Tag Archives: war

Afghanistan, Biden, and the Media


This was a bad, pointless war, and I’m glad the US will soon be out of it. No number of talking heads will convince me otherwise.

Last Monday afternoon, President Biden committed an unforgivable sin: He didn’t apologize for his decision to leave Afghanistan.

The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on [the Trump administration’s] agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.

There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.

There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.

I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.

That speech led to what TPM’s Josh Marshall called “peak screech” from the DC media. In Tuesday’s morning newsletter from Politico, Marshall elaborates, “A sort of primal scream of ‘WTF, JOE BIDEN?!?!?!!?!’ virtually bleeds through the copy.”

Immediately after Biden’s speech, MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace offered this blunt assessment of a mainstream that her show itself was often swimming in:

Ninety-five percent of the American people will agree with everything [Biden] just said. Ninety-five percent of the press covering this White House will disagree.

Her numbers were exaggerated, but the overall point was dead-on: I can’t remember the last time the media was so unified and so intent on talking me out of my opinion.

This was not a question of facts that they knew and I didn’t. The mainstream media has been equally unified in combating misinformation about the Covid vaccines, say, or in batting aside Trump’s self-serving bullshit about election fraud. But in each of those cases, there is a fact of the matter: The vaccines work. Fraud did not decide the election.

But Afghanistan is different. The belief that our troops should have stayed in Afghanistan a little bit longer (or a lot longer or forever) is an opinion about what might happen in the unknowable future. It’s also a value judgment about the significance of Afghanistan to American security compared to the ongoing cost in lives and money. Reasonable people can disagree about such things.

But apparently not on TV. The Popular Information blog talked to “a veteran communications professional who has been trying to place prominent voices supportive of the withdrawal on television and in print”.

I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this before. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t even get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back…

I’ve fed sources to reporters, who end up not quoting the sources, but do quote multiple voices who are critical of the president and/or put the withdrawal in a negative light.

I turn on TV and watch CNN and, frankly, a lot of MSNBC shows, and they’re presenting it as if there’s not a voice out there willing to defend the president and his decision to withdraw. But I offered those very shows those voices, and the shows purposely decided to shut them out.

In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.

Paul Waldman noticed the same thing:

As we have watched the rapid dissolution of the Afghan government, the takeover of the country by the Taliban and the desperate effort of so many Afghans to flee, the U.S. media have asked themselves a question: What do the people who were wrong about Afghanistan all along have to say about all this?

That’s not literally what TV bookers and journalists have said, of course. But if you’ve been watching the debate, it almost seems that way.

So Condoleezza Rice, of all people, was given an opportunity to weigh in. (She said the 20-year war needed “more time”.) The Wall Street Journal wanted to hear from David Petraeus, who “valued, even cherished, the fallen Afghan government”. Liz Cheney, whose father did more to create this debacle than just about anyone, charged that Biden “ignored the advice of his military leaders“, as if that advice had been fabulous for the last 20 years.

A parade of retired generals, military contractors, and think-tank talking heads were given a platform to explain how Biden had made a “terrible mistake“, that was “worse than Saigon“, and that pushed his presidency past “the point of no return“. Afghanistan has ruined the Biden administration’s image of competence and empathy, and it will “never be the same“.

As we saw with the beginning of these wars in 2001-2003, these moments of unanimity allow a lot of dubious ideas to sneak in to the conversation. Let’s examine a few of them.

Yes, this was a “forever war”. One false idea I keep hearing is that Afghanistan had settled down to the point where a minimal US commitment could have held it steady: maybe 2-3 thousand troops that would rarely take any casualties. Jeff Jacoby was one of many pushing this point:

Yes, the United States has been involved in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, but the last time American forces suffered any combat casualties was Feb. 8, 2020, when Sgt. Javier Gutierrez and Sgt. Antonio Rodriguez were ambushed and killed. Their sacrifice was heroic and selfless. But it makes little sense to speak of a “forever war” in which there are no fatalities for a year and a half. Nor does it make sense to apply that label to a mission involving just 2,500 troops, which was the tiny size to which the US footprint in Afghanistan had shrunk by the time Biden took office.

And The Washington Post made space for Rory Stewart to claim:

When he became president, Biden took over a relatively low-cost, low-risk presence in Afghanistan that was nevertheless capable of protecting the achievements of the previous 20 years.

But you know what else happened in February of 2020? Trump’s peace agreement with the Taliban. Once Trump agreed to totally withdraw, the Taliban stopped targeting US troops. The “low-cost, low-risk” presence depended on the Taliban believing our promise to leave. If Biden had suddenly said, “Never mind, we’re keeping 2,500 troops in place from now on.”, we’d soon start seeing body bags again, and realizing that 2,500 troops weren’t enough. Biden was right: “There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.”

Popular Information points out the hidden cost to the Afghans of our “light footprint”:

With few troops on the ground, the military increasingly relied on air power to keep the Taliban at bay. This kept U.S. fatalities low but resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties. A Brown University study found that between 2016 and 2019 the “number of civilians killed by international airstrikes increased about 330 percent.” In October 2020 “212 civilians were killed.”

Jacoby invokes the example of Germany, where we have kept far more than 2,500 troops for far longer than 20 years. “Should we call that a forever war, too?” No, because Germany has no war. If Nazi partisans were still hiding in the Bavarian mountains, which we regularly pounded with air power, and if we worried about them overthrowing the Bundesrepublik as soon as our troops left, that would be a forever war in Germany. Is that really so hard to grasp?

Actually, no one saw this coming. Much has been made of the few intelligence reports that warned of the Afghan government falling soon after we left. But if that had actually happened, we’d have been OK — or at least better off than we are.

What did happen, though, is that the Afghan army dissolved and the leaders fled Kabul before we were done leaving. That’s why we’re having the problems we’re having. And literally no one — certainly not the “experts” who are denouncing Biden on TV — predicted that.

Evacuating our people sooner wouldn’t have avoided the problem. Imagine you’ve spent the evening in the city, and as you go through the subway turnstile you see the last train home vanishing down the tunnel. Naturally, you think “I should have left the party sooner.”

Commentators are thinking like that now, but the metaphor doesn’t work. In the metaphor, you and the train are independent processes. If you’d arrived at the station five minutes earlier, the train would have been waiting and you’d have gotten home.

The fall of Saigon in 1975 was exactly like a train leaving: It took time for the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong forces to fight their way to Saigon. If you didn’t get out before they arrived, you should have started leaving sooner.

But the Taliban didn’t fight their way to Kabul; the Afghan army we had so lavishly equipped simply dissolved in front of them, in accordance with surrender deals previously worked out. And the signal that started the surrender was the Americans beginning to leave. Nobody wanted to be the last person to wave the white flag, so when they saw Americans evacuating, it was time.

In other words: Afghanistan is more like the train operator being in contact with someone at the party, so that he could start pushing off as soon as you were on your way.

So yes, Biden could have started pulling out a month or two sooner. And the collapse would have happened a month or two sooner. Again, Biden nailed it: There was never a good time to leave Afghanistan.

Imagine if Biden had foreseen everything and been transparent about it. So in June or July he goes on TV and says, “The Afghan Army isn’t going to fight, so the government going to fall very suddenly. If you want to be part of the evacuation, start off for the airport now.”

Not only would the collapse have begun immediately, but all the Liz Cheney and David Petraeus types would claim that Biden had stabbed the Afghans in the back. Biden’s lack of faith, they would claim, and not the Afghan government’s failings, would have been to blame.

And now picture what happens to the politics of welcoming the Afghan refugees. Tucker Carlson and the other nativist voices are already claiming the Afghan rescue is part of the massive Democratic plot to replace White Americans with immigrants. “First we invade, then we’re invaded.” Laura Ingraham echoed that concern:

All day, we’ve heard phrases like “We promised them.” Well, who did? Did you?

How much more weight would this immigration conspiracy theory have, if the first visible sign of collapse had been Biden expressing his lack of faith in the Afghan government? Clearly, replacement theorists would argue, Biden wanted Afghanistan to collapse so that he could bring in more immigrants — possibly “millions” of them, as Carlson has already warned.

The war, and not the end of the war, is what lowered America’s standing in the world. I can’t put this better than David Rothkopf already did when he listed “the top 30 things that have really harmed our standing”. His list is more Trump-centered than mine would be — I’d give a prominent place to the Bush administration’s torture policy — but we agree on this: Having things go badly for a few weeks while we’re trying to do the right thing is not on it.

Spending 20 years, thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars fighting a war that, in the end, accomplished little — that lowers our standing in the world. Ending that war doesn’t.

So what explains the “peak screech”? I’m sure someone in the comments will argue that the DC press corps is part of the corrupt military-industrial complex that has been profiting from the continuing war, but I’m not going there. (In general, I am leery of the assumption that the people who disagree with me are corrupt. That assumption gives up too easily on democracy, which requires good-faith exchanges of ideas between disagreeing parties. I’m not saying there is no corruption and bad-faith arguing, but I have to be driven to that conclusion. I’m not going there first.)

Josh Marshall offers a two-fold explanation, which rings true for me. First, the major foreign policy reporters have personal connections to a lot of the people who are at risk in Afghanistan, or to people just like them in other shaky countries. If you reported from Afghanistan, you had a driver, you had an interpreter. Maybe your cameraman was Afghan. You depended on those people, spent a lot of downtime with them, and maybe even met their families. Maybe their street smarts got you out of a few difficult situations. Will they now be killed because they helped you? You never committed to bring them to America, which was always beyond your power anyway. But you can’t be objective about their situation.

Second is a phenomenon sometimes described as “source capture”. A big part of being a reporter is cultivating well-placed sources. For war reporters, that means sources in the Pentagon or the State Department, or commanders in the field, or officials in the Afghan government or military. Even if you have no specific deal with these sources, you always understand the situation: If you make them look bad, they’ll stop talking to you.

Over time, as you go back to your sources again and again, you start to internalize that understanding, particularly with the ones who consistently give you reliable information. You identify with them. You stop thinking of them as your sources and start to think of yourself as their voice. If they are invested in a project like the Afghanistan war, you start to feel invested in it too.

Marshall sums up:

[W]hat I’m describing isn’t a flag-waving, America’s never wrong, “pro-war” mindset. It’s more varied and critical, capable of seeing the collateral damage of these engagements, the toll on American service members post combat, the corruption endemic in occupation-backed governments. And yet it is still very bought-in. You see this in a different way in some of the country’s most accomplished longform magazine writers, many of whom have spent ample time in these warzones. Again, not at all militarists or gungho armchair warriors but people capable of capturing the subtleties and discontents of these missions and the individuals caught up in their storms. And yet they are still very bought-in. And it is from these voices that we are hearing many of the most anguished accusations of betrayal and abandonment. It is harrowing to process years or decades of denial in hours or days.

What we see in so many reactions, claims of disgrace and betrayal are no more than people who have been deeply bought into these endeavors suddenly forced to confront how much of it was simply an illusion.

If the last two weeks have revealed anything, it’s exactly how much of an illusion our “nation-building” in Afghanistan always was. Real countries, with real governments and real armies, don’t evaporate overnight.

People who have been living in denial typically react with anger when their bubble pops. They ought to be angry at the people who duped them, or at themselves for being gullible. But that’s not usually where the anger goes, at least not at first. The first target is the person who popped the bubble.

So damn that Joe Biden. If he’d just kept a few thousand troops deployed and kept the money spigot open, we could all still be happy.

Finally, some honesty about Afghanistan


Biden’s announcement ends not just to our war in Afghanistan, but 20 years of fantasies about what “six more months” can accomplish there.

Wednesday, President Biden announced that our troops (and those of our NATO allies) will leave Afghanistan by September 11. Unlike previous dates for withdrawal, this one isn’t based on achieving some kind of stability or other goals first; we’re just getting out.

That announcement touched off a lot of comment, both pro and con. Pro: Leaving saves American lives and resources, and gives our military more flexibility to confront challenges more central to our well-being, as may come from Russia (in Ukraine) or China (in Taiwan). Con: Without us, the Afghan government will probably fall to the Taliban. That will definitely be bad for the Afghan people, and could also harm us if the Taliban starts sheltering terrorist groups like Al Qaeda again.

But one argument has been conspicuous by its absence: If we stay for six more months, or a year, or three years, Afghan democracy will stabilize, the Afghan Army will finally have enough training, and the government we leave behind in Kabul will be able to sustain itself.

The generals and their media allies have been making that argument for almost 20 years, and I was pleased to hear Biden blow it up:

So when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year, two more years, ten more years? Ten, twenty, thirty billion dollars more above the trillion we’ve already spent? …

“Not now” — that’s how we got here. And in this moment, there’s a significant downside risk to staying beyond May 1st without a clear timetable for departure.

If we instead pursue the approach where [the US] exit is tied to conditions on the ground, we have to have clear answers to the following questions: Just what conditions [will] be required to allow us to depart? By what means and how long would it take to achieve them, if they could be achieved at all? And at what additional cost in lives and treasure?

I’m not hearing any good answers to these questions. And if you can’t answer them, in my view, we should not stay.

Biden acknowledges the possibility of a terrorist resurgence in Afghanistan, but plans to deal with that if and when it happens.

We’ll not take our eye off the terrorist threat. We’ll reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent reemergence of terrorists — of the threat to our homeland from over the horizon. We’ll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil.

I think of The Washington Post as the hometown paper of the defense and foreign-policy establishment, and it has been playing that role this week. The Post’s editorial board responded to Biden’s plan by predicting that “the likely result will be disaster”. But even they acknowledged that their alternative path offers no exit.

A strategy of leaving troops in the country in an effort to force the Taliban to compromise could extend the U.S. commitment for years without achieving a durable peace.

And WaPo columnist Max Boot offered a much-scaled-down version of the usual rosy scenario:

To avert such a dire contingency, Biden would not have to wage a “forever war.” He would merely have to keep a relatively small number of U.S. forces to advise and assist the Afghans who already undertake almost all of the fighting.

So: a forever skirmish, not a forever war. We’ve recently gone a whole year without a combat death in Afghanistan. Maybe that happy circumstance will continue, and the price of freezing the status quo will be low enough to tolerate indefinitely.

Or maybe not. Maybe the Taliban will tire of trying to wait us out, and will go back to trying to drive us out. And if combat deaths go back up, that will be its own reason to stay, so that the troops we are losing will not have died in vain.

But notice: This disagreement is between two sides that each have at least one foot in reality. Maybe the cost of staying in Afghanistan forever will be tolerable, or maybe we’ll find some better way of dealing with the increased terrorism threat of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But nobody is counting on the Freedom Fairy to sprinkle her dust over Kandahar.

So whether you agree with Biden on this or not, you should at least thank him for bringing some honesty into the conversation.

Having written more-or-less even-handedly up to this point, I’ll take a side: I’m with Biden on this.

Way back in 2005, I expressed very similar ideas (about Iraq) in a 2005 essay I provocatively titled “Cut and Run“. At the time, “serious” foreign-policy experts were finally admitting that the 2003 Iraq invasion had been a mistake and we needed to get our troops out. But they always paired that concession with some sort of “after we fix what we’ve broken” caveat. (This became known as the Pottery Barn rule.) Typically, the sages thought our troops needed six more months to “stabilize the country” or “establish democracy” or achieve some other worthy but nebulous goal. (NYT columnist Thomas Friedman rolled his six-more-months projections forward with such regularity that six months became known as a Friedman unit.)

In “Cut and Run” I demanded a measurable answer to the question “What are we fixing?” Because in my opinion our military presence wasn’t fixing anything. After six more months, Iraq would still need “stabilizing”, and our troops would have to stay longer.

We can leave Iraq now, or we can leave after our losses have grown. That is the only choice we have.

I feel the same about Afghanistan today, after nearly 20 years of war. Whatever our original intentions might have been, by now it’s clear that we’re not building a secular, democratic, pro-Western government that will someday be strong enough to stand on its own.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s the same lesson we should have learned from Vietnam: In order to install a new form of government in a country, people on the ground have to be buying what you’re selling. As The Boston Globe’s H. D. S. Greenway puts it: In both Vietnam and Afghanistan

our clients could never shake the impression that they were puppets fighting for foreigners, while the Viet Cong and the Taliban were able to present themselves as the true patriots fighting to rid their country of colonialism.

In South Vietnam, all we had to work with was the remnant of the old French colonial administration, which local people joined for the sake of power and profit, not because they believed in the French Empire or anti-Communism or some other idealistic notion. In Afghanistan, we have a corrupt government in Kabul supported (up to a point) by a patchwork of warlords in the countryside. The Afghan people don’t believe in it, because they shouldn’t believe in it.

Over the last two decades, hundreds of thousands of American troops have served in Afghanistan — most of them honorably and some heroically. It is a shame that their effort and sacrifice has not produced a lasting result that our nation can point to with pride. But more effort and sacrifice will not redeem what bad policy has already wasted. We need to leave.

Wednesday, Rachel Maddow brought up another good point about this war, illustrated by the experience of Taliban hostage David Rhode, the Pulitzer-winning NYT journalist who was held for seven months in 2008-2009. Rhode was actually only a prisoner in Afghanistan for a week; for the half-year beyond that, the Taliban kept him in parts of Pakistan where they had free rein.

Knocking the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan was one thing. Defeating them in some kind of larger war, preventing them from ever rising again in Afghanistan, that was something that a US military conflict in Afghanistan was never going to be able to do. Not when the Taliban wasn’t confined to Afghanistan and wasn’t really based there.

Pakistan, if you remember, was where Osama bin Laden had been hiding — not far from the Pakistani version of West Point.

In August 2010, a former Pakistani intelligence officer approached the U.S. embassy station chief in Islamabad and offered to reveal bin Laden’s location, in return for the $25 million reward, according to a retired senior U.S. intelligence official. This story was corroborated by two U.S. intelligence officials speaking to NBC News, and had been previously reported by intelligence analyst Raelynn Hillhouse. The Pakistani official informed U.S. intelligence that bin Laden had been located by the Pakistani intelligence service ISI in 2006, and held under house arrest near Pakistani intelligence and military centers ever since.

According to the retired senior U.S. intelligence official speaking to [journalist Seymour] Hersh, bin Laden was ill at this point, financially supported by some within Saudi Arabia, and kept by the ISI to better manage their complex relationship with Pakistani and Afghan Islamist groups.

So a fully military solution to the Afghan problem would mean, at a minimum, expanding the war into Pakistan, and taking down factions within the Pakistani government. Pakistan, you may recall, is a nuclear power.

I don’t think anybody wants to open that can of worms.

Remember Normal Presidents?

Every previous president since Pearl Harbor would have handled the Soleimani announcement very differently.

It’s now been ten days since the United States assassinated top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and we still have no coherent explanation of why it was done, why it was legal, and what strategy the assassination is a piece of. Apparently even Congress hasn’t been able to get these questions answered in a classified briefing.

One of the ways Trump gets normalized is that we often compare his actions to his own previous conduct, as in “This is even worse than the last ridiculous thing he did.” As a result, our expectations of presidential behavior drift continually downward. I mean, sure, the claims of an “imminent” threat to American lives, some deadly Iranian scheme that came apart because we killed Soleimani, are almost certainly false. (Once a plot is under way, i.e., truly “imminent”, you disrupt it by stopping the perpetrators, not blowing up the mastermind. Killing Bin Laden after the hijackers were on their way to the airport would have done nothing to prevent 9/11.) But Trump’s like that — what’s one more lie after the many thousands we’ve already heard from him?

Another way we normalize Trump is to cut his actions into tiny pieces and find horrifying precedents for each one. (As in: “So Trump lied about the imminent threat? W lied about WMDs.”) And so we allow the Trump administration to become a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from all the worst aspects of previous presidencies.

To correct these normalizing tendencies, I want to raise the question: What do we normally expect from an American president when there’s been a major military development?

Talk to us. The very least we expect from a normal president is that he address the American people, to acknowledge what has happened himself, as soon as possible.

This tradition is as old as mass media. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 “a date that will live in infamy” and asking the House and Senate to declare war on Japan. The speech was broadcast live over the radio, and “attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81% of American homes tuning in”.

[The speech] was intended not merely as a personal response by the President, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack, and expressing outrage at its “dastardly” nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

Every subsequent president has carried on this tradition of using the mass media to reach out to the American people when issues of war and peace arose. This week I examined a number of such examples, including these:

How a normal president sounds. I could have included many other examples, but the list above is a good sampling. Some the actions announced turned out well and some turned out badly. (It’s probably unfair to expect him to have foreseen this, but Nixon’s Cambodia campaign was a step down the road to the killing fields.) Some of the speeches were more honest than others. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example, was not quite how LBJ described it.) But despite the differences in era and philosophy and personality, all these speeches share a number of features that made them “presidential”.

The most obvious thing they share is a tone: They are all calm but serious. The President, whoever he might have been at the time, projects an attitude of thoughtful determination, as if he were saying “I know there will be consequences to this act, but I have thought them out to the best of my ability. I am not acting rashly out of unreasoning fear or blind anger.”

They are also in some manner humble. This might seem like a strange trait for a leader to display when he is invoking the greatest power his office affords him, but American presidents do not hold their power as a personal possession, the way a divine-right king would. Presidential power is held in trust for the American people. No one is worthy of the power to start bombing some other country or to send troops into harm’s way, but our country has to place that power somewhere. So we have placed it in our president, under supervision from the Congress, who is just a human being like the rest of us. Any human who assumes that power is quite right to be awed by it.

The speeches are not self-aggrandizing, which is the opposite of humble. FDR, for example, could have used the opportunity to pat himself on the back: He had shown the foresight to begin a draft a little over a year before. His Lend-Lease program had armed countries that would now be our allies, and had developed a weapons industry we would now be relying on. But he mentioned none of that.

Unity. Every one of the speeches is an attempt to unify Americans behind the action being announced and the policy it represents. Consequently, they all strive to be non-partisan. Again, look at FDR: He could have reminded the country that Republican congressmen voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act 24-135, a decision that now looked short-sighted. That might have scored points with the voters and helped Democrats unseat those Republicans. But he made no mention of parties: The nation had been attacked, and he called for the nation — not just his party — to respond.

That model has stood until the present administration. Frequently in the speeches above, the president quotes or refers to some past member of the other party to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of the policy he is carrying out. Ronald Reagan quoted former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nixon referenced a bipartisan list of presidents:

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

Johnson’s speech is especially noteworthy in this regard, because it took place in August, 1964, just three months before the election. The idea that Barry Goldwater was a hothead not to be trusted with nuclear weapons would soon become a theme of Johnson’s reelection campaign, but nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin speech hints at that. Quite the opposite:

I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States, and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

In none of the speeches does the president snipe at his predecessors, blame them for the current predicament, or gloat over the way things have turned out. No president ever had a better opportunity to throw shade at the previous president than Barack Obama, who had succeeded at something George W. Bush had failed to do for seven years: kill Bin Laden. But Obama passed up that opportunity to boost himself by tearing down his predecessor. Instead, he acknowledged the “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” over the previous ten years. He closed by asking Americans to

think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is presidential? The presidential speeches seek to evoke three kinds of unity: Unity as Americans facing an external challenge, unity of vision between the president and Congress, and unity of the United States with its allies. The speeches are not always entirely truthful — among his other roles, the president is the country’s chief propagandist — but the untruths are aimed at the enemy, not at other Americans. The president takes a generous, hopeful view of how Congress, our allies, and the nation as a whole will respond. The vision is consistently about what we can do together, not what the president as an individual is doing for us or against our opposition. He seeks to paper over any past differences, in hopes of moving forward as a united nation.

Now look at Trump. The day after the Soleimani assassination, Trump made a public statement, but not a particularly formal one. He addressed reporters at Mar-a-Lago, not the nation from the White House. (The text begins “Hello everybody”, not “My fellow Americans”.) The brief announcement does not mention Congress or our allies, but has an unusual number of first-person references: “at my direction … under my leadership … I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary”, leading up to Trump’s list of accomplishments:

Under my leadership, we have destroyed the ISIS territorial caliphate, and recently, American Special Operations Forces killed the terrorist leader known as al-Baghdadi. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

Trump also took a slap at previous administrations:

What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved.

The message asks for nothing — not from the public, not from Congress, not from our allies. Trump simply reports what he has done for reasons that are not entirely clear. (It can’t be that we have a right to know.) He does not warn us of hardships to come, or of possible Iranian reprisals. He warns Iran, though of what “I” will do.

The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.

After Iran’s response — a missile attack on the Iraqi base from which the Soleimani mission was launched — Trump finally gave a more formal speech from the White House. He begins, not with a salutation to the audience or even with a statement of the policy of the United States, but with a pledge from Trump the Individual:

As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

He does not say how he will prevent that from happening, given that he tore up the agreement that had been blocking Iran’s nuclear program. He goes on to ramble fairly incoherently about the evils of Iran. Again he does not mention Congress, and while he does mention both NATO and the partner countries in the Iran nuclear deal, it is not at all clear what he wants them to do, other than “recognize reality”.

Again, he exaggerates his “accompliments”:

Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accompliments [accomplishments] changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. … Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. … Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.

But the most unpresidential thing of all in this speech is the way that he goes after his predecessor, in some cases distorting the truth to do so, and in other cases just simply lying. Under Obama’s Iran deal, “they were given $150 billion”. [False. A much smaller sum of Iran’s own money was unfrozen. Iran was “given” nothing.] “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” [Theoretically possible, but Trump provides no evidence. He appears to have just made this up.] “The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” I’ll let PolitiFact handle that one:

This is False.

The Iran deal put a cap on enriched uranium that would have lasted until 2030, at which point other agreements would have continued to limit Iran’s nuclear development.

Some of the deal’s restrictions would have eased beginning in 2025, but the key elements that prevented Iran from enriching the levels of uranium needed to make a bomb would have remained in effect until 2030.

Other terms would have lasted forever, including the prohibition on manufacturing a nuclear weapon and a provision requiring compliance with oversight from international inspectors.

Think about what these statements do, relative to what we would expect from any previous president. They feed a cult of personality around Trump. He is not the current avatar of the President of the United States, he is himself, accomplishing things that his predecessors at best played no role in, and more often provided obstacles he had to overcome. He wields power as a personal possession, not in trust from the American people or overseen by Congress. America’s allies are not equals, they are vassal states that he need not consult, but can make demands on.

He makes no appeal for unity, and does not reach out to the opposition party. Instead, he uses the attention provided by the current crisis to claim his predecessor’s accomplishments (we became the top oil producer under Obama), and to spread lies about him. Democrats should feel slapped in the face by this, not invited into an American unity.

In addition to the televised addresses, Trump has access to media FDR never imagined. His Twitter feed has been non-stop partisan, in the most vicious way. Just this morning, for example, he retweeted an image of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in Muslim dress, with an Iranian flag behind them. In his own words, he told this lie:

The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy

Nothing he says speaks to Democrats in Congress, or to the 54% of the American people who voted for someone else in 2016, or the 53.4% who voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2018. He is leading us down a path that may well end up in war, without seeking approval from Congress or even trying to make a case to anyone other than the minority of the country that supports him.

No previous president would do such a thing.

Is It War Yet?

As conflict with Iran escalates, what a luxury a trustworthy president would be.

In the early morning hours Friday (local time), a US drone attack killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Soleimani was in a convoy leaving the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the body that oversees Iraq’s myriad militia factions, was also killed in the strike.

Escalating US/Iran conflict. Soleimani’s assassination takes place in the middle of a tangled mess: Iran/US relations have been in a state of increasing conflict since May, 2018, when President Trump pulled the US out of the agreement the Obama administration had negotiated to limit Iran’s nuclear program, replacing it with a campaign of “maximum pressure” to force more concessions from the Iranians. So far, those concessions have not materialized. Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on its nuclear programs. In the NYT’s words, the decision “re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago”.

More immediately, a rocket attack near Kirkuk by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia killed an American contractor a week ago; the US retaliated with an airstrike on a militia base that killed 25; and pro-Iranian protesters then mobbed the US embassy in Baghdad. So now we’ve killed a major figure in the Iranian military, together with an Iraqi militia leader.

Iraq. Iraq also has been in political turmoil: Massive protests that began in October have resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who nonetheless remains in office because Iraq’s political leaders haven’t been able to settle on a replacement. So while he retains the formal powers of his office, his ability to lead the country is questionable.

The protests against the Iraqi government (which are not related to the protests at the US embassy) had been seeking an end to corruption and foreign influence, including both Iranian and US influence. In response to Friday’s drone attack (which Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called “an outrageous breach to Iraqi sovereignty“), the Iraqi parliament passed a bill instructing the government to ask the United States to withdraw all military forces from Iraq. Time described this vote as “symbolic” because “it sets no timetable for withdrawal and is subject to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s approval.”

The Washington Post points out that the legal basis for an American presence in Iraq is not that solid. Most deployments are defined by a formal Status of Forces agreement, but this one isn’t.

“The current U.S. military presence is based of an exchange of letters at the executive level,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the US Institute of Peace who previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

So the Prime Minister could revoke that agreement “with the stroke of a pen”.

President Trump sounded more like an occupier than an ally when he responded Sunday night.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters. … Mr Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to depart on an unfriendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

It’s like he thinks he holds the mortgage on Iraq and is threatening to repossess.

Dubious justifications. The administration claims that Soleimani was planning attacks on US forces (almost certainly true) and that his death short-circuited those plans (highly unlikely). Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Soleimani’s death “saved American lives”.

The problem I have with that statement is that Trump and Pompeo have spent the last three years lying to us about more-or-less everything. This is a moment when Americans need to be able to trust their leaders, and we just can’t; these leaders have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

For example, Vice President Pence’s attempt to link Soleimani to 9/11 is just a lie. Some of the 9/11 perpetrators traveled through Iran on their way to Afghanistan, but there is no evidence Iran knew what they were up to, and nothing that connects their passage to Soleimani personally.

The Washington Post gives reasons to doubt Pompeo as well:

“There may well have been an ongoing plot as Pompeo claims, but Soleimani was a decision-maker, not an operational asset himself,” said Jon Bateman, who served as a senior intelligence analyst on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Killing him would be neither necessary nor sufficient to disrupt the operational progression of an imminent plot. What it might do instead is shock Iran’s decision calculus” and deter future attack plans, Bateman said.

Narges Bajoghli, author of Iran Reframed, discounts claims that Soleimani’s death cripples Iran’s ability to strike US targets.

The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, indicates a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard. …

In my 10 years in Iran researching the Revolutionary Guards and their depiction in Iranian media, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership [developed during the Iran/Iraq War]: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.

Slighting Congress, insulting Democrats. And then there’s the US side of the mess: Unlike major military actions by previous administrations, this one happened without official notice to the Gang of Eight in Congress. (That’s the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, minority leaders of both houses, and the chair and ranking opposition member of the intelligence committees in both houses.) Apparently, some Republicans members of Congress knew about the attack in advance, but no Democrats.

Trump added insult to injury by retweeting Dinesh D’Souza: “Neither were the Iranians [given advance notice], and for pretty much the same reason.” Democrats in the Gang of Eight have done nothing to deserve such an accusation of disloyalty; there is no example of them leaking or otherwise misusing prior knowledge of an American strike.

The administration complied with the letter of the War Powers Act by officially notifying Congress on Saturday. Whatever justification the classified memo gave, Nancy Pelosi was not impressed:

This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran. The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.

Iranian reaction. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “harsh retaliation“, and The Atlantic lists a number of options:

all-out conflict by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world.

Others have suggested cyber attacks.

Whatever retaliation Iran chooses is likely to be very popular with the Iranians people. Huge and angry crowds showed up when Soleimani’s body was returned to Tehran.

Strategy? Members of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have supported the assassination by pointing out that Soleimani was undeniably a bad guy from the US point of view: He masterminded numerous operations that killed Americans.

So far I’ve mostly been summarizing facts, but now I’ll state an opinion: One thing we should have learned from the Bush administration’s War on Terror is that simply killing bad guys is not a viable strategy. Are we going to kill all the bad guys in the world? As Seth Moulton (coincidentally, my congressman) put it: “The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create.”

I don’t want to claim more expertise than I have, so I’m not making any predictions. (Some pundits even see this assassination as a possible prelude to negotiations. But the Brookings’ Institution’s Suzanne Maloney says “Anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction.”) What I want to emphasize, though, is the uncertainty: Trump has sharply escalated the simmering conflict with Iran. If Iran escalates further, what happens? How far is he prepared to go? [1]

I wish I believed that people who understand Iran far better than I do had thought all this through, and had a larger strategy. That strategy might eventually go to hell, as our plan for the Iraq invasion did, but at least it would have a chance. [2]

I don’t see how I can have even that amount of confidence, though. Trump himself is anything but a strategic thinker, and he seems to have stopped listening to anyone else. Chances are excellent that killing Soleimani just sounded good in the moment, and that he didn’t think more than a few hours ahead.

That’s certainly what the NYT’s account of the administration’s decision process implies:

In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. …

After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shia militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

It’s entirely possible that no one but Trump thought this was a good idea.

American law. Then there are the legal issues. At what point does action against Iran bring the War Powers Act into play? Whatever you might think of the Gulf War in 1991 or the Iraq invasion of 2003, each was preceded by a thoughtful debate in Congress. So far there was been nothing of the sort regarding Iran. We seem headed towards a scenario where Congressional debate (if we have one at all) will take place while the war is ongoing.

Also: Assassinations of foreign leaders were banned by an executive order signed by President Ford in 1975 and revised by President Reagan in 1981. The 1981 order is unequivocal:

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination

When the Obama administration was going after Osama bin Laden, it tried to make a distinction between assassinations and “targeted killings”. That distinction looked suspect at the time, and looks even worse now that it’s being applied to top officials of foreign governments. If killing Soleimani wasn’t an assassination, it’s hard to imagine what the assassination ban would cover.

Partisan politics. Finally, there’s the wag-the-dog interpretation: Maybe the attack was never intended to be an effective response to Iran; perhaps it’s entirely about distracting the public from Trump’s pending impeachment trial, and kicking off his 2020 campaign. The “othering” of congressional Democrats (treating them as equivalent to or sympathetic with the Iranians) fits that interpretation.

“This your first reelection campaign, kid?”

It would be nice to believe that the wag-the-dog hypothesis just stems from Trump Derangement Syndrome: Liberals like me imagine the worst and then assign those motives to Trump, when in fact no American president would risk a major war just for domestic political advantage. But again, how can I have that confidence, given the behavior we’ve seen so far? Isn’t Trump’s willingness to sacrifice the public good for personal benefit exactly what he’s been impeached for? Can anyone give a countervailing example of Trump foregoing personal advantage to do the right thing for the nation?

Projection. One argument in favor of wag-the-dog is that Trump accused President Obama of planning to do it.

In order to get elected, will start a war with Iran.

As CNN’s John Avlon observed in September:

Projection is a regular part of the Trump playbook. He’s taken the impulse and elevated it to an effective political tactic.

In other words, Trump regularly accuses his opponents of things that he does himself, or that he would do in their place. His most-repeated insults are ones that apply more accurately to himself than to his opponents:

The rest of the top five insults [after “fake”]? “Failed” (or “failing”), which he has applied on 205 occasions, mostly to the Times. “Dishonest” (or “dishonesty”), used 149 times. (Some observers will no doubt consider it ironic that Trump has referred to 35 other entities as dishonest.) Then “weak,” used 94 times, followed by “lying” or “liar,” which he has used 68 times.

So it’s not much of a stretch to reach this conclusion: If he thought wagging the dog in Iran made sense for Obama’s re-election in 2012, quite likely he has considered it for his own reelection in 2020. Maybe he sees it as a bonus for something he’d do anyway, or maybe it’s his prime motive.

[1] Saturday, Trump tweeted about a list of 52 Iranian targets “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” that the US could strike if Iran retaliates for Friday’s assassination. Those sites have not be identified (and, given Trump’s history, I have to wonder if the list even exists), but intentionally attacking cultural sites is a violation of international law.

Sunday night he doubled down on that threat, saying

They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.

Contradicting the President, Secretary of State Pompeo said Sunday that “We’ll behave lawfully.” Who should we believe?

[2] The importance of strategy is illustrated by this quote from George Kennan’s 1951 classic American Diplomacy.

Both [world] wars were fought, really, with a view to changing Germany. … Yet, today, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe … in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you tally up the total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it’s pretty hard to discern.

A similar point could be made about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the overthrow of the Shah, America saw a powerful Sunni Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran’s Shia theocracy. We have since fought two wars to remake Iraq, and ostensibly won them both. And now here we are, with no regional counterweight to Iran.

If we now fight a war with Iran, what objective will we be hoping to achieve? If we win, how will Americans of 2030 be better off?

The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions

So many of our debates about defense and foreign policy take place in a fantasy world.

Nations. Every time you look at a globe, you’re participating in an illusion: that the Earth’s land mass partitions neatly into nations. On the globe, ungovernable places like Afghanistan and Syria look every bit as solid and well-defined as Belgium or Japan.

In spite of ourselves, we fall for that illusion again and again. When American troops occupy a place like Iraq, we immediately start talking about “installing” a government, as if Iraq were a light socket that just needed a new bulb after we removed the old one. After all, there are lines on our globes, and little stars that denote their capitals. You just put somebody in charge, they send one of their people to the UN, and there you go: a nation.

In reality, the world is full of wild places where the word “government” doesn’t quite apply. Some of them, like Kashmir, are contested regions on the edges of larger entities. Some, like in Afghanistan, start right outside the capital and extend over the bulk of the alleged country. In places like Mexico, neighborhoods of major cities are controlled by crime families that the official government can’t overcome.

Some wild places are ruled by insurgencies that aspire to become governments themselves. Some are a field of play where rival warlords compete for dominance. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s going on: There are troops that claim to represent a government, insurgencies fighting against them, warlords picking a side one day at a time, criminal gangs just trying to do business, mercenaries paid by some interested party, official foreign troops allied with the government, or even covert foreign troops who wear no insignia and officially aren’t there at all.

Code that on a map.

War and peace. Another illusion is that war and peace are a binary pair of opposites. You’re at war, or you have peace. Peace is the natural order, but occasionally it is punctuated by relatively brief episodes of war, like the Civil War or World War II. Society has its normal rules for peacetime, but occasionally a switch gets flipped and the rules of war apply, giving more freedom to governments and armies, but less to citizens and foreign civilians caught in the wrong place.

Because peace is the natural state, within a few years any war is supposed to come to a conclusion: victory, defeat, or a negotiated settlement. Citizens submit to the restrictions of war on the implicit assumption that those restrictions are temporary. When events don’t play out that way — if say, the war goes on and on with no apparent end in sight — citizens get antsy and support for the war wanes.

Similarly to its localization in time, war is also supposed to be localized in space. There is a comparatively small and well-defined war zone where the shooting happens; everywhere else, life is normal but for a few restrictions necessary to support the war effort. Inside the war zone, people neatly divide into combatants and non-combatants. Combatants are soldiers of the afore-mentioned nations, which have agreed to rules that (up to a point) protect non-combatants.

The way a nation wins a war is through the quantity and quality of its combatants. Either you throw more troops at your enemy than it can handle (as Iran did against Iraq in the 1980s), or you equip your troops with expensive weapons that give them a decisive advantage (as the US has done wherever it fights).

Conventional war. One of the strangest bits of terminology we use is “conventional war”, which is supposed to distinguish a conflict from nuclear war on the one hand and “unconventional” war on the other.

The classic conventional war is World War II in Europe: There are two sides that each control well-defined territory. The line between those territories is the “front”, and each side tries to push the front one way or the other, using armies equipped with guns and tanks, and supported by air and naval power. Away from the front there might be spies, saboteurs, and assassins; covert partisan groups (like the French Resistance); or even enemy troops who have infiltrated past the front lines somehow (like our airborne troops on D-Day). But these behind-the-lines struggles are a sideshow compared to the big tank battles at the front.

What’s weird about calling this model “conventional” is that it rarely happens any more. Granted, it’s not totally gone. The Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967 was a conventional war. The opening phase of the Iraq War, where the US and its allies attacked and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s organized armies, was conventional.

But the US war in Vietnam wasn’t conventional. The Afghanistan War isn’t conventional. After the initial invasion, the Iraq War wasn’t conventional.

Unconventional war. “Unconventional” war is like what happens behind the lines of a conventional war. It’s all sabotage and partisans and irregular troops, but there is no “line” for this activity to be behind.

By calling this kind of war “unconventional”, we ghettoize it. It’s like the irregular verbs in a foreign language. War is mainly conventional war, and we’ve got that covered. But there are a few exceptional situations that fall through the cracks.

And that’s the problem we’ve had these last 60 years or so: Everything falls through the cracks. If the Viet Cong or the Taliban would just line up some tanks and roll them at us, we’d totally nail those suckers. If Boko Haram would field an air force and dogfight our F-16s, they’d have no chance. If the Colombian drug cartels floated a navy and tried to land narcotics on our Gulf coast in a Normandy-invasion sort of way, they’d find out just how mighty we are.

But they don’t. Everybody who takes on the United States fights an unconventional war against us. And we keep losing.

We lose in a fairly predictable way: We see war as a temporary thing. We imagine applying our matchless power until we’ve captured the enemy flag, and then we’ll declare victory and go back to our normal peacetime lives. So all the enemy has to do is refuse to give us a flag to capture. Melt into the countryside, hide among the civilian population, and come out just often enough to remind everyone that they’re not defeated yet. Eventually these tactics will run out our clock and we’ll start looking for a way to leave.

Obama took a lot of criticism in Iraq for a having a timetable, because you’re not supposed to tell the enemy how long they have to wait. But even without a timetable, we don’t fool anybody. Everyone knows we can’t stay forever.

Dr. McFate

The new rules of war. That’s where Sean McFate starts in his recent book The New Rules of War. How can we be so powerful and yet keep losing wars?

I find it hard to believe that “McFate” is his real name, but it seems to be. He’s on the faculty at Georgetown and the National Defense University. (Dr. McFate is not to be confused with Dr. Fate, the most powerful sorcerer of the DC comic book universe, even though McFate sounds a bit like a comic book character himself: He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, served as a mercenary in various conflicts he can’t talk about, got a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics, and published two novels. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to stumble across the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak, or maybe an infinity stone.)

The central point of McFate’s “new rules” is less that he knows exactly what we need to do and more that we need to start thinking about reality again. The book’s subtitle, “victory in the age of durable disorder” introduces the book’s central idea: that disorder is a chronic condition to be managed, not a disease we should expect to cure and be done with.

Dr. Fate

Durable disorder is something that happens in the twilight region between war and peace. It can be found in the physical places that we call “failed states”, but it also happens in abstract areas where the rules of war and peace have never been nailed down, as in cyberwar between rival countries’ hackers, or information war.

“Conventional war is dead.” is the first of McFate’s new rules. He points out that not even other great powers practice it any more. Look at Putin’s Russia. In the last few years they have

  • invaded Crimea with “little green men” — masked soldiers without Russian insignia — that Putin for a long time denied existed or had anything to do with him.
  • manipulated the American political process to put his man in the White House and co-opt one of our two major political parties. Similar tactics have just about succeeded in breaking the United Kingdom away from the European Union.
  • bombed civilian areas in Syria to produce a wave of refugees that destabilized democratic governments across Europe.

None of that is peaceful, but neither does it fit into the usual categories of war. It is aggressive and sometimes violent, but far from the tanks-pouring-into-Europe scenario that NATO was designed to oppose.

Weapons. McFate disapproves of the urge to invest fabulous amounts of money in ever-more-complex technology. Rule 2 is “Technology will not save us.” There’s a reason for that: Gee-whiz weaponry may succeed in giving us greater dominance of the battlefield, but it doesn’t address the problem that most of our conflicts don’t happen on traditional battlefields.

Tech is useful, he says, but not decisive.

Gizmos can shape our everyday lives, but not victory. War is armed politics, and seeking a technical solution to a political problem is folly. Ultimately, brainpower is superior to firepower.

Instead, he recommends investing more in people, particularly special forces, diplomats, and people who know how to shape narratives. Rule 5 is “The best weapons do not fire bullets.”

Mercenaries. Having been a mercenary, McFate has a more nuanced view of them than you typically see. The stereotypic merc is a killing machine for hire. But in McFate’s account, they are like any other professionals whose skills may be used for good or evil. (Compare, for example, computer programmers, who could be developing algorithms to help Facebook manipulate us more completely, or who could be hacking Cayman Island banks to expose the sources of dark money.) Maybe they will take a gig with the bad guys to keep food on the table, but they’d rather work for people they believe are the good guys.

McFate tells an amazing story that I have no other source for: During the Darfur genocide, he claims, Mia Farrow floated the idea of human rights organizations hiring mercs to secure safe places for refugees to run away to. It was seen as a temporary measure while a parallel PR campaign would try to shame the world community into taking action. The scheme was never put into action, but it could have been.

He foresees a future in which mercenaries play an ever-larger role. Rather than pay a corrupt government for protection (like Rachel Maddow describes Exxon-Mobil doing in Equatorial Guinea) why shouldn’t a corporation just establish its own fiefdom with paid soldiers? When individual people have tens of billions of dollars and strong views, why shouldn’t they take direct action rather than work through the political system? What if, say, the Koch brothers decided to take down Venezuela, or Bill Gates finally had enough of corrupt African governments getting in the way of his foundation’s good projects?

Educating strategists. Strategy, especially grand strategy, is held in low regard these days. It’s supposedly a bunch of ivory tower ideas that have lost touch with the real world.

But the United States’ biggest failures in recent years have been failures of strategy. Bad strategy is how you win all the battles but lose the war. The mess in Iraq arose because we didn’t know what we were trying to accomplish: Replace Saddam with a friendlier tyrant? Control a larger chunk of the world’s oil supply? Create a showpiece democracy for the rest of the Muslim world? We didn’t know, so we couldn’t do it.

McFate locates this problem in how we educate our military leaders: We start out teaching them tactics and expect them to grow into strategic thinkers as they rise up the ranks. It seldom happens. He also has a radical diagnosis: Our officer corps attracts and promotes too many engineers. Engineers make good tacticians, but strategy is a liberal art.

My take. I think that McFate has sold conventional war a little short: It’s not so much that conventional war is obsolete, but that US dominance has largely taken it off the table. The same is true of nuclear war: It’s not that nuclear weapons can’t be used to win a war — they were key to our victory over Japan. But that example defines the situation where nukes are usable: You have them and your enemy doesn’t.

The fact that we haven’t exploded a nuclear bomb (other than as a test) since 1945 doesn’t mean that there was no point in building them. Our nukes took nuclear war off the table for our enemies.

The same thing could be said about the tanks, planes, ships, and missiles of our conventional arsenal. Wars against the United States have been unconventional not because conventional war is obsolete, but because potential adversaries know the US would win such wars.

We want to keep nuclear and conventional war off the table, so we should still invest in weapons that will make those options unattractive to our adversaries. (That probably doesn’t require as much money as we currently spend — maybe ten aircraft carriers is enough — but it does require something.)

I think some of his other rules are questionable, but in some sense that criticism misses the point. He’s raising questions that somebody needs to raise. Our defense debate is often just about a number: How much are we going to raise the budget this year? It needs to be about what we’re trying to do and how we imagine doing it.

A Liberal View of Intervention

Trump has taken liberals’ no-endless-war rhetoric and gone somewhere ugly with it. How do we take it back?

Like many liberals, I was wrong-footed by President Trump’s abrupt decision to wash his hands of Syria. On the one hand, it sure looks like a dishonorable move that has led to an embarrassing defeat and opened the door to a humanitarian catastrophe.

On the other hand, I also want to see America stop policing the world. I was against invading Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, and I don’t see any achievable goal in Afghanistan that is worth our continued involvement. In general, I want to see American troops come home from war zones far from our borders. So what was my plan exactly for Syria?

I feel like Trump has stolen my own rhetoric about “endless war” and abused it. But what is the right use of it? And if I’m against Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, is the only alternative to side with interventionists like Mitch McConnell?

I can’t promise a complete answer here, but let’s try to sort this out as best we can.

Betrayal and surrender. Let’s start with the Kurds , who are among the most persistently short-changed people on Earth. Something like 30-40 million of them live in a more-or-less definable area, but somehow the self-determination wave that swept the world after World War I passed them by. Bulgarians and Czechs got their own states, and by now even Croatia and Azerbaijan are countries, but the Kurds are still divided up among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

And now we’ve screwed them over again. We enlisted them into our fight against the Islamic State, and something like 11,000 of them died in that war. They had managed to carve out an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, one in which women played an unusually active role, but the connections between that zone and a sometimes-violent Kurdish independence movement in Turkey threatened the authoritarian Erdogan government, which has wanted for years to cross into Syria and crush the Kurdish forces.

What had been stopping them was the presence of a small number of US troops in the area, and the threat of American air power. The Kurds may not be a military match for the second-largest army in NATO, but they are real soldiers, and with control of the skies they could make Turkey pay an unacceptable price. After all, this wasn’t some kind of asymmetric guerilla war, it was an invasion — exactly the kind of thing the American military was built to stop.

And then Trump decided to stand aside. We don’t know for sure what happened on that Trump/Erdogan phone call, but I picture it the way Mitt Romney does: “Turkey may have called America’s bluff.” I imagine Erdogan saying: “We’re coming whether you like it or not” and Trump being cowed into submission.

Trump tried to spin his “ceasefire agreement” (Turkey refuses to call it that) into a victory:

I’m happy to report tremendous success with respect to Turkey. This is an amazing outcome. This is an outcome, regardless of how the press would like to damp it down, this was something they were trying to get for 10 years.

But Trump’s “tremendous success” looks a lot like surrender. The agreement calls for Turkish forces to remain in the territory they have captured, and for our Kurdish allies to turn over their heavy weapons, dismantle their fortifications, and remove their forces from the 20-mile buffer zone Turkey has claimed. The United States will remove its forces from Syria entirely and impose no sanctions on Turkey. So Turkey gets what it wants and pays no price. Turkey may have been trying to get to this point for ten years, but that’s not what the Kurds wanted — or us for that matter.

I also doubt that any of the American troops waiting to be evacuated from Syrian feel victorious. Russians have already occupied one of the bases they left behind, and we destroyed another one with an air strike. Those are the kinds of things that happen when you flee in desperation, not when you win.

McConnell’s internationalist critique.  Friday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the unusual step of publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s Syria policy. Before looking at the content of his article, it’s worth considering what its mere existence tells us: McConnell doesn’t think Trump is listening to him. An influential player like McConnell doesn’t make a public argument if the President is taking his calls and paying attention. For McConnell, going public like this is a last resort, and points to feelings of both frustration and helplessness.

He’s also taking out insurance. If bad things happen because of Trump’s surrender, he doesn’t want to share the blame. So his article is a public marker that says, “I warned everybody.”

Also worth noting: He’s doing his best not to attack the President personally. In fact, the name “Trump” doesn’t appear (though “Obama” does). He focuses on the decision, not the man who made it.

Now to the content. First he makes an abstract defense of America’s military role abroad: Recalling 9/11, he predicts that the threat of ISIS or similar terrorist groups will not stay in the Middle East, and lays out a strategy where America provides strategic leadership, but has allies and so does not have to do all the fighting itself.

Then he assesses the current situation:

The combination of a U.S. pullback and the escalating Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country. Even if the five-day cease-fire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists. Unless halted, our retreat will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence. And we are ignoring Russia’s efforts to leverage its increasingly dominant position in Syria to amass power and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

And his prescription:

We need to use both sticks and carrots to bring Turkey back in line while respecting its own legitimate security concerns. In addition to limiting Turkey’s incursion and encouraging an enduring cease-fire, we should create conditions for the reintroduction of U.S. troops and move Turkey away from Russia and back into the NATO fold.

Finally, he worries that Trump’s desire to pull the US out of “endless wars” will strike next in Afghanistan.

We saw humanitarian disaster and a terrorist free-for-all after we abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for 9/11. We saw the Islamic State flourish in Iraq after President Barack Obama’s retreat. We will see these things anew in Syria and Afghanistan if we abandon our partners and retreat from these conflicts before they are won.

He closes with “America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.”

In essence, McConnell is restating what has been the conventional wisdom in American foreign policy since World War II. (It lapsed a bit after Vietnam but came back after 9/11.): The world will never leave us alone, so we can’t leave it alone. Threats can arise anywhere, and we need to be ready to oppose them while they’re small and tractable, rather than wait for them to get large enough to strike at our homeland.

My anti-war record. I’d like to stay in an objective-journalist role and quote other people making the case for bringing our troops home from overseas — maybe Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, as Atlantic’s Peter Beinart does — but that would be disingenuous: I’ve been making that case myself for years, and I can’t disown it now.

Back in 2005, when I was blogging on Daily Kos under the pseudonym Pericles, I wrote a piece called “Cut and Run” about pulling out of Iraq. At the time, even people who realized that invading Iraq had been a mistake were falling for Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Doctrine”: We broke Iraq, so now we had a responsibility to fix it before we left. They admitted that we needed to get out, but in six months or maybe a year or two, after we had stabilized the situation.

The case I made in “Cut and Run” was that we weren’t fixing anything by staying.

What are we fixing? What do we expect to get better if we stay for another year or five years or ten years? I do not intend that question to be rhetorical. If “we are making progress, “as President Bush claimed this week, we ought to be able to measure that progress somehow.

Elsewhere (the link has since died; I need to repost somewhere) I argued that the stay-a-little-longer caucus would never be satisfied: Whenever we left, disaster would ensue, and they would claim vindication. And that is what happened. We stayed another six years, but McConnell (and others) blame Obama’s withdrawal for the rise of ISIS. (If only we’d stayed seven or eight more years rather than six.)

That’s why I’m not satisfied by McConnell’s assurance that he doesn’t want to stay in Afghanistan forever, just until we “win”. I have the same fundamental objection I had many years ago: What does “winning” even mean? If someone would offer a compelling vision of a post-victory Afghanistan, and then describe a path for getting there, reasonable people could argue about whether the outcome is worth the cost.

Instead, we always get the same dystopian vision: If we leave now, something terrible will happen. So when can we leave? Sometime, maybe, but not now. So how many “not nows” make a “forever”?

Is it possible to thread this needle? On the one hand, I am disgusted by what I’m seeing in Syria. On the other, I still don’t want to join McConnell and most of the rest of the foreign-policy establishment in the post-World-War-II intervention consensus.

Looking back, I also find that I’m not against all interventions. I like what President Clinton did in Bosnia: We ended a genocide. And while we (but mostly our European allies) ended up with troops in the area for many years afterward, it was a peace-keeping mission rather than a war-fighting mission. Casualties were minimal.

I regret that we didn’t find some similar way to end the genocide in Rwanda. And I don’t know what to think about Libya. Things haven’t turned out well there, but I can’t feel bad about stopping Qaddafi from killing civilians by the tens of thousands.

So what kind of policy do I want exactly?

I warned you I wouldn’t have a complete answer. I don’t have a doctrine that spells out precisely when the US should or shouldn’t get involved in some distant conflict. (Senator Warren: If you have a plan for that, this would be a good time to reveal it.) All I can offer are some intuitions that I still trust, in spite of it all. Mostly they revolve around coming to a proper understanding of the scope of American power: Being the most powerful nation on Earth gives us some responsibilities. But at the same time we need to be realistic: There are things our military — or military power in general — can’t accomplish. If we try we’ll only make bad situations worse.

So here’s what I think:

We can’t end tyranny in the world, but we should try to prevent genocide. The world is full of bad governments, and sometimes overthrowing them just gets you a worse government, or a failed state that can’t fulfill the responsibilities of a government at all. You can’t create a good government at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop one group of people from slaughtering another. Sometimes the mass murder is a mania that will pass if you can just interrupt it. Some groups will see that — as much as they still hate some other group — the world is not going to stand for a genocide, so they need to come up with some other plan. Other situations may require a longer occupation. But stopping genocide doesn’t require you to rule over people or teach them to govern themselves, just to put limits on them.

There’s hope for a peacekeeping mission, but nation-building hardly ever works. An amazing number of the world’s problem areas, particularly in the Middle East, are “nations” that were created by colonial powers drawing arbitrary lines on a map.

The people in those regions often feel no sense of national loyalty to each other, and the only way they have ever held together as “nations” is under the dominance of some strongman. You can’t turn such places into constitutional democracies just by writing a constitution and having elections.

Don’t misinterpret that: It’s not that some kinds of people aren’t ready for democracy as individuals. When they emigrate to the US or Western Europe, they often make fine citizens. The problem is that democracy requires a sense of mutual loyalty that the residents of places like Iraq and Afghanistan have never developed. And that’s something else you can’t instill at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop them from killing each other.

We can’t kid ourselves about our good intentions. One mistake American interventionists often make is to whitewash our motives. We didn’t go into Iraq and Afghanistan because we wanted to bestow democracy on these oppressed peoples. We invaded Iraq for the oil and Afghanistan because we wanted to get Bin Laden. Building democracy was a story we told ourselves to salve our consciences.

Nothing is as doomed to failure as a mission you didn’t really believe in from the start.

If we examine our real motives before we start an intervention, usually we’ll either realize that we shouldn’t do this at all, or see that the scope of our mission should be much smaller than taking over the whole country.

So what about the Kurds? Our troops in Syria got there because they were fighting ISIS. Once the territory of ISIS had all been retaken, there were two reasons to keep them there: to keep ISIS from reforming, and to prevent either the Turks or the Syrians from attacking the Kurds.

Both of those were peace-keeping missions. We weren’t trying to teach the Kurds how to be a people; they knew that already. They were building their own nation.

One way you can tell the mission was peace-keeping is that war broke out as soon as Trump ordered our troops to stand down.

The Kurds believe that the Turks intend an ethnic cleansing of the area or even a genocide. Trump thinks not, but I guess we’ll see.

Planning. One final note: Even if you believe that our mission in Syria wasn’t worth the cost any more, there’s no excuse for the way Trump handled it.

When we do decide to pull out of a country, we need a withdrawal plan rather than just a tweet announcing our departure. First, we need a plan to get our own people out of the country safely. And second, we need to do right by the people who have helped us, and who will likely be targeted for death after we leave. If nothing else, that means doing something Trump hates to do: welcoming refugees to the United States.

Backstabbing the Kurds is Just Trump Being Trump

Who could have predicted that the founder of Trump University would betray people who had faith in him?
Just about anybody who’s been paying attention.

Ever since he came down the escalator and announced his crusade to protect American womenfolk from Mexican rapists, the Donald’s Republican defenders have been singing the same song: You’ve got to let Trump be Trump.

If he says or does something racist, stands up for the poor mistreated Nazis of Charlottesville, slanders federal law enforcement institutions, sides with Putin over US intelligence services, says dozens of things each week that have no basis in reality, is nicer to enemy dictators than to our democratic allies, calls members of Congress traitors or says that they should go back where they came from … well, that’s just who he is. You need to roll with it.

But strangely, they forgot their own advice this week after Trump ordered our troops in Syria to stand aside and let Turkey attack the Kurds. Kurdish troops bore the majority of the burden in the war against ISIS in Syria, whose success Trump has often crowed about. [1] They lost something like 11,000 soldiers while we lost six fighters and two civilians.

But now that Trump believes the battle against ISIS is won [2], what good are they? Turkey’s authoritarian ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — one of those dictators Trump admires — wants to clear them away from his border, where they give hope to his own oppressed Kurdish minority. And Erdoğan doesn’t just have the second-largest army in NATO going for him, he also has Trump Tower Istanbul, and countless future opportunities for ambitious businessmen who play ball. What’s loyalty to our brothers-in-arms compared to that?

Trump Tower Istanbul

But for some reason, Republicans are upset this time. Lindsey Graham, who has been Trump’s biggest sycophant through all his other betrayals, found this one shocking. The Kurds, he said in outrage, had been “shamelessly abandoned”, as if he thinks Trump’s shamelessness is a new development. Liz Cheney found it “impossible to understand why [Trump] is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered.”

Well, Liz, I can explain it for you: This is who Trump is and who he’s always been. Betraying people who have trusted him is just Trump being Trump.

A trust-is-for-suckers theme runs through Trump’s entire life. Look at Trump University: People who admired his business acumen believed him when he said he could teach them his secrets. He took advantage of their admiration with a fraud that he needed $25 million to settle. In addition to that betrayal of trust, there’s his long history of stiffing the contractors who build his buildings, scamming the taxman, profiting from buildings that never got built, cooking the books at his hotels, refusing to repay bank loans, cheating on all three of his wives, and on and on.

Why would anyone expect him to stand by people who (in his view) have already done everything for him that they’re going to do? In his eyes, that’s a loser move. He’s never shown that kind of loyalty before, so why would he start now?

So here’s what I have to say to Lindsey, Liz, and all the other Republicans who are shocked by Trump’s faithlessness, as if it came out of the blue: One of Trump’s favorite ways to bash immigrants is to recite part of a poem in which a woman saves a poisonous snake, who then bites her. When she asks why, the snake explains:

Oh, shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin.
You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.

Maybe when you heard that recitation, you thought he was warning you about MS-13 gangsters. You should have realized that he was telling you about himself.

[1] One of the many good things Trump inherited from President Obama was a strategy for beating the Islamic State. Obama saw that the American people had no appetite for another ground war in the Middle East, and yet the spread of the Islamic State not only destabilized Syria, but threatened everything the US had tried to accomplish in Iraq.

So the Obama administration came up with a plan (announced September 20, 2014) in which we would provide air power, material support, and a relatively small number of troops on the ground, while local groups — most prominently the Kurds — would do the bulk of the killing and dying. The public might not like the idea of having troops in harm’s way in yet another Middle Eastern nation, but as long as not too many of them came home in body bags, the war would stay off the front pages and most of the country would forget it was happening.

By the time Trump started measuring drapes for the Oval Office, three things were clear:

  • Obama’s strategy was working.
  • Trump was going to continue what Obama started, because Obama’s reasoning was still sound: Americans didn’t want a major new war, but they also didn’t want to turn large chunks of Iraq and Syria over to an Islamist caliphate.
  • When Obama’s strategy eventually succeeded, Trump was going to hog all the credit.

Here’s what I wrote two weeks after the 2016 election:

ISIS has been losing territory for some while now. Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq, is cut off and likely to fall in the next few months. Its de facto capital of Raqqa is under attack in Syria. If events continue on their current path, sometime in 2017 President Trump will be able to declare victory in the territorial struggle, though ISIS will continue to be a significant underground movement. That victory will be the result of Obama’s strategy, but I expect Trump to crow about how “America is winning again.”

It took a little longer than I expected, but played out exactly that way. Here’s what our resident stable genius tweeted in January of this year:

When I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria & running rampant. Since then tremendous progress made, especially over last 5 weeks. Caliphate will soon be destroyed, unthinkable two years ago.

I know this outcome was not “unthinkable” when Trump took office, because I was thinking it and so were a lot of other people.

[2] It isn’t. The Islamic State has lost its territory, but it still continues as the “significant underground movement” that I and everybody else predicted.

The Atlantic’s national security correspondent Mike Giglio summarizes:

For much of America’s war against the so-called ISIS caliphate, it was clear that the extremist proto-state that ISIS created across Syria and Iraq didn’t stand much chance of lasting. The militants had no way to counter the relentless U.S. air-strike campaign and faced a committed enemy in the U.S.-backed local soldiers who did the bulk of the ground fighting. ISIS, a successor to the al-Qaeda militants who battled U.S. troops during the Iraq War, would one day return to its insurgent roots and go underground. It would ultimately be left to America’s local partners to keep up the pressure and ensure the group’s lasting defeat.

These local soldiers—the Kurds in Syria, the Iraqi military, and various other forces—have already suffered many thousands of casualties. Once the territorial caliphate was defeated, America could have focused on rebuilding them as well as the heavily bombed areas where they are now charged with keeping the peace. As The New York Times reported this summer, ISIS still has as many as 18,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, many of them organized into sleeper cells and hit teams who carry out ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations across both countries.

Remember: Al Qaeda never did control territory, but managed to be a quite a nuisance anyway.

Is this any way to run a superpower?

It’s not crazy to want U.S. troops to come home from Syria and Afghanistan. It is crazy for a superpower’s global strategy to shift from one tweet to the next.

When I heard that Trump had tweeted the withdrawal of America’s 2,000 troops from Syria, and then heard reports that he would soon pull half of our 14,000 troops out of Afghanistan, my initial reaction was: “What’s wrong with that?”

I’m not a pacifist, but I judge an American intervention in a foreign war by a few simple criteria.

  1. Are we fighting on the right side?
  2. Do our soldiers have a clear mission with an achievable goal?
  3. Are the resources we’re committing sufficient to achieve that goal?
  4. Do Congress and the American people believe that the goal is worth the cost, and understand the risks involved?

Weighing Syria and Afghanistan. The Syria commitment could pass that test only as long as the goal was narrowly defined: to make ISIS a stateless state again by driving it out of all its territory. Given the nature of ISIS, which is as much an idea as a caliphate, that probably won’t kill it. But it should make it less of a focal point for global Muslim discontent.

What’s more, the strategy laid out by President Obama was working: ISIS had lost the majority of its territory by the end of the Obama administration, and Trump more or less continued what Obama had been doing, until now ISIS has been driven back to a few small enclaves. (The claim that we had not been beating ISIS under Obama but started “winning” under Trump is the usual Trumpian bullshit.) If those enclaves were about to fall, then it was time to think about declaring victory and getting out.

The longer we stay in Syria, though, the more secondary goals the mission picks up. We’re supporting rebels against the brutal Assad government that Iran and Russia back. We’re protecting the Kurdish forces (who have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS) from attack by Turkey (which has its own Kurdish region and fears Kurdish nationalism).

Those might be fine things to wish for, but they don’t fare well against my criteria. In particular, if we’re going to be players in the Syrian civil war, we’ll need a lot more than 2,000 soldiers. I don’t think the American people are ready to back that kind of commitment, and I don’t see how it is supposed to end.

Our Afghan commitment is harder to justify. Originally, we sent forces to Afghanistan in response to 9-11. The goal, which had close to universal support from the public at the time, was to capture or kill the people who attacked us and establish an Afghan government that wouldn’t let Al Qaeda operate freely within its borders. But 17 years later, Bin Laden is long dead and our effort to stand up an effective pro-American government in Kabul has failed. It’s hard to estimate a troop level that could truly pacify the country — Obama couldn’t do it with 100,000 — but whatever it is, the American people aren’t willing to underwrite it.

So yes, we should be trying to disengage. But here’s an idea the Master of the Deal might want to consider: Couldn’t we negotiate some concessions from the people who want to see our forces gone? Why just make an announcement and start pulling out?

And here’s my real problem with Trump’s decision: Disengagement requires a plan just as much as engagement does. Maybe I have things to do and I’m sick of standing here plugging a hole in this dike with my finger. But predictable things will happen if I pull my finger out, and how do I intend to respond when they do?

ISIS isn’t defeated yet. The premise of Trump’s Syria tweet was clear:

We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.

But as he so often does, Trump is claiming credit for something that hasn’t happened yet. (Despite his claims, North Korea isn’t denuclearized yet either, and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future. And the trade deal with China he announced still hasn’t been worked out.) ISIS still controls a small amount of territory, it still has fighting forces, and it has squirreled away a considerable amount of money to fund future operations.

So the job isn’t done, but the US withdrawal will begin immediately. (Although Sunday’s tweet described the pullout as “slow & highly coordinated”.) Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this in a subsequent contradictory tweet that also happens to be false. (Russia loves that we’re leaving Syria.)

Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.

So the first predictable thing that might happen is that ISIS stages a comeback and starts gaining territory again. What’s the plan for that scenario? Accept it? Send our troops back in? Ask our Russian friends or our buddy Bashar al-Assad to handle it for us? (No, wait! Turkey will do it, according to last night’s tweet. Turkish troops going deeper into Syria, which they used to rule back in the Ottoman days, where they might come into conflict with Assad, Hezbollah, and Russian forces … what could possibly go wrong? “We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”)

What’s the new mission in Afghanistan? I can’t find any explanation for the 7,000 figure: What is the mission of the 7,000 that will remain, and why do they no longer need the help of the 7,000 who are leaving? My intuition says that there is no new mission. “Pull out half of them” just comes from Trump’s gut, and isn’t based on anything.

What about the Kurds? The reason American casualties in Syria have been so low is that Kurdish militias are doing most of the actual fighting against ISIS.

The Kurds and their Syrian allies paid a severe price: They have suffered about 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded since 2014. Over that same period, the United States lost only three soldiers in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesperson.

Trump seems not to know these facts. “Time for someone else to fight,” he tweeted, as if Americans were battling ISIS alone.

Turkey is worried about Kurdish militias operating in its own territory, which it sees as terrorism. According to AP, a December 14 phone conversation between Trump and Turkish autocrat Erdogan sparked the withdrawal decision.

Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two U.S. officials and a Turkish official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press.

The Dec. 14 call came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based. The NSC then set up the call.

Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.

The obvious implication is that if Erdogan wants to attack the people we’ve been relying on to push ISIS back, he should just have at it. We’ll get out of his way.

Erdogan isn’t the only one likely to attack after we leave. To the Assad government, the Kurds are just one more set of rebels. What if the Kurdish region of Syria (green on the map) collapses and our former allies start getting slaughtered? What are the implications of that in other conflicts where the US wants to find local allies?

Sometimes, superpowers have to make such betrayals. We left a number of Vietnamese allies in the lurch when we exited the Vietnam War, but few Americans would want us still to be fighting there. I just wish I could believe Trump (or anyone involved in his decision process) had thought these questions out and was making these decisions strategically.

What generals and diplomats are for. There’s a way that major policy changes are supposed to happen: The National Security Council meets and the various departments involved weigh in: Pentagon people talk about military implications, State Department people anticipate how our allies will react, and regional experts from the intelligence services outline the most likely scenarios. They all make their recommendations and then the President announces a decision. The advisors whose advice wasn’t taken then try to talk him out of it. If the President stands firm, though, they have to yield.

Next, all the principals return to their departments with the message: This is where we’re going; make plans. The plans go back to the NSC, where they get accepted or rejected. (Sometimes the President has to say one more time, “No, I really meant it. This plan doesn’t do what I asked for.”) Allies get consulted. Political types design a messaging strategy to explain the new policy to the American people as well as the rest of the world. Then, when all the ducks are in a row, an announcement is made and the whole government moves in unison. If things are working well, our allies move with us.

There’s a reason for doing things that way: A global superpower is much bigger than the kind of family business Trump is used to running. There’s more to know and more to figure out. (As an analogy, consider the different medical specialists who might get together before a particularly complicated surgery. It’s not just a question of where to cut, but whether last week’s infection is under control, whether the patient’s heart will stand the stress, how the patient tolerates anesthesia, what kind of recovery plan is needed, and dozens of other considerations.) The various departments are in the meeting not just to protect their turf, but because they represent different kinds of expertise. You consult with the generals and diplomats because that’s what they’re there for. They know stuff.

Hardly any of the usual process seems to have happened in this case. The only advisor Trump seems to have listened to before making his decision is Erdogan, a foreign autocrat. (He’s also the former client of Michael Flynn, for what that’s worth.) The messaging strategy was for Trump to write a tweet; everybody else had to adjust on the fly.

The result is that most of the interested parties, both within our government and among our allies, were taken by surprise. As they carry out the withdrawal, no one involved can possibly have confidence that all the relevant factors were considered and all the risks foreseen.

Mattis and McGurk. Two major officials, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy Brett McGurk, resigned in protest. Historian Michael Beschloss claims no defense secretary has ever done this before.

Mattis’ resignation letter explains his decision in terms of worldview. In Mattis’ world, American power depends on its alliances, but Trump sees our allies as parasites.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships…. [W]e must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances.

Mattis mentions Russia and China as examples of the kind of “malign actors and strategic competitors” that we and our allies need “common defense” against, because they “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model”.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

I can’t help believing, though, that it’s as much Trump’s process as his policy that makes it impossible for Mattis to keep working with him. If a decision as important as withdrawing from a war can be made off the cuff while talking to a foreign dictator (Turkey may not be a threat as large as Russia or China, but it also a country run on an “authoritarian model”.), by a President who doesn’t read memos or listen to briefings, then it’s not clear what role there is for people who know things.

The Return of the Chicken Hawks

When Donald Trump started staffing his administration, many of us worried about the number of generals he put in high positions: Michael Flynn, John Kelly, Jim Mattis. Chief Strategist Steve Bannon had never made it to general, but his seven years as an officer in the Navy was a key part of his self-image. So many of the other members of the administration were lightweights who had little-to-no knowledge or experience relevant to their jobs: Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Jared Kushner, Ivanka, and Trump himself. It seemed obvious that in a crisis, everybody would be looking for the generals to tell them what to do.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, pundits wondered, wasn’t that dangerous?

Subsequently, Flynn was fired and replaced by another general, H.R. McMaster. Bannon left. John Kelly moved up from Secretary of Homeland Security to Chief of Staff. When the press referred to “the grown-ups” in the Trump administration, they meant the generals, plus a few other people like Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn.

In the latest reshuffle, Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, another lightweight without any real credentials relevant to his job. (He played an economist on TV, but really isn’t one.) Tillerson is gone, replaced by Mike Pompeo. McMaster has been replaced by John Bolton. Kelly’s (always limited) ability to control Trump is fading, and his job either is or isn’t secure, depending on the hour and who you talk to.

In short, the Day of the General seems to be waning, and we are being reminded that there are people more dangerous than generals: chicken hawks.

What is a chicken hawk? A chicken hawk is somebody full of warlike rhetoric who somehow never gets around to experiencing war first-hand. [1] His (they’re not all men, but great majority are) lack of experience doesn’t make him cautious, it insulates his thinking against consequences. He sees the uses of war and dreams of being a Churchill who maneuvers forces on a global scale, but has never understood the real costs of war. He has never learned that a mistake that starts a war is the worst kind of mistake a statesman can make.

At The Week, Joel Mathis points out the danger of having a chicken-hawk president:

The problem with Trump’s pugnaciousness? He’s never had to face consequences for it. There have always been bone spurs, or security guys, or the fact that professional wrestling isn’t real. As far as we know, he’s never started a fight and gotten his nose bloodied for the trouble. Anybody who has experienced that lesson never forgets it. It’s best not learned on the international stage.

A general is a priest of War who has seen what can happen when he calls down the wrath of his god. A chicken hawk has heard glory-filled stories of that god, watched the priests with envy, and longs to unleash that kind of power.

Bush era chicken hawks. The George W. Bush administration was full of chicken hawks, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney, who engineered the Iraq War after artfully maneuvering to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era. (As he told a reporter, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”) Other notable Iraq War hawks — Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith — were also blissfully devoid of military experience. (As Colin Powell’s top assistant Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson put it: “None of these guys ever heard a bullet go by their ears in combat.“)

Some of the loudest Iraq War hawks outside the Bush administration were similarly uninterested in actual fighting, like Bill Kristol, and any number of gung-ho College Republicans who were of the right age to volunteer for the Iraq War, but chose to leave that honor to someone else. (It’s debatable whether Iraq-invasion-promoting columnist Thomas Friedman qualified as a chicken hawk. He never served in the military, but he probably did hear bullets whiz past his ear when he was reporting in Beirut.)

Bush himself avoided Vietnam by somehow getting a coveted spot in a National Guard unit that was never called up (and maybe, depending on who you believe, he just stopped showing up at some point). His military experience was zipping through the clear skies of Texas in a supersonic fighter jet, and he relived that excitement by landing on the USS Lincoln near San Diego so that he could give his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech declaring victory in Iraq.

By contrast, the top general in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, while consistently loyal to administration policy, was not so eager to invade. He was the one who coined what he called the Pottery Barn Rule: “If you break it, you own it.” He also was subsequently more open than most Bush officials about what went wrong and what might be learned from it. Colonel Wilkerson became a critic of the war.

The once and future chicken hawk. Like George W. Bush, John Bolton used the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, a war he supported. Wikipedia fleshes out his subsequent account of his decision:

He wrote in his Yale 25th reunion book “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” In an interview, Bolton discussed his comment in the reunion book, explaining that he decided to avoid service in Vietnam because “by the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from.”

But his turning away from personally serving in Vietnam was not part of a more general turning away from war. Bolton was not just part of the crew that maneuvered the country into the Iraq War, he also worked to expand that war.  In “The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War with Iran“, The American Conservative charges:

Bolton’s high-profile advocacy of war with Iran is well known. What is not at all well known is that, when he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security, he executed a complex and devious strategy aimed at creating the justification for a U.S. attack on Iran. Bolton sought to convict the Islamic Republic in the court of international public opinion of having a covert nuclear weapons program using a combination of diplomatic pressure, crude propaganda, and fabricated evidence.

Despite the fact that Bolton was technically under the supervision of Secretary of State Colin Powell, his actual boss in devising and carrying out that strategy was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Most of the other Iraq War chicken hawks are in history’s trash can by now. Whether they learned anything from that blunder or not, no one is listening to them any more. But Bolton has now returned to influence, emphatically has not learned a lesson, and does not even admit that invading Iraq was a mistake.

Preventive War. The Iraq War was premised not just on manufactured reports about Saddam’s weaponry, but also on a doctrine of preventive war: If we think a country is developing a threat to us, we should attack it before that threat materializes. [2] Bolton still believes that doctrine. Here’s what he wrote in the WSJ at the end of February:

It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.

In other words, North Korea is developing weapons that could strike us, so we should treat that as if it were a plan to strike us, and strike them first. Our strike could result in a retaliatory nuclear strike against Seoul or Tokyo, or just a devastating bombardment of Seoul (a city of 25 million) by conventional artillery. But hey, collateral damage. It’s better that cities of our Asian allies get destroyed than our own cities.

In 2015, he advocated a preventive strike against Iran, and scoffed at the possibility of resolving the nuclear issue peacefully.

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.

When Obama got the deal Bolton said was impossible, Bolton denounced it, and has urged Trump to pull out of it. That, of course, takes us back to Square One with regard to Iran’s nuclear program: Either we accept the reality of Iran getting nuclear weapons (as President Bush did with North Korea) or we attack them.

In The Daily Beast, Mark Leon Goldberg characterizes Bolton’s tenure as UN Ambassador in 2005-2006:

The memoir he wrote of his experience at the UN was titled “Surrender is Not an Option.” But Bolton’s time at the UN suggests that, to him, the natural give and take of diplomacy is akin to “surrender” and must be avoided at all costs. Understanding how he performed his job at the UN gives us big clues as to how he might approach the job as National Security Advisor to which he has just been named.

At the United Nations, Bolton demonstrated a profoundly zero-sum view of international relations. Other countries’ gains — no matter how insignificant —  were ipso-facto America’s losses.

In other words, he will reinforce one of Trump’s greatest weaknesses: his inability to see the win/win nature of good diplomacy.

Leading the chorus for war with Iran. As National Security Advisor, Bolton will not have any planes or troops under his direct command. Nor will he have a staff capable of generating attack plans without cooperation from the Pentagon. He chairs the National Security Council; his job is to consolidate the advice of the military, foreign policy, and intelligence establishments and package it for the President. His power rests entirely in his ability to influence the President’s decisions.

That job is particularly important when the President has no expertise or experience of his own. (Dwight Eisenhower, who had already managed half of a global war before he became president, changed NSAs almost every year. It didn’t make a huge difference.) As a tough-talking chicken hawk himself, Trump needs to be surrounded by people who understand the reality of war. Initially, he was, but that is becoming less and less true.

With the possibility of a Trump/Kim summit meeting — I’m still not convinced that’s really going to happen — North Korea is the challenge most people are focused on right now. But another deadline on Iran is also looming: U.S. sanctions on Iran were not repealed after the 2015 agreement; instead (according to the Corker-Cardin law) the President must waive them every 90 days. The current waiver runs out on May 12. If the sanctions on Iran are resumed, the deal that stopped Iran’s march to nuclear weapons will start to unravel.

Trump didn’t want to issue the previous waivers, but he let Tillerson and McMaster push him into doing so. Back in January, he warned that he wanted major changes in the agreement, which during the campaign he had called “one of the most incompetently drawn deals I’ve ever seen“. So far, these demands have led to no additional concessions from the Iranians. [3]

This time around, Tillerson and McMaster are gone. Like Bolton, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an Iran hawk. So is UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. [4] Along with Trump’s own inclinations, this chorus virtually guarantees that the next waiver will not be granted, sanctions will be reimposed, and Iran stop complying with the nuclear deal.

The next question is: What then? During the campaign, Trump’s “America First” slogan seemed to point away from foreign adventurism. [5] He was almost unique among Republican presidential candidates in clearly declaring the Iraq War a mistake. [6] But with no brakes on Iran’s nuclear program, and with Bolton leading the chorus of Pompeo and Haley, war with Iran will be a constantly available option, waiting for the moment when Trump is in a war-making mood.

[1] It’s worth pointing out that I also have never served in the military, observed combat, or even been shot at in civilian life. But I am also cautious about committing someone else to fight on my behalf. When military people tell me that war is hell, and that the outcome is never as predictable as you think, I believe them.

[2] There’s an important distinction between preventive war and preemptive war. Both are examples of striking first, but a preemptive war is much less controversial than a preventive one, because it makes fewer assumptions about an enemy’s intentions. A preemptive strike disrupts a specific imminent attack, while a preventive strike intends to eliminate the possibility that an enemy might eventually attack at some indefinite time and place.

An example helps here: If the U.S. had struck the Japanese fleet just as it got within range of Pearl Harbor, that would have been preemptive: A specific attack was in the works, and our attack would have disrupted theirs. But the Japanese attack itself was preventive. At the time the U.S. had no specific plan to attack Japan. But the Japanese anticipated that the U.S. would eventually go to war to stop Japanese expansion, so they crippled the fleet that would spearhead that war.

When you start a preventive war, you turn your back on the possibility that the attack you claim to be preventing could have been averted in some peaceful way. A key example there is the Cold War: Various American military figures in the 1950s and 60s advocated for a preventive nuclear strike against the USSR. But we didn’t strike that preventive blow, and the nuclear war those men were anticipating never happened anyway.

[3] That’s typical. Trump dislikes all our international agreements and believes he can negotiate better ones, but so far he has not produced any significant new deals. (Wait: Something with South Korea was announced this morning.)

[4] Experts seem to agree that Iran is fulfilling its end of the agreement, so Haley has been moving the goalposts.

The question of Iranian compliance is not as straightforward as many people believe. It’s not just about the technical terms of the nuclear agreement. It requires a much more thorough look.

[5] In an address to Congress a little over a year ago, he implicitly criticized the expense of the Iraq War: “America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this six trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country –- twice.”

[6] He considered it such a mistake that he had to rewrite history to portray himself as a war critic from the beginning.

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?

When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.

[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.