Tag Archives: Middle East

Just Joe Being Joe?

Joe Biden, the Vice President of the United States, has recently apologized for criticisms which he leveled at America’s erstwhile Middle East allies in the struggle against ISIS.  Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have given money and weaponry to anyone who will fight against Syria’s Bashar al Assad, and two of those someones were the Nusra Front and the al Qaeda splinter which went on to become ISIS.  Turkey and the U.A.E. reacted angrily to those accusations and the Vice President backtracked quickly.  Saudi Arabia has not commented.  I, on the other hand, intend very much to comment.  There are a couple of different ways to view this episode and I would like to look at two of them.

The first interpretation is that the Vice President, who is known fairly or otherwise for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, has done it again.  As a person who frequently takes issue with the Vice President’s boss it would be tempting to jump to just that conclusion but I will refrain from going there just yet, due mostly to the fact that I believe that the Vice President was making an accurate statement.  A great deal of oil money and weapons were in fact shipped to those groups who’s only virtue was that they opposed Syria’s Alawite-led government, which is itself supported only by Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah and the Russians.  Those rebel groups are out of control now and threatening much more than Assad and the Shi’a dominated government of Iraq.  I wonder if all of that oil money and weaponry has ceased to flow to ISIS.  Yes or no would not be something that I would be likely to know, but the Vice President, briefed by American intelligence, certainly might.

And then there’s Turkey.  Turkish inaction against ISIS might have been excused when ISIS held 49 Turkish hostages, but those hostages are now home with their families.  Where is Turkish action against ISIS?  The Turks seem to have little interest in events south of their border.  ISIS is butchering and enslaving Christians and Yazidis, Shi’a and Kurds (when it can get them), and Turks are by and large none of those things.  In fact, armed Kurds defending their homeland is not a sight to gladden the eyes of a Turkish government official, and therefore the Turks are putting up every imaginable roadblock to any such thing as Kurds crossing the Turkish border to defend the city of Kobani in northern Syria.

I just wonder; was the Vice President acting as a surrogate for his boss, calling out those allies for past and//or current misdeeds?  Was Joe Biden sticking his finger into the eye of the Turkish government, telling the world how it really is, and then giving the Turks cover by saying in so many words “Oops, Sorry.  I’m just Joe being Joe.”?  Is it possible that this was a shot across the Turkish bow; a warning that continued Turkish fecklessness and disinterest in events in Syria and Iraq is being seriously watched and considered and that there will be a price to pay if such disinterest continues?

Or was Joe Biden truly just being Joe Biden, with the possibility of almost anything coming out of his mouth at any time?  I will be watching the action of our allies in the region, and especially the turks, before I make up my mind.

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What To Do About ISIS

The United States is leading a solid coalition in a war of air power against ISIS in the Middle East.  Our nation, which is often slandered by people around the world, is nevertheless the one taking the lead there.  China is absent, as is Russia.  India also is nowhere to be seen.  Brazil?  Not present.  Germany and Japan are restrained by post WW II constitutions which limit their overseas military activities.  Other Western and, importantly, some Arab states are adding small contingents of jets and pilots but it is America which is doing the heavy lifting.  Again.  But as troublesome as air power can be, there will be no ultimate victory unless an effective ground force takes the battle into the teeth of ISIS.

Therein lies the rub.  The Kurds, who field an effective and cohesive ground military force, have a limited scope.  They are not going to extend their military reach far outside of traditional Kurdish lands.  The Turks have given no indication that they intend to have anything to do with the chaos below their southern border; to the contrary, they have gone so far as to prevent Kurds from crossing that border into Syria to defend Kurdish territory in that fractured state.  The Syrian government’s military forces have been inadequate to wrest control of territory away from ISIS and Iraq has no functioning military to speak of.  No other Arab state seems at all willing to commit ground forces into the fray, and so ISIS will absorb the punishment delivered from the sky but will not be defeated.

The upshot of all of this is that the defeat of ISIS will require the insertion of ground forces from somewhere outside of Syria or Iraq and probably outside of anywhere else in the Middle East as well, and I see no likelihood that such a ground force could come from anywhere other than the United States of America.  Cobbling together a ground force including countries other than only the U.S. would require the coalition-building capabilities of a George H. W. Bush, and it would be to the credit of President Obama if he could accomplish such a feat.  Whether the President has the skill or the stomach for such a policy is not at all certain.  ISIS will be calculating that he does not.

Over the years I have grown weary of the criticism that my country has endured over it’s various foreign policy initiatives.   I accept that we are not perfect and that policy, tactical and strategic mistakes have occurred, but the thrust has always been to right a wrong, in my opinion.  As a result of that constant criticism, from within this country as well as without, I have been tempted to say “To heck with it.  Let’s return all American military personnel to American soil and let the world do what the world wants to do, and when the next earthquake or genocide or gobbling up of a weak state by a strong one comes along say “Go ask the Russians for help.”

But I can’t do that.  Russia and China and India don’t care if Yazidi men are slaughtered and the women are made sexual slaves (the real war on women).  No skin off of their nose.  Maybe there is no skin off of my nose either, but I know that we have the ability to stop it, and if we do not use than ability then I believe that we are complicit in the wrong itself.  That makes me a reluctant interventionist.  What about you?  Do you care about the victims of ISIS?  Do you care enough to do anything about it?  Am I wrong to care?  We should have a conversation about this.  We are talking not about abstractions but the lives of very real people.  That should mean something to us.

Boom Goes London, Boom Paree (with respect to Randy Newman)

     Recent news from Eastern Europe is very worrisome to say the least.  Russia is openly intervening in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine and is seeking to add to the Crimean land grab that in engineered not too many months before.  Eastern European countries which were formerly occupied by the Soviet Union and it’s puppets now fear that Russia wishes to reestablish that occupation.  Under the guise of defending the Russian speaking populations in neighboring countries, a move reminiscent of a certain German leader who claimed that his aggression against countries to the east of him was to protect ethnic Germans in those unfortunate countries, Russia is snatching away Ukrainian territory while threatening many other nations as well.  The West is reacting, imposing economic sanctions which at this point are not having any obvious effect on Russia’s behavior, and stirring the NATO apparatus to begin demonstrating a possible military response if Russia follows through on the even more aggressive actions that some in the Russian government are advocating.  We seem to be witnessing a resumption of the cold war between the old Soviet Union and the West with unpredictable new Russian rulers with their fingers on a lot of very nasty buttons.

     I lived through most of the cold war and can remember many points at which that war could have gone very hot indeed.  The Hungarian revolution, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis were moments when it could have erupted into a nuclear nightmare whose destructive capability we can scarcely calculate.  Those events played out in front of us in the newspapers, on the evening news and in special radio and television broadcasts of presidential addresses, and in the case of the missile crisis we could watch as the Soviet ships bearing missiles for Cuba steamed towards the point at which we had said “this far and no further”.  Everyone in the world watched to see if the two giants were going to go at each other with nuclear teeth, and most of the world heaved a sigh of relief when the superpowers were eyeball to eyeball and somebody, thankfully, blinked.

     There was another close call however that few people know about.  If it has been mentioned in a book I am unaware of it.  In fact, the story is so wild that I did not entirely believe it the first time I heard it, but hearing it a second time certainly made me a believer.  It is widely known that this event damaged Soviet/U.S. relations for a number of years but few seem to know what a close call it really was.  The story is as follows.

     In October of 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel that was initially very successful.  Both Arab countries were heavily backed by the Soviet Union and flush with military hardware provided in abundance by the Soviets.  Caught by surprise, the Israelis were pushed back and seriously threatened with defeat and annihilation until a massive influx of advanced American weapons and the direction of Israel’s defense by extremely competent leadership turned the tide and pushed both of Israel’s adversaries back.  The two Arab armies were now threatened with total and humiliating defeat.  The Soviets intended to prevent this from happening and prepared to intervene on the Arab armies’ side.

     At this particular moment Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was in a heap of political trouble.  The Watergate scandal had been brewing for over a year and had shortly before October of 1973 been picking up steam.  It seemed as if every day some new piece of testimony or some new revelation was turning up the fire that was slowly cooking the political career and legacy of President Nixon.  His presidency was dying daily a death by a thousand cuts, and an opportunity to step up as leader of a nation under attack would seem to him like a political godsend.  I was therefore completely unconvinced when on October 25, 1973, President Nixon put the armed forces of the United States, including our nuclear forces, on full alert.

     Sure, I thought, rally around the flag.  Circle the wagons.  Suppress the investigation of presidential wrongdoing in order to focus on the threat of the Hun at the gate.  The problem was that there was no visible Hun.  The gate looked pretty clear and safe.  To our skeptical eyes the Israelis appeared to have things comfortably in hand and were chasing the Arab armies back across the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights.  Most of us didn’t give the alert a second thought, and continued to call for the Presidential scalp without missing a beat.

     That is how things stood with me for ten years.  Nixon was gone less than a year after the alert was called; a victim of his own paranoia and his attempt to cover up for his loyalists.  I had almost forgotten about the incident and had to plumb the depths of my memory when my friend Jeff Blaine brought it up while we were grilling burgers in my back yard one day.  Jeff had been one of my closest friends for many years but I had not seem him for quite a while.  Jeff was in the Army Security Agency and frequently was posted far from San Diego.  He was on leave and visiting family when we made contact, and after several years of separation we were once again standing together nursing a couple of beers and grilling our dinner.

     How the conversation arrived at the 1973 event I cannot remember, but my comments on the issue I remember well.  “That crook Nixon was just trying to get a little sympathy.  I never bought his phony alert for one minute.  He was Tricky Dick from the beginning and Tricky Dick until the end.  He must’ve thought that we were all idiots to try to feed us that line.”  Jeff stood next to the grill, picking at the label on his Budweiser while slowly turning the bottle in his hands.  Finally he took a pull on the squat brown bottle and cleared his throat.  “Well” he began, “there was more to it than that.  We nearly got into a nuclear war at that time.”  “You’re shittin’ me” I replied.  How do you know a thing like that?”

     Jeff proceeded to tell me how he was in Germany in October of 1973 and in addition to coordinating signals for U.S. forces there the agency of which he was part was also privy to a great deal of Soviet signals information as well.  The Soviets, according to Jeff, were more deeply committed to their Arab clients than we first believed and were dismayed at seeing their friends’ armies routed and the Egyptian army in particular cut off from its support bases and in danger of collapse.  To prevent this the Soviet leaders decided to insert Red Army soldiers into the fight.

     Israel was an ally of the U.S. in the same manner as Egypt and Syria were of the U.S.S.R.  Nixon was not inlined to allow Soviet soldiers enter the fight, and Nixon let the Soviets know this through the usual back channels.  Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his military leaders did not care what Richard Nixon thought at that moment and orders were issued to proceed with the operation.  Pursuant to those orders, soldiers of the Red Army were gathered and taken to military airfields from where they would be flown to the war zone.

     As news of this reached Nixon he acted by putting the American military on full alert.  In Germany that meant that the totality of America’s, and presumably NATO’s, military was given orders to prepare to deflect an imminent Russian attack, by offensive tactics if necessary.  Tanks were lined up, engines idling, barrels pointed east.  In the U.S.S.R. the soldiers boarded their planes and engines were turning; pilots awaiting awaiting orders to taxi and take off.  Nixon sent one last message:  “Don’t do it.  You know I mean what I say.”  

     The Soviets did indeed know that Richard Nixon meant what he said.  There had been dealings between the Soviets and Richard Nixon for many years and they knew well Nixon’s mettle as a cold warrior.  The earlier Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev at one point said that he had hoped for a Kennedy victory in the 1960 election because he preferred not to have to deal with Richard Nixon.  After sober reflection, the Soviets decided to cut their losses and stand down.

     I found Jeff’s story hard to believe.  Why wasn’t a story this big featured prominently in the newspapers and television news, in a book or a movie?  I followed the news media of the day avidly but had heard nothing of this story.  Still, Jeff had no reason to make this story up, so I filed it away in my mind as something mildly interesting and never thought of it again.

     Until one day in 1994.  It was after the collapse of the Soviet Union and I was chatting with a colleague about some of the memorable events of our cold war face-off with the vanquished adversary.  I thought that I would surprise Rod with my knowledge of this little-covered confrontation but it turned out that I didn’t surprise him at all; he knew all about this event.  Rod, it turned out, had once been in the Navy and in fact had intended to make it a career.  That plan was altered irrevocably by the events of October 1973.

     Rod was a submariner.  He was stationed on a nuclear missile submarine, called a “boomer”, and as the crisis broke out his submarine was ordered to proceed to the Barents Sea, a shallow sea to the north of Russia.  It was not uncommon for a boomer to be stationed in that area in a readiness status just in case anything bad ever happened, so Rod thought nothing of it.  After spending a couple of days on the bottom, all hands were called to battle stations, which was also not uncommon.  This time however the gyroscopes in the nuclear-armed missiles were spinning, indicating that they had active targets, and the hatches to the missile bays were opened.

     This was definitely not routine, and although Rod never told me what position he held on that sub, he was a department manager who spoke multiple languages and moved on to a higher position at another hospital shortly after we had our conversation, so I suspect that he wasn’t turning wrenches in the engineering spaces.  I am certain that he occupied a position high enough to know exactly what was going on.  “I was never so scared in my life” he told me.  “I was certain that the order to fire would come and when we returned to the surface there would be nothing there but glowing rubble.  I intended to make the Navy a career” Rod continued, “but after that I couldn’t take being a part of it any more.  If we were going to blow each other into glowing molecules I wanted it to come as a surprise.”

     I was completely stunned by Rod’s revelation  I had not any good reason to doubt Jeff’s story, but it was so fantastic that I just filed it away without analyzing it all that much.  Now, having heard a guy from a different branch of the American military, ten years later, telling me the same tale, my mind boggled at how close the world had come to the unthinkable.  Now, with an expansionist Russia pursuing what appears to be the reestablishment of the old Soviet Empire, it gives me and uncomfortable chill that we might, just might, have to do this thing all over again.

Iraq is Back

I have just read a most interesting bit of news on the computer.  The Associated Press reports that the Iraqi government is interested in getting some American assistance it it’s struggle with al Qaeda in Iraq.  Violence in Iraq has been escalating since the American military left in 2011 and has returned to the levels of the bad old days at the height of the U.S. military era in Iraq.  The government realizes that their resources are not adequate to squash the al Qaeda insurgency and that the last time that violence in Iraq was under control was when the American forces and their intelligence and advisor resources were available to help the Iraqi military and police.  This request, if it is truly as it was reported in the newspaper, represents a domestic and foreign policy nightmare for President Obama.

Barack Obama ran his first presidential campaign on promises to be the opposite of George W. Bush in every way.  Departing Iraq, closing Guantanamo Bay, and focusing on victory in Afghanistan were prominent features of that campaign.  Shortly after the election President Obama made a speech in Cairo in which he reached out to Muslims, which in itself is not a bad thing, and he embraced the “Arab Spring” early in the game.  We now see a new dynamic all across that region.  U.N. (read ‘mostly American’) troops are set to begin leaving Afghanistan and everyone on the planet knows that it will return to the status of a Taliban-run haven for international terrorists and a place of oppression of women on a scale that makes my skin crawl.  Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is now governed by islamists, and moderate politicians there tend to get shot.  Libya is a nightmare, and the most inept leadership and bureaucratic non-cooperation since Jimmy Carter resulted in a murdered ambassador and several other dead embassy employees.  Egypt is in near meltdown, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula projects terror from Yemen in multiple directions, and the civil war in Syria now features prominently al Qaeda who are jockeying for primacy in that movement and are cooperating with Iraqi al Qaeda to foment terror and unrest throughout both countries.

The President has a horrible mess to deal with.  He is not stupid, and knows that a Middle East in flames is not good for the U.S. or the rest of the world.  President Obama also knows that his own support base would go ballistic if he even considered reintroducing military personnel into Iraq, and that would distract and possibly derail his agenda for the rest of his presidency.  At the same time it would not look well in the president’s presidential history to see Iraq dissolve with the Kurds breaking free, the largely Shi’a east and south joining Iran, and the Sunni areas becoming a lawless zone much like Somalia or what Afghanistan is poised to return to.

I wonder if President Obama is up to this challenge?  I would wonder this about any president.  If there is one clear, safe policy path here I don’t see it.  A reintroduction of advisors and intelligence services would be the lowest impact with the highest reward from the American perspective, but when advisors begin to get killed by al Qaeda moles how long will the support base of the president keep silent?  And when the whole Middle East goes up in flames the President will eventually be graded poorly for it’s having happened on his watch regardless of what he could or could not do about it.

I am glad that I do not hold that position, and I feel for the man who does.  As the new presidential cycle begins after the fall elections I encourage everyone to evaluate carefully the candidates.  Anyone who really, really wants that job is probably, by definition, unfit for it.