, the treatise was quickly vilified, and Machiavelli labeled “an agent of the devil.”

Now, however, just before the 500th anniversary of the presentation of “The Prince” to the Medicis in Florence, theorists and political scientists not only believe that in parts it was indeed misread, but also that it, in fact, marks the starting point for modern politics, serving as a highly persuasive treatise on diplomacy and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering required to curry favor in an ever-changing political landscape. “One must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves” — it was just this sort of pragmatic thought that has made him so important across the centuries. Leaders from John Adams to Bill Clinton have been influenced by Machiavelli, reciting from his work or studying his texts to put in context their own political times.

Amoral power worship is “the starting point for modern politics”? With handwaving views of that sort, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised or even much dismayed when our foxy leaders come to regard their own promises as traps, and make lying promises as a matter of routine, as illustrated by this article, “Senate Panel Approves Limited ISIS Fight, Reviving War Powers Debate.” President Obama’s erstwhile promise not to send ground troops has now become a debate over the tentative limits to be placed on the use of ground troops. Apparently, the debate over whether to send them ended before it began.

So this is what Machiavellian politics looks like in real life:

“We really don’t want to use ground troops,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. But, he added, to have that restriction written into law, “I think is not the right way to go.”

That is a view the administration shares. Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the committee on Tuesday that the president would fight any effort to preclude the use of ground forces because, he argued, there are simply too many unknowns.

We don’t want to use ground troops. That’s why restrictions on the use of ground troops are a bad idea. In other words, when you don’t want to do something, you insist on leaving all options on the table for doing it.

The President promised not to use ground troops. That’s why he’s fighting any effort to preclude using them. In other words, when you promise something, you make sure to facilitate breaking the promise.

The President has no idea what’s going on out there in Syria and Iraq. That’s why it’s crucial to send troops: you send troops when you have no idea what effect sending them will have, for what purpose, or with what scope. Amazingly, the article discusses the Senators’ refusal even to restrict the sending of ground troops to Iraq and Syria. Just in case you thought that Rumsfeldian epistemology was  a thing of the past or restricted to members of the G.W. Bush Administration.

In other words, what we get from Machiavelli in modern politics are two essentially insane ideas that people nowadays would like to regard as the essence of “modern” wisdom: moral  principles don’t apply to politics; consequently, there are no limits whatsoever on the use of force by the state.

In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant famously condemns the act of making a lying promise. According to Kant, once the lying promissor universalizes his maxim, he

sees at once that such a maxim could never hold as a universal law of nature and be consistent with itself, but necessarily be self-contradictory. For the universality of a law which says that anyone believing himself to be in difficulty could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not keeping it would make promising itself and the end to be attained thereby quite impossible, inasmuch as no one would believe what was promised him but would merely laugh at all such utterances as being vain pretenses. (Ak. 422).

The problem is, I don’t hear laughter.

Analyze This: Thomas Friedman psychoanalyzes the Middle East

I don’t think I can be accused of sympathies for Islamism (or Islam) any more than I can be accused of sympathy for communism (or Marxism). But there comes a point when “Western” criticism of Islamism becomes its own pathology, in the same way and for the same reasons that in the 1950s, McCarthyite anti-communism became its own pathology. Here’s a relatively mild but instructive example from a column by Thomas Friedman called “Freud and the Middle East.

He starts reasonably enough:

When trying to make sense of the Middle East, one of the most important rules to keep in mind is this: What politicians here tell you in private is usually irrelevant. What matters most, and what explains their behavior more times than not, is what they say in public in their own language to their own people. As President Obama dispatches more U.S. advisers to help Iraqis defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS, it is vital that we listen carefully to what the key players are saying in public in their own language about each other and their own aspirations.

Of course, if this were true, it would help to be able to understand what they “say in public in their own language to their own people.” Friedman somehow claims to understand what they’re saying but shows no evidence of understanding the languages they speak. (He apparently has a passable knowledge of Arabic, but I don’t think he knows Turkish, and Turkish is the language at issue in much of this column.) Instead, he quotes throughout from a translation service. The service, MEMRI, has its own political agenda, and translates selectively from a relatively narrow range of items. That limitation doesn’t stop Friedman from giving his readers the idea that he has his thumb on the pulse of the region. His claim, rather sparsely supported, is that Sunni Muslims all–or, well, almost all–covertly desire to re-establish the ancient caliphate, and thus (almost) all harbor covert admiration for ISIS.

Here is what Friedman regards as evidence for his claim:

Well, at least Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is in the modern world. No, wait, what is the name that Erdogan insists be put on the newest bridge he’s building across the Bosporus? Answer: the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge. Selim I was the Sunni Turkish sultan who, in 1514, beat back the Persian Shiite empire of his day, called the Safavids. Turkey’s Alevi minority, a Shiite offshoot sect whose ancestors faced Selim’s wrath, have protested the name of the bridge.

They know it didn’t come out of a hat. According to Britannica, Selim I was the Ottoman sultan (1512-20) who extended the empire to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, “and raised the Ottomans to leadership of the Muslim world.” He then turned eastward and took on the Safavid Shiite dynasty in Iran, which posed a “political and ideological threat” to the hegemony of Ottoman Sunni Islam. Selim was the first Turkish leader to claim to be both sultan of the Ottoman Empire and caliph of all Muslims.

Here in the States, we just finished celebrating Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus was surely a competitor with Selim I for imperial ambition and militaristic indifference to the Rights of Man. Now recall that Columbus made it to North American shores in 1492–a “crazy long time ago,” as one of my students put it to me. Does that mean that we aren’t part of the modern world, and that we still want to enslave indigenous peoples? After all, we haven’t just dedicated a mere bridge to Columbus, but a whole day to him. If not–and I assume not–why think that the Turks’ naming a bridge after an Ottoman sultan proves that they want to restore the caliphate?

Another cringe-making paragraph:

Vice President Joe Biden did not misspeak when he accused Turkey of facilitating the entry of ISIS fighters into Syria. Just as there is a little bit of West Bank “Jewish settler” in almost every Israeli, there is a little bit of the caliphate dream in almost every Sunni. Some Turkish analysts suspect Erdogan does not dream of building pluralistic democracy in Iraq and Syria, but rather a modern Sunni caliphate — not led by ISIS but by himself. Until then, he clearly prefers ISIS on his border than an independent Kurdistan.

I think I’d want better evidence of Turkey’s facilitating the entry of ISIS fighters into Syria than this. Biden, who has one major instance of intellectual dishonesty in his past, is also known for putting his foot in his mouth on occasion (or two, or…ten). On this particular occasion, he happens explicitly to have withdrawn the accusation against Turkey, so it’s mystifying how Friedman manages to exhume the comment from the dead and use it as Exhibit A of his thesis. One explanation for Biden’s withdrawal of the claim is that he really believes what he said, and was entirely justified in saying it, but simply fears the wrath of the Turkish president. Another explanation is that he spoke too hastily, lacked proper evidence, and realized that he’d embarrassed himself. I leave it to readers to decide between these two hypotheses. I only point out that Friedman neither provides the evidence to decide between them, nor bothers to inform his readers of the need to make a decision. Responsible journalism? No; in fact, it’s positively Oriental in its shadiness.

As for the next sentence in the passage, it’s a double-insult to those it accuses and a complete non-sequitur to boot. What on earth does Biden’s (withdrawn) accusation have to do with Friedman’s claims about non-Turkish Sunnis? And what conceivable evidence could support such a claim, whether about Sunnis, or about Israelis? How many Sunnis are there in the world, and what sample of them has Friedman met? How many of their languages does he speak? For that matter, how many Israelis has he met to justify the claim that they’re all settlers at heart? I’ve been covering inductive generalization with my critical thinking classes here at Felician, but these generalizations are too wild and preposterous even for use in a classroom exercise on fallacious reasoning. They’re the sort of thing I’d expect from an unhinged combox crusader at Jihad Watch, not from a veteran columnist at The New York Times. Under normal circumstances, we’d call generalizations of this kind “bigotry.” Under the present circumstances, one simply furrows one’s brow and wonders what the hell is going through Friedman’s mind.

What, finally, does the column have to do with Freud?

In sum, there are so many conflicting dreams and nightmares playing out among our Middle East allies in the war on ISIS that Freud would not have been able to keep them straight.

That’s it. Bring up “dreams” in one stray sentence in the course of a (very) half-assed column, and suddenly, you’re doing the psychodynamics of “the Middle East.” By this definition, I guess Osama bin Laden was a Freudian.

If you want to grasp the full meaning of the concept of “double standard,” turn from Friedman’s article to a report (first link just below) by the group AMCHA, purporting to document instances of anti-Semitism on American university campuses. The claim they make is that anyone sympathetic to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel is ipso facto an anti-Semite, ought to be branded as one by name, and ought to be treated accordingly. In fact, such academics, according to AMCHA, are to be blacklisted in full-dress McCarthyite fashion. Here is AMCHA’s idea of an operational definition of “anti-Semitism.”  The AMCHA blacklist has recently been protested by a group of 40 professors of Jewish Studies, but it’s also gotten the support of  Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and others. It’s an unbelievable phenomenon, but really just the predictable result of about a decade-and-a-half of very aggressive lobbying by a certain right-wing brand of pro-Israel activist who would rather engage in libels and defamation than argument.

The lesson here seems to be that you can make unrestrained generalizations about the covert imperial ambitions of Arabs and Muslims based on absolutely nothing–and that you can engage in character-assassination of critics of Israel based on about as much. Further, you can do it in the serene and untroubled conviction that there’s nothing wrong with either thing. You just start here: Arabs and Muslims are irredentist fanatics, and accusations of anti-Semitism can be made of them (or those who support their causes) off the cuff; when it comes to character-assassination, precision is a very low priority. It’s easier to make an accusation than to defend oneself against one, after all. Make the accusation, and you’re half-way home: in a climate of opinion in which the presumption of innocence no longer applies, the damage has already been done.

What we’re witnessing, I think, is the derangement that arises from prolonged immersion in the rhetoric and psychodynamics of warfare. We’ve been at war for so long, and the activity has corrupted our minds so completely, that discourse on topics related to the Middle East now seems to have devolved into something genuinely psychopathological–into schizoid fantasy and hysteria. In other words, welcome to the place where civilization and its discontents merge into the psychopathology of everyday life. It’s going to take more than a few sessions on the couch to work this one out.

Postscript, November 13, 2014: Here’s more grist for the mill, so to speak: The New York Times reports this morning that “[m]embers of a Turkish nationalist youth group assaulted three visiting American sailors in Istanbul yesterday, hurling balloons filled with red paint at them, putting white sacks over their heads and calling them murderers.” Twelve of them were later arrested. Here is the Pentagon’s characteristically tone-deaf response to the event: “A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, was more blunt [than the American Embassy], saying that the assailants ‘appeared to be thugs on the street’ and were ‘a great discredit upon the Turks and the Turkish reputation for hospitality’.”

Honestly, where do they get these “spokesmen” from? That the attack was thuggish and wrong I don’t dispute. But is a single attack by a dozen thugs a “great discredit” upon the reputation of the people of a whole country? I wonder whether Col. Warren has any idea how many visiting foreigners are attacked and robbed when they visit the United States–to say nothing of how they’re treated by border control guards at our ports of entry and exit. Do individual crimes against foreign visitors reflect on my reputation, yours, Col. Warren’s, or that of the American people? How would they? The claim is patently ridiculous, and yet we pay “spokesmen” like Warren handsome sums to make claims like that. Is it any wonder that the stereotype of the “ugly American” persists?

Anything Goes: Further Studies in American Foreign Policy (Veterans Day Edition)

Pausing to observe American foreign policy in the making is like pausing to observe a car wreck on the highway: there’s no point in doing it, but there are times when it really can’t be helped. It’s always just the same gruesome scene, but today is Veteran’s Day, so there’s no averting one’s eyes from the mechanism that creates the veterans we’re supposed to be “celebrating.” In honor of that day, today’s blog post will be an exercise in decoding the euphemisms of war-talk, and translating them into our wholesome native tongue.

The lead story in yesterday’s New York Times was, “Obstacles Limit Targets and Pace of Strikes on ISIS.” Three passages in it are particularly instructive. Here’s the first:

President Obama’s decision last week to double the number of American trainers and advisers in Iraq, to about 3,000, and request more than $5 billion from Congress for military operations against the Islamic State was viewed as clear acknowledgment of the challenges in fighting a limited war. They are especially acute when Washington’s allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria need far more training to battle a formidable adversary that offers little in the way of clear targeting.

In an interview broadcast Sunday, Mr. Obama said he had made his decision, announced Friday, in order to accelerate the mission by taking a set of fresh, if incremental, steps toward greater involvement.

“What it signals is a new phase,” the president said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“What we knew was that phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible, and we now have done that,” he said. “And so now what we’ve done is rather than just try to halt ISIL’s momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.”

Here’s the second:

“The airstrikes are buying us time. They aren’t going to solve the problem by themselves,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff and a former top commander in Iraq. “It’s going to take people on the ground, ground forces.”

General Odierno said the priority was developing “indigenous forces” to retake territory from ISIS. “Over time, if that’s not working, then we’re going to have to reassess, and we’ll have to decide whether we think it’s worth putting other forces in there, to include U.S. forces,” he said.

And here’s the third:

Senior American commanders are preaching patience and warning against trying to replay previous air campaigns on the shifting battlefield of Iraq.

“Every air campaign is different and can’t be a reflection of a past one,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey G. Lofgren of the Air Force, the deputy commander of coalition air forces in the Middle East. “A lot of people would like us to drop hundreds of bombs and make the problem go away, but it’s not that kind of war.”

The first passage tells us that we have entered a war that can only be won by the use of ground troops. The two possibilities for the use of grounds troops are either Iraqi troops or American troops. Iraqi troops cannot win the war, but the passage tells us that while we are doubling the military advisers we send to Iraq, we will not be sending American troops there. If this sounds like a classic case of willing the end but not willing the means, maybe it does because that’s what it is.

The second passage, asserted by a subordinate of the president, tells us that in fact, we will have to send American troops, whether the president likes it or not. This claim has the merit of willing the end and willing the necessary and available means to it. It has the demerit of contradicting what the president just supposedly said. It remains unclear whether Odierno is defying the president, in collusion with the president, or simply hasn’t gotten his story straight. The bottom line, however, is that what he says about the insertion of U.S. troops contradicts the president’s assurances that they won’t be sent.

As we all know, anything follows from a contradiction. So what the conjunction of Obama’s and Odierno’s claims amount to is: anything goes.

The third passage, asserted by a subordinate of the president’s subordinate, tells us simultaneously that the war’s course is unpredictable, inscrutable, and discontinuous with past experience–and that it is a war of a knowable and determinate kind, a fact known by past experience of wars of that kind.

That’s a contradiction, too. So the third passage, like the conjunction of the first two, underscores the same message: anything goes.

When it comes to the conduct of our foreign policy, what I think we’re being told is that anything goes. Given that, this video strikes me as the only fitting response to the absurdities of our military leaders.


I’d like to think that we’re bound to answer when they propose.

On a more serious note, in honor of Veterans Day (or more precisely, of the veterans themselves) please consider making a donation to the Walter Reed Society, or some comparable organization. Huge numbers of veterans still need our help–and at this rate, indefinitely will.

The Audacity of Hope: Studies in American Foreign Policy

From this morning’s New York Times, “Obama to Send 1,500 More Troops to Assist Iraq“:

Since the departure of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, American officials have been far more vocal about blaming him for what is widely viewed as a dismal initial performance by the Iraqi military against the Islamic State. On Friday, Admiral Kirby said that the new Iraqi government under Mr. Abadi has shown a new willingness to work to engage Sunni groups, including in Anbar, and to train its soldiers to stand and fight.

“We did spend a lot of money and effort training the Iraqi Army,” Admiral Kirby said. “When we left them in 2011, we left them capable.” He said the Maliki government “squandered” the American military’s training of Iraqi troops, but expressed optimism that things will be different now. “This is a completely different game,” he said, pointing to a recent visit by Mr. Abadi to Anbar Province to engage Sunni leaders in the fight against the Islamic State.

Administration officials said they expect international allies will help in the training effort and announced a commitment Friday of 120 military personnel from Denmark to the cause.

As usual, American foreign policy mostly defies comment: the best case against it is simply to quote its champions, and leave it at that. I’d call Kirby’s comments a reductio, but  there’s no room for a “reduction” to absurdity if you begin there. Read the rest of the article for lots more absurdity.

Perhaps our policy-makers would do better to stop thinking of warfare on the analogy of a game? When I was an undergraduate IR student back in the day, I used to wonder whether anyone honestly believed that warfare could be “modeled” on game theory. I mean, was trench warfare during World War I really just a series of iterated Prisoner’s Dilemmas, as Robert Axelrod had supposedly “taught us”? (I’d be rich if I had a nickel for the number of times the Axelrodian mantra was recited to us.) We weren’t supposed to ask “naive” questions like that, so I mostly kept quiet. The older I get, I suppose, the more naive I get, and the more inclined to ask “dumb questions” about the verities I was once taught with such confidence (I’m happy to note that occasionally, one gets answers by this method). Of course, sometimes the naivete of youth is indistinguishable from the despair of middle age: