THE FUTURE'S SO BRIGHT…

Posted in Rants on August 23rd, 2010 by Ed

Despite the best efforts of the Ministry of Information, relatively little attention was paid to last week's withdrawal of the last active combat battalions from Iraq. My first reaction was to wonder why the media and public were not treating this as a major story, instead focusing on the idiotic Ground Zero nontroversy and various other tabloid quality nonsense. But the reasons are pretty obvious. First, this is largely symbolic and the U.S. military presence remains considerable. The idea that this is a withdrawal is eerily reminiscent of Bush's "end of major combat operations" with its glaring adjective. Second, Iraq is completely fucked up to an extent that we dare not speak. To draw attention to the withdrawal would raise too many questions about what we're leaving behind. Lastly, we'll probably be going back in soon if the performance of the Iraqi Army is any indication.

The victory narrative – er, "success," since the word "victory" has been stricken from our political lexicon – is entirely hollow, as Hannah Gurman points out. A national myth might be a small price to pay, however, if it contributes to getting us the hell out of there. That seems unlikely. While the administration(s) have been touting the might of the 650,000 strong Iraqi Army for eight years now, only a fraction of its manpower is remotely reliable and an even smaller fraction (estimated at 50 battalions) is capable of carrying out combat operations unassisted. Ray Odierno is already working the media and laying the groundwork for an American return, noting that we'll go right back in if there is a "complete failure" of the security forces in place. I'd put the odds of the Iraqi Army's failure at, oh, about 100%.

It goes without saying that "success" applies only from the American perspective, and even then only inasmuch as success is defined at getting the hell out. Iraq is a disaster. The talk of success and withdrawal contrasts markedly with the car bombings and mortar attacks and this cute little story about terrorist sympathizers who infiltrated the police and let some al-Qaeda guys out of prison. Does that sound like stability? Like something that will function as a state? At best it sounds like a second Afghanistan. The American Embassy, the grandiosity of which has been pointedly noted over the years, includes its own water, power, and sewage facilities, a telling statement of what Washington really thinks about the "progress" made in Baghdad.

The reality is that Iraq lacks functioning infrastructure, an economy outside of servicing the U.S. military and foreign contractors, or anything resembling an effective government (in which ex-Baathists, hidden insurgents, and plain ol' corruption remain epidemics). To be brutally frank, this amounts to par for the course in Central Asia and much of the Middle East. Hell, even given its sad state of affairs at present, Iraq is still in better shape than a number of countries in the region that haven't suffered eight years of foreign invasion (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, most of Pakistan, and so on). But the war was supposed to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the region. If the outcome is that we made Iraq into West Pakistan or Lesser Armenia, I'd say we aimed for the moon and ended up exploding on the launch pad. The outcome, even though it is what any thinking person would have expected at the outset of this misadventure, will linger on as an embarrassment to the U.S. much in the same way that Vietnam did for an earlier generation.

What happens next in Iraq? The neocons were right about one thing: without the U.S. military there, things will probably get much worse in a hurry. Where my opinion diverges from theirs is that I don't see this undeniable fact as a reason to make an indefinite commitment to keeping a presence there and sustaining a couple hundred U.S. combat deaths per year until 2030 or whatever. Our military presence is still substantial – there are almost 70,000 troops still in the country – and of course our economic investment will continue (and continue bankrupting us). I get the feeling that we'll have a hard time defining anything as "success" except for getting the hell out, and the State Department and Pentagon might want to dust off some tricks from the Cold War playbook, starting with the chapter about how to prop up a failing puppet regime.

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THE SOUTH (CAUCASUS) WILL RISE AGAIN

Posted in Uncategorized on August 11th, 2008 by Ed

(Given that I do not know Georgian, Russian, or Ossetian politics from my ass or a hole in the ground, I have called on a guest writer to say something intelligent. It seemed to work last time. What are the odds that I could find someone who studies Georgia? Scientists used Deep Blue to calculate them at 1 in 1,730,265. Well, suck it, science. I don't just know someone, I live with him. Without further ado, Mr. Scott "Aqua Velva Man" Nissen.)

Despite the media’s insistence that the political future of John Edwards (and, one assumes, his illegitimate child) and the vacation habits of Barack Obama are the most salient issues in the world today, a much more troubling event has been ongoing in a largely ignored region. On August 7th, the Russian military invaded South Ossetia, a small region in northern Georgia with separatist goals.

Before getting to the consequences of this action for Americans and the rest of the world, a little background is in order. Following the collapse of communism, the force that kept many separatist groups in check disappeared. Without the unifying force of communism (and the threat posed by the Red Army), many of the new states that emerged from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were unable to placate the separatist aspirations of many ethnic groups. As seen in Chechnya, Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh (I did not make that one up), the result has been some of the most savage conflicts in the post-Cold War era. Conflict erupted in South Ossetia almost immediately after Georgian independence in 1992, ending with a tense cease-fire that was maintained by Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian peacekeepers.

South Ossetia was largely peaceful until 2004, when the new Georgian government, brought to power in the Rose Revolution, cracked down on illegal activity in the region. This led to sporadic fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian troops, who were believed to be backed by the Russian military. American and limited European acknowledgement of Kosovo’s independence in February 2008 further destabilized Georgia's hold on South Ossetia. Recognizing separatists in Kosovo set a precedent, reducing the authority states have over breakaway regions. Needless to say, the tensions in South Ossetia have run high and increased significantly in recent years.

Everything came to a head on August 1st, when Georgian troops in South Ossetia were shelled by South Ossetian troops. The Georgian military responded by invading the region to quell the fighting, encountering intense resistance. Russia denies that the incident on August 1st occurred. A week later, the Russian military began bombing raids, first in South Ossetia and eventually on other targets in Georgia including an airfield near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. As of today, it appears that Georgia is vacating the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali while Abkhazia, another separatist region within Georgia, may be taking advantage of this situation by attacking Georgian troops within Abkhazian borders.

What remains unclear is Russia’s rationale. Two motives have been widely speculated. First, Russia may have annexed South Ossetia to reunite it with North Ossetia, which is already part of Russia. They claim that approximately 90% of the people who live in South Ossetia carry a Russian passport and use Russian currency. Second, Moscow is troubled by former Soviet republics joining the EU and NATO. The three Baltic States have already joined both organizations while Ukraine and Georgia have received commitments from NATO about their future with the security organization. Russia may be trying to destabilize the Georgian state and military with the intention of making them ineligible for NATO membership.

It is important to note that Russia also has separatist problems of its own, most notably in Chechnya (which also borders Georgia). Although this conflict has cooled off in recent years, it does not make much sense for Russia to embolden Ossetian separatists in Georgia while trying to suppress Chechens a mere 200 miles away. Additionally, Russia’s standing in the international community has taken a big hit in recent years due to Vladimir Putin’s backsliding toward repression. Invading Georgia, which is significantly weaker, perceived to be a strong democracy, and a staunch ally of the West, can’t do much to help Russia’s tattered international image.

Why should we care that Russia is essentially steamrolling over an obscure country – besides the obvious loss of life and possibility of ethnic cleansing that comes with any armed conflict? There are three underreported ways in which this conflict might impact Americans directly. First, after the US and the UK, Georgia had the largest force in Iraq – roughly 2,000 troops on the ground. With the continued deterioration of the situation in South Ossetia, the Georgian government has asked that the United States airlift these troops back to Georgia. Unfortunately, this means that the military of another coalition partner (read: the US or UK) will, at least temporarily, have to fill that gap.

Second, oil markets will be further destabilized. A major pipeline links Central Asian oil fields with Western ports on the Mediterranean via Tbilisi. The Georgian government has said that the Russian Air Force is targeting the pipeline, a claim not yet substantiated by independent observers. However, the mere notion that the pipeline could be targeted may be enough for oil speculators to drive the price of oil to new record highs.

Finally, and this goes out to all of us enjoying the Summer Olympics in Beijing, guess where the 2014 Winter Olympics are being held? That’s right, Sochi, Russia, only about 150 miles from the newly demolished city of Tskhinvali. While I’m sure that the Russian government will be able to put on a wonderful show for the rest of the world, the specter of violence, instability, and the current conflict is likely to remain the region for many years.

Unfortunately, this conflict is getting the short shrift in the MSM even though we, and the region, may be feeling the consequences of it for some time. It may take the Russian army marching on Atlanta instead of Tbilisi for many Americans to actually take notice.

(Scott was compensated with a post-dated out-of-state bad check for $1,000 which stands no chance of being honored by any legitimate financial institution.)

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IRAQI ENDGAME

Posted in Election 2008 on April 14th, 2008 by Ed

James K. Polk was a noteworthy president, worthy of a better fate than to be forgotten outside of the dozens of middle schools that bear his name. George W. Bush has certainly sampled liberally from the Polk playbook, although that he did so consciously is dubious. That he knows who James K. Polk is, for that matter, is dubious.

After the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, Mexico was pretty irritated. They had ideas of hanging on to it (and a lot of other territory). Polk was convinced that pre-emptive war with Mexico was necessary to protect the newly-stateified (not a word) Texas from the inevitable Mexican attack. The problem was that he couldn't talk Congress into declaring war, which used to be a prerequisite to the U.S. being in a war. Quaint days, those were.

Here's where Polk got crafty.

He exercised his Commander-in-Chief powers to mobilize a large portion of the Army (under Zachary Taylor) to the U.S.-Mexican border. A funny thing happens when two armies from hostile nations are in close proximity; they start fighting. They progress from trading insults to threats to hot lead. And Polk understood that once a war begins, there's no effective way to stop it without dire consequences. So the first time an angry, sun-stroked Mexican soldier lost control of his itchy trigger finger, the Army said "We were attacked" and responded with both barrels. Lo and behold, Congress declared war shortly thereafter. Start the war first, get approval second. Brilliant. Think about Congress's preferences. 1) No war 2) Win war 3) Lose war. Eliminate #1 and their next highest preference becomes the dominant strategy – even when "victory" is nebulous and undefinable.

The people responsible for starting the war in Iraq understood this (Our Leader not being among that group). While the less intelligent among them believed in their faith-based projections – they'll hail us as their liberators, the fighting will be over in 6 weeks, and all the various factions will get along – but the real architects of the war…..they knew. They knew that all they had to do was start it. Start it and, like a rudderless ocean liner that goes nowhere but never stops, it will take on a self-sustaining momentum of its own.

As I listen to the various presidential candidates' positions on the war, something that we've been whispering as a nation since 2004 has become inescapable: there is no endgame. There is no "good" solution. There's not even a solution. No one has a plan. And that was the plan all along. It's a colossal clusterfuck, and leaving makes it worse. The goal was to entangle the military in a terrible situation which could only get worse following a withdrawl.

The reason I do not give two shits about this election is that the candidates all lead to the same outcome – we're in Iraq for four more years, and then four more after that. Repeat an indeterminate, but likely large, number of times. Obama and Clinton might actually believe that they're going to end our involvement. Does anyone else? Sadly I think a lot of people do. They are in for a real disappointment in that case. The hypothetical Democratic presidents will be cowed into staying in order to "look tough" to the Republican and military establishment. Or they'll simply bow to the overwhelming logistical impossibility of leaving.

It breaks my heart to see so many people pouring their hearts and souls into Obama. Not only am I dubious of his odds at this point, but his election will result in far less "change" than his followers are expecting. I suppose every generation needs that political figure who represents their crushing disillusionment with politics – a McGovern for the present day. Sure, the Democratic candidates will nibble around the edges of our involvement in Iraq, making slow, token withdrawls, treating the troops a little better, and not so blatantly using the conflict as a welfare fund for defense contractors. But there's no escaping our continued involvement. Another generation of young voters will learn that the differences are all in the margins; the things that really matter are entirely beyond our control.

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