The War on Chronology

Donald Trump’s quote about George W. Bush was literally as simple as “The World Trade Center came down during his reign” — which is a statement of chronological fact, without even making a judgment upon its significance or lack thereof, yet establishment conservatives are furious about that.

This emblematic is what we’re up against on a major scale: People who don’t just have an alternate worldview but an alternate view of chronological reality.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: So many points of “conventional wisdom” from the political and media establishment in Washington (including both sides of the aisle, but especially conservatives) fall apart when chronology is applied to cause-and-effect claims they make. It’s not just “correlation is not causation” — it’s that they get the order of historical events consistently wrong in drawing broad conclusions about them. Everything becomes of the fault of their opponents (whether on their own side or the other side) by presenting the reaction to something as its historical cause.

The surge is a lie. A really dangerous lie.

The mythology of the Iraq War “surge” has been driving me bonkers for years — since at least as far back as 2009 or so, I think; I can’t remember exactly when I started getting into huge arguments with Republicans about it, but I remember a lot of arguments.

The surge was self-evidently a total failure even then, if you measured it by George W. Bush’s own stated objectives: suppress the violence long enough for a political solution to be reached.

As usual, like they did at every point in that war, the administration moved the goalposts to include only the first half (violence reduction) after the second half didn’t work (no political solution) — and many Republicans thus incorrectly believed it had been a success (because the violence was briefly suppressed). Unfortunately, it was an indivisible twin mandate, with the second being vastly more important and meaningful. Achieving the first part without the second can only be read as an expensive and bloody prolonging of the existing failure.

In a comprehensive article for The Atlantic entitled “The Surge Fallacy”, Peter Beinart makes the same point I’ve been making for years now — and extends out the hugely frightening consequences of the myth taking hold in place of the reality so quickly:

Above all, it’s the legend of the surge. The legend goes something like this: By sending more troops to Iraq in 2007, George W. Bush finally won the Iraq War. Then Barack Obama, by withdrawing U.S. troops, lost it.
In the late 1970s, the legend of the congressional cutoff [as a purported cause of failure in Vietnam]—and it was a legend; Congress reduced but never cut off South Vietnam’s aid—spurred the hawkish revival that helped elect Ronald Reagan. As we approach 2016, the legend of the surge is playing a similar role. Which is why it’s so important to understand that the legend is wrong.
In 2007, the war took the lives of 26,000 Iraqi civilians. In 2008, that number fell to just over 10,000. By 2009, it was down to about 5,000. When Republicans today claim that the surge succeeded—and that with it Bush won the war—this is what they mean.

But they forget something crucial. The surge was not intended merely to reduce violence. Reducing violence was a means to a larger goal: political reconciliation. Only when Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Arabs and its Kurds all felt represented by the government would the country be safe from civil war. As a senior administration official told journalists the day Bush announced the surge, “The purpose of all this is to get the violence in Baghdad down, get control of the situation and the sectarian violence, because now, without it, the reconciliation that everybody knows in the long term is the key to getting security in the country—the reconciliation will not happen.” But although the violence went down, the reconciliation never occurred.
The problem with the legend of the surge is that it reproduces the very hubris that led America into Iraq in the first place.

He then cites various harebrained Republican proposals to invade and occupy pretty much every country in the region based on the premise that the Iraq surge was a huge success and more troops = more success.

Less discussed perhaps is how President Obama, while taking much of the wrongful blame for “losing” a war that was already long lost in Iraq, seems to have managed to validate much of the mythology by trying to apply the surge approach (twice?) in Afghanistan with costly non-results.

But that ship has already sailed. In contrast, there is no need for the United States to make the same errors elsewhere going forward in the coming months and years. Misunderstanding what happened in Iraq after 2006 is likely to ensure a repetition of catastrophic mistakes.

Pictured: A December 2007 suicide car bombing in Baghdad during the surge. (Credit: Jim Gordon via Wikimedia)

Pictured: A December 2007 suicide car bombing in Baghdad during the surge. (Credit: Jim Gordon via Wikimedia)

Don’t forget about Poland (and their CIA torture sites)

A reminder this past week from a key European court that Poland helped the CIA torture U.S. detainees outside American jurisdiction after 9/11 (yielding little to no information):

For the first time, a court has ruled on the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prison network in Europe. The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday found “beyond reasonable doubt” that two current prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were transferred from Thailand to Poland by the CIA and tortured there.

The language in the judgment is damning. Evidence of the prisoners’ rendition and treatment is “coherent, clear and categorical.” The facts presented by their legal teams “demonstrate” that the Polish authorities knew at that time that the CIA was using Szymany airport and, as a secret detention site, the Stare Kiejkuty military base. The court judged it “inconceivable” that rendition aircraft landed in and departed from Poland, or that the CIA occupied the premises in the Polish base, without Poland being “informed of and involved in the preparation and execution of the [CIA’s High Value Detainee] Programme.” It concluded that “Poland, for all practical purposes, facilitated the whole process, created the conditions for it to happen and made no attempt to prevent it from occurring.” In short, through its “acquiescence and connivance,” Poland “must be regarded as responsible” for secret imprisonment, torture and transfer onward to further secret imprisonment.
Numerous tortured suspects, released after the CIA belatedly determined their lack of involvement in terrorist activity, gave firsthand accounts of their treatment to lawyers and NGOs.
It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the bureaucratic language with which the CIA and the U.S. Department of Justice crafted their internal memorandums, but, as the court recognized, what went on in Poland and in other countries that hosted black sites included suffocation by water, confinement in small boxes, beatings, extreme sleep deprivation, exposure to cold and noise and other “enhanced techniques.”



Although Poland did not officially join the European Union until May 1, 2004, Poland did join the Council of Europe on November 26, 1991, making it subject to the European Court of Human Rights well before the start of the U.S. War on Terror.

Post-Cold War Poland has been rapidly sliding toward disappointment with the United States after years of blind support that ultimately led as far as endorsement of secret CIA torture prisons and joining the ill-conceived U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. They expected to get a lot out of such a compliant relationship with the United States and instead got very little. Read more

June 15, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 88

Topics: California teacher tenure ruling, Iraq-ISIS crisis. People: Bill, Persephone, Sarah, Nate.

Discussion Points:

– Why is maintaining teacher tenure and paying trained teachers more money so important?
– Just how badly did the United States screw up Iraq in 2003?

Part 1 – Teacher Tenure:
Part 1 – Teacher Tenure – AFD 88
Part 2 – Iraq/ISIS Crisis:
Part 2 – Iraq – AFD 88

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links

– NYT: Judge Rejects Teacher Tenure for California
– NYT Op-Ed: Taking On Teacher Tenure Backfires
– Guardian: “US sends aircraft carrier to Persian Gulf as Obama considers air strikes in Iraq”
– YouTube throwback: Thomas Friedman sums up the Iraq war… (5/29/2003)
– Washington Post blog: “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?”
– AFD: “Maybe let’s stop trying to ‘help’ Iraq for a second”


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Maybe let’s stop trying to “help” Iraq for a second

Iraq-NO-FLY-ZONES-map-1991-2003There’s this sort of myth, which sprung up in the 2004-2008 period of the U.S. War in Iraq, that the world could not just tolerate Saddam Hussein’s cruel rule a moment longer than March 2003. This was used to justify the invasion retroactively when it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction, which was the original stated reason.

Of course, it’s a bit odd on its face to claim that the cruelty of his regime was suddenly supposedly intolerable by the end of 2002 (more so given that it took more than four months between the U.S. authorization of force and the actual invasion), in a way that it had not been a decade and a half earlier, when he was an American ally.

Moreover, not only was the Iraqi regime not actively committing some kind of genocide at the time of the invasion (again, not the stated reason for intervention at the time it happened), but the U.S. and the world had already pretty effectively contained the regime over the course of the 1990s.

No, Iraq wasn’t doing great by the end of 2002 — it certainly couldn’t be expected to under the weight of massive sanctions from around the world — but it was probably more stable and less violent than it had been for quite some time. And that wasn’t by chance.

With US/UK no-fly zones operating continuously from 1991 to 2003 to protect the Kurdish population and the Shia population from Iraqi air campaigns — the U.S. alone flew more than 200,000 missions by the beginning of 1999, often taking a lot of Iraqi anti-air fire — along with other protective measures for the persecuted zones, the bad old days were basically over (by comparison to what preceded or followed anyway).

Again, I recognize it was certainly far from ideal. Dissenters and sectarian minorities were still being persecuted at the hands of the regime in the Sunni areas and on the ground in the south, but that’s a situation that happens in authoritarian regimes the world over. In stark contrast with the 2003-2011 U.S. war, the ad hoc solution from 1991-2003 involved very little loss of life on either side — somewhere in the range of 50 people were killed during the no-fly zone operations — and it prevented the regime from going around bombing and gassing everyone (or sectarian extremists from killing each other). By the end of 2002, the world had a pretty solid handle on keeping Iraq stable and non-genocidal. Then George W. Bush’s invasion happened.

At that point, the whole country broke. Just plain fell apart into total violence and an extremists’ free-for-all where everyone could avenge every old wrong. We had no plan, no resources, no experience, and not enough troops, and we just decided to wing it. And the inevitable result was just total pandemonium and wholesale destruction.

We did that. That’s on us. And we never really did fix it before we left. (Which isn’t an argument for staying indefinitely, as I’ll get to in a moment.) There’s no way that was better than the default situation in 2002 where the persecuted populations were protected from mass slaughter and everyone else had it bad but weren’t living in an unending hell (one which never ended).

Now as ISIS pours over the border from Syria, capturing four major cities (including the country’s second largest) and perhaps soon the northern oil fields, while the Iraqi Army falls back into a chaotic retreat, U.S. pundits — the war everywhere always brigade — are asking each other whether it’s time to re-intervene in Iraq.

Because apparently a permanent U.S. military engagement from 1990-2011 wasn’t enough. Because apparently we didn’t do enough damage in the second round while trying to “help.”

Look, I’m no isolationist. I’m actually even an advocate for humanitarian military intervention in many cases, to the point of annoying some other progressives. But I try to be smart about it and historically conscious. And right now, right there, this just isn’t one of those cases.

Iraq now is like when you break an antique, keep trying to help fix it, and everything else around it breaks in the process and the big pieces keep breaking into smaller pieces. Finally your grandma tells you “just stop.”

Colin Powell is alleged to have once said, prior to the 2003 invasion, that there was going to be a “you break you bought it” policy on Iraq with regard to American involvement. Thomas Friedman dubbed this the “Pottery Barn rule,” in spite of Pottery Barn not actually having such a rule. But either way, one imagines that if you blew up an entire Pottery Barn store, you would not be asking “hey so do you think I should go back and help out?” two years later when someone else accidentally broke a vase.

We need to stop “helping” Iraq.

Surprise! The “surge” in Iraq never worked.

iraq-map-ciaNew York Times headline today: “Qaeda-Linked Militants in Iraq Secure Nearly Full Control of Falluja

The city of Fallujah, located on the Euphrates river, is 43 miles west of Baghdad, the capital, which is on the Tigris. It’s a major Sunni city and was the site of heavy civilian casualties in the 1991 Gulf War and then of bitter fighting in 2004 between the United States military and Sunni insurgents aligned with al Qaeda. The United States lost control of the city then, but regained it with a very heavy push that year, which included the intentional use of chemical weapons against insurgents and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes. The city has now essentially fallen to Sunni insurgents once more.

Remember how conservatives just spent the last five years insisting that George W. Bush’s “surge” actually “won” the War in Iraq and made it possible to leave? It’s pretty clear right now that that was a bad assessment.

I mean, on its merits it was clear to me that it always had failed, because it never achieved its primary goal of creating space for political solutions to the civil disarray. Well, it may have created the “space” but no solutions — or even dialogue — ever happened. And that was the entire premise upon which success should have been measured.

So we just left later than we should have, with a higher body count than before the surge and nothing to show for it. But conservatives kept insisting it was a huge success. Anyone who disagreed was supposedly just a Bush-hating liberal who couldn’t admit being wrong.

Now Iraqi violence is the highest it’s been in five or so years and large parts of the Sunni areas are falling like dominoes to a miniature, transnational Syria-Iraq militant empire affiliated with al Qaeda. It’s the successor group to the old Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia unleashed after the U.S. invasion in 2003, except now they’ve gotten control of giant sections of not one but two countries, away from the respective non-Sunni national governments of the bordering countries.

One Trillion Dollars

Bold rhetoric from Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL-08), as the cost of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq crosses the one trillion dollar mark, with another $33 billion allocation coming up for a vote soon. Excerpt:

The war money could be used for schools, bridges, or paying everyone’s mortgage payments for a whole year. It could be used to end federal income taxes on every American’s first $35,000 of income, as my bill, the War Is Making You Poor Act, does. It could be used to close the yawning deficit, supply health care to the unemployed, or for any other human and humane purpose.

Instead, it will be used for war. Because, as Orwell predicted in 1984, we’ve reached the point where everyone thinks that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia. Why?

Not because Al Qaeda was sheltered in Iraq. It wasn’t. And not because Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan. It isn’t. Bush could never explain why we went to war in Iraq, and Obama can’t explain why we are ‘escalating’ in Afghanistan.

So, why? Why spend $1 trillion on a long, bloody nine-year campaign with no justifiable purpose?

Remember 9/11, the day that changed everything? That was almost a decade ago. Bush’s response was to mire us in two bloody wars, wars in which we are still stuck today. Why?

I can’t answer that question. But I do have an alternative vision of how the last 10 years could have played out.

Imagine if we had decided after 9/11 to wean ourselves off oil and other carbon-based fuels. We’d be almost ten years into that project by now.

Imagine if George W. Bush had somehow been able to summon the moral strength of Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, or Martin Luther King Jr, and committed the American people to the pursuit of a common goal of a transformed society, a society which meets our own human needs rather than declaring “war” on an emotion, or, as John Quincy Adams put it, going “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”.


Imagine that we chose not to enslave ourselves to a massive military state whose stated goal is “stability” in countries that never have been “stable”, and never will be.


“Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”

I post this here not to say I agree with everything he says, as this is a political statement and not necessarily sound policy, in my view… but I do feel it’s important to acknowledge another awful milestone in the interminable wars. His Nineteen Eighty-Four reference is brilliant, and one I use often myself.

And while I would disagree with the assertion that we are enslaved to a massive military state, it is troubling that it’s so easy to summon endless funded and unfunded allocations for military endeavors, while it is difficult to get the votes to increase spending by anywhere near the same amounts for social programs and societal improvement projects, such as those he mentions. In other words, had we not gone into these wars, we never would have spent all that money on anything. It’s ok to spend heaps on wars but not on things that make America stronger at home in the long-term, such as improved education or a clean-energy revolution.

I make this criticism as someone who actually does advocate an active military stabilizer/intervention force that can halt humanitarian crises and genocides, and as someone who supported the original Afghan invasion and opposed the Iraq War. We need to re-prioritize. Of that, I am sure.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.