Administrative State • Center for American Greatness • China • Foreign Policy • Post • The ME Agenda

Retreat, Regroup, and Reinvest in a Realist Foreign Policy

Donald Trump’s administration has allowed the United States to renegotiate its orientation to the rest of the world. Partisans have sniped in contradictory ways, criticizing him both as a warmonger and a naïve peacenik, but they rarely offer thoughtful alternatives to the course Trump has taken.

Trump’s foreign policy has two sides, both of which are radical departures from the recent past. He has embraced foreign policy minimalism, whether in the Middle East or with regard to long term commitments like NATO. At the same time, Trump has undone inertia and pursued confrontation, whether in the war of words with North Korea’s leader in 2017 or in the application of tariffs against China, long the fair-haired child of the foreign policy establishment.

President Trump rightly pointed out during the 2016 campaign what a disaster the Iraq War had been and explicitly rejected the regime-change policies of his predecessors. He also signaled a willingness to have warmer relations with Russia, which the foreign policy leaders of both parties oppose out of habit and opposition to that country’s cultural conservatism.

Trump, however, sometimes disappoints the peace camp. He bombed the Syrian regime in 2017 for its alleged use of chemical weapons and now backtracking on his earlier withdrawal declaration, even though ISIS is all but destroyed there. One gets the sense that these twists and turns are a product of internal friction within the White House, as well as friction between the White House and the foreign policy establishment more generally. The status quo, even when it is demonstrably wrong, has a great number of stakeholders, including career bureaucrats, defense contractors, and domestic constituencies.

Retreat From a Dangerous World or Prepare for Great Power Confrontation?
Columbia University historian Stephen Wertheim predicts in the New York Times, “A clash is coming over America’s place in the world.” Noting that the unipolar consensus is starting to break down, “One camp holds that the United States erred by coddling China and Russia, and urges a new competition against these great power rivals. The other camp, which says the United States has been too belligerent and ambitious around the world, counsels restraint, not another crusade against grand enemies.”

This strikes me as a false dilemma. One of the problems of the maximalist, unipolarity camp—the stuff of Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation” mantra or the late John McCain’s maniacal desire to have a war with Russia—is that it accomplishes nothing by prioritizing everything. NATO, Latin America, Niger, Yemen, Israel, South Korea, Afghanistan, and everywhere else are all accorded value. They all get American troops, money, and commitments. Problems are not ranked, so limited resources are deployed haphazardly and at great expense.

Even if one wanted to prepare for a potential great power conflict—and there is indeed such a burgeoning conflict with China—how easily can forces be sent to the area of need when they are tied down in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Yemen, Niger, Columbia, and everywhere else?

Only a more restrained foreign policy would permit the United States to hazard a conflict with another great power. The enemy gets a vote, as the saying goes. Two decades ago, America was focused on dubious idealist wars like Kosovo, and George W. Bush himself signaled a desire to retreat from “nation building” in his 2000 campaign, but then the 9/11 attacks happened. His response to that attack defined his presidency. The limited numbers of troops and the ambitious designs of the war planners led to chaos, insurgencies, and mediocre results. Barack Obama also promised a change and repeatedly tried to engage in a “pivot to Asia,” but then chose to engage in Middle Eastern regime change wars following the Arab Spring, culminating in his commitment of troops to Iraq, as it faced a de facto invasion from Syria-based ISIS.

Whether employing the critical lens of preparing for great power conflicts or that of minimalism, the United States has accomplished little good in the Middle East, either for ourselves or its inhabitants. Moreover, these resource-heavy commitments resemble a perpetual motion machine, creating a unifying symbol for aroused Muslims to “throw out the crusaders.” Most of these costs, as well as these threats, could be avoided if we let the place stew in its own juices and adopted more sensible immigration laws. Everything is related.

The foreign policy establishment, however, lacks both unity and focus. The minute anything upsets the status quo, alarmism—some serious, some merely knee-jerk partisanship—rears its head. Thus, when Trump proposed to leave Syria and Afghanistan, the establishment and the lying media cried out in horror, even as they applauded Obama when he did something similar in Iraq.

To Conserve and Invest Anew
To prepare for any conflict with China and, more important, to deter such a conflict, our country needs to husband its resources, including diplomatic, economic, and military power. This prudent measure would be necessary to confront even unknown terror threats or medium-sized opponents. Extensive global deployments, the never-ending war in Afghanistan, and the outsized role America plays in NATO are an obstacle to any such capability. They consume resources and reduce the availability of equipment, ammunition, and reserve forces for contingencies. As in other areas of life, by trying to do too much, we end up accomplishing less.

Even if we were to conserve resources, we must invest in weapons, force structures, training, and technology. Should we prepare for a full spectrum of conflict, including the higher frequency but lower stakes “low intensity conflicts” that have been dominant since the First Gulf War? Or do we prepare for conflict with China, a conflict fraught with risk due to its large nuclear arsenal? The answer may be both, but no such investments are realistic so long as our forces are tied down in commitments like those imposed by NATO or the 18 year old war in Afghanistan. Our military has 35-year-old tanks and 50-year-old airplanes, all of which could be replaced, but for the daunting expense of existing foreign policy commitments.

More generally, a nation must ask when conflict is truly necessary. Could the United States survive a China that acquired more power over its neighbors, the South China Sea, and even on the Korean peninsula? If so, at what point would its power present a threat that required resistance? Would the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan be preferable to the simmering war over a land al-Qaeda discontinued using as a base over a decade ago?

In other words, the question is not just whether any of these are problems, but where they rank relative to one another, and whether some may be given lesser priority and best addressed through watchfulness and preparation.

An Unserious Leadership Class
The unseriousness of our leadership class could not be more apparent than in relation to the current troubles in South Asia. Pakistan and India, each armed with nuclear weapons, are on the brink of full-scale war. Instead of paying attention to that, the American press is obsessed with the testimony of admitted liar, Michael Cohen, when it is not losing its mind over one of Trump’s tweets. There has been barely any coverage of this confrontation, and a conflict in South Asia has the potential to kill millions.

The reasons for the conflict are perennial. There is a border dispute, and Pakistan has continued its support of Islamic terrorists who aim to weaken India’s control of the region. Last month, these militants killed 40 Indian security forces. Each nation is highly nationalistic, so much so that #sayyestowar has been trending on Indian Twitter. While I sympathize with India’s anger in the face of Pakistani-sponsored terrorism, the course most in the interest of America, and likely in the interest of both the participants, is to climb down from the edge and to restore the status quo ante, a tense “line of control” functioning as the de facto border between these states. Long term, Pakistan should be isolated, so long as it sponsors terrorists.

There are secondary issues too; China, a U.S. rival, is allied with Pakistan, which also sponsors various terrorists that have made life miserable for American forces in Afghanistan. But instead of hearing about this and the ways America may broker some kind of de-escalation, we hear about Cohen and reparations and other issues that will prove to be mere distractions in the event of a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent. The relative indifference of the political establishment to this conflict is another sign of its immaturity and overall uselessness.

Foreign policy is a bit like homeowner’s insurance. No one thinks about it much until there is a massive disaster, something like Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. A sound foreign policy is prepared for a range of contingencies and, most important, preserves resources for actual needs, including remote and long-term risks.

The choice between a retreat or engaging in great power conflicts is fundamentally a false one. In order to deal with China, terrorism, as well as remote threats, it is essential to retreat from the various obligations, deployments, and expenses that have gathered by accretion under the leadership of yesterday’s foreign policy elite. In this sense, both sides of the debate should come to terms with the fact that Donald Trump is our elected president, that his America First policy resonated with the American people, and that he is open to persuasion by both sides, each of which rejects the unrealistic legacy policies that got us here.

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Democrats • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Hillary Clinton • Post • The ME Agenda • the Presidency

Avoid the Russian Trap in Afghanistan

President Trump in his January 2 cabinet meeting restated his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

He views the war in Afghanistan as a serious problem for the United States, and illustrated his point with a history lesson. “Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan,” he explained.

Though there are important differences between Russia’s war in Afghanistan and America’s war in Afghanistan, Trump’s general point is correct.

America is in tremendous debt today, well over $20 trillion, and a significant portion of that is due to Afghanistan—around $1 trillion to $2 trillion, or maybe even more depending on how it’s calculated.

Additionally, Afghanistan calls into question whether the United States is facing a moral bankruptcy. Americans do not like to see their sons killed in faraway and barbaric places, then shipped home in caskets. It makes people wonder if America is closer to some type of decaying pseudo-empire than the righteous republic it has been for so long.

The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest war ever. America is suffering irreparable damage to its prestige, both at home and abroad.

Trump raised an insightful point worthy of deep consideration. However, the response to his remarks have been rather troubling. Rather than focusing on Trump’s broader point, the Establishment put its energy into playing gotcha games to undermine Trump. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow even went so far as to respond to Trump’s cabinet meeting by strongly hinting that Trump was a Russian puppet. This is a dangerous reversal of reality.

Russia must be absolutely giddy that America is self-destructing in Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, American planners could watch with glee as Russia got trapped in Afghanistan. Now, the Kremlin gets their turn enjoying the grim spectacle of American suffering in Afghanistan.

Putin, the man who lamented the break up of the Soviet Union, can now enjoy revenge. Every day that America stays in Afghanistan is a day where Russia’s relative standing in the world—in terms of economics, the military, and prestige—goes up.

When Trump wants to remove America from Afghanistan, he isn’t acting on Russia’s behalf, he is protecting Americans from Russia.

In fact, the current situation is so beneficial to Russia, that they are not just fortunate bystanders, but active participants. Just as the CIA armed the Mujahideen to undermine Russia, Russia is now arming the Taliban to undermine America.

If Democrats are truly concerned about covert Russian machinations to hurt America, they would do well to dig into Russian strategic and tactical action as it relates to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan may be a far more sophisticated trap than many realize. America is in Afghanistan because the 9/11 attacks provoked America to respond. Well, there is concrete evidence suggesting Russia played a role in the 9/11 attacks.

A key link between Russia and 9/11 is to be found in the Al-Qaeda terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Washington Post reported that many consider Zawahiri to be the true “brains” of Al-Qaeda, and also the man responsible for a 1998 shift in Al-Qaeda strategy towards more aggressive violence versus America.

This begs the question: where did Zawahiri come from?

In 1997, Zawahiri was in Russia, under the control of Russian authorities. Russia’s official story, according to their Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, was that they held Zawahiri for half a year but couldn’t identify the terrorist so let him go free. However, their explanation is belied by the fact that Zawahiri was already a world famous terrorist due to his role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer at the FSB who defected to England, stated, “Ayaman al-Zawahiri, is an old agent of the FSB… he received special training at one of the educational bases of the FSB.” A year after this statement, Russians poisoned Litvinenko with polonium-210.

Democrats, and the American intelligence community, would do well if they looked at Russian actions here with a mere fraction of the energy they put into maligning Trump. There is significantly more evidence pointing to a Russian role in 9/11 than there is that Trump is a Russian puppet.

Putting aside the genesis of America’s war in Afghanistan, no matter how it started, America being bogged down in Afghanistan suits Russia just fine.

Trump alluded to this in his cabinet meeting, when he said, “I want to spend money on our military without depleting it every day.”

Indeed, Russia enjoys watching America deplete its military.

Current hoax outrage over Russia has done great harm to America. The Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe serves Russian interests just fine. America is ripping itself apart from the inside.

But it’s not too late to leverage this disaster into an opportunity. Russian geopolitical actions—so long ignored or misunderstood by the likes of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton—could finally be analyzed with the necessary skepticism. The United States could leave Afghanistan and finally focus on long term prosperity and security for Americans in America.

Photo Credit: Mai/Mai/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Congress • Democrats • Elections • Foreign Policy • Post • Republicans • The ME Agenda

What Happened to the Peace Party?

The Democrats used to be the peace party. While Democratic presidents led our entry into both World Wars and endorsed containment during the early stages of the Cold War, since Vietnam the Democrats have favored a more consensus-oriented foreign policy that takes a dim view of American military intervention. They were critical of our support for military regimes in Central America, the Contras, and even the First Gulf War. During the George W. Bush years, they were united in opposition to the Iraq War.

With the rise of Donald Trump and his pragmatic “America First” brand of disengagement, the polarity between the two parties has reversed. While we saw a preview of this reversal in reactions to the Mattis resignation, it has become more apparent in the angry, dismissive, and hostile reception to U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-Hawaii) official presidential campaign announcement. Criticism came not only from the neoconservative Right—whose confusion about what constitutes America’s interest is legendary—but also from the mainstream Left.

Gabbard is unique in that she is one of the only Democrats who may be described as the voice of peace and reason. She has been critical of U.S. intervention in Syria, our cozy relationship with the Saudi regime, and our continuing cultivation of conflict with Russia.

Republicans Were Defined by the Iraq War During the Bush Years
While perennial warmongering may be expected from the Max Boots and Bret Stephens of the world, the change among the Democrats has been jarring and sudden. After 9/11, Bush took an aggressive approach fueled by a strong streak of idealism. He saw the 9/11 attacks not merely as an isolated event involving al-Qaeda, but conceived of Islamic terrorism as a maladaptive response to the region’s backwards, kleptocratic dictatorships. He thought hopelessly outnumbered American forces could transform Iraq and the rest of the region into stable, liberal democracies.

As he put the matter, “They fight because they know that the survival of their hateful ideology is at stake. They know that as freedom takes root in Iraq, it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty as well. And when the Middle East grows in democracy, prosperity and hope, the terrorists will lose their sponsors, lose their recruits and lose their hopes for turning that region into a base for attacks on America and our allies around the world.”

Thus, the solution to terrorism, the logic went, was to root out these structures aggressively and preemptively. We would give them freedom.

The showcase of the strategy was the Iraq War, where a stable if not terribly friendly secular dictatorship was in place. Iraq’s noninvolvement with 9/11 and the possible consequences of destabilizing this counterweight to Iran were less relevant than its status as a nondemocratic regime. In other words, the talk about spreading democracy was not merely window dressing to sell a realpolitik solution to a decades-long thorn in America’s side; the Bush Administration really believed it, just as it believed the “religion of peace” nonsense.

Both John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 ran as peace candidates, pledging their desire to withdraw from the Iraq War. These were the years of Code Pink, “no blood for oil,” Cindy Sheehan, constant hand-wringing over the rights of terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, and a unified opposition to the “cowboy” approach of George W. Bush. Emblematically, the corpulent Michael Moore sat with former President Jimmy Carter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Kerry narrowly lost, but Obama won against the even more martial John McCain.

In 2011, Obama kept his campaign promise and pulled our troops from Iraq. He only reluctantly added troops to Afghanistan, but said from the beginning they also would be reduced in short order. He strengthened America’s ties to the United Nations, made a big show of his willingness to meet with hostile foreign leaders, endorsed the Paris climate agreement, and generally acted in the diffident and cloying manner of the post-Vietnam Democrats. He was against not only war, but uncomfortable with U.S. leadership and strength.

Obama Ran as a Peace Candidate, But Soon Learned the Ways of the Swamp
Then came the Arab Spring. Obama acceded to European requests for U.S. support in Libya, never wondering if they might themselves be pursuing a mere war for oil.  He also yanked support for Egypt’s military regime, which had been a stalwart ally of the United States and opponent of Islamic extremism, from which its own rule was threatened. Finally, Obama got our forces involved in Syria, first to depose the regime of Bashar al-Assad and then, at least in part, to address ISIS.

Republicans mostly supported Obama in these efforts, rarely criticizing any of these goals, but occasionally criticizing their execution, such as Obama’s failure to enforce his poorly thought-out Syrian “red line.” Even so, Obama’s presidency became as interventionist as his predecessor’s, and it suffered comparatively little criticism or pushback from the Left and the now-dormant antiwar movement.

The movement turned out to have been more nakedly partisan than its broad criticism of the Iraq War would have suggested. When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, she suggested that she would be tough, building on the efforts of the Obama Administration, where she was somewhat of a hawk as secretary of state. But Americans voted for a third way, neither traditionally Republican nor ideologically pacifist. While it’s doubtful the pacifists of the Code Pink variety went for Trump, a great many Republicans had soured on two decades of inconclusive war ushered in by 9/11, preferring instead to ensure our security with stronger borders and more restrictive immigration controls. Trump’s victory struck a blow against the Democrats as well as the interventionist Republican establishment.

An Interesting Choice Among the 2020 Democratic Field
The 2020 Democratic primary, like the 2016 Republican primary, will offer a lot of choices. So far, the various wings of the party are represented, including relative moderates like former Health and Human Services Secretary Julian Castro and former West Virginia State Senator Richard Ojeda; leftists like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris; and hints of an entry by establishment types like Joe Biden. Gabbard, like Trump, does not fit neatly into any of these categories.

Of course, she is a Democrat. She is pro-abortion, has changed her once-critical views on gay rights, and advocates universal healthcare. She even left the DNC in 2016 in order to support Bernie Sanders. To her credit, she has also taken on her own party for the casual and now pervasive anti-Christian bigotry levied against Republican judicial nominees.

But the greatest distinction between Gabbard and other Democrats arises from her views on foreign policy: she, like Trump, advocates a less interventionist approach to the Middle East, while seeing clearly and speaking plainly about the threats of Islamic terrorism. She has been an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in Syria, culminating in a 2017 trip during which she met with Syrian President Assad. She has criticized the Pakistani and Saudi regimes for their Islamic extremism, advocating instead a stronger U.S. relationship with India. She has reached out to the Trump Administration and praised the withdrawal from Syria. She has no small number of fans among the dissident Right; Steve Bannon has spoken highly of her, for example.

Gabbard has more than average credibility in this area. Unlike anyone else running for president—save West Virginian Ojeda—she is a veteran of Iraq, continuing to serve today as a major in the Hawaiian National Guard. “War and Peace” are the centerpiece of her campaign and the source of most of the friction and criticism she has received from mainstream Democrats.

Of course, one might think the disaster in Syria, which followed the templates of Iraq and Libya, might give some more of the “smart set” reason to pause, but there is no such self-awareness among our elite. Gabbard has been called alternately a “Putin puppet” and an “Assad shill” for pointing out the obvious about our simultaneous opposition to the Assad regime and that regime’s mortal enemy, ISIS.

Gabbard deserves real credit for her honesty and moral courage. While such courage is often praised after the fact, in real time, it has substantial and immediate costs. There is strong political and financial pressures on junior congressional leaders not to make waves, but instead to go along and get along, looking out for their most important constituents: fellow members of the government, the military industrial complex, and the donor class. Her rarity in this regard is noteworthy.

Gabbard is the Anti-Establishment Choice for Democrats
One important quality in a leader is the ability to learn. Many conservatives, including me, were caught up in the enthusiasm for the Iraq War. Only later, after the accumulation of failures and the revelation of its false premises, did it become clear what a disaster our nation had embarked upon. Today, we remain in Afghanistan, with the same inconclusive, grinding, never-ending insurgency campaign.

These types of wars, as well as our quixotic attempt to maintain “unipolarity” more generally, are costly and potentially could unleash Armageddon. I have grown more sympathetic with those who opposed the Vietnam War as well as the Iraq War upon further reflection. War is truly a terrible thing, should be a last resort, and so often starts with hubris and optimism and ends in tears. It should only be pursued with a clear plan and a realistic path to victory.

I suspect many Democratic voters remain as skeptical of these never-ending wars as their impassioned rhetoric during the Iraq War would suggest. The only people who lack this skepticism are the so-called experts, but their predictions and results have been abysmal. With Gabbard, the Democrats have a chance to reject the consensus views of our incompetent elite, a consensus that accords so little with the interests, wants, and common sense of the governed.

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Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Middle East • Post • The ME Agenda • the Presidency

Good Riddance, Syrian Civil War!

The media and the political establishment’s excoriation of President Donald Trump for his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the battlefield of eastern Syria has been blistering, as usual. Our exit from the Syrian Civil War is, in fact, well-timed and sensible. President Trump deserves praise for bucking the conventional Beltway wisdom to save the American people and, more importantly, American servicemen from this bloody quagmire.

It pays to recall how we became involved in Syria in the first place. In 2011, in the midst of the chaotic but hopeful “Arab Spring,” a number of global and regional powers, including the United States, decided that now was the perfect time to destabilize the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Accordingly, the Obama Administration encouraged a popular rebellion, while denying the rebels the means to succeed in their revolt.

The result was a strategic and human nightmare. A civil conflict raged that wrecked the Syrian economy, obliterated cities, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and turned millions into desperate refugees. True, Assad is no angel, but the sufferings of the Syrian people since a host of outsiders, including the sage experts in the Obama White House, decided to “rescue” them have far outstripped any indignities that the Assad family could devise.

What was worse was the fact that the Syrian Civil War quickly devolved into senseless and disorganized violence, as the forces “rebelling” against the Assad regime became a multi-headed hydra of terrorists, fundamentalists, and thieves. True, some Syrians fought for democracy and freedom, but the conflict also became saturated with a wide assortment of villains, and with foreign actors—including Russians, Iranians, and Turks—who wished to exploit the opportunity to expand their influence.

Worst of all, Sunni extremists in eastern Syria coalesced into a new movement that became known as the Islamic State. ISIS imposed ironfisted repression, including slavery and torture, on a vast scale, while gruesome executions became the group’s calling card.

Amazingly, in 2014 ISIS decided to export Muslim theocracy and savage violence to neighboring Iraq (and duly conquered large swaths of that failed state), all while fostering a new wave of terrorist violence in the West. ISIS even became active in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines, Palestine, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as it metastasized into an evil empire of limitless ambition and sadism.

And this was when the United States finally said “Enough!” Under President Obama, U.S. forces deployed to Iraq to help government forces there stem the ISIS advance. A bombing campaign was waged against ISIS forces in both Iraq and Syria, and American special forces began to worm their way into the eastern provinces of Syria to assist the mostly Kurdish forces who were fighting the Islamic State’s war machine.

As the first important victories against ISIS were won, the U.S. commitment to the anti-ISIS crusade mushroomed, especially in 2017 under America’s new president, Donald Trump. U.S. forces constructed bases and airfields in eastern Syria, and America invested billions of dollars in the conflict. Meanwhile, Russian, Turkish, and Iranian forces awkwardly shared the battlefield with American soldiers. All were united in a temporary, tacit, and very uneasy alliance against the ravages of the Islamic State.

The good news is that America’s intervention in eastern Syria was an unqualified success, in terms of advancing the goals that brought us to Syria in the first place: we came, after all, not to oust Bashar al-Assad from power, or to found a new American empire, but to strangle and if possible destroy the Islamic State.

It worked. ISIS has lost 99 percent of its territory, and it has been reduced to the status of a bit player in the Syrian Civil War, no longer able to threaten the integrity of Syria or Iraq, no longer able to project power throughout the Middle East or onto the streets of Western capitals, and no longer able to terrorize the long-suffering people of its eastern Syrian heartland. ISIS is not gone, but it is defeated, and American troops are no longer required to shepherd it to its inevitable demise.

President Trump is right: under the circumstances, Americans should be celebrating the collapse of ISIS, as well as the victorious return of American forces. Instead, the hawkish establishment in Washington, D.C. is carping about lost opportunities and potential strategic advantages ceded to our putative enemies in Russia and Iran.

The truth is we have “ceded” nothing but a dusty expanse that was never ours to command in the first place. The Syrian Civil War will grind on, and Russians, Turks, and Iranians will fall in it, to no great purpose, especially now that the eventual outcome is a foregone conclusion: the Assad family will remain in charge of the vast majority of Syria.

So why is the U.S. foreign and defense policy establishment so outraged by our withdrawal from Syria? What could Americans possibly hope to gain through an indefinite occupation of eastern Syria?

Yes, local Kurds and Sunni Arabs might find our presence there more benevolent than that of Assad, or Russia, or Turkey, or Iran. Eastern Syria is not a dependent territory of the United States, however, and we have no right to decide the fate of its people, especially considering the legitimate government of Syria doesn’t want us on its turf.

Moreover, every second that Americans remain on a battlefield teeming with Russians, Turks, and Iranians, the chances increase that a new and wider conflict will be sparked involving several of these great powers. Do we really want to risk war with Russia, for instance, and the potential nuclear horrors this would involve, simply because we have grown attached to some worthless real estate in eastern Syria? To ask the question is to answer it.

The only other viable argument against President Trump’s withdrawal plan—that further U.S. action is required to finish off ISIS—ignores the fact that other regional threats have long since overtaken the Islamic State on America’s strategic radar.

We cannot—we should not—physically occupy every piece of ground on which a terrorist movement or proto-state might someday take root, or re-root itself. That would be a recipe for the over-extension of American military power, and it would invite a terrible backlash from outraged locals.

The time has come to let others have the “glory” of chasing the last ISIS fighters out of their miserable holes, while the United States refocuses on other priorities, including a host of domestic challenges and the consolidation of Western-friendly regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. There the prospects for something resembling democracy and/or stability, while not particularly bright, are at least brighter than they ever were in eastern Syria.

President Trump has taken a wise and bold course of action in the Syrian conflict and in the battle against ISIS. It is never easy to deny the hawks in Washington their pound of flesh, but in this case American interests are well-served by doing so.

Simply put, ISIS is now Syria’s problem (and Russia’s, and Turkey’s, and Iran’s). We, the American people, having done our part (and more!), wish them all godspeed in finishing the noble work of obliterating the stain on humanity that is and was the so-called Islamic State. The sooner Syria and the world can move on, the better.

Photo Credit: Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

America • Center for American Greatness • Defense of the West • Deterrence • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Greatness Agenda • Middle East • military • Post • Russia • Terrorism • The ME Agenda

Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Hinges on Turkey

Whether pulling the remaining U.S. troops from Syria turns out to be a bold and beneficial move or a stupid, harmful one depends on what Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will do. That, in turn, depends in no small part on what constraints he senses from President Trump—as well as from Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Here, to the best of my understanding, are the circumstances and the possible consequences of the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria.

Erdoğan had been menacing a military attack on the Kurds in Northeast Syria who, working with U.S. troops, are finishing the dirty work of killing off ISIS. The U.S military has been warning the Turks not to do that, at ever higher levels. But when Trump called Erdoğan to talk him out of attacking our troops’ partners, it seems that Erdogan simply talked him into removing our troops.

Departing Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s anger is understandable. The boss undercut him after, following orders, Mattis had given orders down the line, as well as his word to fellow fighters. National security advisor John Bolton, too, would have been dismayed: he and Trump had agreed that we owe the Kurds a lot, and that the Kurds south of Turkey’s border provide a natural barrier to a variety of enemies of America, not least Erdoğan. Bolton might well have resigned along with Mattis if Trump had merely bowed to Erdoğan. Whether Trump bowed or not depends on whether or not there is more to the story.

Erdoğan is America’ s enemy. As far back as 2003, he forbade use of Turkish ground and airspace for U.S. operations in Iraq, including the U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has turned Turkey from a NATO ally into an Islamist dictatorship.

Neither wise nor competent, he aims to resurrect something like the Caliphate, with Ottoman Turkey its seat and himself as the Sultan in all but name. To this end, he supported the Brotherhood’s attempted takeover of Egypt, supports Hamas in Gaza, and a host of Sunni terrorist groups, in Syria as well. Only with Turkey’s active help was ISIS able to market the oil it got from Iraqi and Syrian fields, buy arms, receive recruits from abroad, etc. ISIS became more than a minor nuisance only because Erdogan provided it with a hinterland.

Erdoğan meant to use ISIS as the head of the Sunni spear to overthrow Syria’s Alawite  (a version of Shia) regime. However, Erdoğan also opposes Sunni Saudi Arabia, mainly because he is financed largely by Qatar, which is in a very bitter quarrel with Saudi Arabia. In part because of Qatar, he believes he has some kind of understanding with Iran, though it is on the opposite side of the great Sunni-Shia war. He welcomed Russia’s intervention in Syria, though it brought Iranian influence to his southern as well as to his eastern border. Passionately anti-American and in disregard of Turkey’s secular geopolitical adversary relationship with Russia, he seems to be satisfied with Vladimir Putin’s de facto overlordship of the Middle East.

Making war on the Kurds at home and abroad, however, seems to be Erdoğan’s consuming passion. He revived restrictions on the Kurdish language, and renewed military raids on majority Kurdish areas. This runs against demography: Kurds are some 20 percent of Turkey’s population, concentrated in the Southeast. While ethnic Turks are declining in number, the Kurds are prolific. Twenty years hence, the majority of Turkey’s military-age men will be Kurds. All around Turkey’s southern and Eastern borders, in Syria, Iraq, and Iran are some 15 million Kurds who feel kinship with their Turkish brethren. Erdoğan has bombed Iraqi Kurdistan, and his army has attacked Syrian Kurds under the pretext of attacking ISIS—which Turkey used to support openly and to which it continues to give clandestine support. What Erdoğan thinks his war on Kurds will accomplish only he knows.

Putin’s Russia does not share Erdoğan’s animus against the Kurds. One may safely suppose that Russia’s Putin would prefer to see Turkey’s borders continue to be occupied by forces that make Turkey uncomfortable. Moreover, Russia now being in charge of the Middle East’s zoo, Putin’s interest lies in opposing any party therein getting any bigger in its britches, and in the continuation of as much balance as possible. In short, no one would have to encourage Putin to warn Erdoğan not to strike the Syrian Kurds. But someone may well have urged him to deliver such a warning—John Bolton, for example, when he visited the Kremlin in October to discuss U.S.-Russia relations.

Donald Trump may well have delivered the same warning to Erdoğan even more directly during their pivotal conversation on December 14. After all, Trump had called precisely to deliver that warning. Erdoğan’s “Why don’t you remove your troops?” was a clever counter. But unless Trump is witless as well as vile, he would not have needed Bolton to tell him to answer with something like: “OK. We’ll pull our troops out. But you must agree to leave the Kurds alone. And you must know that, if you renege, our planes from the carriers, in the Gulf, and maybe even from Incirlik, will make you wish you had kept your word.” If that was the deal, keeping it quiet would have been part of it.

We know that, after Trump announced the withdrawal, Erdoğan announced the “suspension” of what had been his impending attack on the Kurds. We don’t know whether this was in consequence of such a deal, or whether Erdoğan intends the suspension to be permanent, or whether Trump intends to enforce it. And of course, we don’t know how Putin is counseling Erdoğan in this regard. Events will tell us soon enough.

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Administrative State • Center for American Greatness • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Middle East • Post • Religion of Peace • The ME Agenda

Trump Is Smarter Than the Generals

A bipartisan consensus among the foreign policy elite holds that America needs to maintain its de facto overseas empire. This includes both preserving stability, as well as fomenting deliberate instability, including regime change in places like Syria. This consensus among elected officials, defense contractors, general officers, talking heads, and various experts is not shared by the vast majority of Americans, who elected Barack Obama and Donald Trump on their promises to end “stupid wars” and put America first.

The American people have good instincts on these matters.

The Confused Syria Campaign
Our Syria campaign has been a confused affair from the beginning. In the waning days of the Arab Spring, Obama supported various rebel factions seeking to oust Bashar al-Assad, as he had earlier in Libya and Egypt. Syrians soon found themselves in the midst of a brutal civil war, and in this vacuum—as in Iraq only a decade earlier—jihad tourists from all over the Middle East soon joined the fray.

The various enemies of the Syrian regime included the so-called “moderate” rebels, Kurds, and Sunni extremists, the latter of which were divided between al Nusra and ISIS. There are no obvious good guys here, and America’s initial support for regime change created the vacuum in which ISIS grew, just as America had created a vacuum in which ISIS’s parent organization began in Iraq. While the vacuum was the outcome of bad planning and misplaced idealism in the case of Iraq, in Syria, it was deliberate . . . and reckless.

Trump inherited this war where we were simultaneously fighting ISIS and the regime with the help of the so-called Free Syrian Army. At first, he defined the mission more narrowly, focusing on eradicating ISIS. This too was controversial, but few could argue with the desirability of defeating ISIS. Most aid to anti-regime rebel groups ended, and the combination of U.S. forces, the Syrian Arab Army, and the Russians fighting alongside the Syrian Arab Army, reduced ISIS from a quasi-state to a ragtag band fighting for survival.

While the U.S. did engage in punitive attacks on the Syrian regime after its alleged gas attacks, under Trump it has almost exclusively focused on ISIS, the only enemy that has threatened American and European security. Where Obama succeeded only in prolonging the civil war and giving birth to ISIS, Trump narrowed his focus and effectively achieved the goal of defeating ISIS.

Having succeeded in this mission, why should our troops stay?

In response, we hear what amounts to word salad. We need to ensure stability, protect the Kurds, shore up Israel, remain on scene for contingencies, protect Iraq’s western border (while we neglect our own), lest we “pull defeat from the jaws of victory.”

This is all unpersuasive. Wars should be fought to protect our people and further their interests. The world is too big and complicated for us either to ensure peace everywhere or to reform the deep pathologies of the Islamic world.

As we learned in Iraq, we soon become the irritant around which multiple groups can unite if we embark on open-ended commitments to and occupations of strange foreign lands.

Revolt of the Generals
Trump apparently defied the advice of his generals in this decision, leading to Defense Secretary Mattis’s announcement that he would retire in February. Mattis, while impressive and highly educated, is correct that he and Trump are not on the same page, and that “you [Trump] have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects . . .”

His forthrightness is commendable, but in the remainder of his letter, Mattis only repeats the globalist conventional wisdom out of the pages of the New York Times.

Part of the reason Republicans fall over themselves in deference to generals is that they have not had an intelligent foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. On this, mainstream Republican thinking is a mash, amounting to a more unilateral and kinetic expression of the “sole superpower” concept that unites both parties.

One thing that is frustrating about the consensus of the wise men is how parochial it is. It does not ask intelligent questions about why the United States has not decisively won a war since the first Persian Gulf War, why the military was so ill-prepared to fight a counter-insurgency in 2001 (even though almost all wars since 1945 have had this feature), or how we can realistically address friction with China, Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America all at the same time.

While Mattis may be impressive, the generals and other members of the defense establishment are not, generally speaking. Consider such dim lights as Tommy Franks, who neglected to give much thought to the challenges of Iraq’s occupation, or Ricardo Sanchez, who spent most of his tenure in Iraq denying the nascent insurgency, when he wasn’t bullying his subordinates.

Generals have told us for 17 years we need to stay the course in Afghanistan, although little has been accomplished there for a very long time, other than the occasional murder of an American soldier by one of our grateful Afghan allies.

Even those on the more creative end of the scale, such as General David Petraeus, have focused almost exclusively on the tactical or operational level. Petraeus counseled that counterinsurgency coupled with a surge was a magic bullet and declared its success in Iraq. The surge’s results were evanescent because the ultimate problem in the Middle East is not al-Qaeda, ISIS, or insurgents, but endemic extremism and violence, regardless of what brand it chooses. Such extremism finds a perpetual source of energy in Islam that is magnified by its votaries’ encounters with the West and its armies.

Almost none of the experts seems to have considered whether intervention in the Middle East advances the goal of protecting America, which is blessedly distant from this tar pit, and whose resources can be more effectively applied on shutting down the open gates through which terrorists enter to do us harm.

I also sense a rather obvious opportunism among Trump’s critics from both political parties, including those in the defense establishment.

For all the kvetching about the withdrawal from Syria, why were they not sounding the alarm on the poorly resourced Iraq effort, the destruction of order in Libya, or the inherent contradictions of our two-front war on ISIS and the Syrian regime fighting it? Why was all the talk of civilian control of the military when Bill Clinton pushed gays and Obama pushed transsexuals and women in combat? Now insubordination is a virtue apparently—an insubordination that aligns with the broader “resistance” of the unelected parts of the government to President Trump and the wishes of the American people.

Our Anti-Terrorism Strategy Should Mostly Be Defensive In Nature
The problem with the military and foreign policy establishment is that it substitutes activity for strategy. Strategy requires some articulation of goals and priorities, as well as some correspondence between mean and ends.

Defeat Germany before defeating Japan is a strategy. An alliance against a common enemy can be a strategy. Attrition can be a strategy. Encouraging a regime’s security forces to overreact is a perennial strategy of insurgents. Fighting everyone, everywhere, all the time, lest we lose sole superpower status is not a strategy. It’s only a thoughtless bad habit, the product of a failure to prioritize among security risks. The long-term result of this bad habit will be perpetual war, overstretch, exhaustion, and decline.

Of the many controversial things Trump said during the campaign, none seemed to grate more than his suggestion that he “knows more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” It turns out, that’s true. Not only did he step on the gas against ISIS and abandon the parallel (and contradictory) goal of regime change in Syria, he also knows that a successful campaign must eventually be brought to a conclusion.

ISIS is a manifestation of the broader problem of Islamic extremism. Our tactics for weakening Islamic extremism have run through several phases, some of which seem to work—punishing nation-state sponsors, disrupting financial networks, and strengthening borders—but other components, including the utopian goal of making Iraq a democracy or trying to repeat that “success” in Syria, have proven to be costly dead-ends. More important, the latter missions not only failed in enhancing our security, but they have generated new problems, like the birth of the Islamic State, which then took even more resources to address.

The Syria campaign has been smaller, less scrutinized, and mercifully less costly than the earlier Iraq campaign. But, if it were to continue, it would suffer from the same defects and mediocre results as the earlier Iraq campaign and the never-ending Afghanistan campaign. There is no way for these campaigns to end well, because the resources and tactics we employ cannot defeat the deeper sources of Islamic extremism, and our mere presence in certain respects renders this extremism more virulent.

When we look for answers, we should look beyond our parochial and conflicted elite to the wisdom of the past. For all the study of Clausewitz in our military academies, one wonders if our strategists have forgotten his advice on the general superiority of defensive measures as a strategic matter: “What is the object of defense? To preserve. To preserve is easier than to acquire; from which follows at once that the means on both sides being supposed equal, the defensive is easier than the offensive.”

In other words, we are better off securing our border, building a wall, limiting immigrants from hostile lands, and avoiding the Middle Eastern cul de sac, than playing whack-a-mole with terrorists. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is the most courageous and controversial manifestation of his broader promise to put America first.

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Big Media • Donald Trump • Middle East • Post • Religion of Peace • The Left • The ME Agenda • the Presidency

Our Childish Elite Shed Crocodile Tears for Khashoggi

In the playpen that has become our politics, feelings are everything. It doesn’t matter what the facts are, only the emotional effect those facts and their attendant consequences might have on the party holding the short end of the stick. Lose an election? Whine and sue. Don’t like the notion of a sovereign nation defending its borders from an attack using non-lethal means? Emotionalize and propagandize a picture of a mother and her children fleeing. Everything must have an emotional component, behind which lies the unspoken accusation: how would you like it if this happened to you?

Nor are international affairs spared this childishness. The gory murder of a non-American Muslim in the former capital of a Muslim country by a group of Muslim assassins from another Muslim country has somehow been transformed into an American problem. Why should that be? The decedent in question occasionally wrote propaganda pieces disguised as journalism for a preening American newspaper in Washington, D.C., whose motto is “Democracy dies in darkness.” In fact, what died in the darkness of the Saudi embassy in Istanbul was Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national of whom no one in the Western world had heard until a month ago.

Cue the crocodile tears: the reflexively anti-Trump, crudely reductionist, historically ignorant American media immediately transformed a rather ordinary Arab bit of bloody business into the greatest crisis since the Perdicaris Affair, and ever since the murder has stamped its tiny feet, demanding that the United States immediately “punish” the Saudis for a crime committed on sovereign Saudi diplomatic territory in Turkey. Part of this is phony professional solidarity based on the most generous possible interpretation of Khashoggi’s real occupation of Muslim Brotherhood activist and anti-regime agitator as that of “journalist.” The other is rather more complex.

Friends, Frenemies, and Enemies
In the media sandbox, the entire geopolitical situation must be judged by the ideological sympathies of the institutional players du jour.

During the Obama Administration, whose foreign-policy bureaucracy was staffed by the same kind of like-minded Ivy Leaguers who populate the leftist pundit class, it was natural for the media to root for the John Kerry-Samantha Power-John Brennan school of America Last, and in particular for the so-called Iran nuclear deal framework, which turned American policy decisively in favor of the Shiite Iranians over the Sunni Saudis. Never mind that Obama once publicly bowed to the Saudi “king”—our money, including pallets of cash, went where his heart was: Iran.

Never mind as well that Islamic Iran has been, since the hostage crisis of Jimmy Carter’s administration, an implacable foe whose people and leaders shout “Death to America” with soporific regularity. Under Obama, America tilted away from our traditional frenemies, the Saudis, toward an avowed enemy, and paid them for the privilege of giving them what they wanted.

Donald Trump’s perfectly sensible restoration of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, as morally odious as that alliance is (Saudis made up the bulk of the 9/11 hijackers, and yet you never heard the Left call for punishing the kingdom in 2001), represents not simply a return to the status quo ante, but an explicit rejection of  Barack Hussein Obama’s “legacy,” and thus must be fought against with the passion of the defeated segregationist South battling for the Lost Cause.

Enter, at last, the grownup in the romper room: secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who set the record straight regarding Democrats’ “caterwauling” over Khashoggi in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday:

Is it any coincidence that the people using the Khashoggi murder as a cudgel against President Trump’s Saudi Arabia policy are the same people who supported Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Iran—a regime that has killed thousands world-wide, including hundreds of Americans, and brutalizes its own people? Where was this echo chamber, where were these avatars of human rights, when Mr. Obama gave the mullahs pallets of cash to carry out their work as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism?

Saudi Arabia, like the U.S.—and unlike these critics—recognizes the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world. Modern-day Iran is, in Henry Kissinger’s term, a cause, not a nation. Its objectives are to spread the Islamic revolution from Tehran to Damascus, to destroy Israel, and to subjugate anyone who refuses to submit, starting with the Iranian people. An emboldened Iran would spread even more death and destruction in the Middle East, spark a regional nuclear-arms race, threaten trade routes, and foment terrorism around the world… Abandoning or downgrading the U.S.-Saudi alliance would also do nothing to push Riyadh in a better direction at home.

As Pompeo knows, great-power politics are not to be subjected to the moralistic whims of the emotionally weakest members of the body politic. The modern Left, which has shorn itself of its do-gooder, midwestern Protestant origins and is now wholly godless, nevertheless still uses our founding religious scruples against us, in line with Alinsky’s famous Rule No. 4: “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.” (The “Christian church” bit is a nice, characteristic and indicative cultural-Marxist touch.)

Time was all politicians understood this. Living in the tough neighborhood known as Planet Earth, all countries must eventually lie down with the devil, jungle up with some pretty ripe characters, and hope to muddle through with as much of their dignity as possible, but not one shred more if it defeats the larger objective. As we become increasingly infantilized, however, the idea that great political decisions often must be separable from domestic moral considerations becomes ever harder to explain.

“That’s not who we are,” sobs the Left as it gleefully indulges its reflexive anti-American nature. What they forget is that actions speak louder than words, and that it is in the best interests of the United States at the moment to pretend to like the Saudi “monarchy” even as we do our best to undermine it—“the crown prince has moved the country in a reformist direction, from allowing women to drive and attend sporting events, to curbing the religious police and calling for a return to moderate Islam,” wrote Pompeo, patting the Kingdom on the back for doing the very things that will help bring it down.

As Mikhail Gorbachev found out, glasnost led to perestroika which led to Christmas Day 1991, the day the Soviet Union vanished onto the ash heap of history. The death of Khashoggi is an internal Saudi affair, with some repercussions for its relationship with its other rival for Islamic supremacy, Turkey: it is, literally none of our business. And as all kindergarten teachers used to know, sometimes you have to kill the little monsters with kindness.

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Center for American Greatness • Foreign Policy • Middle East • Post • Religion of Peace • The ME Agenda • The Media • the Presidency

What Is Saudi Arabia to Us?

It seems that Saudi Arabia’s rulers murdered an opponent. The U.S. media and political class is shocked, shocked, to find that murder is going on in such precincts. Who did they imagine the Muslim world’s leaders are?

Moreover, our chattering class demands that President Trump do whatever it takes to make sure that they do nothing like that again. Do what? Does anyone really think that swapping sheik A for sheik B would improve their kind’s moral standards? Do they have any idea of what keeps A on top of B, what it would take to switch them, or what the repercussions would be in foreign policy? Are they naifs, idiots, or are they just playing with foreign policy to make life a little harder for Trump?

What follows is politically incorrect information on what Saudi Arabia is, what role it plays in American politics, and what it means for our foreign policy. Then, I will suggest how American foreign policy from the Founding to around 1910 would deal with today’s Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers are a subspecies of the desert rats endemic in the region. The ones on the cheese now are of the clan of seven sons out of old king Saud’s favorite wife, Suda, and hence are known as Sudaris. The previous ruler, Abdullah was the only son of another wife. When Abdullah’s birth-order turn came, in 2005, he took the throne thanks only to having mobilized the national guard of Bedouins for war against the national army (and everything else) controlled by the Sudaris. Today, when you read about Mohammed bin Salman’s “anti-corruption reforms,” you should know that they target primarily Abdullah’s son and other relatives. In other words, what is going on, including murder, is a purely dynastic power play. But that is Saudi Arabia’s nice side.

The fundamental reality is that this is a slave society, (the Arabic word for black man is the word for slave) which considers work something that inferiors do for superiors, prizes idleness, and practices cruelty as a means of asserting superiority. Everyone knows that women, treated as property, end up disproportionately in the harems of the wealthy. But few stop to think that this custom dooms the majority of Saudi men to lives without legitimate sex, never mind families.

As for who gets what, that comes strictly either from birth or from connections with the powerful. Nor are the young clamoring for the kind of useful work that would lift them up. They compete, all right, but for favor. Saudi students in U.S. colleges—and even in military training programs—just don’t do their work. A degree is a passport to a job which somebody else performs.

Religion? The ultra-puritanical Wahhabi sect, which authorized the House of Saud to take power by murdering non-Wahhabis, is inexorably interwoven with the Saudi power structure. No doubt, many believe its teachings. And yes, Wahhabis pay for radical mosques throughout the world, America very much included. But hypocritical corruption is at its core. Fly first class from Riyadh to Paris or London. Watch the women with Burqas step onto the plane. Off comes the headgear. On take-off, they doff the Burqas, revealing Dior fashions with plunging necklines. And the booze flows.

Saudi Arabia is marvelously well-connected in America—and especially in Washington D.C.—thanks to countless millions of dollars spread in all manner of ways to any and all who might be useful to the Kingdom over decades. Between 1983 and 2005, as Saudi ambassador to the United States, and then as secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council (where he managed the kingdom’s American affairs), Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud did not let pass any occasion to get to know and to invite and to gift. But vacations in Aspen or on the Riviera, and fellowships and connections, are small stuff compared to the billion-dollar bonds built with scores of American contractors and close friends of the very powerful. The Saudis have been able to get away with whatever they wanted.

In the aftermath of 9/11, not only did the U.S. government fly Osama bin Laden’s family out of the country forthwith, it also flew out the Saudi consular officials who had helped the hijackers. Sections of the 9/11 commission report dealing with Saudi Arabia remain classified. Since the security camera photos of the 19 Saudi hijackers do not match the names on their passports, to this day, we still do not know their real identities. Nor has anyone investigated whence came the money for the operation.

Saudi foreign policy has been far from U.S.-friendly. Until around 1990, it might well have been described in one word: “pay.” Who? Anybody, to keep them from making trouble for the Kingdom. Thus the Saudis were the Syrian Assad regime’s main financiers. The money went to buy Soviet weapons. The same was true for Egypt prior to 1979, after which the money went to buy U.S. weapons. The Saudis paid most of the bill for Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran. And yes, they financed the PLO until, in 1990, both the PLO and Saddam turned against them—which led to firming up connections with the United States.

But those connections did not prevent the Saudis from playing a double game during the Iraq war—entirely understandable from the Saudi standpoint, but the acceptance of which by the U.S. establishment proved its abysmal incompetence. In short, the Saudis wanted above all to protect Iraq’s formerly ruling Sunni minority. That is why they lobbied hard and successfully to turn the successful U.S. invasion of March-April 2003 into the disastrous 2003-2010 U.S. occupation. Worse, during that occupation, the Saudis were the principal financiers of the Sunni war against U.S. forces, and the suppliers of most suicide bombers.

Today, the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran—effectively between the Muslim world’s Sunni and Shia blocs, is the great issue in the Middle East.

The Saudis rightly fear Iran. Make no mistake: Much as Iran rails against the Great Satan, (America) and the Little Satan (Israel), Saudi Arabia is its chief enemy. Whatever faults Iranian forces may have, whatever equipment they lack, they are still superior to the Saudis. Most important, the Saudis and their Sunni allies in the Gulf lord it over Shia minorities (in Bahrain they are the majority) who look to Iran for relief. The Shia in Saudi inhabit the oil-producing regions. The Saudis know how vulnerable they are. The United States does not have to convince them to be anti-Iran. Since Iran is far more a danger to them than to us, they will always be more anti-Iran than we.

Nor do we have to treat them gingerly because they are the principal part of OPEC. In fact, the world oil price is now set largely by American production. Much as the Saudis would love to raise the price by cutting production, they know that maximizing their income requires pumping as much as they can at whatever the world price happens to be.

In short, we owe them nothing.

Our relationship with Saudi Arabia should flow from our own needs—not theirs—based on the realities of the region.

Were John Quincy Adams to whisper in Trump’s ear, he might well say the following: Just as in 1823, when we premised our dealings with Europe by making clear the contrast between the republican principles by which we live and those of monarchical Europe, we should now draw a bright line between our way of life and that of the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now as then, this is primarily for the American people’s benefit. Now as then, we cannot change others, but must deal with them. We don’t have to like them, and they don’t have to like us. Good diplomacy does not pretend. We will not lower ourselves to asking the Saudis to pretend they have become liberals, nor fool ourselves into thinking that they are on the way to doing so.

We have some concurrent interests. Only some. And for our own different reasons. And the concurrence is conditional.

There are certain things we can and should do for the Saudis, mainly by limiting Iran’s economy. But for us to do that, the price of oil has to be kept in an acceptable range for a range of allies. Hence we must demand that the Saudis cooperate. We can and should protect the Saudis against major Iranian military moves, especially by providing better missile defense. But we are not going to involve ourselves in trying to put down Shia revolts against Sunni hegemony. In Syria, we have only two interests: limiting Iran’s reach to Israel and safeguarding the Kurds. Any Saudi action that we judge non-supportive of these interests will lead to a reduction of our support in other areas.

Above all, we realize that Saudi Arabia is even less a permanent fixture of the international scene than the Soviet Union was. It is even more unstable. Stabilizing it, saving it from the consequences of its congenital dynastic wars, is beyond our capacities, as John Quincy Adams might have said. That is why now, as in 1823, the essence of good American foreign policy is to be very clear about our very few interests, to commit to those, and to let the rest of the world fight their own battles.

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America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Elections • Foreign Policy • Middle East • Post • The ME Agenda

Iraqi Democracy Fails the United States—and the Iraqis

The United States is not a democracy. This discovery runs against the grain of all the liberal, middlebrow pabulum imparted from grade school teachers, as well as the talking points of the average politician. Our country is more accurately a constitutional republic. And that means, above all, limits. Limits on power, limits on majorities, and limits on the proper scope of government action.

Further, these formal rules exist within a network of informal cultural restraints. Historically, our country’s class system always has been less rigid than that of Europe. Everyone from the plumber to the president proudly proclaimed his middle class bona fides. We also had comparatively little taste for political violence; election results would be respected. We had fairly similar expectations of government and its limits; thus, communist and monarchist persuasions, while not uncommon in the otherwise democratic states of France or India, are basically unknown to most Americans.

In short, we have had a consensus around the Founding documents along with a common moral and political vocabulary. Indeed, this common set of reference points allowed national healing after the great rifts of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and the Jim Crow era.

That might be a simplification, but it’s a fair one. It also suggests, at least implicitly, things have started to fray as of late.

By contrast, the false understanding of America as a democracy, has now reached a farcical stage in the great democracy-building exercise in Iraq. If the ongoing chaos that resulted in the withdrawal and reintroduction of American forces had not been enough, the recent winner of Iraq’s parliamentary elections is none other than Shia-cleric (and anti-American terrorist) Moqtada al-Sadr.

As reported in the New York Times:

The front-runner in Iraqi elections, the populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, wasted little time trying to prove to potential allies that he is serious about shaking up the government and cleaning up corruption as he worked to cobble together a governing coalition.

It’s hard to believe it was a just over a decade ago that the image of Iraqis proudly holding up their purple-stained figures was supposed to inspire us all. Missing from the Bush-era enthusiasm for Iraq’s elections was an appreciation that it matters more what a government actually does, whether elected or not.

Mere elections do not guarantee law and order, an end to corruption, or peace with the United States. Nor do they guarantee legitimacy. We saw similar enthusiastic crowds in Libya and Egypt in recent years during the so-called Arab Spring. They brought about chaos and the murder of an ambassador in Libya and the extreme rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in historically friendly Egypt.

The Iraq War had numerous flaws. It had too few troops. The intelligence on which it was based was faulty and results-oriented. The occupation was botched from the start. But most important, what was missing was a sensible strategy, a tailoring of means to ends. Did we want Iraq for bases? For oil? Was the thinking that any regime would be better than Saddam Hussein? Where democracy fits into any of these goals, if at all, depends greatly on our broader strategy.

A Democratic Delusion
In the absence of promised weapons of mass destruction, from the time of the 2003 invasion through the present, the struggle to “maintain” the nascent, democratic Iraqi regime became a self-justifying end. The idea was that our prestige was on the line and that allowing democracy in some measure to triumph would, if not spawn the “reverse domino effect” of pro-democratic revolutions among Iraq’s neighbors, at the very least show an alternative path that would be a positive example to its neighbors.

Iraq has proven no such thing; instead, like the festering West Bank, it has been used as a propaganda cudgel to further inflame the Middle East against the United States, while robbing our country of its best men, substantial sums of money, and strategic agility to contain the more enduring and pervasive threat we face in the Middle East: anti-American Islamic terrorist groups.

Whether at home or abroad, it is best to remember that democracy is not a substantive end state, but a set of procedures regarding who can rule. Real good government consists in a series of substantive ends, such as prosperity, safety, justice, and national independence. Democracy is one among many mechanisms to choose rulers and laws. Majority-rule systems function best when it is a “government of laws, not men,” that is, when such governments have internal restraints and when the people can conform to and respect those requirements.

Lacking traditions of self-restraint, self-rule, and limited government, Iraq and other Middle Eastern democracies have devolved into winner-take-all systems of competing sectarian theocrats, substantively indistinguishable to outside observers. Or, put more simply, our national interests will not be furthered when democracy is adopted in places where the majority of people hate our country and have alien, illiberal values.

Misplaced Idealism
In this sense, recent events in Iraq are a microcosm of the Iraq War itself.

During the Iraq War, when not fighting Sunni extremists, our forces often were being brutalized by Shia extremists, including Sadr’s Mahdi Army. It was a no-win situation, where decapitating the brutal, but mostly secular, Baathist regime led to never ending conflict among competing sectarian thugs, none of whom were naturally friendly to the United States.  

We were told when ISIS entered Fallujah in 2014, veterans of the earlier campaign were horrified to see the city they had won during the brutal 2004 Phantom Fury Operation taken over by Sunni extremists. “Politics of honor” supposedly required our return. If that is the case, what can we say to those veterans of the Baghdad and Basra battles against Shia extremists, whose leader has now won the Iraqi elections?

Both the Bush—and Obama—era foreign policies were notable for their misplaced idealism. This idealism led to the elevation of democratic procedures, while neglecting substantive results, such as whether a foreign government would act in a way friendly to U.S. interests or command the allegiance of the governed.

The idealists have a false and impoverished notion of what makes our country’s political system work, which leads to confusion in the conduct of foreign affairs. Our government is not a democracy, but a government of laws, characterized by checks and balances, and it is suited for a particular people. The U.S. Constitution’s preamble sets forth its limited, substantive purposes, including the “general welfare” and the “common defense.” It is supposed to ensure the “blessings of liberty,” not for Iraqis or any other people, but rather “ourselves and our posterity.” From our nation’s beginnings, our nation has had friendly relations with czars, republics, kings, and shahs. We did not require other nations to follow our system in order to trade with us or have peaceful relations.

Pursuing and promoting democracy in the Middle East, shorn of constitutional limits and agnostic to its substantive direction, has proven fatal as a practical matter. This pursuit has deprived our people of a moral vocabulary with which to criticize foreign elections, even when they result in such ludicrous results as extremist and hostile enemies of our country being elected.

In the morally inverted words of Defense Secretary Mattis, “The Iraqi people had an election, it’s a democratic process at a time when many people doubted that Iraq could take charge of themselves. So we will wait and see the results—the final results of the election. And we stand with the Iraqi people’s decisions.”

If there was any doubt America lost in Iraq, al-Sadr’s victory should settle the matter.

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Israel and Its Enemies: Why Culture Matters

A passage from a landmark American novel shows why attempts to appease Israel’s enemies have always failed and always will fail.

Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) is the story of Jack Crabb, a fictional 19th-century frontiersman. In 1852, when Jack is 10 years old, he comes to live with the Cheyenne of the Northern Plains through a set of circumstances too complicated to recount here. On his first morning among the Indians, out of a desire to be accepted and liked, Jack makes an error that earns him the lifelong enmity of another boy. Jack explains (emphasis is added):

After our bath [in the stream] them boys fetched bows and we played war in and out of a buffalo wallow near camp, shooting one another with arrows that didn’t have no points. And then we did some wrestling, at which I was none too good and somewhat shy to try too hard, but after getting badly squeezed, I turned to boxing and bloodied at least one brown nose. The latter was the property of Younger Bear, and the event caused him to receive a good deal of jeering, because I’d say Indians are given to that trait even more than whites. I felt sorry for Younger Bear when I saw the ridicule I had let him in for.

“Which was a big mistake: I should either never have hit him in the first place or after doing so should have strutted around boasting and maybe given him more punishment to consolidate the advantage: that’s the Indian way. You should never feel sorry about beating anybody, unless having conquered his body you want his spirit as well. I didn’t yet understand that, so throughout the rest of the day I kept trying to shine up to Younger Bear, and the result was I made the first real enemy of my life and he caused me untold trouble for years, for an Indian will make a profession of revenge.

Like the Cheyenne, Arabs operate in a shame/honor culture in which a beaten enemy sees the winner’s concessions and goodwill gestures as further humiliation. Being the recipient of magnanimity underscores subordination. After all, only victors can afford to be generous. Therefore, no Israeli offer will ever be good enough. Only subjugating the Jews can expunge Arab shame. Honor won’t be restored until the Zionists are dead, driven out, or reduced to a degraded remnant.

Psychologist David Gutmann (1925-2013) believed this was why “Palestinian leaders have rejected or sabotaged every proposal for statehood since 1947.” Gutmann, writing at the American Spectator, explained: “The calculus of Shame dictates that the Palestinian stigma of defeat can only be removed by a bloody victory over the Jews who inflicted it. By the same token, their state cannot be handed to the Palestinians by some benign international arbiter, or by a generous Israeli government. . . . The gift of a state that was not won in battle would only increase Palestinian shame.”

So there is no “peace partner” and no “peace process,” although Arab leaders will pretend these things exist while playing for time—which they believe to be on their side. It appears to them that the nations (gentiles) don’t much like the Jews, and they conclude that Israel is isolated. “We Arabs are so many and the Jews are so few,” they observe. They therefore see Israel as an ephemeral Crusader kingdom. Unlike Westerners, Arabs are patient—in it for the long game. European vilification of Israel and international pressure on the Jewish state do not facilitate peace. On the contrary, they give heart to Israel’s enemies and prolong the conflict.

What circumstances, then, favor peace? Conditions that convince more and more Palestinians that Israel is here to stay and fighting the Zionists is for chumps—a sucker’s game. Who wants to be the last shahid in a doomed undertaking?

Historian Daniel Pipes calls for Israeli victory rather than containment or calm. His research indicates that only about 20 percent of Arabs accept peaceful coexistence with Israel and that 80 percent seek its brutal elimination. Peace will come when those numbers are flipped. And the numbers will flip when Israel is unambiguously victorious on all fronts and its enemies acknowledge defeat. How will this be achieved?

Pipes contends his formula for victory is not primarily military and offers the example of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam in 1975. “We didn’t lose because we ran out of bullets or soldiers or dollars,” he told attendees at the David Horowitz Freedom Center on November 19, 2017. “We ran out of will.”

True. But unlike Palestinians, American hippies—whose voices came to dominate the national discourse on Vietnam—had neither honor nor shame. They invited defeat. Now, in advanced age, they still glory in it. No. An Israeli victory over the Palestinians would have to look much more like the Union victory over the Confederacy or the Allied victory over Germany and Japan. Once the goal is defined the specifics can be worked out. Peace may be expected only when the Palestinian will to victory is broken.

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The Myth of the Surge

Trump is mostly hitting the mark as president, because his lodestar appears to be reversing every single thing undertaken by Barack Obama. Since the Obama Administration was steeped in an evil worldview—far-left radicalism—that means Trump’s policies, for the most part, have been salutary, agreeable, and sensible.

But there are times when such an instinct can lead one astray, and the broader Republican view of Iraq, Iran, and Middle East policy is one such example.

Obama’s Legacy

The conventional wisdom on the Right is that Obama was weak, and that weakness emboldened America’s enemies. There is much truth to this, as Obama was motivated to reduce America’s prestige and influence in the world.  We saw this in his frequent digs directed at America’s past, his outreach to Cuba, and his revealing Cairo Speech.

In the Middle East, critics on the Right point to various failures, such as the Jihadist killing of an American ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, and Obama’s failure to follow through on a “red line” proclamation in Syria. But the centerpiece of that criticism is that that Obama lost Iraq.

This narrative suggests that Iraq was a worthwhile endeavor, but that it took some time for the United States to gain its bearings, which led to sectarian fighting that nearly destroyed the nascent Iraqi democracy. The Surge, by these lights, is understood to have been a great act of statesmanship, undertaken by President Bush after the 2006 midterm electoral losses, and through it Bush and his far-sighted lieutenant Petraeus snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Critics go further, and charge Obama with squandering these gains by withdrawing our forces in 2011, allowing the rise of ISIS and the empowerment of an unfriendly Iran.

Did the Surge Work?

This narrative is deeply problematic. As argued by Iraq veteran and West Point graduate, Daniel Sjursen, in his 2015 memoir, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, the mythology of the Surge does a disservice to the reality of Iraq’s sectarian violence, as well as the ambiguous end state of post-surge Iraq. For starters, Obama’s critics practically ignore the first act of this tragedy: the unnecessary and misguided 2003 Iraq invasion.

As documented by Sjursen, the Surge was, to some extent, coincidental with other facts that conspired to reduce violence in Iraq. The Sunni Awakening preceded the Surge by some months, occurring chiefly in the al Anbar province. It arose from increasing friction between local Sunnis and the Sunni foreign fighters who made up al Qaeda in Iraq (the embryonic force that later morphed into ISIS).

Our enemies, like us, sometimes make mistakes, and in this instance local tribal identity trumped religious identity. Al Qaeda, quite simply, acted like barbarians to their coreligionist hosts, so the hosts got sick of it and started cooperating with Americans to kick them out. At the same time, local Sunnis once opposed to the occupation apparently realized that the United States was a more honest broker than the chauvinistic Shia government. Like Catholics who initially welcomed British troops to Northern Ireland to protect them from their unrestrained Ulster Protestant neighbors, the Sunnis, including many former insurgents, began to cultivate an alliance with the Americans as early as 2006, months before the Surge.

Shortly thereafter, the Shia Mehdi Army (led by the paunchy Muqtada al Sadr) called for a truce during the early stages of the Surge. As documented by Sjursen, his resistance to American occupation was one of the most effective and dangerous, using high-tech shaped charge weapons to rip through MRAPs, Humvees, and even a few Abrams tanks. After detailing the heartbreaking loss of soldiers under his command, Sjursen noted, “it is hard to overstestimate the importance of this self-imposed armistice.”

Finally, the harsh effects of the sectarian fighting that preceded the Surge led to increased segregation between Sunni and Shia populations, both in Baghdad and beyond. As the American far right argues in other contexts, diversity plus proximity leads to war. Here, through appallingly brutal methods including the mass murder of civilians, the combatants were separated, many fled the country altogether, and the pretexts for localized fighting against one another had gone down. Thus, violence dropped considerably in 2008 and 2009, but was the Surge the primary cause, or did the sectarian war just burn itself out? And even if the Surge worked, could the stalemate achieved in this shattered country, in any sense, be called a decisive victory? The lackluster results of a similar Surge in Afghanistan suggests no.

Obama Did One Good Thing: Leaving Iraq

Obama’s decision to leave Iraq was probably for the best. The war was a disaster, its raison d’etre soon proved mistaken, and its cost in blood and treasure was considerable. The most predictable condition of the Middle East appears to be sectarian violence of one kind or another. Lebanon raged in the 80s, as did Iran and Iraq. Today, Shias and Sunnis are at war in Syria and Yemen, and they warred for the entirety of the U.S. occupation of Iraq with our forces, as well as against one another.

The United States, with its modestly-sized volunteer military, short public attention span, and lack of imperial ethos, is simply ill-equipped to engage in nation-building or long term occupations in the Middle East. Our mere presence, in fact, can create artificial national unity around a near universal hostility to foreign occupation.

Trump should learn one thing from the alternating Sunni and Shia enemies our forces faced in Iraq: that there are no obvious good guys or bad guys in this perennial Middle Eastern conflict. Trump’s decisive endorsement of Sunni dominance (the crux of our anti-Iran policy), while promoted through wild-eyed Israeli and Saudi rhetoric, does not stand up to scrutiny as being in the American interest. Our most persistent enemies, Al Qaeda and ISIS, after all, are Sunni.

In addition, far from proving the weakness of Obama and the beneficence of the Surge, the Iraq Campaign should teach something else: caution and humility. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen, regime change in the fractious Middle East has rarely turned out predictably or furthered America’s interests. By contrast, secular strongmen and moderate monarchies, like Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, King Mohammed of Morocco, appear to be, on balance, the most humanitarian and stable regimes, in a region little noted for either. At the same time, unfriendly secular regimes, like the Assad or Saddam Hussein regimes, are, at the very least, more stable and inimical to Jihadism than deliberately induced anarchy.

Today we read about an Israeli raid on Syria in the wake of America’s withdrawal from the flawed Iran Nuclear Deal. Such airstrikes have periodically targeted the (Shia) Syrian regime, while sparing (Sunni) al Nusra and ISIS forces, some of which are a stone’s throw from Israel in the Golan Heights. America has raised no objection; after all, Iran is in the crosshairs, and it is apparently considered worse than ISIS.

Obama, for reasons of his instinctual anti-Americanism, as well as his desire for a legacy achievement, coddled the Iranian regime in reaching the nuclear deal. But just because Obama was mostly wrong, Iran is a bad actor, and the deal was a bad deal, it does not follow that Iran’s Sunni rivals are much better. While Israel has its own reasons to cultivate alliances with Iran’s Saudi enemies, that does not necessarily mean the United States should do so. Our interests and orientation to the Middle East are different, not least because of our geographic distance.

As it stands, Trump’s Mideast Policy appears indistinguishable from what Marco Rubio, John McCain, or Jeb Bush would have authored. It is interventionist, pro-Israel, pro-Saudi Arabia, and requires the maintenance of a U.S. presence in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. What is missing from this approach is an end state that promotes American interests and a path to achieve such a state. For those of us who supported Trump in search of a reversal of the neoconservatives’ mania for interventionism, taking sides in these conflicts is increasingly worrisome. Conservatives have no reason to side with Sunnis or Shias in their quest for dominance; in fact, these quests distract both sides in those struggles from the “Great Satan” and their continuation is likely to our advantage.

The best American strategy for the Middle East is one of strategic disengagement, and the cultivation of stable, friendly, and secular regimes. In this regard, we have options that Israel and others fated to live in the Middle Eastern cauldron do not. As theorist William Lind advocated, “America’s grand strategy should seek to connect our country with as many centers and sources of order as possible, while isolating us from as many centers and sources of disorder as possible.” In other words, America First.

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Afghanistan: Is That Still Going On?

Afghanistan has become the poster child for America’s imperial overreach. After 18 years of warfare, it persists.

There are currently 15,000 American troops fighting in Afghanistan (far fewer than in recent years, when at the height of our deployments U.S. troops in the region topped 150,000). Yet the Pentagon is considering deploying more than 1,000 additional soldiers to the country in the next month. Should President Trump approve this plan, he would be perpetuating the mistakes of his two predecessors.

For too long, American leaders have associated larger American forces in Afghanistan with a greater chance of victory—without ever defining what victory is, and with a long track record of not achieving any semblance of success there.

In all fairness, American tactics under Trump have gotten much better (and we’ve yet to see the fruits of these changes, since the traditional fighting season won’t ramp up for another month in Afghanistan). But we’ve done little to improve the civil and military instability of the region—and that’s the nub of America’s problems in Afghanistan. No amount of military force will remedy these problems either.

The United States has spent nearly $1.07 trillion on the war in Afghanistan since 2001. Adjusted for inflation, we’ve spent more money rebuilding Afghanistan than we spent rebuilding Europe after World War II. The president’s decision to increase American troop levels in Afghanistan last August has likely added an additional $1 trillion to our $21 trillion national debt. Meanwhile, the cumulative interest costs on America’s Mideast wars could exceed $7.9 trillion.

Many democratic globalists in Washington, D.C. liken our mission in Afghanistan to our mission in South Korea. It’s a poor comparison. South Korea is a mostly self-reliant country that happens to have U.S. forces stationed on its territory (though that may be changing). After nearly two decades of American “assistance,” Afghanistan is almost as bad as it was before we invaded.

Think about it: the Taliban may only fully control 4 percent of Afghanistan, but they are “openly active” in 66 percent of the country. Meanwhile, neighboring Pakistan continues allowing al-Qaeda to operate in its Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA)—meaning that the threat will never be fully defeated by American arms.

Courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War

So, what are we still doing in Afghanistan?

The Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party in Washington, D.C. has many bad answers to this legitimate question.

First, they argue that America seeks to prevent the collapse of the Kabul government that we spent trillions of dollars building up. What few acknowledge is that foreign-installed governments historically have failed in Afghanistan. Remember, the Soviet-installed Najibullah government imploded the moment the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan. Plus, Afghanistan is Taliban country. The Taliban is essentially a Pashtun liberation movement, and the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Even if the Taliban doesn’t retake full control, the current regime in Kabul wants to enter into a negotiated settlement with them. So, the Taliban isn’t going anywhere.

Second, Washington argues that American forces must remain in Afghanistan to fight terror networks. But, as we’ve proven throughout the Horn of Africa and in Southeast Asia, small counterterrorism teams are more effective than large, lumbering American armies in fighting al-Qaeda and other groups.

Lastly, Washington worries about the plight of Afghanistan’s girls: they will be reduced to the subservient status that they lived in before we invaded in 2001. That’s a perfectly humanitarian outlook. Yet Afghanistan continues ranking high on the list of the “most dangerous places in the world for women to live.” The lives of Afghan girls haven’t really improved, despite our massive investment there.

Face it, we’re wasting our time, money, and people fighting in Afghanistan. Our fears about the Taliban being resurgent or al-Qaeda reentering the country are legitimate, but why shouldn’t we leave them to China, Russia, and Iran? After all, those three countries are far more heavily invested in the future of Afghanistan than we are.

More important, none of those states want to see al-Qaeda return to Afghanistan. Russia, China, and Iran all have extensive ties with the Taliban and are closer to Afghanistan geographically—meaning an unstable Afghanistan is more of a direct threat to them than it is to us.

A superpower not only has the capacity to use force anywhere in the world, but it must also understand its limits (otherwise it ceases to be a superpower). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, American strategists have opted to use force everywhere without regard to those limitations on American power. In the process, we’ve broken our military and put ourselves in the position of maintaining an onerous debt.

America’s rivals—including China, Iran, and Russia—are rising and eager to knock us from our dominant perch in the world. An open-ended commitment to Afghanistan will ensure that China, Iran, or Russia succeeds in toppling America’s leading global status.

Let’s save our superpower by bringing our forces home from Afghanistan. There isn’t much more for them to do there, anyway.

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Conservative Dissent on Syria: An Interview with Peter Hitchens

I was reading George Will on Syria. The piece consists of this: Obligatory reference to the Germans dropping chemical weapons. Wikipedia level knowledge of the types of weapons and a strained causal link to Israel’s motivations in destroying Syrian airfield, completely oblivious of the greater strategic considerations. Mild Wikipedia level history to show that the gentleman author knows what he is talking about followed by a boring rhetorical question about a hypothetical situation of an airborne chemical attack on U.S. soil which will never happen because it is simply a logistical impossibility and U.S. remains the superpower for the near foreseeable future. That was followed by even more obligatory references to the U.S. failure to hold up deadlines, and culminated finally in a lament and a strained connection to rise of China, Rohingya, and Syria to the decline of Pax Americana.

In short, it was the typical (if not stereotypical) half-baked democracy promotion idea, the type of which you can find on Politico written by people who clearly are promoting one side of the agenda. Not conservative, not even Republican, but imperial in its instincts.

Unfortunately, some questions are not answered. Questions like: Who did the chemical attacks? On what motivation? What evidence do we require to intervene? Where is the independent proof? Why should we even believe the “activists,” the white helmets, or the rebels who provide with the “evidence?” What of the factor of Russian deterrence? What is the intervention endgame? The intervention timeline? And, most importantly, what geostrategic interests do we (meaning the United States and the UK) have in Syria or the greater Middle East, other than balancing Iran—which to put it simply, the Saudis and Israelis are more than capable of doing themselves, independently?

It also doesn’t address the broader Western public disinterest in a new war or intervention. What we know, however, that the minorities of Syria, including the Syrian Christians, the Patriarchates of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Greek-Melkite Catholic Damascus, are opposed to the rebels and supportive of Assad. We also know that further strikes against Assad are illegal. There are also detailed studies on how Rebels use propaganda aimed at Western media.

Not all Conservatives agree this time, however, as finally after 15 years of spending money on a toxic cancerous region, a kind of realism has set in. Tucker Carlson, went on a phenomenal rant on why President Trump should remember candidate Trump, on Middle East misadventures. In The National Interest, my colleague John Allen Gay gave a thorough run down on why it is a grave mistake for the United States to topple Assad. Similar conservative arguments are found on Syria, calling for restraint, realism, skepticism and prudence.

I asked Peter Hitchens, the most prominent Conservative-Realist voice against any further involvement in the Middle East, on this side of the Atlantic to answer a few questions on the matter. Mr Hitchens isn’t a pro-Assad or pro-Putin apologist, nor is he a believer of the “evidence” that forms the basis of further intervention in Middle East. He has also written in detail about why, as a conservative and a Realist, one should oppose any wastage of blood and treasure in a sectarian proxy war between rival great powers.

Here are my questions and his answers.

***

Sumantra Maitra:  You have been one of the consistent conservative voices opposing further Anglo-American interventions in the Middle East. What is the conservative argument against further involvement?

Peter Hitchens:   In political terms, it is the conservative argument against any “war of choice.” War invariably reduces liberty in the countries which wage it. This is already apparent, as an opponent of this war I feel besieged by a frightening conformity and genuinely fear limits on my freedom to oppose if this gets much worse.  Access to major electronic broadcasting stations will, I think, be increasingly reluctantly given to opponents of the New Cold War, of which the Syrian conflict is an aspect. When I opposed the Iraq war I found that broadcasting invitations almost entirely dried up.

But fundamentally I do not think the arguments for this conflict pass the basic tests of a Christian Just War. And I am actually angered by the refusal to wait for hard evidence before acting. And I am amazed that so many educated people seem unaware of the experience of the ages, that alleged atrocities must always be treated with reasonable skepticism when they are being employed to make the case for war.

Maitra:     How can we get out of Middle East, and why are we not being able to? Who’s pushing for us to be involved?

Hitchens:   I don’t think major powers can “get out” of the Middle East, where so many are interested and clients are concentrated, and so many obligations have been inherited from the colonial past. But I do think we should rid ourselves of the idea that it is a problem, which can be solved by some all-embracing “solution.” Far better to recognize that no such ideal solution is available, and concentrate on ensuring that all may live under their own vine, and their own fig tree, in peace and prosperity.  

Maitra:  You have written that you don’t believe chemical attacks were done by Assad. Why? Is it a failure of Western media to corroborate the assumptions and accusations without looking for proof?

Hitchens:   I think I have written that the Assad state’s involvement in these attacks is not proven by any material I have seen, a slightly different statement. This seems to me too obvious to anyone who makes an open-minded study of the known facts. I cannot answer for others.   

Maitra:  Russia is not the Soviet Union, but Russia is nevertheless an adversarial great power. How should we handle Russia?

Hitchens:   In what way is Russia adversarial, or, come to that, great? It has in the past 30 years withdrawn from control over 700,000 square miles of territory in Europe and of even more in Central Asia. Its relations with its non-NATO neighbours, and also with NATO Norway, are generally good and harmonious. Its objections to the expansion of an explicitly anti-Russian military alliance right up to its border, in defiance of pledges given to its Soviet predecessor, are reasonable and have been patiently expressed for many years, and ignored.

I do wish people would realize that in the era since the UN Charter, aggression has been done indirectly, either under humanitarian cover or through other semi-covert means, such as “people power” overthrows of governments which are inconvenient to great powers. The 2014 overthrow of the non-aligned legitimate Ukraine government (and its replacement by a pro-NATO unconstitutional regime)  by an openly Western-backed armed mob was an act of aggression. Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea were highly limited responses to this aggression.  Russia possesses some unusable nuclear weapons but has one-tenth of the conventional military power of NATO and has a GDP roughly the same size of that of Italy which is not a great power. It has no global ideology and no global navy, as it used to have.

Maitra:  You say you’re a foreign policy realist. Do you think the European Union is turning into an empire, and if so, are there chances that it would be potentially adversarial to not just Russia, but also to the United States in future?

Hitchens:   The EU has from the start been a postmodern Empire, based on the tactful granting of limited sovereignty to its subject nation (the trappings of independence, but not the real thing). The USA helped give birth to it, believing that such an arrangement would maintain stability in western Europe. It is in many ways an instrument of U.S. policy and I would be most surprised if the EU ever became a serious challenge to the USA.

But, as the continuation of Germany by other means, it cannot accept Russia as a member (unless it is first broken down in several much smaller segments) and is bound to be hostile to it. The Russo-German conflict, especially in the Balkans, the Baltics, Ukraine, and the Caucasus, is the main line of tension in the region and persists under all conceivable political and economic arrangements.

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Syria Strike: Apocalypse When Redux

Another deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria and another retaliatory airstrike by the United States raises the possibility of not only protracted conflict in the Middle East but escalating tensions with Russia and Iran. Or so we’ve been told.

But already, the implications of Friday’s cruise missile attack—as with the limited strike on a Syrian air baseir base this time last year—suggest anything but  the possibility of World War III. Contrary to the knee-jerk reactions by some on the far-right—who once again are insisting that President Trump has “sold out”—this latest strike instead suggests a further strengthening of American standing in the international community, as well as greater steps towards peace in the Middle East.

As  explanation for why this is so, we can look at the president’s own words as he laid them out in his brief remarks on the action in Syria.

Another Calculated Attack

In his remarks, the president says explicitly that the primary purpose of this strike was, once again, a very limited one. In this case it was to target the chemical weapons themselves. In the last strike, the target was the airfield from which the weapons had been launched.

But even then, the United States did everything it could to avoid as many unnecessary casualties as possible. It has been reported that the United States government warned the Russian government ahead of time of approximately where the strikes would land, giving them plenty of time to evacuate their own forces before the missiles fell.

In performing a very precise strike on Syria, the United States is taking reasonable action that does not necessarily constitute a declaration of war. This comes shortly after the president announced his plans finally to withdraw American forces from the region after the complete defeat of ISIS (which he also mentioned in his remarks). Trump knows the primary goal for the United States of any involvement with the conflict in that country is about to be achieved, and is thus careful to make sure that such actions as this strike still convey American strength, without crossing the line into total intervention. In taking such measures as informing the Russians where the bombs will fall, the potential for escalation is severely diminished.

At the same time, as we have made it clear that the core reason for this attack is the chemical weapons and that we have no interest or intention of entangling ourselves further in the region, we are actually making it more likely that Russia will have to adopt the same posture as the United States when it comes to chemical weapons—or, at the very least, be less supportive of the Syrian government in such confrontations as this.

As reported by Business Insider, the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime most likely flies in the face of any advice being given to them by the Russian government; they are not as effective as conventional bombs, and only hurt the public perception of Assad’s regime while also prompting this kind of outside intervention. In that sense, perhaps Russia might even be more prepared to turn a blind eye towards future actions against the country, especially if Syria is snubbing Russia’s wishes.

To that end, even Syrian officials have already conceded that they are willing to move on from these latest strikes if they prove to be a quick and precise effort, rather than a drawn-out campaign. Reuters reported that a pro-Assad official said “if U.S.-led strikes are now over,” then the “attack will be seen as limited.”

As with ast year’s strike, this attack appears to have moved from a carefully calculated execution to quick concessions from those that were hit. With the primary target being the deadly chemical weapons themselves, the strike alone does not indicate an escalation or an invasion; it is simply yet another slap in the face as punishment, and a patient but firm display of American strength.

An Even Broader Coalition

The size and makeup of the coalition that led these latest missile strikes should speak volumes about the increase in support for such measures, and thus the decreased possibility of retaliation. But it also reveals a startling shift in responsibility within the region.

Whereas the United States has previously borne the burden of such action entirely on its own, this latest strike was carried out by a broad coalition of world powers. Namely, the United States was joined in this effort by the United Kingdom and France, which only makes possible retaliation by Russia even less likely as they are faced with an even larger and stronger coalition.

But another key partner that some are already overlooking is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the three major powers in preparation for these strikes is the one significant difference between last year’s strike and this year’s strike.

This cam about because of one key event that took place after the original strike in April of 2017: Trump’s historic speech to the Middle Eastern countries gathered at the Riyadh Summit. In that speech, he threw down the gauntlet for the majority of Middle Eastern nations to determine their own fate, to solve their own problems, and to no longer depend on the United States’ assistance. He reiterated this same stance in his remarks, saying that only the people of that region can truly fix the problems there.

And the effects of his speech were swift and pronounced. It was Saudi Arabia who led the charge against one of the leading state sponsors of terrorism in the region, leading over a dozen other Middle Eastern nations in severing most diplomatic ties with Qatar. Saudi Arabia also took great strides in dealing with its own internal corruption and advancing human rights; and the figurehead for this change is the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as “MBS.”

Now, MBS is once again showing his determination to further advance Saudi Arabia as the new leader of stability efforts in the Middle East, declaring that Saudi Arabia is willing to join in on the international response to the chemical attacks in Syria. The fruits of Trump’s speech at the Riyadh Summit are continuing to flourish, and thissuggests that future action is more likely to be led by Syria’s geographic neighbors than by the top world powers.

Others Are Watching

As with any move in foreign policy, the most important thing to remember is that one move almost always affects another move, no matter how far apart on the board the pieces may be. Beyond the immediate implications that this move carries for the Middle East, and beyond the broader implications for the relationship between the United States and Russia, the ripples of this action in Syria could very well be felt all the way in North Korea.

Prior to these latest developments in Syria, the top focus in foreign policy in the media was the ever-increasing possibility that North Korea may actually agree to denuclearize.

Thus, with the historic and highly-anticipated summit between the United States and North Korea slowly approaching (set for sometime next month), President Trump knows that he must maintain an image of strength and resolve all over the globe. He knows that weakness in one area potentially can translate to weakness in another area. If North Korea sees the president acting indecisive or weak in one volatile region of the world, then it may be led to believe that he will be similarly weak in dealing with the Korean Peninsula.

At the same time, he has proven that he is capable of juggling multiple international crises at once, which further strengthens his image and most likely makes North Korea feel as if they are just another customer, rather than the center of attention. Kim Jong-Un is likely frustrated by that fact, but also probably feels that this makes the upcoming talks even more valuable since he has managed to earn even a portion of President Trump’s time.

The message to Assad was also a message to Kim, and there’s no doubt that both men heard it loud and clear.

Photo credit:  Matthew Daniels/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

America • Americanism • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Greatness Agenda • Middle East • Post • The ME Agenda • Trump White House

The Worst of All Worlds

Friday night’s missile strike on Syria will prove to be a mistake in almost every possible way. Ostensibly launched to punish and deter the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, the attack makes peace in the region and in the world less likely.

Bad Politics

As a purely political matter, the U.S.-led attack, which was a joint effort with Great Britain and France, has deeply alienated many of President Trump’s core supporters. Trump won the presidency through a nationalist platform, the three legs of which include  fairer trade, more stringent immigration enforcement, and an “America First” foreign policy. Until Trump, the consensus among both parties’ leadership fostered ruinous free trade policies, a mass influx of low-skill Third World immigrants into the country, and maintenance of U.S. dominance on the international scene. Trump campaigned on revising all three policies to serve the interests of the American people; this included greater restraint abroad after 15 years of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

A nationalist foreign policy earned Trump a great number of critics among the national security establishment and its associated agencies, including the CIA, FBI, the Pentagon, and the National Security Agency. But implementing such a policy is exactly what Trump’s supporters elected him to do. While some were encouraged by his unconventional in-your-face style (and others steeled themselves to look past it), Trump’s voters supported him because they support a more nationalist agenda—an agenda that is popular with the American people. It counseled, among other things, avoiding nation-building, gratuitous “humanitarian” wars,” and greater discretion with the use of force more generally.

After Friday’s raid, many stalwart supporters (including such varied figures as Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, and Michael Savage) expressed extreme displeasure and a loss of confidence in the president,  Trump’s more outspoken supporters on the Right have defended him vigorously from unfair, false, and scurrilous attacks. But they did not join a personality cult. Trump has very few friends in Washington, D.C. He succeeded in part because of the uncoordinated, grassroots support and free media he received from his voters. If he alienates them, he may find himself completely isolated.

Friday’s action earned him some temporary praise from the Graham-McCain-Rubio wing of the Republican Party, as well as from the interventionist cohort on CNN. But, much like the support for his strike on Syria this time last year, it won’t last. Trump remains mostly opposed to the establishment and its goals, which extend far beyond Syria or the president’s stated aim of punishing belligerents for using chemical weapons. Their goal is globalism—the exact opposite of America First.

Risk of War with Russia

The attack also unnecessarily provokes confrontation with Russia. While there are encouraging signs Friday’s attack was limited, and that the U.S.-led coalition took pains to avoid hitting Russian personnel, it nonetheless changes the posture of our intervention in Syria from one of tacit cooperation with Russia and the Assad regime against ISIS, to one of the United States fighting both ISIS and its enemies simultaneously.

Russia has been Syria’s ally since the end of the Soviet Union, and it is fighting for a prosaic and limited goal: to enhance its own power and prestige by assisting the Syrian government in crushing a rebellion made up of extremist Sunnis who will, if successful, murder Christians, Shias, moderate Sunnis, and the Alawite minority.

The Assad regime has been painted by critics as brutal and authoritarian, and it is in certain respects. Yet much of life is about choosing between lesser evils. A cursory review of images from Damascus shows a country with a diversity of religions and lifestyles, and others marks of a flourishing, normal, and sane country. The ISIS caliphate, by contrast, revelled in torturing and murdering its enemies: burning prisoners alive, or drowning them, or beheading infidels and apostates in public squares.

Russia is not as powerful as the United States, and thus it has fewer foreign policy commitments. But it is a nuclear power, and it has shown willingness to stand by its friends, such as in Serbia and Ossetia. If an American attack significantly hurt the Russian military, the prospects of escalation—including nuclear escalation—are conceivable. What would happen, for example, if Russia sunk an American cruiser? Or if the U.S. did the same to a Russian vessel? It could mean all-out war, and what does “all-out war” mean when the world’s two biggest nuclear powers are involved?

While I have no doubts about Putin’s ability to be Machiavellian—ruthless even—in support of his country’s interests, he has shown tremendous restraint in the face of a concerted effort to demonize him and weaken his country. Would it be wise to find out what are the outer limits of that restraint?

America and Russia share certain common interests, including the elimination of ISIS. It would be better to build on these common interests and find space for cooperation and friendlier relations. As Trump said during the campaign, “if the United States got along with Russia, would that be so bad?” Russia showed an ability to cooperate after 9/11 by allowing U.S. forces access to bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The alternative is what we see now: a tense, risky situation, where U.S. attempts to remain the “sole superpower” frequently collide with the local concerns of Russia and China. Contrary to its self-professed sophistication, this strategy appears to lead not to world peace, but necessarily to global conflict.

Doubtful Claims of an Assad-Regime Chemical Attack

The attack was based on flimsy evidence. There has been no investigation of the events at the site of the attack, which remains in rebel territory. More important, common sense suggests Assad did not do this; after all, a week earlier Trump had said America would be leaving Syria, because ISIS essentially had been defeated. The “Assad gas attack” followed almost immediately, which brought on the U.S. counterattack.  

The timing is incredibly suspicious. Since the United States is both opposed to ISIS and nominally opposed to the Assad regime, isn’t it in Assad’s interest to refrain from gross provocations so as to encourage us to leave? While I do not accept the narrative that Assad is an evil “animal,” even if he were, is he also an irrational animal that will do things that hurt himself and his ability to consolidate power? The United States swiftly attacked him for a gas attack last year, so why would he invite another attack? And why would a desultory bombing campaign deter him from gassing people in the future? The operation does not even make sense on its own terms.

The ability to garner domestic and international support for military action depends on trust; but we now know last year’s gas attack cannot be pinned on the Assad regime. Our Iraq intervention was marred by the disproven claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. If we squander our trust with dubious wars based on flimsy pretexts, will we be able to garner support and public trust at home and abroad when it’s truly necessary?Securing such trust is even more doubtful today than it was in 2003.

Weakening the Assad Regime is Not Humanitarian

In all likelihood, Friday’s action prolongs the war. U.S. intervention in Syria goes back to 2011. Obama, believing the “Arab Spring” was the start of a regional turn toward democracy and liberalism, gave moral support to protesters in Egypt, military support to rebels in Libya, and rhetorical and then military support to Syria’s rebels. In the first two cases, the regimes were changed, but the result was civil war and chaos. Assad, however, hasn’t budged. The war has raged on and more than 400,000 people have died, but the Assad regime has slowly regained control. Indeed, its victory now appears inevitable, as noted last month by CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Vogel.

While authoritarian regimes can be very harsh, war is almost invariably worse—especially in this case, when the choice is between a secular strongman whose chief aim is to remain in power and a group of jihadists whose violence is aimed at the utopian and totalitarian goal of a caliphate enforcing Sharia law.

At his worst, Assad has shown he will attack those who attack his government or threaten to do so; the Sunni jihadists, if successful, will attack civilization itself. The most humanitarian option in Syria today is to end the war, and the only way that will happen is when the Assad regime wins.

We Want the President We Elected Back

President Trump’s most loyal supporters, the dissident conservatives, are not pollyannaish. We are not pacifists. We are not terribly concerned with the United Nations or its pretensions of limiting U.S. power. But we are concerned with the ways U.S. foreign policy can weaken the United States, as our country learned in both Vietnam and Iraq. We learned the right lessons from these disasters, and almost all of us oppose this war.

President Trump, before he ever ran for office, recognized the unwisdom of a Syrian intervention in his extensive criticisms of Obama’s decision to side with the rebels against the Assad regime:

I voted for that guy to be president. Sadly, he is morphing into the Second Coming of George W. Bush, complete with a hubristic claim of “mission accomplished.”

We can hope, like last year, this intervention is truly limited and over, and we will leave Syria altogether. But it appears every time we are ready to leave, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and Syria’s neighbor, Israel, raises the call to stay without any exit strategy. Twice, and all-too-conveniently, a chemical weapons attack materialized to grant a plausible basis to stay. Some skepticism of the provenance of these attacks, as well as the wisdom of the foreign policy establishment, are in order. After all, cui bono?

America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Defense of the West • Deterrence • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Greatness Agenda • Middle East • Post • The ME Agenda

Bomb Assad But Bring the Boys Home

Recent events have dragged the Syrian civil war once again to the center of the world’s attention. The first of these events was the recent meeting in Ankara, Turkey with Turkey’s leader, President Recep Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Conspicuously absent from that meeting was any representative from the United States, or, for that matter, from Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Interestingly, the meeting was entirely about how the Syrian civil war would end (so why was America and the Syrian leadership excluded?).

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump recently intimated, with the apparent destruction of the physical caliphate of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military mission in Syria would be coming to an end. Soon, U.S. forces would be leaving Syria and could claim a decisive victory over their enemies—a nice change for our armed forces, after nearly two decades of unwinnable nation-building missions throughout the developing world.

That was before the apparent chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb or Douma. Reports are sketchy, but dozens of civilians reportedly were killed. It appears that forces loyal to the besieged Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad, perpetrated the chemical weapons attack.

Recall that around this time last year, Trump ordered a massive cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base for a similar chemical weapons attack. In light of the latest atrocity, the president’s hope to withdraw U.S. forces appears to be in jeopardy. And with the recent shakeup in the Trump Administration’s national security team, the real question is whether the president will be persuaded to reverse course and succumb to Washington war fever.

His tweet regarding the chemical weapons attack in Douma is instructive:

Keep in mind that the president has never said he would abandon our campaign in Syria. He has argued consistently that whatever happens in Syria (or in foreign policy more generally), he will protect American interests. The president appears to be taking his larger desires for a reduction in America’s commitment in Syria (as well as his correct hope for healthier relations with nuclear-armed Russia) and aligning them with the reality on the ground. Fact is, the president has committed American policy to retaliating against the genocidal mania that Assad routinely exhibits.

Fortunately, the United States can retaliate against Assad’s attack and still reduce its military footprint in Syria. There is a wide chasm (that needn’t be crossed) between striking back at Assad’s forces for their illegal actions and expanding America’s mission in Syria to include regime change.

After all, when President Trump authorized the greater commitment of American forces to Syria last year, he gave our troops easier rules of engagement to follow—and narrowed the scope of their mission. Whereas former President Obama wanted American forces to effectively topple the well-entrenched Assad, Trump merely wanted to decimate jihadists who composed the bulk of the “resistance” movement against Assad.

Under Trump, terror groups like ISIS and Al Nusra—direct threats to the United States, its allies, and overall regional stability—were the primary targets of the American military campaign in Syria. Even though ISIS has around 2,000 dead-enders scattered about in Syria, the bulk of the American mission there is over. Respecting the remaining American forces in Syria, the classic Pentagon urge to “use-it-or-lose it” must be overcome by removing those forces from an unwinnable, endlessly expanding conflict.

The president should strike back against Bashar al-Assad for having committed this brazen act of genocide. But, he should also go to Putin and Erdogan—cutting out the Iranians completely—and offer to reduce American presence in Syria in exchange for them forcing Assad (and Iran) to end the civil war peacefully.

The president has mostly defeated America’s enemies in Syria. We need to stop trying to remake foreign countries in our image, no matter how despicable the regime may be. It doesn’t work and it weakens us.

Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

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America • Americanism • Cultural Marxism • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Middle East • military • Obama • Post • Terrorism • The Culture • The Left • The ME Agenda

How Bergdahl’s Case Perverts Military Justice

In his 60-year old classic study of U.S. civil-military relations, The Soldier and the State, the late Samuel Huntington observed the traditional attitude of liberal American society toward the military was “conform or die.” During periods of peace, when security was not at stake, he contended, liberalism’s policy was “extirpation,” the attempt to eliminate the military as an “institution of violence.” During wartime, liberalism’s policy has been “transmutation,” the “refashioning of the military institutions along liberal lines so that they lose their peculiarly military characteristics.”

A major example of transmutation was the post-World War II change in the military justice system culminating in the creation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Before the UCMJ, the U.S. Army and Navy had been governed by the Articles of War (the Navy’s version was called “Rocks and Shoals”). Critics claimed that the Articles gave too much authority to commanding officers, were too arbitrary, and did not meet the standards of justice in a liberal society. Attitudes toward the pre-UCMJ system of military justice were captured by this ditty: “Let the wheels of justice spin/Bring the guilty bastard in.” Such a system, employed for generations to maintain order and discipline in an army and navy made up of long-term volunteers, did not seem appropriate for the large military made up of draftees, deemed necessary to confront the Soviet threat during the Cold War.

Traditionalists criticized the UCMJ for softening military justice and importing civilian concepts of law into an environment based on the necessity to maintain good order and discipline as the basis of military effectiveness. But as long as military lawyers remembered that the new protections provided by the UCMJ did not negate the purpose of military law, the military justice system worked.

But as the recent decision by a military judge to waive prison time for admitted deserter Bowe Bergdahl illustrates, Huntington’s military transmutation continues apace. The cause is not so much the shortcomings of the UCMJ but the attitude of an increasing number of military lawyers whose allegiance to a liberal concept of justice trumps considerations of good order and discipline. As one commentator recently noted, even with his time in the hands of the Taliban, Bergdahl will spend less time in prison than a soldier convicted of selling drugs.

Huntington argued that the “expertise” of the military profession was the “management of violence” on behalf of American society. But by acting to expand the “rights” of terrorists and constraining operations against them, military lawyers have infringed on this expertise, especially in the years since 9/11.

Criticism of military lawyers for their role in making it more difficult to execute operations against terrorists notwithstanding, most of us expect them to adhere to the traditional goal of military justice as a means of maintaining good order and discipline. The actions of the military judge in the Bergdahl case suggest this expectation has gone by the wayside.

Things have changed since 1979, when a Marine named Robert Garwood, who claimed to have been captured by the Viet Cong in 1965, was tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion and sedition. The military court rejected Garwood’s claim that he had been tortured and had collaborated with the enemy only to survive, sentencing him to a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances during his alleged captivity. The Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.

There are many similarities between Garwood’s case and that of Bergdahl, but in fact Bergdahl’s case is weaker than Garwood’s. For one thing, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to the charges. Nonetheless, for unexplained reasons, the military judge in the case refused to impose prison time.

At Powerline, Paul Mingeroff has noted the hubris of General Mark Martins, a highly decorated and celebrated brigadier general in the United States Army JAG Corps, who declared that “law embodies and summarizes human experience about right action in a particular context.” That may be true in a perfect world but it fails in the context of military justice and the goal it is designed to serve.

Some will argue that President Trump’s tweets regarding the case constitute “unlawful command influence” (UCI). That may have influenced the sentence. But if Trump is guilty of UCI, then certainly former President Obama is, too, given the Rose Garden event with Bergdahl’s parents and earlier comments by Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, claiming that Bergdahl had “served with honor and distinction.”

The actions of both Obama and Trump helped to politicize the Bergdahl case, but none of that should have negated the purpose of the military justice system. Bergdahl’s actions were premeditated. They also led to American casualties. Nothing in mitigation justifies a decision that mocks not only the practical goals of good order and discipline in the military but also such military virtues as honor and sacrifice.

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military • Poetry • Post • The Culture • The Left • The ME Agenda

A Danny Deever Do-Over

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling. 

“What’s on the news this mornin’, Sarge?” said Files-on-Parade.
“More signs of the Apocalypse,” his Platoon Sergeant said.
“Hey, Sarge, how come you turned it off?” said Files-on-Parade.
“ ‘Cause I can’t stand to hear no more,” the Platoon Sergeant said.
“For they’re releasing Bowe Berghdahl; they have let him off scot-free,
“He’s said he’s sorry, so he’s back into society—
“The dog who died searching for him, was a better man than he—
“But they’re releasing Bowe Bergdahl, in the morning.”

 

“Ain’t he the guy that Obama…” said Files-on-Parade.
“Oh, yes, indeedy, that’s the one,” his Platoon Sergeant said.
“And we traded some prisoners…” said Files-on-Parade.
“Shut up. I’ve thrown up in my mouth,” his Platoon Sergeant said.
“The swine we traded for him must be howling with mirth-
“I feel the dead in Arlington, they’re stirring in the earth—
“I swear, if he’d mocked Islam, Bowe would be in Leavenworth—
“But they’re releasing Bowe Bergdahl, in the morning.”
“What were the charges, anyway?” said Files-on-Parade.
“Desertion was just one of them,” the Platoon Sergeant said.
“And did they find him innocent?” asked Files-on-Parade.
“No, ‘guilty’—with no punishment,” the Platoon Sergeant said. 
“No blindfold, no last cigarette, no ‘up-against-the-wall’s’— 
“Not since Bradley’s un-manning, have I seen such lack of balls;  
 “And we can’t protect this country with an army of Berghdahls,
 “And I expect I’ll be hungover, in the morning.”

 

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America • Defense of the West • Deterrence • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Middle East • military • Post • Terrorism • The ME Agenda • The Media

Restoring American Leadership to Beat Back ISIS

The United States has enjoyed a major strategic victory in the seeming endless Global War on Terrorism: the Islamic State has been crushed.

Oh, you hadn’t heard? That’s unsurprising, because almost none of the mainstream media are giving it adequate coverage. They’re too busy talking about none of the news that really matters, like the latest spat between President Trump and lame duck Senator Bob Corker.  

That’s OK. What matters is that Trump has returned American leadership to world affairs in a decisive way—and he did it while defying the negative assumptions of the Left, overcoming the ridiculous expectations of neoconservatives, and by shocking our enemies in the Mideast.

Critics may have complained that Trump was irresponsibly increasing America’s military footprint in the Middle East, a region that has been the source of too many problems for too many years. But, compared to other American military operations, the forces Trump  committed to defeating ISIS were small.

So what made the difference? Trump loosened the rules of engagement, giving our warfighters and our allies all the support they needed, and never once equivocated on the concept of victory—or the certainty that America must lead, regardless of its force size.

It took President Trump just nine months to achieve what President Obama—who talked and talked and talked about defeating the JV jihadis—couldn’t accomplish in two years. The Left must be scratching its collective head. After eight years of Obama’s “leading from behind”, progressives appear confused about how effective American leadership truly can be in the world. For their part, the folks in the NeverTrump wing of Conservatism Inc™ look to be just as bewildered because Trump was supposed to be an isolationist. Plus, much to Bill Kristol’s chagrin, Trump has proven that the United States can go to war against terrorists in the Mideast without engaging in a quixotic mission to turn the region into the American Midwest.

Carl von Clausewitz famously stated that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Thus, the main point of warfare is to effect political change. You do this by breaking your enemy’s will and his ability to resist. In today’s world, a crucial component of warfare is in the battle of perceptions. In fact, most politics is about perception—it’s about how your enemies and the non-combatants you are interacting with perceive you and your cause.

Simply invading a country and killing thousands of people can be counterproductive when the object is to bring about a political solution to the war. Some wars are necessarily small and some are large. If you turn what should have remained a small war into a large one, as we did in Afghanistan after 2002 or in Iraq, you end being perceived as incompetent. If you spend your time apologizing to the world for your country’s sins in lieu of fighting your enemies effectively, as Obama did, you can be perceived as weak.

In the Mideast particularly, America has been perceived as weak and incompetent for years.

The Middle East is a part of the world riven by cultural chaos, ethnic animosity, and religious turmoil. Thus, the rule of the “strong horse” is highly valued for bringing a modicum of order to an otherwise perpetually tumultuous region. When former President Obama spoke of defeating ISIS, he did it in a sterile and academic way. The world disbelieved that Obama was serious, given his years-long commitment to reducing America’s role in the Mideast. Not only did ISIS ignore Obama’s threats, but our allies only reluctantly engaged ISIS, and made side deals with other powers, like Iran and Russia.

Of Mideast power dynamics, Lee Smith writes, “Strength, whether it issues from the body, intellect, or will, is the raw material that wedded to character becomes power imposing itself on the world. What more is there to say about one horse beating another in the desert when no one is watching? The stronger wins, and the other knows it has lost.” With President Obama, no matter how many ISIS members were killed in combat, the world still knew the Islamic State remained. Further, the world questioned America’s staying power and its ability to lead an effective coalition. Under President Trump, not only has ISIS been beaten back but it has lost its physical territory. They know Trump won’t back down.

What’s more, everyone knows ISIS has lost, thanks to Trump. The only question that remains is where the ISIS survivors will go—and what they plan on doing once they arrive there. Thus, continued American leadership will be required. Thankfully, the decisive Donald Trump—and not the detached Hillary Clinton—is leading us.

 

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America • Deterrence • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Israel • Middle East • Post • Terrorism • The ME Agenda

Free Kurdistan Now

The Kurds are the largest stateless people in the world. Their population exists in a contiguous territory spanning across  present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Historically, the Kurds have been an oppressed people. Iran, Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and what’s left of ISIS in Syria and Iraq are all deeply and viscerally opposed to the idea of a Kurdish state. An independent Kurdistan would remove large swathes of territory from each of those countries.

For the most part, the Kurds—particularly those living in northern Iraq—are stridently pro-American. The fear among the other regional powers is that if Kurdish Iraq were to become an independent state, other Kurdish populations would demand independence, and would seek to be folded into that Kurdish state.

Further, the Iraqi Kurds,with their fearsome Peshmerga forces, as well as the Kurds in Syria and southern Turkey, are all well-trained and heavily armed. In fact, the recent fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has compelled the armed Kurdish factions to sally forth and take territories, such as the Iraqi city of Kirkuk (which the Peshmerga recently liberated from ISIS). Of course, the Iraqi government wants Kirkuk back, and are warring with the Kurds in order to regain control of that strategic city.

The tragedy in all of this is, aside from the Israelis, the Kurds have been America’s most steadfast ally in the region. Throughout history, the Kurds—notoriously and gruesomely—have been oppressed by the region’s powers. They were the constant targets of Saddam’s tyranny in Iraq; they waged a brutal war for their freedom in Turkey; in Syria they are the targets of ISIS and other Syrian “rebels” as well.

During Desert Storm, they answered former President George H.W. Bush’s calls to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Then, the elder Bush undercut their uprising by signing an armistice with Iraq, and abandoning the Kurds to their fate. They were slaughtered. And yet the Kurds never once blamed Bush for abandoning them.

During President Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States led a multinational force to maintain a no-fly zone that prevented Hussein from committing any further acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurdish population. As a result, the Kurds established something like a quasi-independent state.

When George W. Bush in 2003 led the United States into a quixotic campaign to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein, the Kurds joined the cause even though they understood the grave risks. After Saddam was out of power and the U.S.-led occupation struggled to prevent Iraq from splitting into three states——one for the Sunnis, one for the Shiites, and the other for the Kurds—it was the Kurds who respected Iraq’s national integrity.

What did they get for their troubles?

An Iranian-dominated government in Baghdad that took out its frustration on the Kurds!

When the war against ISIS began in earnest a few short years ago, the Kurds led the fight on the ground, even as Barack Obama’s feckless administration dithered over strategy and support. Now, the Iraqi Kurds want freedom. What’s more, they deserve freedom for their continued friendship with the United States.

Today, after doing our bidding for years, the Kurds in Kirkuk find themselves under assault from Iranian-controlled Iraqi government forces, with the Turks cheering the Iraqi regime on. All but the Kurds are using advanced American weapons. Meanwhile, sorry to say, President Donald Trump dithers, too.

In fact, when it came time for gaining international support for a referendum on Kurdish independence, President Trump shocked our Kurdish allies when he refused to back the move. This runs counter to the natural tilt of American foreign policy going back decades. It also signals to our allies that America is undependable and indecisive—in ways that, as it happens, help to explain why the Saudis and the Israelis have been so keen to welcome the Russians into the region. Moreover, the refusal to back Kurdish independence places President Trump on the same side as the Iranians, the very country that he claims is America’s greatest rival in the region. So, when it comes to fighting ISIS, Trump has been magnificent. But he’s left our Kurdish allies outnumbered and outgunned.

Failure to recognize Kurdistan is not only an abdication of moral leadership, it is a geostrategic error for the United States. Without Kurdistan as a buffer state between Iran’s expansion into the Levant, as well as a check against Turkish and Russian consolidation of the region’s energy sources, we will permanently lose the region to our adversaries. Backing the Kurds to the fullest is in America’s best interest.

 

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