Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why Unwinnable 'Wars' Are 'Stupid Stuff'

September 23, 2014, 11:50 a.m.

Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

Add 'Impossible to Win' to Objections to War With ISIS

"A strange game.
The only winning move is not to play."
-- Computer's conclusion about the war game "global nuclear war," from movie "War Games" (1983)
"You can't win, you can't break even
And you can't get out of the game
People keep sayin' things are gonna change
But they look to us like, you're stayin' the same . . .
You can't win, you can't win no way
If your story stays the same, no, no"
-- Charles Emanuel Smalls/Michael Jackson, "You Can't Win"
"We're waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!"
-- Pete Seeger, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"
"Don't do stupid stuff."
-- "The polite-company version of a phrase [President Obama's aides] use to describe the president's foreign policy." Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2014.
"After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State [which] is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi Army."
David D. Kirkpatrick and Omar Al-Jawoshy, "Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq," New York Times, September 23, 2014, p. A12
"The United States and five Arab allies launched a wide-ranging air campaign against the Islamic State and at least one other extremist group in Syria for the first time early Tuesday . . .."
-- Ben Hubbard and Alan Cowell, "U.S. and Allies Strike ISIS Targets in Syria," New York Times (online), September 23, 2014


There is a rather long list of categories of reasons why our third military adventure in Iraq is a bad idea. They are very briefly reviewed, below.

But for those for whom none of those categories seem persuasive, we now have another: A "war" with ISIS, in which the U.S. is a leading force, can be neither fought nor "won" by the standards of any reasonable definition of those words.

This is not the same as saying America is no longer the preeminent military force in the world, more advanced in technology and larger in resources than the next 10 countries combined. It still is. It is not to say that our military is less able and macho than the ISIS fighters. It is not. It is only to say that there are some places and times in which we cannot fight and win anything resembling a war. Whatever it is we want from others, whatever our "national security" may require, they must sometimes be achieved with methods and strategies other than military -- not just in addition to military but instead of military.

As I once put it to President Lyndon Johnson, "You can't play basketball on a football field." In that instance, Viet Nam was a country in which we would, inevitably, be viewed as only the latest in a centuries-long history of foreign invaders, entering into a form of civil war, in a country with an unfamiliar language, history, mythology, religion, social structure, and geography, where our "enemies" refused to wear uniforms and thus were indistinguishable from our allies, there was no World War II-like "frontline," and land was won, lost and won again with ever-increasing American (and Vietnamese) deaths.

In that war effort, a high administration official and I came up with a couple of alternatives, only half in jest. We calculated a cost of $500,000 for each Viet Cong killed in our effort to "win hearts and minds." What if we were to simply give every Vietnamese $250,000? They would consider it a fortune; it would cut our costs in half; and would probably win more "hearts and minds" than killing them. The other possibility was to withdraw our soldiers and replace them with realtors, whose mission would be to simply buy up the entire country one hectare at a time.

Neither of our proposed options proved to be popular with the President, who decided about that time that rather than continuing my responsibility for sea lift to Viet Nam, I would make a really terrific FCC commissioner.

If you can't play basketball on a football field, you certainly can't play basketball in the desert sand. The ineffectiveness, indeed the negative contribution, of our military efforts in the Middle East have much in common with our failures in Viet Nam.

Others have cited a range of categories of concerns about our Middle East military adventures -- as have I in "Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014; " Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014; and "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014. [The next day, September 24, the New York Times' editorial board outlined some of these categories as applied to Syria in Editorial, "Wrong Turn on Syria: No Convincing Plan," New York Times, September 24, 2014, p. A30.]

Some find our war effort unjustified by their standards, citing rules of war grounded in international law, religion, philosophy, morality and ethics. Others believe the military action is unauthorized under the letter and spirit of our Constitution and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Frightening the American people into supporting the war on grounds we are under threat of imminent terrorist attack in the U.S. is challenged as, at minimum, unwarranted (e.g., Senator Lindsay Graham, "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home.") Our military actions are self-defeating insofar as they increase, rather than decrease, (a) the ability of ISIS to recruit additional terrorists from now some 74 countries, and (b) the likelihood of terrorist attacks within the United States. The list goes on and on, including in the three prior blog essays linked just above.

Tom Tomorrow, in his usually incisive way, illustrates some of the folly in our Iraq adventure in this week's "cartoon":

[Source: Tom Tomorrow, "Building Blocks of War," September 22, 2014, Tom Tomorrow, "This Modern World".]

There is a kind of disquieting irony in the last three quotations at the head of this blog essay: President Obama's pledge not to do "stupid stuff," followed by the Times report that our numerous air strikes over Iraq, coupled with the Iraqi military's ineffectiveness, have failed to restrict ISIS' hold on Iraq land; and then the news 24 hours later that the bombing strategy that failed in Iraq has now been extended to Syria. (And of course fighting a "war" against ISIS in Syria -- ISIS being the Syrian government's most effective enemy -- is infinitely more complex and futile than fighting them in Iraq.)

As the other opening quotations illustrate in a variety of contexts, there are some wars, as well as some games, that cannot be "won" -- the computer's conclusion from its analysis of nuclear war that "the only winning move is not to play;" the metaphor of a card game in which the players "can't win, break even, or get out of the game;" and Pete Seeger's image of a war in which we "push on," notwithstanding the fact it is getting progressively worse.

We are not winning our military action against ISIS. There is little prospect that we ever will. Even if we did, as with our "defeat" of al-Qaeda, the likelihood is that another, successor organization will only pop up as ISIS did in this ongoing game of "whack-a-mole." If we ever were to, for the third time, "declare victory and go home" ("Mission Accomplished"), the probability is overwhelming that the results will be similar if not identical to what happened the two prior times.

The "solution"? There is none. There is only the "least worst alternative." We shouldn't have attempted a military action that was not fully supported by our Joint Chiefs of Staff and doomed to failure in the first place. Any option that has "the Great Satan" (the U.S.) as the leading aggressor is highly unlikely to be successful. Perhaps we should slowly abandon overt, conventional military action, limiting our involvement to diplomacy, intelligence gathering, economic and trade sanctions, and trying to restrict ISIS' access to financial resources. I don't pretend to have "the solution."

My only position for now is that "unwinnable wars are stupid stuff."

Now here is a 4:05-minute video excerpt from the 1983 movie "War Games," in which the computer's conclusion is portrayed about 3:50 into the excerpt:

# # #

Friday, September 19, 2014

Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS?

September 19, 2014, 9:45 a.m.

Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands

William Hale Thompson, known as "Big Bill," Chicago's colorful 41st mayor, was in office 1915 to 1923, and again from 1927 to 1931. He chose as his opponent King George V of the United Kingdom (1910-1936), whom he claimed was America's greatest enemy, and threatened to punch him in the nose should they ever meet. [Photo source: Commons, Wikimedia.org.]

So far as we know, King George V wisely chose not to come within arm's length of Big Bill Thompson, nor to respond in any other way to the threat, and ended up holding his office for five years beyond the last term of the mayor.

A part of Thompson's motive in this choice of campaign strategy was an effort to divert public concern about Chicago's crime and corruption during the 1920s -- a kind of "oh, look at the squirrel." But it was also an effort to enhance his own stature -- to say, in effect, "I am big, tough and important enough to stand toe-to-toe with the King of England."

Similarly, it is important for the U.S. to at least be aware of the extent to which we have unwittingly accepted the role of the King in the ISIS script in which they play Big Bill Thompson. What we are doing is creating, supporting and encouraging ISIS' ability to recruit more terrorists and otherwise expand their influence. It can present itself as an organization that is the full equal of the U.S., under attack by the U.S., but willing to stand toe-to-toe with us, give us a punch in the nose, and defend their followers from the Great Satin. [Photo source: Commons, wikimedia.org; 1911 coronation portrait by Sir Luke Fildes.]

Now for us to "be aware" of the unintended consequences of our speech and actions is not the same as "we should, like the King, simply ignore ISIS." Many choices in life are, as the punch line in the joke puts it, "compared to what." A rational, benefit-cost analysis may come to the conclusion that, no matter how much we are aiding ISIS in achieving its goals, the damage we are causing to our cause is less than if we were to abandon military action. That's a topic for another blog essay. This discussion is merely designed to explore the ways in which our talk and actions are aiding, rather than harming, ISIS.

As ISIS' latest professionally produced propaganda film demonstrates, however evil and barbaric these folks may be, they are also very skilled manipulators of public opinion. Without America's military involvement in Iraq ISIS is nothing but evil and barbaric -- in the eyes of Iraqis as well as Americans. With our involvement, ISIS (Mayor Thompson) has more than a squirrel, it has its King of England (the United States), now "the Great Satin," a western invader, something it can use to divert the population's frustration, despair and hopelessness away from Iraq to a land, government, and people thousands of miles distant. [Photo credit: AP file photo.]

To do this, it needs the support of the American people, something most easily obtained by frightening us into believing that we are at risk of another 9/11. The cheapest, easiest, most dramatic and powerful way to do this is with YouTube videos of a beheading -- or two, or three.

For Bill Maher's take on how ISIS is manipulating the American people to its advantage, watch this video clip from his show:

They know that we have a significant number of weapons manufacturers and hawkish politicians who keep their drum sets in the basement, always ready to dust them off and start beating the drums of war. The "military-industrial complex" of which President Eisenhower warned us has only been strengthened over the years. With pressure from the hawks, and driven by a terrorized population, soon other elected officials find the easiest political stance is to support the option of "war" -- as both the House and Senate did yesterday in authorizing $500 million for the training of troops in Syria. Jonathan Weisman and Jeremy W. Peters, "Congress Gives Final Approval to Aid Rebels in Fight With ISIS," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A10; Ben Hubbard, "U.S. Goal Is to Make Syrian Rebels Viable," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A1.

ISIS needs the U.S. to appear to be waging war with them. Every bomb we drop, every civilian we kill, every American soldier or CIA contractor we put in Iraq or Syria (notwithstanding our "no boots on the ground" policy), further strengthens ISIS' claim that it is both willing and able to stand up to the United States. We increase its ability to recruit more terrorists from an increasing number of countries around the world. "Recruits from 74 countries are among the estimated 12,000 foreign militants in Syria and Iraq, many of them fighting with ISIS . . .." Somini Senguptasept, "Nations Trying to Stop Their Citizens From Going to Middle East to Fight for ISIS," New York Times, September 13, 2014, p. A1. We give credibility to its claim of being a "state." Nor does our constant use of its phrase, an "Islamic State" (the "IS" in ISIS and ISIL) help to reduce its prestige among potential recruits and locals.

In short, we appear to be playing into ISIS' hands, playing their game by their rules, reacting as they predict and desire rather than taking the initiative, providing an essential element of their game plan, without which they would be far less of a threat. To the extent these intuitions are correct, and whatever conclusions one may draw from them with regard to modifications of our anti-ISIS strategy, they would seem to be worthy of serious consideration.

# # #

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III

September 16, 2014, 4:30 p.m.

Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

Why Do We Accept Words Like "Islam," "State," and "Caliphate"?
To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it. And that’s why . . . clear guidelines, oversight and accountability [are] now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.

In the Afghan war theater, we . . . will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but . . . the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. . . .

America . . . take[s] strikes . . . against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people . . ..
[emphasis supplied]
-- President Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President at the National Defense University," Fort McNair Washington, D.C., May 23, 2013

"[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 . . ..” [emphasis supplied]
-- "Authorization for Use of Military Force," September 14, 2001 ((Pub. L. 107-40, codified at 115 Stat. 224).

On September 12 I embedded a column in a blog essay titled, ""Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" -- with links to 10 prior, related blog essays. (Nicholas Johnson, "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7). That column pointed out that the intelligence community seems to have concluded there is presently little to no likelihood of what the White House calls ISIL conducting terrorist activity inside the United States, and it posed the questions, "Why is Iraq War III in our nation's best interests, and if so, what is our goal, our objective, and 'How would we know if we'd ever been successful?'"

But 600 words is not enough to pursue all the related issues, let alone keep up with unfolding events in this adventure. So there may well be even more blog essays to come over time. Here is today's.

It is personally disappointing that there is not more citizen debate on this war -- including within Iowa. There are many ways in which it impacts Iowans. Iowans are sent to war; some never return, some suffer physical and psychological damage that can last a lifetime, too many reduce their life span through suicide. Families are disrupted, with stress sometimes leading to divorce. Fighting wars on a credit card instead of a pay-as-you-go war tax means there is the financial opportunity cost of war -- the trillions already spent, and billions that continue to be spent, are funds that are unavailable for our roads and bridges, schools and libraries, clean water and flood control, early childhood education, financial support for ethanol production and wind energy, mental health and drug programs as an alternative to our use of prisons.

There is considerable evidence, and opinion within the intelligence community, that what we are doing in Iraq as I write this is increasing rather than decreasing the number of Iraq's terrorists both in Iraq and Syria and the likelihood that their anger at America will bring them to our shores.

A Rose By Any Other Name; Whom Are We Fighting in Iraq, and How Does That Affect the President's Authority? Does Our Current Military Strategy Make Even Military Sense?

Naming Rights
Names make a difference. As general semanticist Wendell Johnson once wrote,
A rose with onion for its name
Might never, never smell the same --
And canny is the nose that knows
An onion that is called a rose.
Why on earth would we want to go along with the words the new gang in Iraq want to use to describe themselves: "Islamic State," "caliphate," "ISIS," or "ISIL"? Those words are their efforts at a branding designed to increase their worldwide appeal to potential terrorists, and otherwise increase their status. Our relentless use of their words only increases their power, appeal, and potential threat to us.

They are not a "state" by any definition of the word. They are not recognized as such by the international community, they do not have the organization of a state, and they do not provide the services of a state. It's hard to justify calling something a duck that can neither quack, walk, nor swim like a duck.

Nor are they Islamic. Catholics associated with Catholic Charities are affiliated with the Catholic Church. Catholics associated with the Mafia are not. Alexander Stille, "The Pope Excommunicates the Mafia, Finally," The New Yorker, June 24, 2014. Muslims are entitled to the same distinctions.

Nor are they a branch of al-Qaeda, a distinction with serious consequences for the President's authority to go to war in Iraq -- for reasons explained immediately below. They can be thought of most accurately, and most favorably to our cause, as Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria (QSIS).

Affiliation of QSIS with al Qaeda

Congress can certainly authorize the President's war in Iraq if it chooses. But it has not yet done so. The White House may be able to find authorization elsewhere; but I'm not convinced by its arguments so far. In any event, it is extraordinarily difficult to make the case that a war against QSIS is legal under the authority granted the President by the AUMF of 2001 (quoted above). It limits his power to fighting "those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

There are a number of problems with relying on this document. Given its language and date (2001) it certainly does not appear to be focused on today's challenges in Iraq. Beyond that, for starters, those persons who “planned” or “committed” the 2001 attacks are, for the most part either dead or captured. It is even a stretch to use it as justification for continued pursuit of today's terrorists we consider “members of al-Qaeda.” It is a bigger stretch to say it authorizes using drones to attack “affiliates” of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. But there is seemingly no justification whatsoever for using it as authority for conducting war against an al-Qaeda separatist that is actually fighting al-Qaeda.

Congress may or may not want to provide the President an AUMF for what he has announced he is doing in Iraq. But if they do, whatever form that authorization may take, the one Congress approved on September 14, 2001 is not it.
The repudiation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria came after the failure of repeated efforts by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to heal a dispute between ISIS and the officially anointed al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra that has erupted in fighting in parts of rebel-held northern Syria.

ISIS 'is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,' al-Qaeda’s General Command said in a statement . . .. A U.S. counterterrorism official . . . said Zawahiri had been left with 'little choice but to announce a rupture that, for all intents and purposes, had already taken place.' But despite the weight the al-Qaeda brand still carries among jihadists worldwide, the official said, ISIS 'has never been dependent on AQ core for resources or direction, so the tangible impact of the decision may not be that significant.'”
Liz Sly, "Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq," Washington Post, February 3, 2014.
Mission Creep
Nor is the President's legal position helped by Monday's [Sept. 15] action: "The new campaign included a strike on Monday southwest of Baghdad . . .. The strikes, the Pentagon said, go beyond the United States’ initial mission announced last month of 'protecting our own people and humanitarian missions.'” Steve Kenny, "U.S. Airstrikes Hit Targets Near Baghdad Held by ISIS," New York Times, September 16, 2014, p. A11.

This is not the only evidence of what is more like "mission run" than "mission creep." Assume for a moment that, contrary to the last blog essay, war is the best answer. ["Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" Sept. 10.]
Does Iraq War III Make Military Sense?
"Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out. . . . [As] General Dempsey made it clear, [when] trying to dislodge militants from urban areas like Mosul, airstrikes are less effective because they can cause civilian casualties." Jeremy W. Peters and Mark Landler, "U.S. General to Seek Combat Troops if Airstrikes Can’t Stop ISIS," New York Times, Online September 16, 2014.

“Truly there is no military solution to ISIL,” he said, adding that it could be defeated only with a more comprehensive approach that includes diplomacy. “That may be a tough pill to swallow. But there is no military solution.” Ibid.

Even if there were a military solution, the current military approach -- airstrikes along with only marginal success at putting together a "coalition of the willing" Arab states -- is a long way from the element in the Powell Doctrine that calls for overwhelming force. ("Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should . . . use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory" -- and that only after his eight prior conditions were clearly met. Stephen M. Walt, "Applying the 8 Questions of the Powell Doctrine to Syria," Foreign Policy, September 3, 2013.) [General Colin Powell; photo credit: unknown.]

At the Dempsey hearing, Senator John McCain, not surprisingly, found the military response so far to be "inadequate." Senator Angus King said that airstrikes here and there from time to time struck him as something more resembling a game of "whack-a-mole" than a well-considered military strategy. Peters and Landler, above.

[As will develop over the days to come, and will ultimately be discussed in this blog, there are at least a couple of additional rather significant military obstacles to overcome. (a) Anti-aircraft defenses. Both QSIS and Syria have anti-aircraft capability. There are reports that either QSIS or the Syrian government shot down a plane over Syria just this week. So what? So (1) our bombing efforts cannot be as effective as we thought, (2) more significant, our air war is now, unambiguously, "combat," (3) manned fighter planes are not unmanned drones; there is now a real risk that U.S. pilots can be killed, and (4) if they aren't killed, but are shot down, or otherwise forced to land, General Dempsey has made clear that he will put "boots on the ground" to attempt their rescue. (b) Syria. It is even less clear now than it was a year ago how we can effectively participate in Syria -- with or without combat forces on the ground. Our presumed purpose in entering Syria in any way at this time is to "destroy" QSIS. In addition to the problems always associated with air bombardments in urban wars, and the likelihood of our planes being shot down, we will be fighting (with a goal of destroying) the Syrian government's most effective enemy at this time: QSIS. It is unlikely that we can train enough "moderate" resistance fighters to overwhelm QSIS, and even less likely that all the arms we would supply them would never be taken and used by QSIS forces. And if we were to be "successful" in this effort, which is unlikely, we would have simply aided the Syrian government in oppressing its people further. Thus, our participation in a war in Syria seems even more problematical than our participation in Iraq War III.]

It is, of course, too early to tell how Iraq War III will end -- indeed, whether it ever will. But it is not too early to predict, to sound a warning, and to hope that reason will ultimately prevail.

# # #

Friday, September 12, 2014

Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?

September 10, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

NOTE: There will undoubtedly be updates regarding our Iraq adventure from time to tome. Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

The column, below, was composed and submitted immediately following the President's speech Wednesday evening, September 10, and published today, September 12. It reflects my immediate, personal reactions following that speech. During the 48 hours or more since, it has been both heartening and frightening to see how many individuals who know much more about international law, foreign affairs, policy analysis, and military strategy than I seem to hold similar views.

I had analogous concerns in 2003 and expressed them in the form of "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," a column in the local college paper, The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6. As the years passed, most of those concerns proved to have been valid.

Thereafter I wondered, as I do today about our 2014 Iraq adventure, if my instincts and intuition and limited knowledge are driving me to these concerns, concerns that seem to be shared by others more qualified, why, oh why, are we continuing to pursue such ill-fated approaches? I mean that seriously; what is it that causes our government's disconnect between what seems to be rather widely shared rational analyses by those of independent mind and the policies the government pursues in our name? That, of course, is a column for some future day.

Meanwhile, here is my Wednesday evening effort to understand our most current pursuit of folly, along with today's Press-Citizen editorial on the subject, and links to some prior writing of mine on this and related subjects.

Is War the Best Answer?
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7
We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. . . . As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.
-- General Martin Dempsey, Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 19, 2013

With his speech Wednesday evening, once again an American President is preparing the people for a rush to war in Iraq –- adding Syria to our expanding battlefield. [Photo credit: The Guardian/AP.]

Once again, our oil has found its way under someone else’s land.

Once again, we must turn to our military leaders for the caution and rational analysis borne of their experience in battle and their study of history.

Now I’m not saying the pre-election threat to America from ISIS in President Obama’s scenario is no more serious today than the pre-election threat to America from Albania was in the movie “Wag the Dog.” Those ISIS folks seem a truly brutal lot.

But the intelligence community is much less alarmist than the politicians and pundits. As Matthew G. Olsen, National Counterterrorism Center director, put it last week, “ISIL is not Al Qaeda pre-9/11.” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson agrees: “We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present.”

Moreover, the President’s strategy carries high risk of creating the very threat that does not now exist. Andrew Liepman, former National Counterterrorism Center deputy director says, “It’s pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking.”

Put aside for the moment any moral questions about the inevitable deaths of thousands of civilians. Put aside legal questions about the President’s authority to wage this war, and international law restraints on “pre-emptive war.” Put aside the likelihood that our intervention will increase, rather than decrease, ISIS’ recruitment of terrorists and risk of harm to our homeland. Put aside the multi-trillion-dollar cost for our grandchildren of these Mideast adventures.

What is our goal? The President says it is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. What if the Iraqi Army is not up to that task? What’s “Plan B”? Do we go home, or send in American troops? Are we better off once we’ve destroyed the Syrian government’s toughest enemy?

Have we “destroyed” al Qaeda or just moved it off the front page? Assume we destroyed al Qaeda. How did that work out for us? We got ISIS. Do we really think if we could destroy ISIS nothing would replace it?

What’s our exit strategy? Once we “win,” how do we get out, and what happens when we do? Even if we could eliminate today’s chaos, tribalism, ethnic and religious conflict, why will it not return?

The most fundamental question that’s seldom if ever stated, let alone addressed or resolved is, “What is our ultimate goal, our purpose, for this air war in Iraq and Syria?” As I used to put it to my school board colleagues, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?” Hopefully, our purpose is not limited to executing our “strategy” for winning battles and wars and then come home, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves.

Will we clean up after the party, reconstructing what war destroys? For how long? With how many billions of taxpayers’ dollars? Is nation-building still a part of our Mideast mission?

Even though we’re rightfully enraged over the beheadings, and want to “do something,” unthinking, precipitous action is not always the most effective revenge.
Nicholas Johnson, former Administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration, was responsible for sealift to Vietnam, and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.

Samples of Nicholas Johnson's Prior Writing on Terrorism and War

"Why Unwinnable 'Wars' Are 'Stupid Stuff;' Add 'Impossible to Win' to Objections to War With ISIS," September 23, 2014;

"Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014;

" Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014;

"Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014;

"Syria: Moral Imperatives and Rational Analyses; Spotting the Issues," September 4, 2013;

"Thinking About War -- Before Starting One," March 20, 2013;

"General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006;

"War in Iraq: The Military Objections," International Law Talks: War With Iraq, University of Iowa College of Law, February 27, 2003;

"Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6;

Nicholas Johnson, "Capitalists Can Help U.S. Avert War with Iraq," Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sunday Insight, October 6, 2002, p. A11;

Nicholas Johnson, "On Iraq, Tell the Rest of the Story," Iowa City Gazette, October 2, 2002, p. A4;

Nicholas Johnson, "Let's not get between Iraq and a hard place," Omaha World-Herald, August 13, 2002 (and as published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and as submitted to both);

Nicholas Johnson, "Search for Better Response Than War; Don't Reward the Terrorists, but Understand Their Interests," Des Moines Sunday Register Opinion/Iowa View, June 30, 2002, p. OP3;

Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Terrorism," National Lawyers Guild Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, March 2, 2002.

"Learn the Right Lessons From the 'War on Terror'"
Editorial Board
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7

Has it really been fewer than 18 months since President Obama said it was time for the U.S. to stop thinking about future conflicts in terms of “a boundless ‘global war on terror’ ”?

Speaking in May 2013 — more than a decade after Congress first approved the Authorization to Use Military Force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — the president suggested that the nation, instead, should start viewing such military ventures as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”

The phrasing was meant to refocus the county’s attention toward the supposed endings of such military efforts. It was supposed to stop conjuring up the specter of a never-ending conflict that will continue to require the erosion of civil liberties and governmental checks and balances.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said at the time. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

During his national address Wednesday night, however, the president again raised the specter of an open-ended, military involvement against a terrorist organization that calls itself the “Islamic State” (aka ISIS, aka ISIL) and is scattered throughout the Middle East.

Speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Obama at times sounded like a saber-rattler. (“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. … If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.) And at other times, he risked sounding more like a stand-up comedian. (“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. … And ISIL is certainly not a state.”)

But the president did manage to outline a clear, four-step response to the long-term threat posed the Islamic State:

• 1: The U.S. will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against the terrorist group.

• 2: The U.S. will increase its support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground — whether in Iraq or Syria.

• 3: The U.S. will continue to draw on its “substantial counterterrorism capabilities” to prevent future attacks.

• 4: The U.S. will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to “innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization.”

The president was equally clear that “this is not our fight alone” and that the American military would be playing more of an advisory role — with regional allies being the ones with boots on the ground.

Yet president didn’t address some of the basic questions — like, “What’s our end point?” — that should be answered before the U.S. commits to any “series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”

That’s why lawmakers, when responding to the president’s speech, couldn’t really criticize the tone and resolve. Yet they nearly all said they were waiting for more details to flesh out Obama’s broad strokes.

We’d like to believe Obama is moving past the failed policies of the “war on terror” approach. Yet the president also did raise the specter of Americans (and American intelligence) needing to keep a suspicious eye on allies and fellow citizens.

“We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world,” Obama said, “and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. … And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.”

We’ve seen before how a seemingly never-ending, war-time agenda provides presidents with far too much unchecked authority. How it encourages further mission/linguistic drift and allows phrases like “immediate threat” to come to mean something more along the lines of a threat to someone, somewhere, sometime in the unknown future.

So in their vigilance, the American people also need to make sure that their leaders show they are learning the right lessons from the nation’s past foreign policy mistakes.

# # #

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Labor Day for All

September 2, 2014, 10:45 p.m.
I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.
-- President Abraham Lincoln, "Notes for Speech at Hartford, Connecticut," March 5, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, p. 7

Labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen—human companionship on the job, and music in the home -- to be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father -- to know these things is to understand what American labor means.
-- Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Party Presidential Nominee, 1952, 1956

Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those -- regardless of their political party . . ..
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

Every advance in this half-century--Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another--came with the support and leadership of American Labor.
-- President Jimmy Carter [Previous three quotes from "Presidential Quotes."]

It was working men and women who made the 20th century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.
-- President Barack Obama, "President Obama on Labor Day: The Fight for America's Workers Continues," Milwaukee, Sept. 6, 2010

Yesterday, Labor Day, September 1, 2014, I attended the Iowa City Labor Day Picnic in the Iowa City Park -- as I usually do on Labor Day. There are pictures, below, that capture a wee bit of the spirit of that gathering. It is an opportunity once a year for members and friends of labor to gather, share food everyone has provided (what we used to call a "pot luck" meal), listen to political candidates and quality live music, and generally share what was a lovely summer day in the park.

Most union members have at least some notion of the history of labor in this country, and the sacrifices that were made by our predecessors to gain the right to bargain with management collectively rather than individually. There are brief references to that history in Labor Day speeches, but that's about all. The folks present yesterday know that history, and didn't need anyone to run through all the details.

But the day before Labor Day I put a brief comment on Facebook for the benefit of those who don't attend Labor Day picnics, and are apt to know much less about the history of America's working people. It has since gained a couple dozen shares, and many more comments and "likes." But on the assumption you haven't seen it, I'm going to reprint it here, along with the picture of a poster I used with it.

When I wrote it I had done no research, and just spoke from the heart and memory. As you'll see from the quotes above, which I've just found on the Internet, apparently a great many others -- of all political stripes -- have shared these sentiments over the years, from President Lincoln to President Obama.

Here is that Facebook entry:
Regardless of your politics or what you've been told about unions, take a moment tomorrow to thank "Those wonderful folks who brought you the weekend, the minimum wage, the end to child labor, the 40-hour week, a safer workplace than you otherwise would have had, the decades-long fight for healthcare (remember, health INSURANCE is not health CARE), Social Security in your old age -- among a great many other things."

Remember, they also were beaten and died and imprisoned when they stood up for their rights (and ours) in the face of police and National Guard called out by public officials as much in the pocket of the corporate interests of their day as ours are today. Unions were the muscle that built the post-WWII middle class, and booming economy, and elected officials who talked to each other and did stuff. This poster tells it all: "United We Bargain. Divided We Beg." It's the only way that's ever worked. Since the 1980s we've been begging.
Here's my point. On July 4th every American celebrates the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of our nation. It is not a day limited to the descendants of those who fought in that War -- such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. We all celebrate, we all remember.

No, I'm not saying everyone needs to go to a labor union's Labor Day picnic, anymore than everyone should go to a DAR meeting on July 4th. But on both days, I believe, it contributes to our nation's civic health for all of us to reflect upon the debt we owe to those who have gone before us -- along with the ways in which the economic and other problems we have as a nation today are a product of our failure to remember, and apply, the lessons we should have learned when labor unions were a partner with business in building one of the greatest periods in our history.

From 1945 until the 1980s unions were strong. The rich paid substantial taxes, and income inequality was nowhere nearly as stark as it is today. The economy was booming; union workers were paid well, and spent freely, which increased the profits of business, created a demand for more jobs, enabled parents to afford college for their kids, and kept things humming. As a result, both the rich and their workers did better than they otherwise would have.

We need to realize, for example, that what is called a "raise" in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 is not a raise at all -- it is merely bringing the minimum wage back up to the level of buying power it had in 1968.

When Wall Street and big business treat the human mothers and fathers who are their workers as a "cost center," and expense item -- even putting aside the human consequences for a moment -- the resulting decline in the economy, as those workers lose buying power, ends up harming the rich as well as the poor.

Unions, the ability of workers to bargain collectively rather than individually, and to be paid at least a living wage, has always been the only way to maintain any economy -- especially one like ours that is 70% dependent upon consumer spending.

OK, enough of all that. Here are some pictures from a great Iowa City Labor Day.

Here is what the shelter and the grounds looked like when I arrived on my bicycle. Tom Jacobs took this picture; the others are ones I took. Congressman Dave Loebsack had a lot of Labor Day events to hit yesterday, and so was allowed to speak and run before all the food had even been set out.

But the food was soon laid out on a table as long as the shelter house for these folks who like to talk almost more than they like to eat. Some stayed out in the sun, but most gathered at the shelter house tables, as I did.

One of the continuing highlights of the event most years, as it was this year, was the very generous provision of live music throughout the afternoon provided by Pigs and Clover, otherwise known as Matt and Jamie Kearney. They have one of the greatest collection of union songs I've ever heard, great voices, a driving guitar and drum rhythm, and a good sense of fun.

To give you a sense of the music (and the crowd noise) here is a one-minute excerpt from their rendition of "Mean Winds" (taken by me with an iPhone):

As a special event, our Johnson County Attorney, Janet Lyness, took and passed the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge executed by her daughter.

All in all it was a really great day.