Today Obama shared with the world his deep insights on ISIS and Ukraine.
The gobsmacking revelation: “We don’t have a strategy yet” on ISIS. (Precisely because he calls it ISIL, I will refer to it by ISIS.)
This brings to mind the old Lone Ranger joke, with the punchline: “What do you mean we, paleface?” (Don’t go there.)
I am sure that the Pentagon presented Obama with multiple strategies, and that he found none of them to his liking.
No doubt none of the options were all that palatable. Primarily because his previous decisions have left the United States with a set of choices that range between bad and terrible. But there are certainly several that would be better than nothing, which is what he is choosing to do. I would surmise that part of the reason that Obama is refusing to choose any of them, which would involve getting more deeply involved in Iraq and bombing Syria, is that by choosing them, he would be drawing attention to his own blunders.
So it’s not that “we” don’t have a strategy: it’s that Obama doesn’t. I am sure that people in the DoD are simply beside themselves.
Obama did indicate that whatever his strategy ends up being, it will start with John Kerry going to the Middle East to build a coalition. You know, the John Kerry that is a laughingstock in the region. The John Kerry who is pretty much despised by everyone that matters: I am sure that even the nations he has sucked up to, namely Qatar and Turkey, have zero respect for him. The John Kerry that hasn’t negotiated anything lasting and serious. The John Kerry who routinely travels to Geneva to be humiliated by Lavrov and the Iranians.
Kerry’s one-one-claim to accomplishment as Secretary of State is negotiating a deal among the Afghan presidential candidates for an audit of the country’s disputed election. No sooner did he get on the plane than the principals to the agreement started arguing. The audit has not taken place, and is not likely to take place anytime soon.
But Kerry will put that robust coalition together, have no fear.
“I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” Obama said, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignored opportunities to find a diplomatic end to the dispute.
This is true. Russia has been invading for months, so its reinforcement of the invasion is just a continuation. Obama’s bloodless indifference and inaction are also just a continuation. He is just waving Putin on, and Putin will just step on the accelerator.
For his part, Putin delivered a truculent statement that can be viewed as a victory speech, and as a signal of his intention to expand the conflict. He praised the rebels in Donbas for “intercepting Kiev’s military operation,” and called on them to mercifully let surrounded Ukrainian forces to retreat to avoid a “needless loss of life.” He demanded Ukraine cease military actions, declare a cease fire, and negotiate with the rebels.
The title of the talk was ominous: “An address to the militia of Novorossiya.” You know, of course, that Novorossiya encompasses far more than the Donbas.
Facing no real resistance from Merkel and Obama, Putin is going to push forward.
Back to Obama. Other than the “I don’t need no steenkin’ strategy” line, what drew the most comment was his tan suit.
His sartorial choice is easily explained. He would much rather have people obsessing about the color of his suit, than noticing the fact that it is empty.
Note that this has occurred after Merkel pressured Poroshenko to give Putin a face-saving out, and the very day after Putin and Poroshenko met. A meeting during which Putin said that the conflict was purely an internal Ukrainian matter to be worked out between the Kiev government and the rebels.
Angela Merkel told President Vladimir Putin by phone on Wednesday that reports of a new Russian military incursion into Ukrainian territory had to be cleared up, a spokesman for the chancellor said in a statement.
“The latest reports of the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory must be explained,” said Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert. “She emphasised Russia’s major responsibility for de-escalation and watching over its own frontiers.”
Yeah. Tell Putin to de-escalate right after he’s escalated. That’s telling him.
Explain the reports? Clear things up? The level of unseriousness here is off the charts.
So what is this, the 35th Merkel to Putin call? These calls have accomplished what, exactly?
The most plausible hypothesis is that what they’ve accomplished is to convince Putin that he can do as he wills, without fearing any German response worth mentioning. (As for Obama, start printing the milk cartons with his picture. He’s been missing on this for weeks. The US response has been limited to unleashing the #hashtagteam of Psaki and Harf. Gawd. Speaking of the fearsome hashtags, has Nigeria gotten its girls back yet? No? So how come nobody’s hash tagging it any more?)
But this call to “explain” is a new low. Is Merkel a slow learner? Has she considered the possibility that the explanation for “reports” of Russian tanks in Novoazovsk is that there are Russian tanks in Novoazovsk? Does she expect Putin will all of a sudden cop to this after denying Russian involvement for six months (going back to Crimea)?
I see that the Germans do not say what Putin’s explanation was. Presumably because it was impossible to hear through the guffaws.
Although I could, on a very narrow margin, rationalize using force aggressively against Assad to achieve strategic and humanitarian objectives, I cannot abide any military operation in Syria undertaken by this administration. Its painfully obvious lack of any strategic sense and utter incomprehension of the way that people like Assad and the mullahs think means that any military action that this administration devises will be entirely counterproductive.
I am by nature a pugnacious person. (Who knew?) It takes quite something to turn me into a pacifist. But Obama has turned the trick. Quite an achievement.
The need for military action against ISIS is compelling, but I still have grave reservations about any military operations under this commander in chief. In my opinion, he is unsuited for command by his ideology, his lack of any grounding in military or strategic subjects, but most importantly, his temperament.
He is ideologically opposed to the use of force, for any strategic purpose, anyways. He is somewhat comfortable with limited, but strategically barren, military operations such as drone strikes and one-off commando raids.
For President Barack Obama the decision to send in the Night Stalkers was an agonising one. The audacious bin Laden raid in Pakistan had been a success but also preying on his mind was the failed 1980 Delta Force operation to rescue American hostages in Tehran.
Sandstorms and mechanical troubles led the mission to be abandoned and eight American troops were killed when two aircraft collided. The debacle cast a shadow over Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Pentagon sources said Foley and the others might well have been rescued but Obama, concerned about the ramifications of US troops being killed or captured in Syria, took too long to authorise the mission.
Anthony Shaffer, a former lieutenant-colonel in US military intelligence who worked on covert operations, said: “I’m told it was almost a 30-day delay from when they said they wanted to go to when he finally gave the green light. They were ready to go in June to grab the guy [Foley] and they weren’t permitted.”
Another US defence source said: “The White House constantly goes back and forth on these things. These people are a bunch of academics who endlessly analyse stuff and ordering up another deep-thinking paper but can’t decide what to order for lunch.”
Touche re the academics jibe.
Military operations are inherently risky. Things go wrong. But nothing risked, nothing gained.
No doubt Obama was also wanting better intelligence. Who doesn’t? But someone who is fit for command realizes that intelligence will never be perfect, and waiting for perfect intelligence will often result in the loss of an opportunity. Which was evidently the case here.
So Obama chose the worst option. He could have taken the risk when the intelligence was fresh, and when there was therefore a decent chance of succeeding in snatching Foley away from the head choppers. But he waited, thereby increasing the odds that ISIS would get wise to the operation, or move Foley as an ordinary operational precaution; the risks were as great, and likely greater, as a result of the wait. So by playing General Hamlet, but eventually saying “Go” he reduced the odds of success, without reducing and likely increasing the risks.
Someone fit for command must evaluate risks, but cannot take counsel of his fears, let alone become consumed like them as Obama quite clearly is predisposed to do.
Put differently, Obama says that his foreign policy credo is “don’t do stupid shit.” Sometimes not doing something is the stupidest shit of all.
…I received orders to move against Colonel Thomas Harris, who was said to be encamped at the little town of Florida, some twenty-five miles south of where we then were.
…Harris had been encamped in a creek bottom for the sake of being near water. The hills on either side of the creek extend to a considerable height, possibly more than a hundred feet. As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.
A man with Obama’s extremely risk averse temperament is extremely ill-suited to be commander-in-chief. This is extremely distressing, as the threat of ISIS requires a robust, sustained, strategically sensible response. All the leaks, as well as the public statements from the Pentagon, indicate that the military is rather frantic to act. But Obama continues to equivocate. He will continue to do so, because of his character and his ideology.
The U.S. government has no evidence of a current plot by fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, to attack the U.S. homeland, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.
Not to go all Rumsfeld on you (and believe me, I have deeply personal reasons not to do anything that would give credit to the man), but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We don’t know what we don’t know. Given ISIS’s capabilities (“a plane ticket away from the US” and a large roster of individuals with European and likely US passports) and obviously malign intent, the prudent thing to do is to take precautions, and certainly not say stupid things (or would that be stupid shit?) like “there currently is not an active plot underway.”
You’d think that after the “ISIS is the JV” fiasco they’d know better. You’d think wrong.
Obama and his toadies are obsessed with the message and the next news cycle, rather than operational and intelligence imperatives, and designing and implementing an effective strategy.
Talk about cognitive dissonance. I am convinced of the need for military action, but totally distrustful of the competence of the man to carry it out. Very difficult choice. In the end, I guess I have confidence in the ability of the armed military to overcome the grave handicaps imposed by an intellectually, temperamentally, and ideologically unsuitable commander in chief. The strategic threat is great enough that doing something far less effective than would be possible under different leadership is better than doing nothing at all.
So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt. They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.
People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him. The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others. The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their community. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.
From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century. Friends and allies around the world, we share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite of what we saw yesterday. And we will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and civility.
A few quick comments.
Obama’s progressivism, in many senses of the word, shines through here. According to Obama, ISIS is an atavism that is destined for extinction, because it does not fit into the 21st century. Through some sort of (unstated) dialectical process, such people “ultimately fail.” Humanitarians prevail, as the world progresses to higher and higher states of development and consciousness. This is profoundly ahistorical. Atavistic forces have repeatedly toppled far superior civilizations. The barbarian invasions of Rome. The Mongols in China and the Middle East (Tamerlane, anyone?) The Arab/Muslim onslaught in the Middle East and North Africa. I could go on. The very single-minded primitiveness of these peoples allows them to triumph over far more civilized and productive cultures that have lost the will to defend themselves, or whose societies are suffering from internal division and political disarray. Dark Ages have occurred throughout history precisely because of the triumphs of nihilistic but highly motivated peoples. The bankruptcy of ISIS’s ideology is rather beside the point: eye-rolling in the faculty lounge won’t defeat it. If it is sufficiently motivational to lead people to overthrow more constructive and creative ideologies, it can do incredible harm. Yes, such peoples “fail” in the sense that they are incapable of creating anything. But the problem is that their failure occurs only after they’ve destroyed societies that can create. Their ultimate barrenness is cold comfort to the lives and societies that they destroy. Which is why they must be confronted and defeated.
Note that this atavism trope is one of Obama’s favorites. He says the same about Putin and Russia. The message implicit in this trope is that since these atavistic forces are doomed to extinction, we don’t need to do anything. Again, given the profound damage that these people can do before they collapse, this is a dangerous, destructive illusion.
Whether it is Tony Blair, George Bush, or Barack Obama, few things are more grating than western leaders presuming to say what is, and what isn’t Islam. There isn’t an Islamic Pope, and if there was, his name wouldn’t be Tony, George, or even Barack Hussein, born in Hawaii. Islam isn’t any one thing, any more than Christianity is. There is no official scorecard. People energized by their visions of the teachings of Mohammed are wreaking havoc, especially in the Middle East. I can only imagine the snorts of derision among the adherents of ISIS, or other Salafists, at the presumption of kaffirs like Tony, George, or Barry to pontificate on what “true” Islam is. One can imagine them saying: tell it to the knife.
The insistence on collective action (“standing alongside others”-note the passivity of “standing alongside”). The implied deference to others-in Obama’s remarks here, as elsewhere-suggests that if others don’t rally to the cause, the US will not act unilaterally. This betrays a complete ignorance of the frailties of collective action-notably, the incentive to free ride. The failure of others to pull their weight provides a justification for American inaction.
The return of the law enforcement model: “ When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” ISIS is a military organization that poses a military threat to American interests. Confronting ISIS is not a matter of serving a warrant and putting those who hacked off Foley’s head on trial. It is a matter of destroying its military capacity with military means.
All in all, there is an odd passivity: ISIS will fall either due to the Progress of History, or the collective disapproval of outraged humanity. The only American action even suggested is a law enforcement action, or at most a punitive expedition mounted against a few brigands. At most something along the lines of “Pedicaris alive, or Rasuli dead.”
In this vein, consider related news: that the US attempted a rescue operation by Special Forces that overpowered the ISIS forces at the target, but which failed because Foley had been moved before the raid.* Yes, it is good that Obama is not entirely allergic to the use of military force, but the type of military force he is willing to use (evidently after some hesitation) is also disturbing for what it reveals. One-off Special Forces raids of this type are inherently limited in their objective and duration. They are totally tactical, with no strategic purpose or effect. Yet this raid was mounted at a time when it had become evident beyond cavil that ISIS was a serious threat to strategic American interests, and when Obama stubbornly refused to acknowledge, let alone address, that threat. The most charitable thing that could be said is that by freeing Foley Obama would have eliminated an obstacle that limited American freedom of action. But this too would be disturbing, as it would imply that taking a single hostage can forestall American action. We may not pay cash ransom (most of the time anyways, with Bergdahl and Iran-Contra being prominent counterexamples), but such knowledge is priceless to a terrorist-and very ominous for any American in their reach.
Obama’s cramped and bloodless remarks are all the more striking, when contrasted with the alarms his own administration is raising. Today, Hagel-Chuck Hagel!-stated that ISIS is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen” and is “imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” That would seem to call for something more than waiting for history, or the collective disapproval of civilized humanity, to consign ISIS to oblivion.
What’s more, it’s not like this should be news. It should have been known in June, when ISIS irrupted into central Iraq and advanced to the gates of Baghdad. It should have been known in January and February, when it conquered Fallujah and Ramadi-precisely when Obama dismissed it as the junior varsity. It should have been known earlier, when ISIS was battering other opposition forces in Syria (though perhaps I should not say “other” because it is not clear that ISIS was in opposition to Assad: more likely, he facilitated its growth).
Even if the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a necessary condition for the emergence of ISIS, this was not a sufficient condition. ISIS’s predecessor had been thoroughly beaten down, but for a variety of reasons, Obama created the conditions in which it metastasized to the threat it has become, a threat his own military and diplomatic officials recognize. Yet he still resists doing anything beyond the most limited air strikes.
Obama’s post-statement rush to the links, complete with big smiles and fist-bumps with his buds was also very disturbing. Given all the criticism of his golfing-while-the-world-burns, he had to have known that this would attract attention. But he did it anyways. I get the impression that this was a big FU: “Yeah, I know my golf gets criticism. Well, you know what, I don’t give a damn what you think. And just to show you, I’ll pivot from giving a statement about the slaughter of an American to yukking it up on the links.”
*Such a failure is not unprecedented. In 1970, the US mounted a raid to free prisoners at the Son Tay prison in North Viet Nam. The special forces troops succeeded in securing the camp, and killing 200 NVA, all the while suffering a single casualty: a helo pilot who suffered a broken ankle. But the prisoners had been moved prior to the raid, so it failed in its object. Intelligence is extremely hard to come by in these circumstances, and hence it is very difficult to know that the would-be rescue-es are at the target.
Back when I started to blog about Russia in 2006-2007, I often pointed out that Russia under Putin was an archaic “natural state” rather than a modern one. The idea of the natural state was set out in work by North, Wallis and Weingast. In essence, it is a state with a distributed and diffuse potential for violence that is prone to break down into internecine conflict between armed factions. The only way this is avoided is to bribe the various factions with rents and privileges granted by the state (to give them a stake in maintaining the status quo rather than grasping for total control), and to keep them in an unsteady equipoise by pitting each against the other.
An article in the Moscow Times provides a very good description that brings home that point. This description of Putin’s version of the natural state cannot be bettered:
Putin’s staffing policies are based on the principle of ”loyalty in return for corruption.” Bureaucrats in the government, law enforcement and military are practically granted the right to steal and forbidden just one thing: criticism of the president.
The greatest enabler of Putin’s natural state is Germany, and most notably its appalling foreign minister, Steinmeier.
Back in January, on a TV interview, naturally, Obama denigrated ISIS as the junior varsity. Even after ISIS ran amok in Iraq and Syria in June, the administration (or I should say Obama, because we know from many sources that he often completely disregards the recommendations of the Pentagon, intelligence community, and State Department) decided to abjure from taking action against the terrorist group, apparently out of pique at Maliki and the dysfunctions of the Iraqi government. That’ll learn ‘em, Barry apparently believed.
So here we are. ISIS has secured a foothold over an area the size of Jordan. What’s more, although its brutality (more on this below) is extreme, it has apparently enough sense and state building capacity to “combine the fighting capabilities of al Qaeda with the administrative capabilities of Hezbollah.” Thus, the hopes that its extreme brutality would lead to its overthrow are likely to be just another self-delusion by the Smart People in High Places.
Great. I hope they keep the varsity on the bench. Otherwise we’d really be screwed. (Or more accurately, everyone in Iraq, Syria, and bordering states would be truly screwed.)
Recall that the administration mulishly held to the position that it had correctly prioritized Islamist groups, and in particular held out Al Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula as far more of a threat to the US than ISIS. And actions spoke louder than words. Obama has been droning the crap out of AQAP for years, while he has held aloof from doing anything against ISIS.
Many observers note that AQAP and ISIL are using similar tactics and are exchanging strategy and advice.
Which would seem to totally smash to pieces Obama’s justification for drawing a distinction between the two groups.
As if to emphasize its bestiality and opposition to the US, today ISIS slaughtered an American reporter, James Foley. Per usual jihadi fashion, they filmed the heinous act, and distributed via social media along with a declaration that this was revenge for the US attacks on the group in Iraq.
This is the kind of evil bastards we are dealing with. The kind of evil bastards that our inattention permitted to flourish. Which makes it our responsibility to extirpate them.
Note that the voice on the video of Foley’s ritual killing has been identified as a Londoner. There are clearly many others in the group that hail from England and other western countries, including almost certainly Americans. The most serious fear since 9/12/2001 has been terrorists with western passports who can commit terrorism more readily than Middle Eastern natives.
But I am sure this is just the JV. So what, me worry?
To give some credit, Obama has loosened the leash on American airpower against ISIS. I deliberately didn’t say “unleashed”, because the air strikes have been extremely limited.
But even given the limited nature of the attacks, they have had an effect on the battlefield. So why not crank it up to 11? Moderation in war is idiocy, especially when fighting the extreme of the extreme, like ISIS. They have demonstrated that their ambitions are anything but regional, and that it is foolish (not to mention callous and amoral) to rely on their self-destruction and being thrown back by those whom they oppress.
The butchering of Foley should only demonstrate the folly of exquisitely calibrated (in Obama’s mind, anyways) use of force. They’ll kill for a ha’penny, never mind a pound. The price (in life, anyways) that Americans pay is unlikely to depend, in the slightest on the number of bombs we drop: nothing short of abject surrender will satisfy ISIS (and even that is unlikely to sate their blood lust). So since they’ve decided to go all medieval on us, and anyone less extreme than they, let’s go all modern on them and see how that works out for them.
ISIS is already whining about the unfairness of our air campaign. We should show them what unfair is really all about. Hit hard, hit fast, hit often (to quote Halsey), and get it over with quickly. I really cannot fathom why Obama would, at this juncture, consider any other alternative.
There is a lot of chin pulling going on about ISIS. Most of this seems to be an attempt to rationalize doing nothing, or very little.
One conclusion of the deep thinkers is that ISIS does not pose a threat to the US because it only has “regional ambitions.” This is the administration’s main theme. When asked about Obama’s JV remark, new flack Josh Earnest yammered on and on about other groups that posed a direct threat, such as Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. This organization launches underwear bombers, and is working on body cavity bombers, from the caves of Back of Buggery, Yemen. Obama has been droning them for virtually his entire administration. The administration apparently believes this is a more serious threat than ISIS.
This is all beyond stupid.
First, ISIS has made threats against the US, and the White House in particular.
But that’s not the main thing. ISIS has declared itself to be a caliphate, which demands the allegiance of over a billion Muslims from around the world. This demonstrates that its ambitions are far from regional: they are global, and they will use a regional victory as a launching point for campaigns elsewhere. Of course it has to start somewhere, and taking advantage of the carnage in Syria and the vacuum in Iraq (from which Obama assiduously pumped out air) it has established itself across large areas in each country.
If it solidifies its control, it will have a base (will they call it Al Qaeda?) from which they can launch attacks elsewhere. Since it has attracted recruits from around the world, it will have large cadres that it can dispatch to wreak havoc in Europe, Asia (especially Malaysia and Indonesia), and yes, the United States. (Departing Defense Information Agency head General Michael Flynn warned about this threat in his rather heated on-his-way-out-the-door speeches and interviews.) You have to focus on capability, not intent, and ISIS has demonstrated substantial capability that is quite worrisome. This group, more radical than Al Qaeda and ensconced in a region that is far more centrally located than Afghanistan, possesses capabilities that put Al Qaeda’s in the shade.
And we need to bet on form. Radical Islamists have repeatedly identified the US as the main enemy of Islam. Islam is a universalist religion, and its most extreme adherents aim at subjugating the entire world. It divides the world into the House of Peace and the House of War (dar al Harb). The US is leader of the latter. An organization and a leader ambitious enough to declare a caliphate-something that even Bin Laden declined to do-will almost inevitably attack the US.
Another rationale for inaction was mouthed by the administration’s foreign policy Charlie McCarthy, the WaPo’s David Ignatius. In this telling, ISIS is so insanely violent and brutal that it will inevitably wear out its welcome in the regions it has conquered. The resulting backlash will result in the group being defeated and thrown back. Or something. How many people have to die, be beheaded, crucified, enslaved, and raped before this happily ever after ending transpires at some unknown time goes unremarked.
And what happens if it doesn’t work out this way?
The sad reality is that US inattention allowed a bacteria that had been largely defeated but not totally eliminated come back in a far more virulent form. ISIS is the supergerm of Islamic radicalism. This strain will be all the more difficult to eliminate than the old one, which was hard enough as it was to tame. But doing nothing because it only attacks other hosts or because eventually the immune systems of enough people will be strong enough to fight it off (after it has killed many others without this resistance) is not a realistic option. But that’s the option that Obama and his courtiers inside and outside the administration are desperate to rationalize.
So far, US airstrikes against ISIS have been limited and reactive, and not part of any discernible strategic or operational plan. Moreover, air power alone will not be sufficient: it must be used in conjunction with Kurdish, and maybe eventually, Iraqi ground forces.
The best path forward at this time is to provide the Kurds with heavy weapons, training, and embedded American personnel to assist collecting and disseminating intelligence, planning, and coordination with American air power. The Kurds (and maybe eventually Iraqi regular forces) can provide the necessary ground forces, and the US can provide the aerial artillery to support the indigenous forces on the ground.
In his papers, Patton recorded two instances in which French General Koechlin-Schwartz told him: “The poorer the infantry, the more artillery it needs.” (Koechlin-Schwartz added the criticism: “American infantry needs all it can get.”*) The indigenous infantry the US will have to rely on is pretty poor. They need all the air support they can get. But ISIS infantry is not all that great either (its victories being due mainly to facing worse, and much less motivated, opposition). American planning, logistical, intelligence and air support, combined with superiority of numbers, should be sufficient to reverse ISIS’s gains.
In other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And that’s the problem. Obama does not have the will, for numerous reasons ideological and psychological. He is looking for reasons to justify that lack of will. The reasons that have been heaved up are very bad ones, but will probably suffice for Obama’s purpose. Meaning that his successor is likely to have to deal with a much more virulent foe infecting vast swathes of the Middle East, and spreading the infection far and wide.
* Patton was critical of the lack of aggressiveness of US riflemen.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke to his Russian opposite number, Sergei Shoigu. Shoigu ranted to Hagel about the fascist Ukrainians, saying that “the use of combat aviation and heavy artillery, including multiple-launch rocket systems and missiles against civilians and civilian infrastructure in the region was unacceptable.”
Talk about chutzpah. This coming from a man responsible for arming rebels in Ukraine that do everything-everything (except the use of combat aviation)-that he condemns. They do all that, and more: e.g., shooting down jetliners with nearly 300 innocent people aboard.
Good rule of thumb: whatever Russians rant about, is what the Russians are doing.
If Hagel had been anyone but the ignorant dolt* that he is, he would have schooled Shoigu on some history. Recent history. Russian history. Putin’s history.
In a word: Grozny.
Russian forces obliterated Grozny not once, but twice. The first time in 1994-1995, the second in 2000.
In the Yeltsin-era assault, Russian infantry and armor proved so incompetent in its initial assault on the city that the Russians were forced to resort to indiscriminate firepower: they leveled the place with artillery and bombing. The results are shown in this picture. As is always the case, the number of civilian casualties is in dispute, but accepted figures run in the tens of thousands.
Putin leveled Grozny again as part of his campaign to establish himself as a popular Russian leader. The Russian military avoided the mistakes of the first Grozny campaign and waited to deploy the armor and infantry until after they had unleashed an intense aerial and artillery bombardment. Most of the civilians had fled, but 40-50 thousand still remained. The Chechen rebels had dug in deeply, and the Russians had to root them out from their cellars and trenches. They had used thermobaric weapons sparingly in 94-95, but they used them indiscriminately in 99-00. The Buratino system rained fire down on the Chechen fighters-and the many civilians that were intermixed with them. And by “rain fire” I mean that literally, not figuratively. That’s what thermobaric weapons do.
But the Chechens should feel lucky. The Russians decided not to employ chemical weapons.
I could also go into Russian use of artillery and air power during the Russo-Georgian War. And Russian support for Assad’s indiscriminate use of firepower-and chemical weapons-in Syria.
Hagel should have shoved all this back in Shoigu’s face, and told him to STFU. It is beyond chutzpah for Putin and his creatures to lecture Ukraine, and the world, about the use of artillery and airpower on civilians.
Putin wrote the book on this, when he first took power. He secured this power in Russia by obliterating Grozny. Russians loved him for it.
Confronted by a looming humanitarian catastrophe at Mt. Sinjar, Obama finally ordered airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL, and also mounted a campaign to provide desperately needed supplies to the Yazidis who fled to the mountain before the ISIS onslaught.
This initial set of strikes seems to have a very limited objective: they can best be described as a limited tank plinking campaign intended to halt the ISIS attack on the Kurds around Erbil. The US is using F/A-18s from the George Bush (CVN77), deployed in ones-eys and twos-eys to take out an artillery piece here, and a vehicle there. It will give the Kurds some breathing room, and permit them to make limited counterattacks. But as of yet, it appears that the airstrikes are not intended to deliver a body blow to ISIS. The objectives appear to be narrowly tactical, rather than operational.
Given the nature of ISIS, the humanitarian crisis was inevitable, and eminently predictable. Indeed, ISIS is a rolling bacchanal of head chopping, crucifixion, mass execution, and rape. Wherever this scourge lands, a humanitarian crisis follows.
Obama infamously labeled ISIS the “junior varsity” in a January interview. I wonder if he still considers that description operative, or regrets that he made it. I note that in contrast to Obama’s disparaging remark, only Friday a “senior administration official” said that in its recent attacks, ISIS has demonstrated “tremendous military proficiency.” Either ISIS has navigated a very steep learning curve, or Obama was spewing garbage 7 months ago. Not hard to figure out which is true, especially if you were paying attention to ISIS in Syria and Iraq last year and early this year.
Obama’s attitude, and his preternatural predisposition to avoid any involvement in Iraq, led him to stand aloof when ISIS scored major breakthroughs in Iraq two months ago, and threatened to capture Baghdad. The inaction then, and in the interim, laid the foundation for what is transpiring outside Erbil today. Obama’s consistent Fram Oil Filter foreign policy procrastination (“you can pay me now, or you can pay me later”) only deferred the necessity of military action, and allowed ISIS to become stronger in the meantime.
Obama’s rationale for letting ISIS run amok is a pedantic one. He is (in some ways understandably) frustrated at the inability of Iraq to form a more inclusive government, and at the dysfunctional Maliki government, and refuses to be “Maliki’s artillery”. That is, he is withholding US military action against ISIS in order to force a change of government in Baghdad. Apparently only when Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds hold hands and sing Kumbaya will Obama relent.
In the meantime, vast swathes of Iraq are getting a new government. An ISIS government that rules by terror and very credibly threatens genocide. Obama’s pickiness about what he considers to be acceptable Iraqi government has given ISIS an open field to consolidate its hold over the regions that it has conquered, and to push for further conquests.
To the surprise of the administration, that push has been directed at the Kurds instead of Baghdad. The Kurdish Peshmerga, though possessing a reputation for being far more stalwart fighters than the Iraqi Army rabble that disintegrated on contact with ISIS, was sent reeling. It is uncertain whether this indicates that the Peshmerga was overrated, or underarmed. It is certainly the case that it is outgunned by ISIS, so the latter is a reasonable inference.
The outgunning of the Kurds is also the result of a conscious administration decision. The Kurds have been pleading for arms and ammunition, but the administration has demurred. The reason is rather astounding, especially in light of Obama’s stated refusal to aid the Iraqi central government. In refusing to help the Kurds, Obama has deferred to the sensitivities of the very Maliki government that he despises: he does not want to appear to be advancing Kurdish independence, which would outrage Baghdad.
So on the one hand, Obama doesn’t want to help the Iraqi central government fight ISIS because he thinks that government is dysfunctional and must change fundamentally, and in particular must become more inclusive, before it deserve US backing. On the other hand, Obama doesn’t want to help the Kurds fight ISIS because he thinks that would enable the Kurds to break free of the said same dysfunctional central government.
The only way to square these decisions is to conclude that Obama didn’t want to help to fight ISIS, period.
But now his hand has been forced by the prospect of the slaughter of 50,000 Yazidis. I suspect that Obama will only exert enough force to prevent that, and stabilize the situation in the north of Iraq. He will not deal ISIS a blow sufficiently stunning to permit the Iraqi Army, or the Kurds, or both, to defeat the head chopping lunatics. This will provide yet another illustration of the adage (attributed to Macauley and James Arbothnot Fisher) that moderation in war is imbecility.
Obama has repeatedly refused to pay anything now in Iraq. As a result, many have paid a big price later. A price measured in severed heads, mass graves, and systematic rape.
The most realistic alternative right now is to be the Kurds’ artillery, and pound ISIS from the air in a serious way, while providing the arms, intelligence, and logistic support that will permit the Kurds to attack them on the ground. In so doing, Obama will be rebuking himself for his past words and actions (or, more accurately, inactions) in Iraq. And that may be the biggest obstacle to his doing the right thing.
In retaliation for US and EU sanctions, Russia is banning the importation of large categories of food products from each: food imports from the US are pretty much banned altogether.
These sanctions are aimed at an industry that is politically powerful far beyond its numbers. Chicken farmers in the US will squawk at the loss of about 1 percent of their revenues, and European dairy producers will bellow in anger. But the economic impact on the affected countries will be trivial. The US exports about $300 million in chicken to Russia (down substantially from a few years ago), which is essentially rounding error in US GDP. European net food exports to Russia are about 12 billion euros, or less than .1 percent of the EU’s 13 trillion Euro economy.
The impact on Russia’s people will be substantially greater. Russia imports about 35 percent of its food, about half of that from Europe and the US. Higher value, non-staples are disproportionately affected. This will lead to an appreciable increase in the cost of food, which represents a very large fraction of Russian household budgets. Whereas US consumers spend about 6.5 percent of their total expenditures on food, in Russia the figure is about 32 percent. A rise in food prices hits hard. A 10 percent increase, which is not unrealistic, cuts Russian living standards about 3 percent.
Putin ordered the government to find ways to increase food production, because, you know, that ukases always work as the Tsar intends. Russian food output will no doubt rise in response to higher prices, but in the short run the elasticity of supply is likely to be very low, especially for vegetables and dairy. Anyways, this increased output will only mitigate the price increases. If Russian firms/farms could produce more at current prices, they’d be doing so.
I predict that since increased Russian domestic production will have little effect on prices, Putin will soon resort to the tried-and-false nostrum of price controls, just like Russia did when food price inflation spiked in 2007. This will lead to lines and empty shelves, so Russians can party like it’s 1989: to those nostalgic for the USSR, be careful what you ask for. I note that Russia also adopted price controls, to disastrous effect, in WWI. Putin is idealizing Russia’s role in that war of late, and employs WWI reenactors to lead subversion campaigns in Ukraine, so maybe he’ll think it’s a great idea to reenact the price controls too.
Some have suggested that the higher food prices (or shortages that result from attempts to control prices) will dent Putin’s popularity. However, it is sufficiently high (approaching 90 percent) that it can take a few dents. Moreover, you know that there will be a propaganda campaign to stymie any discontent. No doubt this campaign will blame the west, and the US in particular, proclaiming that the import ban is necessary to show that Russia cannot be dictated to by its enemies: Russian attitudes towards the west have hardened substantially post-Crimea, and such a message will resonate.
The campaign is likely to idealize Russian capacity for sacrifice, particularly for the Motherland. There will be allusions to the Great Patriotic War, when Russians sacrificed to battle evil invaders from the west who were intent on subjugating Russia.
Putin will call for the Great Patriotic Diet, in other words. And sad to say, this will probably work.
No matter how successful the propaganda campaign is, the import ban will be just another burden on the already sputtering Russian economy. It was sputtering before Crimea and sanctions, but the post-Crimea sanctions have made it wheeze all that much more.
Oil prices have bailed out Putin before, but oil prices have weakened a bit lately, so that is putting additional pressure on Russia, and particularly on the budget. One of Putin’s old gambits is to stir up trouble in the ME to keep up oil prices. Maybe he’ll try that now, but it’s hard to imagine how much more trouble there can be there (the place is in chaos from Libya to Israel/Gaza to Syria to Iraq).
There is widespread speculation on what Putin will do next in Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is slowly but surely grinding down the Russian proxies in Donbas, pushing them into pockets in Donetsk and Lugansk, where they will be cut off from supplies and reinforcements if the circles are closed. Thus, the reasoning goes, Putin has a choice between humiliating defeat there, or going all in with an invasion.
I have my doubts that he will invade. The troops massed at the border, 20,000 or so, are probably sufficient to deal with the still shambolic Ukrainian forces in Donbas, but logistical difficulties would make a further penetration difficult, and an occupation would likely turn into the Donbas Ulcer. Further, an outright invasion would likely trigger truly punitive sanctions.
In short, although outright defeat of his proxies would be humiliating, an invasion of Ukraine, even if capped by a victory in Donbas, would be a disaster that could not be justified on any cost-benefit basis. Pace Pyrrhus: “One more such victory, and we shall be undone.” Or pace Dryden: “Even victors by victories are undone.”
But humiliation and invasion are not the only two alternatives open to Putin. He could attempt to turn Donbas into a bleeding ulcer for Ukraine, by mounting a guerrilla campaign/low intensity insurgency, dressed up as a people’s revolt against the oppressive fascists. This will be sufficient to maintain a (frozen) conflict that would distract Ukraine, impede the formation of a stable state and government, make it unacceptable as a candidate for Nato, and cause the EU to treat it at arms length. Such a campaign would exploit Putin’s best military asset, spetsnaz units, that specialize at this kind of warfare. It would be less provocative to the west: if the US and EU can largely acquiesce to what Putin is doing in Donbas now, it would put up with a low intensity guerrilla campaign
Meaning that the standoff between the west and Russia is likely to persist for some time. Meaning further that Russians better get used to the Great Patriotic Diet, because they’ll be on it for a while.
Update. It’s rather amusing that Medvedev made the announcement of the food import ban. If it turns out to be unpopular despite the likely propaganda campaign, it will be blamed on sorry old Medvedev. That’s his job: scapegoat in waiting.