Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Originally published in the Rutland Herald on October 07, 2015

Our military involvement in the Middle East began with Operation Desert Shield in 1990. At the end of that invasion, we did the only intelligent thing we have done in that area, we withdrew without ending Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq.

In the 15 years since then, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We have been militarily involved in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The purpose of this involvement clearly was a desire to bring democracy to the Middle East, based on our idea of American exceptionalism.

Thus, we effectively ended the reign of the existing governments as the first step in establishing democracy. However hard it was pushed by the neoconservatives as part of a “regime change” policy during the administration of President George W. Bush, democracy was a goal we never reached. It never took because the countries and people in question had never had any exposure to democracy and had none of the prerequisites for reaching it successfully.

What we did was remove or try to remove the repressive governments in question. We succeeded in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and essentially, brought chaos to those countries, which previously had enjoyed stability brought on by repressive governance. We created that chaos by militarily removing those regimes and then not being able to install the kind of benevolent democratic governance we wanted to see in place.

Our current administration has been severely criticized by its political opponents for not having stayed on and maintained order in Afghanistan and Iraq. Theoretically, we could have done that. The problem is that there would have been no end to those occupations because the countries in question have inherent internal religious, tribal and ethnic conflicts that have never been fixed and that may never be resolved.

These are problems that have been contained over the past 14 centuries through repressive governance. Any continued successful occupation of those countries by U.S. forces would have had to have been repressive as well as open-ended. Under those circumstances, the result of our ultimate withdrawal would most likely have ended in instability as it has today.

Essentially, what we have done is destroy existing, repressive order expecting to install democracy. Democracy doesn’t take, and we end up, inevitably, with chaos.

Consider Egypt. The Arab Spring brought a revolution to Egypt. A military dictator was deposed and a new, allegedly fundamentalist government was installed. That terrified the military establishment, which engineered a coup and reinstalled a military dictatorship which in turn, reestablished stability on their own terms. Egypt went full circle from military dictatorship through free elections back to military dictatorship and imposed order.

It seemed to many that the Obama administration would have a different attitude toward the cycles described above. They would get us out of the convoluted messes that neoconservative policies had created in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Obama administration swapped their very own “liberal interventionists” for the Bush era neoconservatives. We began hands-off wars with drones and “clean” air power. No troops on the ground. We got involved in Libya, Yemen and Syria, adding to our declining popularity in the Middle East and to the mass exodus to Europe now under way.

Where are we heading in Syria? Our government opposes both Syrian President Assad and all the fundamentalist groups aligned against him. We have supported some of the groups opposed to the government and trained a pathetically small number of others, but we have frequently said that it is too difficult to identify those who are really sympathetic to our democratic goals.

To further complicate an already complicated scene, Libya and Saudi Arabia support the rebels (most of whom are Sunni) against the Assad government, which is Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam). On the other side of the issue, Shia Iran and Russia support the Assad government. Russia’s President Putin has said, somewhat cynically, that he is interested only in stability for Syria. It is difficult to say precisely what we seek for that same country, but let’s arbitrarily stipulate that it’s some form of democracy.

You can’t get there from here. If we depose Assad, whom do we support when he is gone? What we might consider, since our real enemy is ISIS and the other fundamentalist groups, is simply turning a blind eye, for the moment, to Assad and joining in a fight, which others are now conducting against those real enemies without moaning about Assad.

What we stand to gain from this is imposed, repressive stability, an end to the killing and to the terribly dangerous migration of hundreds of thousands toward our friends in Europe. Politically, Syria will have to evolve on its own through self-determination, not imposed democracy.


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Originally published in the Rutland Herald

September 24,2015

It is impossible for any sentient human being to look at the flow of refugees and migrants out of the Middle East toward Europe and not be appalled by the entire situation. Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and Syrians, who are Shia, Sunni, both moderate and radical, as well as Christians, are heading toward Europe in rapidly mounting numbers, creating unprecedented pressures on European governments.


Clearly the original cause of this migration is the Syrian civil war, which has now been underway for more than four years. As of January 2015, this conflict had caused somewhere between 220,000 and 310,000 deaths, enough to make any sane Syrian nervous for his and his family’s well-being. In addition to this very real fear, it is now being reported that many Syrians have left because others of their tribe, religion, neighborhood, social or professional group have left, setting an example.


The size of this migration is unprecedented, making the trip additionally dangerous. By now, most of the Europe-bound migrants have learned from those who preceded them that the trip is exceedingly dangerous, thanks largely to the unprincipled human smugglers into whose hands they entrust their lives. Thousands are said to have died during the journey.


Much of the problem, as we see it today, rests in the minds of the migrants. They expect to be welcomed by Europe with open arms and to be treated like human beings. The growing notion that this is not always true has been a shock to them.


And why is that not true? Europe is not used to migrants. The European countries involved are generally politically stable, having worked through ethnic, national, religious and tribal issues over the past centuries. However, they are essentially closed societies. Unlike America, Europe was not built through migration, and the result is likely to be that migrants will be horribly disappointed at what they find in Europe.


The European countries are not built to deal with the speed of arrival and the volume of today’s incoming migrants. In many countries, migrants will be barred from legally working, some for years, while their petitions for asylum are processed. Language problems will add to their difficulties.


Migrants will find themselves in marginal, squalid camps and settlements. Many will find themselves in the continent’s growing migrant ghettos. They will find few jobs in countries that have little need for cheap labor and will live on the fringes of societies that are likely to increasingly resent their presence.


Worst of all, despite many well-wishing welcomers, the migrants will find growing hostility, often from the radical, Muslim-hating right. Germany, for example, has been talking of taking in 800,000 migrants this year. Last year, 47 percent of all racist attacks in Germany took place in the former East Germany, where many if not most of the refugees are being settled, although it is home to only 17 percent of Germany’s population. Germany’s interior ministry has counted 202 attacks on refugee shelters in the first half of 2015, as many as in all of 2014 and there have been reports of dozens more such attacks in July and August.


The long and short of it is that Europe is ill-prepared to take in migrants. The result of this contemporary influx is likely to precipitate a hostile reaction across Europe, ranging from the border fences we have already seen in Hungary and elsewhere to restrictive laws, protracted delays in documenting the migrants, horrible living conditions, even physical attacks and, most sadly, hopelessness.


In fact, in the face of ever-rising numbers, many European countries, responding to pressures from their people, have begun the process of limiting their involvement with the migrants. Germany has reinstated border controls with Austria. Reports from Syrian migrants have been negative about the reception they have received in Belgium, Sweden and France, where one migrant said his asylum application had taken months and in the meantime he was living in misery, homeless and without the right to work.


The solution to the migrant problem does not lie in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. It lies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and any other Middle Eastern country that is adding to the migrant flow. The only way to stop the flow and the misery and unhappiness that inevitably come with it is to stop the migration by fixing the problems that are forcing it. That means, quite simply, creating the conditions that lead to the end of the conflicts.


If we do not succeed in this, we will inevitably see the radicalization of migrants who have lost all hope and wish to strike out against the Europeans they unjustly blame for having caused it. A perfect hunting ground for ISIS.



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Originally published in The Rutland Herald


May 27, 2015

Much of Northwestern Iraq is now under ISIS control. Shia Iraq is losing its war with Sunni ISIS. Hawkish American conservatives and neocons demand that we re-invade that country and solve its problems. Others less bellicose tell us that we must increase our military presence there to the tune of about 1000 troops, concentrating on advising the Iraqis on how to beat ISIS. Moderates generally are not eager to see any US military involvement in the region, preferring to let the antagonists work out their own problems.

Today’s Iraq was the creation of colonial British occupation in the period 1918-1958, when they captured and then governed that region. For over 600 years, Iraq has been a part of some other state, so the agglomeration of Shia, Sunni and Kurds into one state was new to the region. It was a purely British decision and was made solely for the advantage and profit of that nation. It had nothing to do with the difficult national, sectarian and tribal realities that have always existed in the region.

After a more than a decade of the 2003 American invasion and occupation of the so-called “state of Iraq”, there are few sentient Americans who are not aware of the deep-seated, historical animosities that exist between Shia, Sunni and Kurd. Modern Iraq has existed as a unified political entity only under repressive governance. Once we removed Saddam Hussein, the genie was truly out of the bottle. Since that moment in 2003, the inevitable, unimpeded slide of Iraq into civil conflict has reflected the national, sectarian and tribal forces in conflict in that “country”. It is difficult to think of Iraq as a modern state. It is more like three states in perpetual conflict.

Historical reality started to rule Iraq immediately after our invasion. The Sunnis, from whom the ruling, pre-invasion Baath Party had sprung, were stunned to learn and refused to believe that they were not the majority and not in charge. With US backing, the Shia, who had always been the numerical majority, were delighted to take over and even things up with the Sunnis who had repressed them for so long. The Kurds, the largest national grouping in the world without a country, decided it was time that they governed themselves and have been quietly doing so ever since.

In May 2003, the Bush administration implemented a program of de-Baathification during which they stripped the Iraqi army of most of its Sunni leadership, turning it into a Shia-dominated organization. This was one of the major causes of the Sunni-led insurgency that was conducted against the American military and the Shia Iraqi government after 2003. Ultimately, it has provided many of the Iraqi Sunni members of ISIS.

Americans, including the Obama Administration, who now search for further and deeper involvement in Iraq are now seeking a way for us to overcome the odds and wrest from hostile control that part of Iraq lost to ISIS. The consensus within our government is that we will have to work through the Shia government of Iraq to accomplish our goals there.

The problems here are endless. Much of ISIS is made up of the Iraqi Sunnis who lost their “country” to the Shia after 2003. Their hatred of the Shia is historical, deep and recently exacerbated. The jihadi volunteers they are welcoming from the Maghreb, from elsewhere in Islam and from the West, are all Sunnis.

The Shia Iraqi government has two choices available to take on ISIS: First, use their army, which is Shia-dominated and despised by virtually all the Sunnis in the North and West and, second, use the Shia militias which for the past decade have been killing Sunnis throughout Iraq. If anything, they are even more despised than the Shia in the Iraqi army.

Sunni ISIS has invaded Iraq and Shia-run Syria. There are virtually no Sunnis in the region who will fight alongside the Shia Iraqis against ISIS. Saudi Arabia, for example, is the philosophical home and strongest supporter of fundamentalist views like those of ISIS. So, where is the regional Sunni entity that will vanquish ISIS? It’s not in evidence. Only Shia are apparently willing to take them on.

These realities in Iraq are not new. True to historical form, only Shia Syria, Hizbollah and Iran want to take on Sunni ISIS. Are they to be our new and probably only allies if we once again put US boots on the ground? Is that not ironic? How will regional Sunni neighbors, our longtime allies, take that?

Do we have any idea what we are doing?




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First published in the The Rutland Herald




By Haviland Smith


Make no mistake about it, what we are watching in Iraq today is the direct result of our invasion of that country in 2003, an invasion that was conceived and carried out either because the Bush administration did not understand realities in that country and region, or because it chose to overlook them for its own political reasons.


Either way, uninformed or arrogant, the result we are watching today was a foregone conclusion from the start.


The net effect was that we liberated Iraq’s inherent violence.


Iraq, like so many other countries that languished under the boot of European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, was never a real country. In fact, Iraq, with its populations of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis jammed into one country without their consent, is about as hopeless a choice for a country as exists anywhere. Over the centuries, since 6,000 B.C., what is now called Iraq has been a part of 18 empires, most of them foreign.


Since 1920, when its modern boundaries were established, Iraq has been ruled by the British Empire, by its own monarchy and then from 1968-2003, by the Baath Party dictatorship under Saddam Hussien. From 2003 until 2011, the United States was the effective ruler of Iraq through our own military establishment.


Iraqis have virtually no experience with self-rule. For roughly 8,000 years, they have been ruled by their own monarchies and dictators or by foreigners. That might be hopeful if they shared any real harmony in their ethnic and religious makeup with their Muslim neighbors. But they do not.


Iraqi Kurds total about 4 million of the 30 million Kurds who are spread out through the Middle East. Having settled in what is now northeastern Iraq over 4,000 years ago, and as an Indo-European people, they are hardly unfamiliar with the realities of living within Islam.


In fact, despite the fact that they have kept their language, most Kurds have been converted to some form of Islam by their Muslim neighbors. Further, the geographic reality of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is mountainous and defensible, added to their foreign ethnicity, has never made true Kurdish integration into Arab Iraq possible. The Kurds are tough, independent and perpetually in search of a greater Kurdistan. They have remained part of Iraq because they were forced to.


The other major impediment to Iraqi self-rule was the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the early 7th century. Their differences are sufficiently profound to guarantee a lack of any harmony between them. This has most recently been seen in the absolute rule of the Baath Party (Sunni) over the Shia. Even though the Sunnis were and are in the minority of the Iraqi population and the Shia were and are the majority.


Sunni rule over Iraq since 1968 can only be described as brutal and repressive. The differences between them generated from the 7th century have been sharply exacerbated by the brutal rule of Saddam Hussien.


And, of course, the U.S. military replaced Saddam Hussein as the repressive rulers of Iraq, thus earning the animosity of the great majority of the Iraq people.


So, there you have it. Iraq is a “country” at war with itself. Its diverse residents have long been waiting for the opportunity to unify into independent Kurd, Shia and Sunni groups. It is an almost perfect candidate for partition and reassembly into three or more parts. The problem clearly is that they all want to rule, and none of them wants to be ruled — the perfect circumstances for the creation of new countries in what was Iraq.


It is unreasonable to believe there is a future for self-government in a single Iraq. The extraordinary current performance of the Iraq army in deserting en toto in the face of a vastly inferior attacking force tells the story, the outcome and the future. The Sunni private will not take orders from the Shia lieutenant.


There will be no peace between these Iraqi factions until all of them can get some sort of satisfaction — most probably in the partition of the “country.” Any attempt by any entity, particularly one which is not indigenous to the region, such as the United States, to thwart or influence such an outcome by force, is only going to make the situation longer lasting and worse than it already is.


If there ever was a fight that wasn’t ours, this is it, even though our invasion started it.




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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

When the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Americans were given sequential reasons for that decision.  We were told that Iraq was full of Al Qaida terrorists, even though no such terrorist could conceivably have survived under Saddam Hussein.  We were told that Iraq was full of WMD.  There was poison gas and nuclear weapons.  None of this proved to be true.

What was never explicitly said at the time was that we were invading Iraq in order to turn it into a democracy.  That democracy would then be the model for the rest of Islam.  The flourishing of democracy in Islam would make the Middle East a safer place for Israel.  And that was the key reason behind the invasion – increasing Israel’s security.

This was not the first time that Americans had thought of the democratization of Islam.  Many knowledgeable US government experts on the region had seen it as worth consideration. However, in the end, based on the realities as they existed in Islam, that idea had been rejected.  Parenthetically, it is of minor historical interest to note that even when the idea was popular, Iraq was the last country in Islam thought by our experts to be susceptible to such democratization.

The lack of suitability of so many Islamic Middle East countries for democratization is part of the DNA of the region.  The issues that surround regional nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism are, at least for the foreseeable future, so great as to make democratization, at best, problematical.

Nevertheless, we did commit American troops to bringing down Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  In doing so, we precipitated a number of inevitabilities.  Saddam was not beloved by his people. When we removed him and his supporters, we created a situation in which our troops, the “foreign invaders”, became the surrogates for Saddam’s repressive troops.  American troops maintained the order.  Where we thought we were involved in a liberation, we soon found ourselves in an insurgency against our presence.

The same became true as we lingered on in Afghanistan.  Afghanis, who never loved the Taliban, retreated into their tribal mode and turned against us in an insurgency.  All of a sudden, in both Iraq         and Afghanistan, we were fighting insurgencies rather than hunting terrorists, primarily because we were the foreigners.  When an indigenous population has to choose between it’s own “bad guys” and foreign “bad guys”, even though they may not actively support their own, chances are they will not help the foreigners at all. A successful  counterinsurgency requires at least local passivity, and preferably some cooperation.

According to American counterinsurgency doctrine, in order to successfully deal with an insurgency, the counterinsurgents  (the USA) must commit 25 combat soldiers for every 1000 people in the local population.  That would have required around 850,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and an equal number in Iraq, an impossible commitment for us to seriously consider.

Most countries that have dealt with terrorism believe for the reasons outlined above that terrorists should never be confronted militarily, but rather should be dealt with as a criminal matter using police, intelligence and special forces.

The decision to use the term “War on Terror” was a major mistake as it misdirected most of our counterterrorism activities.

The first thing we need to do in the Middle East is decide precisely why we are there.  What is there in our national interest that should be driving our policies?    We are not in the process of installing democracy in that region.  The absolute best we can logically hope for is stability through self-determination.   Beyond that, it is reasonable to hope for a moderate Islam.  Only a tiny fraction of Muslims are fundamentalists.  With real self-determination, it is reasonable to hope that Muslims will elect moderates.  And that should be our goal – the election of moderate Muslim regimes.

After a dozen years of military activity, America has little credibility in the region.  Some of that credibility can be restored with the removal of our uniformed troops and the cessation of hostilities.  The simple absence of drone activity would be a tremendous help.

With our troops gone and our military activities ended, we will regain the opportunity to use all the other available foreign policy tools:  diplomacy, propaganda, covert action, police, liaison with indigenous organizations and economic activity.

We might even get back to the greater level of respect and admiration we enjoyed last century.


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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, a course of action was started that has left the United States virtually without influence today in that important “country”.

The probable intention of the Bush administration, heavily influenced as it was by the neoconservatives who populated it, was to create an Arab democracy which could be emulated by other Arab nations. That would create and encourage a democracy-dominated environment that would make the region safer for Israel.

What the Bush Administration either was too ill-informed to know, or refused to acknowledge was that Iraq was the absolute least likely candidate in the Middle East for the installation of democracy.  Sad to say, Iraq contains in superabundance, all those elements that make democracy problematic:  Nationalism, Sectarianism and Tribalism.

Iraq, a “country” of 31 million people, is composed of around 75% Arab, 20% Kurd and 5% Assyrian, Turkoman and others.  It is important to note that Iraq’s better than half million Kurds are a part of an overall Kurdish regional population of 30 million, giving them a non-Arab support base outside Iraq.   They are “not alone”.  Their geographic location next to large Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria and Iran is important as it gives them regional national allies and a sense of belonging not shared by other national minorities in the region.

Iraq remains a strongly tribal state.  When law and order break down, as it has in Iraq today, and populations increasingly fear for their safety and well-being, people tend to return to their most basic social units, the groups from which they stem and with which they feel safe.

Of the roughly 150 tribes in Iraq, two dozen dominate.  Most of the tribes and their subordinate clans and families are grouped into tribal federations.  Even though tribalism generally has been discouraged since the Baath Party came to power in 1968, it was often encouraged during the war with Iran in the belief that it helped hold the Iraqi people together against a common enemy.

The greatest problem that today’s Iraq has to face is Sectarianism.  Muslims comprise about 97% of Iraq’s population.  Those Muslims are roughly 65% Shia and 35% Sunni.  The remaining 3% of the population contains a smattering of “Christians and others”.  Repressive foreign and native rule over the past 14 centuries has been the only thing that has prevented the Shia and Sunnis from killing each other.  Absent that coercion, as we see today, the killing is almost incessant.

The Baath Party, a Sunni organization, ruled Iraq from its coup in 1968 until the 2003 American invasion.  It is interesting to note that during that entire period, many Sunnis really believed that they represented a majority of the Iraqi people.  Such Iraqi Sunnis have been amazed to hear and often unwilling to believe that the real majority is the Shia population, clinging to the premise that they are the rightful rulers of Iraq.

Iraq is rich in oil.  There are oilfields in Shia southeastern Iraq and in Kurdish northeastern Iraq, leaving the Sunnis with mostly desert.  Oil ownership is one of the major issues involved in today’s negotiations between the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds.  When you think of Iraq, its ongoing sectarian violence and its prospects for the future, remember that the Sunnis who once had all the power and all the resources, now have a large patch of sand.  Unsurprisingly, they are said to be running death squads against the Shia with sharply increasing regularity.

Iraq is now trying to negotiate its way into stability.  Unfortunately, the Shia under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are playing real hardball.  It is clear that after decades of political, economic and physical mistreatment by the Sunnis, they have little interest in compromise or fairness.  Add to that the meddling of Shia Iran in Iraqi affairs at the expense of Sunnis and Kurds and prospects become more bleak.

And while the realities of Sectarian conflicts persist, Iraq bubbles along with periodic acts of sectarian and nationalist violence and terrorism while apparently trying to create conditions that will permit Iraq to remain on the scene as a cohesive “country”.

Unfortunately, this goal seems unlikely at best.  The Kurdish-Arab differences are bad enough, but when added to the Sunni-Shia rivalry and their propensity toward violence, the only logical, peaceful end in sight is the division of Iraq into its component parts.

We could very well see Kurdish, Shia and Sunni “countries” evolve out of today’s Iraq.  However, with the possible exception of the Kurds, there is nothing in Iraqi history or culture that could lead a rational observer to hope for democracy there.  Moderate Islam is about the best we can hope for, a new dictatorship, the worst.

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Originally published in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times Argus

Today’s Internet is increasingly carrying articles from both American and foreign sources to the effect that Israel is pulling out the stops trying to get the United States involved in military action against Iran.

During the past few months, we have been told in the press by the Israelis that all the previous estimates by the U.S. intelligence community have been wrong and that Iran is, in fact, working assiduously on building an atomic weapon. It should be noted here that this assessment is not shared either by the International Atomic Energy Agency or the U.S. intelligence community .

Further, this allegation has come in spite of the fact that three former chiefs of Israeli intelligence services have said not only that they did not believe the allegation to be true, but that Iran does not represent any sort of existential threat to Israel.

It has been reported that the recent rise in gasoline prices here at home is the result of fears of an Israeli strike on Iran and that that fear is in turn based in a large measure on statements by the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak has “leaked” what he alleges to be a U.S. national intelligence estimate, normally a sensitive, classified document, which he claimed says the U.S. intelligence community is changing its view and getting closer to the Likud view.

Given the thrust of this Israeli activity, it would appear that there are elements in both Israel and the United States who would like to see the U.S. involved in such military action.

There are two likely purposes in this campaign. First, a poll last week by Israel Channel 10 shows that 46 percent of Israelis are against a unilateral attack on Iran and only 26 percent in favor. According to a recent poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, a majority of Jewish Israelis (60.7 percent) oppose an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities without U.S. cooperation.

It would appear that the Likud leadership is trying, through an internal Israeli propaganda operation, to sway the Israeli people to support an attack on Iran. This campaign has not only involved the purported NIE “leaks”, but has traded on Israeli concerns about the Holocaust and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, fueled by a Netanyahu article inHaaretz.

The major concern here is that Israelis believe, probably correctly, that Israel does not have the military capability to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities successfully.

It might be said parenthetically that there is serious doubt in American military circles that the U.S. military establishment would be any more successful in such an attack.

So the obvious next step for Netanyahu and Barak, frustrated by the disinclination of their countrymen to support such an attack, has been to turn their propaganda guns on the U.S.

This campaign has not worked on the Obama administration and would be less likely to be successful if Obama were elected to a second term in which he would have no concerns about re-election and could really act in the American national interest.

The wild card comes in a Romney presidential victory. Romney has consistently said that “Israel policy will be our policy.” In addition, his foreign policy advisers are heavily populated with the same neoconservatives who got us militarily involved in Afghanistan and Iraq and who continue to favor U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Who knows what a President Romney would do in the face of such Israeli pressures?

And all of this comes at a time when American polling shows that only small numbers (under 15 percent) of Americans support a pre-emptive attack on Iran absent an existential threat to Israel. Yet Netanyahu and his Likud followers persist in trying to get the U.S. to attack Iran. If this persists, this will do nothing but threaten long-term U.S.-Israeli relations.

Do normally pro-Israel groups here in America want Israel to declare war in the hope of American military support? Do they wish to strongly influence U.S. policy in that direction? Are they not aware of flagging American public enthusiasm for U.S. military activity in the Middle East in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq? And do any of them consider what such a conflict would mean in economic terms to the United States?

It is really difficult to see that any attack on Iran, ab sent any Iranian attack on us or our allies, is consistent with the U.S. national interest.

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Originally published in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog

Over the past dozen years, the United States has spent vast amounts of its human treasure and national resources on a series of foreign interventions.  We have now been involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with Syria and Iran and Central Africa representing candidates for the immediate future.

All of this has been and will be done without declarations of war, over the supine body of our Congress, without the agreement of the majority of the American people and without real scrutiny from the press. We have become a nation of onlookers.

In the United States, Congress has the power under the constitution to “declare war”. However neither the US Constitution, nor the law, tell us what format a declaration of war must take.  The last time Congress passed joint resolutions saying that a “state of war” existed was on June 5, 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania Since then, the U.S. has used the term “authorization to use military force”, as in the case against Iraq in 2003.

For a variety of reasons, all of which are based on local historical, tribal, ethnic and national realities, our adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not turning out as we might have wished.  Despite early warnings from our governmental and academic experts on those areas, it seems clear that any hopes we had for bettering the situations that existed there are likely to fail.  In fact, our military involvement in the region has lead to instability in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, as it almost certainly will if we succumb to local and international pressures to become involved in Syria and Iran.  And now we are told we should become militarily involved in Central Africa.

This is all well and good, but one key ingredient is missing.  We have never had a national discussion about the efficacy of American military intervention abroad.  We have seen two Presidents act in ways that made Congress disposed to support them without intelligent discussion of the activities proposed.

Over the past year, two thirds of Americans have been polled as opposed to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are now faced with the specific prospect of military activity in Syria and Iran and with further future interventions around the world, it is time for America to have this discussion.

First, we need to discuss whether or not we want to conduct such operations at all.  If so, should we act independently of the UN and international coalitions, as stipulated, or unilaterally as many of our hawks and neocons would wish?

We need to have a discussion that defines the specific intervention problem and its solution.  We need to know the precise goal of the intervention, how long it will last and what the likely response to our intervention will be.

Then we need to and how it will be funded.  Are there to be more unfunded interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when we are already in deep economic trouble resulting from our past interventionist adventures?

Additionally, we need to be reassured that if the intervention involves terrorism, our approach will be limited to police and intelligence work.  We have learned far too much from Iraq and Afghanistan to again involve our military establishment in counterterrorism operations.

If we learn that an insurgency is involved, we need to know how our government plans to avoid subsequent nation building and the export of democracy.  Again, Iraq and Afghanistan provide the wholly negative lesson for us here.

Finally, we must determine whether or not any proposed intervention is in our true national interest and we need to do that in the absence of foreign pressures.

The only way we will learn the answers to these critical questions is through a national discussion of any proposed future intervention.  Our Government isn’t holding such a debate except for a little squawking by individuals now and then.  The media should and could do so, with one or more news organizations making it a front-burner item, interviewing experts and political leaders and staying on the subject.

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What Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us and what Syria and Iran can teach us further is that American needs to have a robust debate on if, why, where and when we should be involved in future foreign interventions.

In 2001, solely as a result of the events of 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan.  There were some Americans who spoke out against that invasion, largely on moral grounds, but in the main, we understood why we were doing it and agreed with that invasion.

In the longer run, as is now becoming painfully clear to the average American, absent repressive governance, the bitterly tribal Afghanis are so resistant to any central government that they are unlikely to achieve any kind of unity.  The likely result is instability.

When we had wiped out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we shifted our aim to Iraq and for reasons still largely unknown to the American people, we invaded there.  In our rationale for that invasion, we painted Iraq as “a regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world”.

None of those reasons passed muster with us.

Although most of our governmental and academic experts on the region said that would not work, the Bush administration implemented the plan.  Since then, we have seen no sign of ultimate success.  Sectarian and national differences within that country make unity illusory, as many experts told us in 2003.  How can we expect Sunni, Shia, Arab and Kurd to get together when they have never previously done so except when coerced?  The likely result is instability.

Our next Middle East adventure was in Libya where we became involved primarily with air support for the anti-Ghaddafi rebels.  In the case of Libya, we were ultimately “successful” in that the rebels did bring about the demise of Ghaddafi.  In the longer run, we are seeing the effect of centuries-old tribal realities – about 150 of them – which split the country and make non-coercive, central government extremely difficult, if not impossible.  The likely result is instability.

Now, the pressure is on here at home for us to “do something” in Syria.  “Do something” apparently ranges in the minds of Americans from Invasion, through air support, to the creation of “safe zones”, but the fact is that we really don’t know what to do.

In Syria sectarianism is at work.  It is a country ruled by a 12% minority Shiite government of Alawites, over the the 74% majority Sunnis.  Since its beginnings in 1963, it has not been a happy arrangement.  The people don’t like either the Baath Party or the Assad family.  Unfortunately, that’s about all they have in common.  There is no indication that those rebellious Syrians have anything much in common when it comes to what sort of post-Assad, post-Alawite government they would support.  Given the extent of anger on both sides, it is probably safe to assume that the losers in this ongoing

struggle will exit Syria in coffins.  There seems to be little hope for a triumph of either reason or humanity.  The likely result is instability.

And finally, let’s move on to Iran where American pro-war activists and the Israeli government are clambering for the invasion of a country which has not yet decided, according to the US and Israeli governments, whether or not to build nuclear weapons, where the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has referred to nuclear weapons as a sin and where, in 2005, he issued a fatwa forbidding their production, stockpiling and use.

Given the other salient realities of Iran and their unquestioned ability to harm our interests in the region, one has to wonder why we are so intent on an attack. In addition, there are current Iranian overtures for talks and the fact remains that any attack on Iran will be the only event that will unite the fractious and unhappy Iranians under its current leaders, which is certainly not in our interest.

The real issue here is whether or not Americans want to be involved in such activities at all and if we do, how will we decide where to intervene?  Is it in our national interest?  Should we involve ourselves in Syria, Iraq, or, as President Obama seems to wish, in Central Africa?

The American people have never had that discussion.  With a war-weary population and before we rush off to some new “worthy” intervention, the discussion simply has to take place.

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By the end of this month, there will be no more American troops stationed in Iraq, and if the American logistical team is as good as we hear, there won’t be any US military hardware, not even uniforms and toothbrushes left there either.

March 19, 2012, would mark nine spent years in Iraq.  Precise numbers of casualties are disputed, but it would seem that over that period of time, we have suffered almost 4500 deaths and over 33,000 wounded.  The only dispute here is on the numbers of US wounded, with some sources claiming that over 100,000 would be closer to the truth.  In any event, the care and treatment of wounded, whatever the number truly is, will continue for decades and cost close to a trillion additional dollars.

In direct financial costs, the Brown University “Costs of War” project estimates that the Iraq war alone has already cost in excess of 1 trillion dollars.  That number does not count any future costs, whether medical or interest payments on the billions borrowed to pursue the war, or anything else.  It’s not too hard to remember Bush Administration officials telling us that the Iraq war “would pay for itself”!

Saddam Hussein, unless you were on his team, was a horrific leader.  He murdered countless numbers of his fellow Iraqis, using poison gas on his own people.  On the other hand, if you take a totally self-serving, cynical point of view, he represented a number of things that have been important to United States administrations in the past.  He maintained a stable government and country – by repression, of course.  He maintained the flow of Iraqi oil to the West. He and his large army represented the only truly effective deterrent to Iranian hegemonic goals in the Gulf region.  He was on “our side” in the Cold War.  Additionally, he attacked and made war against Iran between l980-88.  All of these things, at one time or another, have been important to, approved and encouraged by American administrations, particularly the war with Iran, which took place during Ronald Reagan’s administration.

One of the things our attack on Iraq accomplished was to end all of the above practices which were appreciated, even encouraged by a variety of US Administrations.  So, what good did it do for anyone?

The roughly 100,000 Iraqi dead didn’t appreciate our invasion.  The Sunnis, a minority in Iraq’s complex ethnic and secular structure, who had ruled mercilessly there, have not fared well in the aftermath of the invasion.  It’s really hard to figure just how the Kurds have made out.  If they can continue their semi-autonomy there, which they clearly plan to fight to do, they could conceivably be considered winners.

Regional Sunnis are not pleased with Shia ascendancy in Iraq since that basically empowers contiguous, Shia Iran.  After all, Sunni Iraq had been the major bulwark against Iran’s quest for Gulf hegemony at the expense of the Sunnis.  Thus, the Shia, who represent 60+% of the Iraqi population are clear winners.  Having been horribly repressed by a succession of Sunni governments, they are finally in charge.

The far most important winner in the region is Iran.  With their confessional confederates in charge in Iraq, they no longer are faced with an implacable Sunni neighbor.  With our final expulsion from Iraq, Iran is now virtually free to pursue its hegemonic goals in the Gulf.  There is literally no army in the region that is remotely capable of taking them on.  Their active duty military establishment is over half a million strong with an additional 600,000 in the active reserve.  Iran is a country of 78 million people living on 1.6 million square kilometers, the 18th largest country in the World.  They are intelligent, capable people who, in the millennium before Christ, ruled the entire region that we now call the Middle East.  It was, at the time, the largest empire ever constructed by man.  Iranians have not forgotten these facts and seek to be taken more seriously in their region today.

How is the future shaping up for Iraq today?  With Nuri al-Maliki heading a government made up largely of pro-Iranian, Shia Islamists, hope is fading for a calm transition to a secular Islamic government.  It now appears that the national and sectarian instabilities of the past, Sunni/Shia, Arab/Kurd and Arab/Iranian are likely to determine the future.

Any country that is inherently politically unstable and volatile, like Iraq with its history of sectarian conflict, is heading for trouble.  There is every possibility that a renewal of the sectarian fighting of 2006-2007 that killed thousands of Iraqis could be just around the corner.

And remember, this time, the Shia will be in power, not our old “friends” the Sunnis, with Iran not very far behind.

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