When, after the massacres at Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard, Republicans refused to outlaw the AR-15 rifle or require background checks for gun purchasers, we were told the party had committed suicide by defying 90 percent of the nation.
When Republicans rejected amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, we were told the GOP had just forfeited its future.
When House Republicans refused to fund Obamacare, the government was shut down and the Tea Party was blamed, word went forth: The GOP has destroyed its brand. Republicans face a wipeout in 2014. It will take a generation to remove this mark of Cain.
Eight weeks later, Obama’s approval is below 40 percent. Most Americans find him untrustworthy. And the GOP is favored to hold the seats it has in the House while making gains in the Senate.
For this reversal of fortunes, Republicans can thank the rollout of Obamacare—the website that does not work, the revelation that, contrary to Obama’s promise, millions are losing health care plans that they liked, and the reports of soaring premiums and sinking benefits.
Democrats, however, might take comfort in the old maxim: If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a while.
For, egged on by Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli Lobby AIPAC, the neocons are anticipating the return of Congress to start work on new sanctions on Iran. Should they succeed, they just might abort the Geneva talks or even torpedo the six-month deal with Iran.
While shaking a fist in the face of the Ayatollah will rally the Republican base, it does not appear to be a formula for winning the nation. Read More…
Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the AP revealed yesterday the existence of a previously unknown secret CIA facility at Guantanamo Bay, tasked with turning captured terrorists into double agents. Set up along with the makeshift prison facility as prisoners flowed into the American base in Cuba, the secret CIA outpost was best known by the Beatles-inspired name “Penny Lane.”
Candidates were ushered from the confines of prison to Penny Lane’s relative hominess, officials said. The cottages had private kitchens, showers and televisions. Each had a small patio.
Some prisoners asked for and received pornography. One official said the biggest luxury in each cottage was the bed, not a military-issued cot but a real bed with a mattress.
The cottages were designed to feel more like hotel rooms than prison cells, and some CIA officials jokingly referred to them collectively as the Marriott.
In contrast with the prison conditions, Penny Lane appears to have been practically a luxury resort. Indeed, cottages in the Caribbean are a hotly sought after commodity. The great, cruel irony of the Penny Lane program’s perks, however, is that they were obviously unavailable to prisoners without any actual terrorist connections. As Goldman and Apuzzo note, Bush administration officials at the time characterized Guantanamo detainees as the “worst of a very bad lot,” in Vice President Cheney’s words, or “among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth,” as Donald Rumsfeld described them.
In reality, many were held on flimsy evidence and were of little use to the CIA.
While the agency looked for viable candidates, those with no terrorism ties sat in limbo. It would take years before the majority of detainees were set free, having never been charged. Of the 779 people who were taken to Guantanamo Bay, more than three-fourths have been released, mostly during the Bush administration.
Those swept up in the heat of battle and spirited across the globe remained in their cells as some of the true terrorists were wined and dined by a CIA seeking their cooperation. The AP notes that “infiltrating al-Qaida has been one of the CIA’s most sought-after but difficult goals, something that other foreign intelligence services have only occasionally accomplished,” increasing their eagerness to set up shop and obtain what sources they could. They did have some successes, as “some of the men who passed through Penny Lane helped the CIA find and kill many top al-Qaida operatives, current and former U.S. officials said,” though “others stopped providing useful information and the CIA lost touch with them.”
As the years dragged on, however, and the detainee’s contacts faded in freshness, the program dried up, closing altogether by 2006. So today, the Guantanamo Bay prisons still stand, with what prisoners remain. Five years after Barack Obama took office pledging to close the prison, it stays open. And Penny Lane’s cottages, though empty, still stand.
On the eve of the latest round of Geneva talks, Americans told pollsters by a striking 2-1 margin they favored a negotiated settlement with Iran over war. This was in the face of a startling anti-diplomacy fear campaign waged by Israel’s Likud leaders in the U.S. and a renewed Israel lobby campaign for more sanctions. One wonders if there is soul-searching in Likud or AIPAC offices about why their messaging is falling flat.
Certainly Israel’s reaction could be fairly called “wigging out.” But Netanyahu seemed almost measured next to some neoconservative intellectuals. Take this piece, published by Weekly Standard editor Lee Smith in Tablet. Smith essentially accuses Obama of biding his time during his first term in order to challenge “American Jewish power” in his second. He interprets the Obama administration’s stated desire to pivot away from the Mideast as fancy language to dump Israel. Still he puts up a brave front. Rest assured, right-wing Zionists, Israel doesn’t need America. It can ally with Russia, or China or someone else:
Israel will be fine on its own—even if some of the decisions it might make, like absorbing the West Bank, or refusing to recognize the legitimacy of American Jewish marriages, or cozying up to dictators like Vladimir Putin—will leave American Jews feeling alienated and bereft. Read More…
Col. Douglas Macgregor (retired) is a decorated combat veteran, the author of four books, a Ph.D., and executive VP of Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a defense and foreign-policy consulting firm in Reston, Virginia. Macgregor’s groundbreaking books on military transformation—Breaking the Phalanx and Transformation Under Fire—have profoundly influenced thinking about change inside America’s ground forces. His newest book, 5 Battles in 5 Wars: 5 Essays on Transformation and War, 1914-1991, will be published in 2014.
Recently I interviewed him about America’s military needs in the 21st century:
TAC: What are the real threats the United States faces today and into the near future?
DM: There are three kinds of threats. The first threat is economic. In 1958, President Eisenhower told the American people, “The purpose is clear. It is safety with solvency. The country is entitled to both.” Eisenhower was right then and he’s right now. (See Paul Taylor, Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, Gabriel Velasco and Seth Motel, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Black and Hispanics.”) We need to send home low-skilled, uneducated people who are not Americans. At the same time, American citizens must be first in line to receive training, education, and jobs. The second relates to the first in that our borders are open and unprotected. Criminality in many forms marches hand in hand with illegal immigration across our borders and through our ports. The third involves alliance commitments that threaten to entangle the U.S. Armed Forces in conflicts that are of no interest to the American people.
TAC: How would you defend against those threats? Structure of military? Homeland security?
DM: Committing U.S. Army Forces to the Border Security Mission is the only sensible and cost-effective means of securing our borders. These Army forces need to be tightly integrated with U.S. Coast Guard, Air National Guard, and U.S. Navy elements that must secure our coastal waters. Meanwhile, conflicts beyond America’s borders are likely to resemble the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, except that fights for regional power and influence will overlap with the interstate competition for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create. These conflicts promise to be far more lethal and dangerous than any we’ve experienced since 1991. Fortunately, we should be able to avoid entanglement in most of them given our growing domestic energy independence and capacity for food production. Read More…
This really is frightening.
Terrorist incidents tell us nothing new about human nature. We already knew that people are capable of horrendous violence, especially when they have come to regard some other subset of human beings as unworthy of full human status. It’s not surprising, then, to see the terrorists of Somalia’s loathsome al-Shabaab movement violating all laws of humanity by slaughtering innocent victims of all ages. People can become monsters, and they did in the Nairobi mall attack that began on September 21.
What really is alarming, though, is to see terrorists create a radical new tactic against which there is no obvious response or defense. There was nothing surprising, for instance, in the idea that terrorists might hijack airliners, but only in 2001 did we realize that hijackers might use them for suicide attacks, turning those aircraft into deadly missiles. Nairobi has just shown us another horrible innovation. It might be that we won’t realize how effective this could be against the U.S. until we face yet another day when we are counting the dead in their hundreds. We have to confront this issue immediately.
Think about it. How would one attack a shopping mall, whether in Nairobi or Minneapolis? Presumably a number of pickup trucks draw up in the parking lot, and 20 or so armed men and women get out, carrying their weapons and ammunition. Then they enter the mall and begin killing until they can do no more harm. They are strictly limited by the number of bullets and grenades they can carry. When police and military forces arrive, the terrorists might hold out for an hour or two before being eliminated.
That’s one way to do it, but it’s clearly not what happened in Nairobi, where firefights were still in progress several days after the initial assault. Even more amazing, terrorists were still putting up resistance against strong Kenyan forces, reputedly trained and assisted by British and Israeli special forces.
How on earth did the terrorists do it? Why, they rented a store. Read More…
Whether the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles is enforceable and verifiable is an open question. But what is clear is that some cautionary lessons have already emerged from this crisis. Here are three of them.
First, be wary of the injunction “Don’t just stand there; do something.”
Since Syria erupted into civil war in mid-2011, commentators left and right have called for the United States to attack the Assad regime as well as to provide arms to its opponents.
But contrary to what many liberal hawks and neoconservatives claim, the violence in Syria is no worse than what Washington has been able to bear with comparative equanimity in Rwanda, Sudan, and Congo. On what moral grounds should one decide that one war is intolerable while another can be ignored?
In the field of foreign policy, the most famous advice offered to practitioners—the French statesman Talleyrand’s “Above all, not too much zeal”—showed a profound distaste for “busyness.” It’s both wise and routinely ignored advice. Remember how can-do, hands-on liberal hawks (Rusk, McNamara) screwed things up in Vietnam or how hyperactive neoconservatives (Wolfowitz, Feith) proved to be incompetent and ineffective in Iraq.
None of this is to imply that forceful action is never justified: it is in the right circumstances and when the right conditions are met. But the national interest did not require a major U.S. intervention in Syria, the political support for it did not exist and could not be mobilized, and the conflict itself has been morally ambiguous: a brutal dictatorship, backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, versus a largely Islamist rebellion supported by Sunni powers as well as al-Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters.
Given that the political objective was perilously unclear, there has been much to be said for a policy of restraint and caution. As even President Obama warned as recently as last month: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
A second lesson: Don’t make threats or commitments lightly; make them only if you’re prepared and able to honor them. Read More…
President Obama defended American exceptionalism in a speech mostly dealing with America’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East at the UN Tuesday: “Some may disagree,” he noted, “But I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently published a New York Times op-ed in which he critiqued this conceit head on: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Putin’s statement clearly struck a nerve: Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint answered Putin directly (“all humans are created equal—but not all nations are created equal”) while Senator John McCain responded in the wrong Pravda. Obama’s UN remarks represented a rather pointed reply to Putin’s comment. He warned of a “vacuum of leadership” that would result from American disengagement around the globe. He argued that “the world is better” for active U.S. leadership.
Is American “exceptionalism,” then, derived from its globalist foreign policy? Not according to Richard Gamble: In a 2012 article for this magazine, he argued that America has been driven by “old” and “new” American exceptionalisms. Gamble cites an 1899 speech by Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, written at a time when America’s imperialist bent was beginning to take hold:
When Sumner came to the question of what set America apart from other nations, he debunked the most popular and superficial conception of exceptionalism and looked at history to ground America’s identity in something more substantial. Sumner first noted the irony that by claiming it had a unique civilizing mission to perform, America sounded just like every other major power at the end of the 19th century. “There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do,” he remarked. The English, French, Germans, Russians, Ottoman Turks, and Spanish said the same.
It was not America’s “divine mission,” writes Gamble, that once set it apart. The old idea of exceptionalism was “more about what America doesn’t do than what it does, more about national self-restraint than national self-assertion.”
Indeed, one could not help comparing the defensive Putin backlash to George Washington’s famous 1796 farewell address:
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it … The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
America’s political connections and involvement now extend far beyond Europe’s friendships and enmities. Our engagement around the globe is now routine. Yet Washington advocated for restraint. He was devoted to the peace and permanency of the Union, and to preserving domestic peace at all costs. Only one comment in Washington’s speech hints at “exceptionalism”: he said the U.S. enjoys a peculiarly “detached and distant situation” from other nations, and this position “invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”
In other words, the only “exceptionalism” envisioned by Washington is anathema to that expressed by American politicians today. While Washington saw domestic concerns as our most important preoccupation, Obama defined strict national interests as “narrow” and selfish.
Yet in a nation swimming in debt and riddled with unemployment, perplexed by health care complications and political schisms, one cannot help thinking that these “narrow” concerns are actually quite broad.
In the fall of 1956, Nikita Khrushchev threatened to rain rockets down on London for the British invasion of Suez and sent his tanks into Budapest to drown the Hungarian Revolution in blood.
He blew up the Paris summit in 1960, banged his shoe at the UN, and warned Americans, “We will bury you!”
He insulted John F. Kennedy in Vienna, built the Berlin Wall, and began secretly to place missiles in Cuba capable of annihilating every city in the Southeast, including Washington.
Those were sobering times and serious enemies.
Yet in the Eisenhower-Kennedy years, living under a nuclear Sword of Damocles unlike any the world had ever known, we Americans were on balance a cool, calm and collected crowd.
How then explain the semi-hysteria and near panic in circles of this city over the possibility President Obama might meet with President Hassan Rouhani and hold negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program? Read More…
This summer produced a triumph of American patriotism.
A grassroots coalition arose to demand Congress veto any war on Syria. Congress got the message and was ready to vote no to war, when President Obama seized upon Vladimir Putin’s offer to work together to disarm Syria of chemical weapons.
The war America did not want — did not come.
Lindsey Graham is determined that this does not happen again.
The next war he and his collaborators are planning, the big one, the war on Iran, will not be blocked the same way.
How does Graham propose to do this?
He plans to introduce a use-of-force resolution, a peacetime declaration of war on Iran, to ensure Obama need not come back to Congress — and can attack Iran at will. Lindsay intends a preemptive surrender of Congress’ constitutional war-making power — to Obama.
He wants to give Obama a blank check for war on Iran, then stampede Obama into starting the war.
On Fox’s “Huckabee” Sunday, Lindsey laid out his scheme:
“I’m going to get a bipartisan coalition together. We’re going to put together a use-of-force resolution, allowing our country to use military force … to stop the Iranian nuclear program. … I’m going to need your help, Mike, and the help of Americans and friends of Israel.”
In July, Graham told a cheering conference of Christians United for Israel: “If nothing changes in Iran, come September, October, I will present a resolution that will authorize the use of military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.”
That Graham is braying that he intends to give Obama a blank check for war on Iran is not all bad news. For he thus concedes Obama does not now have the authority to attack Iran.
And by equating Iran’s “nuclear program” with a “nuclear bomb” program, Graham reveals that his bottom line is not Obama’s bottom line, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s.
Obama has said only that Iran must not be allowed to build a bomb. Bibi says Iran must not have a nuclear program.
Yet, make no mistake. The goal of Graham, the neocons, Israel and Saudi Arabia is not a negotiated solution permitting a peaceful nuclear program in Iran. The goal is a U.S. war to smash Iran.
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) September 4, 2013
As the Obama administration moves toward a dramatic political solution in Syria, Robert Merry detects an inflection point in American politics, the public forcing a “major new direction in American foreign policy”:
In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.
To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.
It’s unclear what it will take for the “foreign-policy reawakening” to fully penetrate Washington, where many congressmen are openly relieved that a vote on the use of force in Syria has been postponed due to diplomatic breakthroughs (“For scores of Republicans and Democrats troubled by the optics of voting yea or nay, the delay was a godsend”). Moreover, Joshua Keating notes that the public has been in a “multilateralist mood” for quite some time.
In some ways this administration has transitioned away from unpopular full-scale interventionism by simply downplaying any prospect of American involvement as “unbelievably small.” In Libya, the scope of intervention was repeatedly minimized–the administration dodged a mostly apathetic Congress, claiming it was not involved in “hostilities”–while the president largely avoided even talking about America’s role and obligations in that country. But while some dinged the Syria address last week as unnecessary, it’s notable that the political moment now requires some overt grappling with the decision to commit force and a straightforward argument from national interests.
The Syria debate has revealed a certain prudence and realism among the American public. Perhaps the last-minute shift to real, creative diplomacy in this case will activate some fresh strategic thinking among the foreign policy elite. A major new direction indeed.