POLITICAL ODDS AND ENDS: Suggestions, Corrections and Observations

First, ISIS revealed tonight on TV:  If you have been wondering what the draw of ISIS in Syria is for thousands of budding jihadists, and what life is like in ISIS controlled territories watch:  Blind Sided:  How ISIS Shook the World on CNN tonight at 9 EDT and PDT (other time zones must fend for yourselves).   Fareed Zakaria interviews former jihadists and reporters, such as a German news man who was allowed to visit ISIS held territories and lived to tell about it.

Second, a correction:  I Indicated in my immediately previous post that hundreds of migrants have died in sinking boats while aimed Italy (mostly Sicily I think) in recent weeks.  I had called them Libyans since they departed from Libya, but assumed way too much.  Actually, they come from many countries in Africa, like Eritrea, and the Mid-East, like Syria.   Libya has become the primary point of departure because political chaos there has allowed smugglers to operate easily.

Also, this immigrant wave, along with drownings, has been going on for years.  More immigrants tried the trip during the same period last year (25,000) than this (20,000), but it has garnered more attention because the number who have died trying has increased nine fold.  Don’t ask me why.

Third: Hail to the Comedian-in-Chief:  You probably have seen high lights of the White House Correspondence Dinner Monday night, such as when the President said that despite not having that much time left in the White House he doesn’t have a bucket list, but he does have a list that rhymes with bucket.   That got a good laugh as did some of his other jokes.  He was a  tough act for SNL’s Cecily Strong to follow.

I think this was his best W.H.C.D. performance, though he deserves the most credit for the one back in 2011, when he performed well while an operation to get Bin Laden was taking place at the same time.   I think it the most amazing moment of his presidency.  Can you imagine how his constant critics would have crucified him if the operation had gone badly?  They gave him little credit for its success.  And with so much on the line there he was out there getting laughs.

I often ponder what it must be like to make decisions every day that may well prompt the death of others, either from the interventions you make (like Libya) or the ones you resist making (Syria, until relatively recently).  And trying to pay attention to your family amidst constant criticism in this 24/7 age.  I’d fall apart in a day.  As disgusted as I get with our presidential election process, I think it provides a necessary test of the stamina, resilience and overall self-integration being president requires.

Fourth, an observation about our politics:  We often hear pundits and pollsters talk about how Americans are tired of the gridlock in Washington and want the parties to get something done, but the important point usually ignored is that while most of us our frustrated by our national government and want change, our visions of the changes to make are not only polarized but often contradictory.  One example is pointed out in a recent column by E. J. Dionne in which he discusses the fracturing of western democracies in general:

“In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63 percent of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59 percent also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.”

Helping to explain that divergence is our belief that government primarily serves special interest groups and that big government is in its nature wasteful and inefficient.  Some of us are more willing to put up with those shortcomings than others, another aspect of the polarization, so while we might want government to play a bigger role, not this government, not as it works now.

So, the overall temper of the nation is that we might be able to come together on the idea that government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but only if it is not the inefficient pay-to-play government that we have now.

A much better government that we are not likely to ever have.

Fifth:   I suggest you watch VEEP on HBO (or checked out from the library for cheap people like me:   It provides booster shots of humor to make thinking about Washington more tolerable.  I’ve only begun to watch the first, but this is the fourth season of a zany portrait of Washington politics focusing upon a vice-president played to gut busting perfection by Julia Louis-Drefus with funny-fine performances by the rest of the cast.   Some Washington folks say it captures the gist of political life there better than other shows, which is a scary thought, especially as the VEEP becomes the Prez this year.   Not for children unless the F-bomb is common in your house.

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Leaving aside Isis, Putin and other budding calamities: Are you ready for some football?

To talk about the NFL season kicking off tonight in Seattle along with the rise of ISIS and the ongoing Putin show must seem inappropriate, or at least jarring, but doesn’t it reflect our lives in general?  Most of us live in small worlds of family and friends and jobs and personal ambitions and romantic fantasies and pass times against the backdrop of a large world that most of us give only side long glances to.   We might look longer if we felt we could really understand, but understanding our world seems harder and harder to do.  Actually impossible, so why work hard at it?

The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ironic isn’t it?  All of this information we humans have compiled over time and it winds up confusing, not enlightening.   We have a vast catalog of facts at our disposal through the internet, but our ability to integrate it is not much advanced from monkeys pounding typewriters and accidentally forming a word.  We might think we would have  a chance to grab the gist of things if those who proffered the information did not so twist it through some ideology or another.  As is, we have to delve into too much information, while tossing out most of it as tainted.

Still, trying to make sense of things is a human habit as deeply ingrained as breathing and other bodily functions,  so here are a few off hand stabs at making a little sense of a couple of things.    While Putin is skilful at making himself the center of attention with his bad boy antics – most recently pressing for a separate state being carved out of eastern Ukraine, he has no end game as far as I can see.

While it has moved liked molasses in January, the European Union now seems to be willing to back sanctions that should hurt Russia’s economy badly.   In the meantime, Putin will remain the center of attention but gradually Russians  should feel a sharp economic pinch and realize what a loser he is.   It boils down to this:   The Russian economy is roughly two trillion a year – about the size of Italy’s – while the combined American and European economies are over 27 trillion a year, give or take a trillion or two.   Because of the size of the difference, it would only take some agreement on key sanctions among the EU and ourselves to strangle the Russian economy.

Economically, crushing Putin’s bravado is simply a matter of time.

The ongoing  antics of Putin the cunning, ruthless kid are slowly prompting the EU to apply serious sanctions, despite the fact those sanctions will hurt their economies as well.  But at some point enough is enough, to most people if not Putin.

To me, ISIS is the much greater danger because of their combination of religious zealotry with surprisingly effective organization and sophistication when it comes to using technology.  All this supported by billions either grabbed or donated.   Who knows when you might find them at an airport near you?

I continue to find the rapidity of their success startling, but as good as they are tactically, their vicious zealotry, which to them seems a good recruiting tool, as with the two recent be-headings of Americans, is just what it will take to SHAKE UP US AND OTHERS  enough to ban together to stamp them out.

I often hear TV pundits talk about Americans being “war weary”.    Really, what do most of us have to be weary about?   What have most of us sacrificed during the many years of our troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq?    We are tired of hearing bad news about the little our investment of life and treasure has wrought, but that is not really being war weary.   That is just the reflection of a people who expect to have our own way with the world.

Having done some volunteer work assisting our troops and their families, I would say those who have really sacrificed, these troops, these families and their friends, have high morale.   They are believers in their sacrifices.

I would say the rest of us aren’t war weary.   We are world weary, weary of a world that is no longer our oyster as it has been throughout most of  my 69 years.  And weary of a national government too polarized to aid in turning the tide.

So, now, are you ready for some football?

ISIS vs. the World: “The Enemy of my Enemy is My Friend”

The Middle East has developed more hot spots than asphalt on a scorching summer day and I continue to sort through articles in search of an understanding of the underlying dynamics at work.  The most illuminating short piece I have found is by Adam  Taylor in the Washington Post from August 22.   There he nicely summarizes what seems an almost surreal situation in which former enemies seem close to becoming strange bed fellows out of the common desire to crush ISIS.

Flag of islamic state of iraq

Flag of islamic state of iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It reminds me of the ancient proverb about friendly enemies quoted in the title of this post.  Or as Taylor describes the current situation:  “One remarkable result of the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been how it seems to be shifting broader conceptions in the Middle East. It sometimes looks like enemies are becoming potential allies – and even old friends are starting to look a little suspicious.”

While I suggest you read the article, here is a thumbnail sketch of its content along with a bit of me inserted here and there.

In order to stop ISIS it seems necessary to root them out of Syria as well as Iraq and that means some sort of working relationship with the Assad government, that same government President Obama has railed against for many months now.  Awkward.

On the other hand, recall that the U. S. did cooperate with Syria and Russia in the removal of chemical weapons there which meant the U. S. was actually shoring up the regime in a defacto way at least for the months it took to complete that deal.  This at the expense of the Free Syrian Army and other so-called moderate anti-government forces.  How is this so different than that?

Cooperation with Iran seems likely, too.   Maybe more likely.  I know, also awkward, but Iran  is the major supporter of the Iraqi Shia who must be counted on to fight ISIS, since we don’t want to put our own boots on the ground (well, not more than a thousand or…?).   Prime Minister David Cameron, for one,  has suggested talks with Iran and other Mid-East nations to develop  cooperation to fight ISIS.

While at least some cooperation with the likes of  Assad’s government and Iran seems in the cards, there is also reassessments being made of  our allies-for-the-most-part like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.   These countries (or at least wealthy citizens in them) have been the chief donors to ISIS in its battle vs. Assad.   Now that ISIS has spread like a wildfire, these donors may have had a change of heart, though I can’t gauge that and Taylor doesn’t try.

However, he does give  a good example of how the success of ISIS has made some former backers cringe. Turkey is an enemy of the Assad regime and “had shown a remarkable tolerance for Islamic State fighters until very recently, allowing fighters to use Turkish towns as way stations for arms and supplies. Turkey is now working with the United States and European governments to crack down on Islamist fighters.”

Clear as mud?  Well, read the Taylor article and I think it will be a bit clearer.

 

 

UNITING IRAQ: Mission Impossible?

With the stunning success of ISIS revolutionaries spread throughout Sunni territory Iraq has reached a stage of upheaval that threatens destruction of the country as a nation state. The situation is too intricate to summarize well in a post, but I will give it a shot nonetheless.  Please allow me leeway as far as generalizations go.   As they say in business, it is the view from 30,000 feet, so it doesn’t capture many details. (More details are given in the examination of the situation found in this Vox.com link:  A guide to the bitter political fights driving the Iraq crisis)

English: The distribution of the predominant I...

English: The distribution of the predominant Islamic sectarian afficilations followed in majority-Muslim countries and regions. Green=Sunni, Orange=Shi’ite, Purple=Ibadi CLICK TO ENLARGE (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As usual, President Obama’s critics are blaming him for not doing enough fast enough to deal with the surprising success of ISIS, and they blame him for not making a deal with al-Maliki to keep a U.S. contingent of troops there in 2011.

The latter point merits a book to sort out, but the former point was quashed by General David Petraeus last Wednesday, when he agreed publicly with Obama that U. S. military support should be contingent on a change of government.  Ironically, John McCain, one of Obama’s constant critics, had recommended Obama trash his security advisers and seek advice from Petraeus.

Setting political theater aside, the single biggest source of the present situation has been Prime Minister al-Maliki’s failure to incorporate Sunni’s (and Kurds) into his government which is what has led to ISIS troops knocking on Baghdad’s door.   ISIS has been called a splinter group of Al Queda, which now disowns them.  Both are Sunni, but in their radicalism, are not fully embraced by Sunnis, just seen as preferable (at least for now) to al-Maliki’s Shia non-inclusive government.  On the other hand, some Sunni tribes are fighting along with ISIS.  The picture is not clear cut.

But the bottom line is that ISIS has been so surprisingly successful because they have made their way from Syria to Baghdad through Sunni territory.   Now Shia volunteers have poured into Bagdad to enlist, and it seems likely the Shia dominated government will put up a better fight as time goes by.   However, many of those enlistees are joining Shia Militia’s, which are not exactly under the control of the Iraqi army, leaving room for them to act on their own accord and provide their own form of viciousness to the fight.

All is in flux as  Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad conversing with al-Maliki and Sunni and Kurd moderates to see if a more united front can be developed, but al-Maliki’s attitude has been let’s deal with ISIS first and then work on widening the government later.

That position is not going to fly with Sunni’s in particular, while the Kurds have essentially developed their own state, which includes oil reserves, and they seem content to stay out of this dog fight if just left alone.   Having recently taken control of Kirkuk they can send their oil to Turkey from there,  avoiding dependence on Baghdad to channel the oil. Though the Kurds, like the Sunnis, have also been dependent on Baghdad for funds, the Kurds have a unity and a way forward to be self-sustaining over time.

What might this portend?  Well, al-Maliki’s willingness to step down is the key issue when it comes to developing a more united front, and he hasn’t shown any inclination to do so, though a statement by the Shia leading Iraqi cleric, Ali Sistani, that a change of government is needed, may prove the deciding push out the door.   But stay or go, there is no guarantee that another central government which would also be Shia dominated could induce many Kurds and moderate Sunni’s to  support it.

Given the dubious prospect of a united government being formed, there is talk by many of the possibility of dividing Iraq into three areas related to their ethnic origins, a suggestion Joe Biden made years ago and was largely dismissed. Of course, this would have its own set of problems, perhaps the biggest one being that the Sunni territory is not economically viable, having little oil and largely subsidized now by money from Baghdad.  The only thing that really might help the Sunnis is to defeat the Shia, and though unlikely, that would leave them with a radical ISIS government, which many Sunni would not like.

Unless moderate Sunnis in now occupied ISIS territory can somehow be persuaded to abandon ISIS, as the tribes in Anbar province did with Al Queda during “the Surge” years ago (and that was with much American help), we seem to be looking at a Shia/Sunni civil war in the making, which ISIS can only win by keeping their fellow Sunnis’ in line and forcing the Shia to give up. The  Shia’s chances look better as they have  more resources, more people and  aid from Iran and some aid from us, since we, too, have reason to want ISIS to be crushed.

But here is another fly in the ointment.  We want to avoid being Shia identified and thus alienate Sunni nations, in particular our allies Saudi Arabia,  Jordan and the UAE.   Illustrative of the twisted nature of this situation is the backing Saudi Arabia has been giving  ISIS in Syria – as fellow Sunnis – while now ISIS is threatening Saudi Arabia  (details in this article link).

So the fantasy is:   We want to destroy ISIS without making war on the Sunnis as a whole, like picking out the few rotten grapes in a bunch without touching any others.  And while we don’t mind some help from Iran in beating ISIS we don’t want Iran becoming “too helpful” to the al-Malaki  government, which it continues to back,  as it already has more influence than we do at this point.  And more Iranian involvement would risk wider Sunni reaction, i. e. from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, as this is only the latest chapter of a sectarian struggle that goes back centuries.

Developing our foreign policy for Iraq seems much like tip toeing through a mine field, with plenty of potential for things to blow up.  It may not prove Mission Impossible, but how it will play out seems impossible to predict.

 

 

 

Welcome to the The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

Otherwise known as ISIS.   If you haven’t noticed before this is a group that has become a major player in the Syrian conflagration, a sort of offshoot of Al Queda, while at odds with them, because, if you can believe this, they are supposedly even more vicious and religiously extreme.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi...

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a joint press event on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7, 2009. Obama spoke to hundreds of U.S. troops during his surprise visit to Iraq to thank them for their service. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their organizational name seemed delusional until they sent Iraqi government troops packing from Mosul a couple of days ago, this despite there being about 30,000 troops and only about 1000 Isis revolutionaries.   Yes, really, 30-to-1 and the government troops had the big equipment.  The ground was littered with Iraqi uniforms, abandoned like the city.

So much for years and billions invested in training.  No matter how well you train troops to fight better, it won’t work if they are not inclined to fight at all.   At least without being bolstered by American soldiers when facing dye hard foes like ISIS.

In the process the government troops left so much equipment behind (that we bought for them of course), that the revolutionaries are now even more formidable, supported even further by some 400 million bucks apparently liberated from a bank (or banks) in the process.

Now what?   Well, of course, for John McCain the first step is to blame President Obama’s team for, first, pulling out all troops from Iraq a few years ago, and recently for not recognizing sooner the dangers posed by ISIS in western Iraq.   As for the first point, while the Obama administration might have done a better job in negotiating an ongoing American presence of 10,000 troops or so, the majority sentiment in Iraq was for we “liberators” to leave and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not eager for us to stay, especially as the Obama team kept pushing him for a more inclusive government, meaning more Sunnis in particular, something he had no intention of doing as later events have shown.    The reverse has been more the case.

If you want more on al-Malaki’s role, go to this Washington Post editorial by Fareed Zakaria.

And given the way the Iraqi troops folded in Mosul, it is hard to say what a continued American presence might have shored up.  The al-Maliki government seems not one to inspire risking one’s life.   If you want to delve into the negotiations involved in the American troop pull out, go to this New York Times article of September 2012.

McCain’s other point about recognizing the growing danger posed by ISIS, well, yes they were making waves in western Iraq, but I doubt if anyone could have imagined the ease in which the government troops were routed given their overwhelming superiority in numbers.

That is what is so stunning about all of this.   And added to that mind boggling event is the fact that now the Iranians and us have a common interest in shoring up the al-Maliki government, as they have close ties with Iraq as fellow Shia dominated nations and don’t want the Sunni dominated ISIS to thrive any more than we do.

Talk about strange bedfellows.  To say the least, this should get interesting and perhaps more and more unsettling.