Some Thoughts on American Foreign Policy Sent to a Friend

I’m in agreement with what you wrote about immigration and Cuba…..  though that is probably no surprise.  Sixty years of the same policy has done little to free Cubans, what could trying a new approach hurt?

And as for immigration, as you know, the Senate passed a bill months ago that the House refused to take up.  I laugh at the Republican “concerns” about security as that Senate bill has an abundance of security measures as judged by the likes of John McCain.   If the concern with security is so important to them, doesn’t letting our present level of insecurity go on and on from year to year make any sense?

In terms of the Mid-East and Ukraine, I don’t think Obama has done a great job, but I think these problems are uniquely complex, new to our time……especially the burgeoning chaos in the Mid-East.  That mess is a result of decades of strong men violently keeping a lid on seething undercurrents and now the lid has been lifted, first by our toppling Saddam and then the so-called Arab spring, which I welcomed at the time, not really thinking through the likely aftermath.

The dilemma seems to be that toppling a strong man in the Mid-East usually leads to a situation even worse.  So, take your pick, suppression or chaos (with the kicker being that suppression doesn’t always work as the Shah of Iran, whom we supported, learned decades ago.)

Here is something I’d like your reaction to.   It strikes me that American foreign policy has long been a stew composed of 1) wanting international stability that suits capitalism, 2) spreading democratic values and 3)  acting humanely.   That’s fine when the values don’t conflict, but they usually do and when push comes to shove it is stability concerns that usually win out, which is why we have supported dictators in the Mid East for the past 100 years, including Saddam Hussein prior to his Kuwait venture.

But the other two values often muck up the realpolitik nature of the policy, such as when GW Bush envisioned setting up a democratic state in Iraq and when Obama’s humanitarianism  compelled him to stop Gaddafi from crossing Libya to exterminate thousands of rebels.

I was all for the Libya intervention, but I did not imagine how little we would help solidify that country afterwards.  Understandably we had become tired of trying and failing to rebuild countries, and neither party showed interest in doing much to develop a secure aftermath.

While Obama can be blamed for not doing more, what have the Republicans done to help?   Conduct hearing after hearing right to the present day in search of ways in which Hillary was at fault regarding Benghazi?  No matter that the country has dissolved into civil war in the mean time.  Most important is to besmirch Hillary right up through 2016.

At this point, with ISIS becoming the scourge of the entire region (now including Libya), we clearly most value strong men who rally to the anti-ISIS cause such as President Sisi of Egypt, who seems more repressive than Mubarak but is tolerated because he is showing commitment to fight ISIS, not to mention applying pressure on Hamas, which Israel welcomes.

It must be nice being a Vladimir Putin with such a clear cut agenda of regaining Russian greatness uninhibited by humanitarian or democratic values, free to conduct foreign policy like a complete thug.

What Does ISIS Really Want?

Way too big of a question for this little blog, so I am going to defer to Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, to provide most of the answer.  He has the cover story in the most recent edition, and he was interviewed on NPR two days ago.  The interview is about 11 minutes and I suggest listening to that and then if really interested  move on to the article, which is hard to digest in one sitting.

Wood makes the case that we misunderstand ISIS when we act as if the phenomenon was a perversion of Islam, as President Obama often does, without admitting it as one of many legitimate interpretations in the Muslim world.   They are living out a medieval religious version which envisions an end of days scenario with armies of west and east living out some kind of apocalypse.  It is a crazy vision to us, but enthralling to some Muslims.  Something they want to be a part of, a glorious Muslim passion play fated to happen.

To me the main question is how does understanding what ISIS wants affect our strategy towards them.  One point struck me in reading the piece and that was how important controlling land is to validating their status.    Al Queda has largely been an underground operation.  Controlling much land has not been their aim.

But the purpose of having a Caliphate is to be able to enforce the pure practice of Sharia law.   For ISIS to survive it must control the land it has and gain more to prosper.  Otherwise questions arise as to its nature as a true Caliphate.   So far so good for them, but a successful strategy of slowly pushing them back should weaken the attraction they have to prospective followers.  Who wants to die for a false Caliphate?

The temptation for those in the U. S. who want to crush ISIS at a much faster pace, is to make for a worse situation if thousands of our troops are going to spearhead the attack, justifying ISIS propaganda that we want to destroy Islam, and providing a spur to even more recruits from the Muslim world.

While it may not be a satisfying conclusion, Wood believes:   “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it appears the best of bad military options.”

Wood argues it is in the nature of ISIS’ uncompromisingly brutal ideology to hamstring itself over time.  For them, their interpretation of Islam is the only valid interpretation and those not holding it are apostates, which means almost the entire world.  While ISIS attracts a flow of Muslim fanatics and/or psychopaths to its cause, it makes more enemies by the day as well, most recently stiffening the nerve of the Jordanian king after burning to death that Jordanian pilot.  And then prompting the Egyptian president to call for Muslims to band together to fight ISIS after 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya.

Of course, in both cases air power was used to wreak revenge on ISIS and what is most needed are more ground troops to retake lost land.  Only in Iraq are there many engaged, and that is because much of their land had been overrun by ISIS, but since ISIS wants to control the entire region so as to purify or kill fellow Muslims, eventually the alliance against them should come together out of self-preservation.


It is the most complicated U. S. military involvement that I can imagine with no precedents that I can think of, so while I believe there is a need for more American troops on the ground in special forces capacities, we must continuously balance our involvement with that of regional powers, so that this will evolve as more of a Muslim vs. Muslim battle, rather than one easily portrayed by ISIS as yet another Christian Crusade.

Ukraine gets scarier by the day and I don’t know what to do.

It is not bad enough that the Middle East remains an ongoing SNAFU (an old Marine acronym for:  Situation normal all fowled up – in its polite version), the situation in Ukraine is now reaching crisis proportions.   “Crisis” is such an overused term these days, it has lost its punch, but I believe it fits here, as it is easy to imagine how much can go wrong and little right.


As I type there are urgent meetings taking place in Europe discussing what is to be done about the fact that the eastern separatists  are winning the war against government forces.

For months it has been clear that Vladimir Putin has provided all sorts of military assistance to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, while denying it.  Now the separatists are stronger than the government forces and pushing them back.  And the European allies can’t agree on what to do about that.   There is talk of sending defensive arms (e. g. anti-tank guns)  to aid government troops, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is dead set against the idea and I don’t see much other support for it in Europe.

Merkel is trying to broker another cease fire, but this one gives more to the separatists than the last cease fire and who is to say Putin will honor it any more than he did the last one (even Merkel has her doubts), but of course Putin will say he is.  And Ukraine’s problems go way beyond the civil war.  The government is broke and the economic system corrupt, all of which has made me reluctant to even broach the subject in a simple post.

But MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’ Donnell freed me yesterday morning by saying when it comes to the Ukraine:  “I’ve thought about these things all my life and I don’t know what to do.”  He went on to say it would be great if some columnist would begin his or her opinion piece saying that.

Though only a humble occasional blogger, I decided to take on that roll and I feel such a relief.  The problem is I also feel some thing, or things, should be done to counter Putin’s continued aggression and lies about it, a feeling many in the West have but we can’t agree upon what to do.

For those who want to do more than throw up their hands, I suggest a blog by Judy Dempsey on the Carnegie Europe web site called Strategic Europe.   She has been giving daily posts covering the Ukraine crisis which include the opinions of numerous people who think they have a clue.

Check out this post:  The Tragedy of  Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president and commander in chief of its armed forces.   It’s short and provides a sense of the fundamental nature of this dilemma.  Reading about Poroshenko I recall the tragic position of Czechoslovakia’s president Edward Benes during the Munich agreement of the 30’s which led to German annexation.  

I know, Munich analogies tend to distort more than illuminate, but there unfortunately seems potential for some application here.  I can only hope the potential goes unfulfilled.

If you like the Poroshenko piece, click the HOME button on the  upper left of the post and find other illuminating posts by Dempsey.


AMERICANA: The Super Duper Bowl

I sit here impatiently awaiting the kick off of the 2015 Super Bowl in three hours or so, numbed by a week’s worth of pre-game analysis and speculation and just wanting the game to begin.  And wanting it to be a much better game than last year and believing it should be because the Patriots and Seahawks both look like very good teams.

I’ve heard the Vegas line makers are calling this a “pick em” game, meaning neither is favored in the betting, a first in Super Bowl history. Hopefully they are right and the game is tight at the end, so as not to detract from a number of likely splendid advertisements and leave the flat feeling of last year’s one sided romp.

While waiting for the game to begin my thoughts are less about it than the success of its promotion over the years that has made the actual game secondary to its pre-game hype and game-time commercials.  The game itself is just a hook upon which to hang the overall phenomenon.  Is there any other TV event in which we not only don’t avoid the commercials but actually want to see them?

The first Super Bowl back in 1967 was a deflated version of its present self.  In short, it wasn’t all that super because there was no real pre-game promotion to create the image of it being so.  The game didn’t attract many that did not already follow football. Only about 2/3’s of the seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum were filled and 30 second TV advertisements cost $37,500 a piece (click for more details).

The  Super Bowl label seemed corny, overblown at the time.  Even to Lamar Hunt, an influential team owner who usually is credited for coming up with it.  He later said he used it “kiddingly,” a place mark for something better to come along.  Nothing did and the press took to Super Bowl.

Fast forward to $4.5 million 30 second ads shown to over 100 million viewers who have become addicted or just drawn to the phenomenon through media hype of its every aspect and the development of commercials as an art form.  If Super Bowl seemed too inflated a name that first year, these days I think it a bit under inflated, given our penchant for hyperbole.   What is super duper is not the game itself, but its nature as a commercial phenomenon second only to Christmas.

The ads have a life of their own.   You can find sites with the best Super Bowl ads over the years, like a hall of fame, and sites with ads that were refused for being too racy, sort of a hall of shame, if this were around 1700.   A whole world of Super Bowl ads come and gone.

This year the ad people have developed a new commercial stream, releasing many of the ads days before the game to prime the pump for today’s watching.  So we already know that Bud Lite’s little puppy saved by a big horse will pull our heart strings once again, while Go Daddy knows not to show its take off on that ad in which it has a puppy that is saved, but twists it when the owner is happy because  she had already sold the puppy on Go Daddy.  Oh, yuck.  Don’t ask me if the ad team was high on something when they thought this was clever.

But no matter.  Go Daddy’s initial failure might prove more valuable than Bud Lite’s success.   In pulling that ad they are spared a yucky game time reaction, while also getting lots of attention for their services beforehand.   Also, it will be newsworthy if Go Daddy replaces that ad with something clever during the game. If they come up with something funny or touching (maybe something self-deprecating), they could do better in the labyrinthian publicity game than those who came up with an attractive ad first time out.

Since we are talking about the twists and turns in the realm of publicity, let’s jump to the attention Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch has received for his refusal to say much of anything on media day, other than “I’m only here so I won’t get fined” 29 times or so. While some may think he’s a jerk for doing that, others will like his rebellious attitude toward NFL dictates.

Either way, almost “all publicity is good publicity” and he received more attention this past week than any player other than Tom Brady, and if he has a great game, you’ll likely be seeing his face all over the place. If not, well, not so much.

I’m tired of thinking about the transmutations of the advertising game, so I will end this rambling.  I just hope a number of those ads live up to expectations and that the football game doesn’t detract from the overall experience.