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Looking at the Elephant from all angles


Convergence of Liberal, Moderate and Conservative Writers Agreeing on Iraq – Universe Coming to an End!

…by  Michael Farrell, Veterans Today Columnist, Futurist and Socratic Provocateur


I haven’t been writing a lot lately, largely because events in areas that I’m interested in are moving so fast that any comment by me would be overtaken by events almost before I could complete a sentence. A great case in point is the situation in Iraq.

At some point, people will stop, look at each other and say, “Joe Biden was right!” about the loose federation concept. Same approach might work for Afghanistan since that place is made up of groups of people who really hate each other; geographic divisions might at least let them cluster into bombs of intolerance and rage which could be turned inward. It’s a thought.

But, when I initially saw the excerpts from Pope Francis’ interview with a Spanish magazine and then tracked down the complete text, I figured that it along with several other articles, should be tossed into the intellectual cauldron at Veterans Today. What I’m seeing is a weird convergence of thought on the role of America in the 21st Century and the role of thought.

There were some great columns in the weekend’s NY Times and then the inimitable Ana Marie Cox had a marvelous insight over at The Guardian. When Friedman, Douthat, Kristoff, Cox and the Pope are all basically saying the same thing, maybe we ought to listen. Now, to steal a phrase from Molly Ivins, it’s probably too much to hope that the Congress-critters obsessed with a misunderstood version of machismo and “American Exceptionalism” can drag their heads away from looking at their own prostates, but as citizens perhaps we should.

Pope Francis first: In many ways, he is really the most interesting man in the world as opposed to a guy from Queens who sometimes drinks Dos Equis. Bit by bit, he’s chiseling away at the accrued bat guano of greed,  insanity,

Pope in Mosque

power and privilege  stretching back to the Milvian Bridge and Constantine’s vision.

Helluva challenge; since I don’t believe in God, I can’t see him succeeding ultimately but as one of his predecessors as prince of Rome, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Any improvement, no matter how small,is no mean accomplishment.”

Besides, how can you not find interesting someone who in his position can say something like this, when asked about his legacy…“I have not thought about it, but I like it when someone remembers someone and says: “He was a good guy, he did what he could. He wasn’t so bad.” I’m OK with that. I have trouble imagining recent popes saying anything like that or using common language, or, for that matter, having the interview in the first place.

Popes are diplomatic, slow and deliberate; Francis is gentle, quick thinking and open. The interview is worth reading but his comment on fundamentalism is critical, and extends further than he perhaps consciously intended.

Responding to the interviewer on the issue of faith-based violence in the world and the nature  of fundamentalism in the world, he said this, which should be required posting on all political, religious, economic and social magazine mastheads. Not, of course, that anyone pays attention to the masthead anymore…

Violence in the name of God dominates the Middle East. It’s a contradiction. Violence in the name of God does not correspond with our time. It’s something ancient. With historical perspective, one has to say that Christians, at times, have practiced it. When I think of the Thirty Years War, there was violence in the name of God. Today it is unimaginable, right?

We arrive, sometimes, by way of religion to very serious, very grave contradictions. Fundamentalism, for example. The three religions, we have our fundamentalist groups, small in relation to all the rest. And, what do you think about fundamentalism? A fundamentalist group, although it may not kill anyone, although it may not strike anyone, is violent. The mental structure of fundamentalists is violence in the name of God.

Now, I think it’s worth noting that Christians continue to practice fundamentalism in various places and times. But, the nature of fundamentalism is the idea of absolute adherence to established doctrine, and the elimination of any dissent from that doctrine. The nature of violence is such that it can be intrinsic as well as extrinsic, psychological as well as physical, social as well as military.

My old friend Mary E. Hunt, co-founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) has written repeatedly of the intrinsic, economic and psychological violence directed against women and the LGBT communities in the Catholic Church specifically. However, we see fundamentalism at work in the Republican Party, where the Tea Party has its own thought police run by Glenn, Rush, Laura and Annie, Sean and Bill.

When politicians talk about litmus tests for the Supreme Court or for nominations for office, they are reacting to a form of fundamentalism. The idea that there are multiple sides to issues simply doesn’t compute with these folks.


Of course, what we see in Iraq today is a conflict over a different view of fundamentalism. The Sunni fundamentalism of ISIS and al Quaida  is matched by Shiite fundamentalism of Maliki and Iran.

Now, this is in many ways the old Churchill dilemma of putting nations where what we’re really dealing with are tribes with flags, or tribes forced into flags.

Interestingly, the religious argument between them has it’s roots not in the Holy Koran but rather in the succession of the Caliphs in the 7th Century. Everything else springs from that — clerics, politicians and people in general feel fine with slaughtering each other over what in fact is a conflict over the drawing of an org chart but doing so in the name of God.

Now, Christianity has had it’s share of these orgies of blood, hate, bile, and self-satisfaction. But, over centuries the perpetrators of such insanity on the violence side have been marginalized. However, what religion has done in Iraq is cover for tribalism. The middle east is really a number of ethnic groups largely captured by a single religion with multiple warring denominations and agendas that are fine-tuned with regional, ethnic, and socio-historic divisions.

The US has responded to it as if it’s a collaborative of rational actors, in sort of a geo-political application of the idea of rational markets. So, not only are we using the wrong mental model to look at the area, we’re using a mental model that doesn’t work.  What could possibly go wrong with that sort of intellectual foundation? Besides everything?

It’s rare that I can read Tom Friedman without having my eyeballs bleed. However, in his column on Sunday, Friedman was perceptive, reasonable and direct; we have no dog in the Iraq fight except the dog we’ve largely ignored. He writes: 

… in Iraq today, my enemy’s enemy is my enemy. Other than the Kurds, we have no friends in this fight. Neither Sunni nor Shiite leaders spearheading the war in Iraq today share our values.

The Sunni jihadists, Baathists and tribal militiamen who have led the takeover of Mosul from the Iraqi government are not supporters of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq, the only Iraq we have any interest in abetting. And Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has proved himself not to be a friend of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq either. From Day 1, he has used his office to install Shiites in key security posts, drive out Sunni politicians and generals and direct money to Shiite communities. In a word, Maliki has been a total jerk. Besides being prime minister, he made himself acting minister of defense, minister of the interior and national security adviser, and his cronies also control the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry. Maliki had a choice — to rule in a sectarian way or in an inclusive way — and he chose sectarianism. We owe him nothing.

He goes on to discuss the two places that are in fact working well in the region: the Kurdish region in Iraq and Tunisia, pointing out that we’ve pretty much left these areas to their own devices while we’ve been being “geo-political”


somewhere else. They have functioning, somewhat inclusive and effective governments, and the people aren’t trying to kill each other.

They reflect in so much as any Islamic nation can those values of Jeffersonian Democracy that we had planned to impose on the region by forcing them on Iraq and then having a “thousand blossoms bloom.”

From this, Friedman comes to an interesting revelation: it’s not about the US or the West or Russia and the Geo-Political stuff we love so much. It’s about the people of the region. As he says, “Arabs and Kurds have efficacy too…”

This leads him to another major insight:

The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them — when they take ownership of reconciliation. Please spare me another dose of: It is all about whom we train and arm. Sunnis and Shiites don’t need guns from us. They need the truth. It is the early 21st century, and too many of them are still fighting over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad from the 7th century. It has to stop — for them, and for their kids, to have any future.

Friedman then wonders about Iran, and comes to the conclusion that the Iranians who plotted with Maliki to get us out so they could “help” weren’t quite so smart. They’re looking at a long, involved period of support in a nasty, sectarian civil war with the inherent explicit and implicit costs as opposed to having US and NATO propping up their henchmen in Baghdad. Interesting issue, and one that I find very ironic.

I envision the US and some other nations providing logistical, intelligence and related support to a largely Iranian “Peace Keeping” force for a long time. If we’re smart, we’ll get Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai to pay for it along with the Iranians; that’s probably a bit to Jesuitical for the State Department and Congress, but it makes a lot of sense.

Friedman finishes on a very high level of perception, especially for him. He surveys the situation, and asks a couple of very telling questions and gives a somewhat unexpected answer for someone usually so conflicted about Iraq and the Islamic world.

Finally, while none of the main actors in Iraq, other than Kurds, are fighting for our values, is anyone there even fighting for our interests: a minimally stable Iraq that doesn’t threaten us? And whom we can realistically help? The answers still aren’t clear to me, and, until they are, I’d be very wary about intervening. 

I think that Friedman has the root of a new US doctrine of global involvement; if you’re not fighting for something that fits in our values or in our true strategic interests we shouldn’t consider getting involved. And, if we can’t figure out a good way to help effectively, we shouldn’t get involved either.

I’m a retired soldier and an activist by nature, but after 63 years I’ve finally learned that there’s no need to save the bad guys from destroying themselves by uniting everyone against US! Be nice if we all learned that…sometimes we’re the windshield, but we can always make like the bug if we’re not careful.

The June 14 2014 edition of the NY Times OP-ED was unique in that it also had a column by Russ Douthat, who usually irritates or bores me. In this case, he looks at the Iraq situation with some real historical perspective, pointing


out that the creation of the states in the middle East was based on some seriously flawed thinking, and with the goal of preserving French and British hegemony as opposed to providing the basis for coherent and effective nation states.

Pointing out how various thinkers since the start of the Iraq war have been re-drawing the map to show how in the best of all possible worlds these various nations could function, Douthat cites Ralph Peters initial effort in the Armed Forces Journal June 2006 issue as the initial draft of a new system of map drawing.

Peters was accused by some of flacking for the Pentagon, which given Peters relationship with the Defense establishment is kind of funny, that he had drawn the map the way the US wanted it redrawn. Actually, as Douthat points out, Peters felt and still feels that US policy makers have a vested interest in keeping the old Franco-British lines in effect, and he thinks that’s stupid. Douthat agrees, and has a clear, concise and effective argument as to why but shows the rational side of letting the status quo stands.

While the USA values diversity and inclusion, the facts don’t belie that. In Europe, the tendency has been toward exclusive states; states that are more cosmopolitan in their makeup — Yugoslavia, the Austria-Hungary Empire, the Ottoman Empire — have largely failed and been split. More coherence has allowed for more national identity and success and what we observe in Europe is the result of several generations of Ethnic Cleansing and two World Wars.

While it might make sense to redraw the map in western Asia and North Africa, Douthat points out that process is not going to be peaceful and believes it’s underway now. Are we ready for generations of bloodshed and chaos to get there? In the long run, perhaps we should be, but it’s always worth remembering that in the long run, we’re all dead. Douthat writes:

This was true even of the most ambitious (and foolhardy) architects of the Iraq invasion, who intended to upset a dictator-dominated status quo … but not, they mostly thought, in a way that would redraw national boundaries. Instead, the emphasis was on Iraq’s potential for post-Saddam cohesion, its prospects as a multiethnic model for democratization and development. That emphasis endured through the darkest days of our occupation, when the voices calling for partition — including the current vice president, Joe Biden — were passed over and unity remained America’s strategic goal.

This means that Iraq is now part of an arc, extending from Hezbollah’s fiefdom in Lebanon through war-torn Syria, in which official national borders are notional at best. And while full dissolution is not yet upon us, the facts on the ground in Iraq look more and more like Peters’s map than the country that so many Americans died to stabilize and secure…Our basic interests have not altered: better stability now….But two successive administrations have compromised those interests: one through recklessness, the other through neglect. Now the map is changing; now, as in early-20th-century Europe, the price of transformation is being paid in blood.

Douthat is one of the more conservative writers on the Times OP-ED and he takes the opportunity there to take a slap at the Obama administration. Since I have a different lens and see this as the fruits of an absurd policy to begin with, I think his analysis is dead wrong.

You deal with reality as it is, not as you wish it could be and demanding doesn’t make it so. The US may have wooed the Sunni warlords during the Surge but in reality, we were all in on the Shiites, and they wanted us out. And so we left and here we are. Ana Marie Cox seems to think that was not only inevitable but a good idea.


Cox is an interesting writer. She started the satirical blog Wonkette, worked for Time starting their Swampland Blog while covering the McCain Palin campaign; she left Time and worked briefly for Air America before that enterprise cratered; wrote a blog and column for Gentleman’s Quarterly and since 2011 has been a correspondent, blogger and columnist for The Guardian.

My theory is that she no longer appears on the Rachel Maddow show because of the famous “tea bagger” incident where she reduced Maddow to blushing giggles and tears. She still appears on the rest of MSNBC. She remains unapologetic about her progressive tendencies and while less whimsical, she continues to write with clarity and fairness.

In her column on June 15, she discusses the Republican complaint about Obama’s imprecise and indirect foreign policy; while seeing substance in the complaint, she looks at it in a different way, that at the moment vague imprecision the best policy for the US and complaints apart, the only one the nation really wants. 

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Cox has the same yearning for clear choices and a certain trumpet that many on the right argue for but, she points out very lucidly, we really need to be careful in what we wish for. Iraq is a mess, largely of our own making and we need to step carefully, not ape Uncle Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace, charging down the stairs to bury more laborers on the Panama Canal in the basement. Rather, she asks us to remember how we got into that mess in the first place.

But let’s remember the way we got in too deep: it wasn’t by underestimating the threat Iraq posed to US interests, it was byoverestimating it. ”Overestimating” may even be too generous. We created a threat when there was none, not out of whole cloth so much as a web of pride, avarice and insecurity.

Obama’s haters on the right – and maybe even some formerly hawkish apologists on the left – need a refresher course on just how much of the Iraq invasion hinged on ego and imagined taunts…. That the Bush administration misled the American people about the reasons for invading Iraq is now all but common knowledge; what we talk about less is why Americans were moved so easily from concern about possible attacks from overseas into almost pornographic nationalism. 

Clearly, we were intoxicated by some heady perfume of testosterone and saddle leather that pulled along George W Bush by the nose. When the Iraq war began, nearly 80% of Americans thought it was a good idea.Almost as many approved of how the president was handling it. Irrational exuberance is not just for markets. How we have sobered since then!

Cox points out that governments are not people, and that the mechanisms of government are supposed to grind slowly, not jump on the first impulsive concept that comes to mind. She believes that Republicans think that Americans want smaller government, by which they understand governments that act like people. Fortunately, that isn’t possible.

The more we expect government to produce magic beans capable of solving some immediate problem, the less capable the government ultimately is to respond to the next one. Using the economic analogy again, if the rational actor in the marketplace is your drunken uncle Bernie or schizo cousin Pearl, you can’t trust the market to make rational decisions. Thus in government — the idea that, as some Republicans claim, the administration considers all options and chooses none strikes her as superior to the alternative — grabbing the first option that fits you underlying desires whether or not it’s going to be effective and going all in on it.

Cox sees an almost metaphysical transformation in the American electorate. After Bush, as a group we no longer see the President as the personification of the state. Part of that is probably due to the difference in attitude, intellect, personality and race between this President and most of his predecessors.

A large part of it is due to the results of the Iraq invasion; as a people, we’re sick of conflict with no end, no logic, no goals and no plausible outcome. Leaving Iraq was inevitable and Maliki screwed himself because he made out exit so abrupt and complete; Afghanistan will probably be slower but still, inevitable. The Islamic world will figure it out or not. As Cox says with much the same insight as Friedman and Douthat, and the Pope,

“It is most certainly a function of having seen so many lives lost, but the American people are comfortable with inaction. Barack Obama’s foreign policy is less of a doctrine than a stance – guarded but cautious, careful but alert … just like us.”  

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