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Elayne Riggs

Can I just say that, if I had a time machine, I would encourage Adolf Hitler to pursue his artistic ambitions and give him a real positive review on his paintings?

There you go, I've pre-invoked Godwin's Law in case you need it.


I'm kind of in the same boat as you here, Lance. I'm faintly reminded of the scene in Christopher Stasheff's Her Majesty's Wizard where the title character realizes that while he might know a fair amount about a diverse range of subjects, all that means is that he's not an expert in any of them, and so that knowledge doesn't count for a lot. (Of course, unlike him, I haven't been transported to a plane of reality where all my apparently-useless knowledge makes me into a skillful magician who can defeat bad guys, fight armies, and rescue princesses. Ah, well.)

To answer the question you pose, I don't know. My inclination is that we ought to do something, although exactly what we ought to do I have no idea; I don't think we should move in ground forces, and I don't think we should continue bombing. Times like this, I struggle with my Quaker belief system -- I'm committed to peace in all things, but good God, someone must do something to help the innocent people being oppressed and killed over there. I wish I was wiser and knew what that was.

I happen to have been right about Iraq (this is no great claim to fame; plenty of people smarter than me were right for better reasons), and I do feel that President Clinton failed morally (I don't know enough about geopolitics to really say otherwise) on Rwanda. But if I'd been there, and if by some strange chance he'd taken leave of his senses and asked a kid just out of high school (I've forgotten just what year that went down, but I think that's about right) what exactly he should be doing, I wouldn't have had the first idea how to advise him.

It's actually kind of infuriating. On the other hand, I'm just a former mailman and once-again student; all my training's either been in, you know, sorting, transporting, and delivering mail or esoteric stuff like comparative religion, history, American politics, and obscure sports trivia. On the other, isn't this the sort of situation where we have presidents, senators, congresscritters, and their advisers for?

To answer the rest of your questions for the record, even though I do take it that the point you're trying to make is in the asking, not in whatever answer we might give:

Kuwait was a mistake, I've always thought -- not because of the end result, which I have no problem with (anything that increases the power of men like Saddam Hussein is at best morally questionable), but because I didn't like our motives and our mucking around for the umpity-umpth time in Mesopotamia. The Kurds have been comprehensively screwed for the last few centuries, and we should have kept our promises to them; likewise, I think that it was both just and right to intervene in Kosovo, because good God, if we stand by and watch genocide happening and do nothing, what good are we as a people?

The Tora Bora campaign I felt was a useless dumb show, more about President Bush and his administration looking like they were tough warriors than actually accomplishing any of the stated goals. I have a suspicion that I'm one of very, very few Americans who was and is angry about the death of Osama bin Laden -- not because I carry any water for that miserable, evil man, but because I don't believe that the state (even when "the state" is the United States, the country I believe in and love most) should ever go around murdering people. I would have been very pleased had he been arrested and put on trial in a civilian criminal court, and then, presumably, locked away where he could do no harm ever again. (I feel that way very strongly about all terrorists, actually.) And Libya... hell, I don't know. I suppose it was handled as best as one could expect, but still, what a mess.

One final note to end my wall-o-text. Many, many happy returns on the tenth anniversary. I've been reading your blog daily for... I guess just after you started blogging; you're still my first stop in the morning. Please continue as long as you enjoy doing so.

Mike the Mad Biologist


The way I look at this is that, over the last 20 years, every time (with one exception), when we have intervened militarily (and airstrikes are an intervention), we have ended up making things worse, especially over the long-term (Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Libya). The one exception to this was piracy in Somalia, where our allies were sincerely on-board (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) with stopping piracy (i.e., our allies were allies, not 'allies'); in those precise, limited terms, we were successful (though Islamic militancy can still be found there).

This glorious epic of failure suggests that our national security apparatus (both within and without the halls of government)–which has a cycle time much longer than than a presidential term has no #$%^&! clue as how to conduct a foreign policy initiative with a military component.

Note that last sentence: Obama, to his credit, has had a notable success in removing WMD (gas weapons) from Syria (just in time it seems). But that was mostly a diplomatic initiative, not a military one.

At some point, we need to realize that our foreign policy system (the precise word/phrase is failing me) simply can't 'win a war'–or at least the wars they want to fight.

Perhaps then, we should stop fighting those wars?


As usual, Mike says a lot of what I'd like to say -- and far better than I think I'm capable of saying it, too.

Doug K

there was an AP article in the moderately right-wing Denver Post on how all the trouble in Iraq started with the 1979 revolution and occupation of the US Embassy. I wrote to suggest the trouble really started with the 1953 CIA overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iraq, replacing him with the Shah, and thereby starting the process of cooking up radical US-hating opposition. They don't hate us for our freedoms, they hate us because we took their freedoms away from them..
Al Qaeda and Osama were funded and trained by the CIA to fight in Afghanistan. ISIS/ISIL was created by the botched Bush-league invasion. Maybe it's time to stop and try something different from war - maybe we should spend all that military budget on food and education in Iraq - maybe I'm just a dreamer..


Whatever is done about ISIS needs to be done with, and only with, the informed consent of the people of Iraq, Syria, and other interested parties. Too many actions occur without consulting the people most affected by those actions.

Davis X. Machina

We need to do nothing, and be seen to do nothing. In a manner of speaking we need to be seen to do less-than-nothing.

It's only by not doing anything in a dramatic and highly visible way that we can begin to atone for our prior sins in the region.

Sure, it'll suck to be a Chaldean, or an Alawite, or a Yazidi, or a Shia, or an ecumenical Sunni in much of the plain of Nineveh, because the local actors with the means to do anything don't give a rat's ass. And we can't do anything either, albeit for different reasons.

But that's a small price to pay in order to show the world that America is really over it this time.

Whatever the evil is, it's not as evil as American hegemonic bigfooting.

Ken Muldrew

Lance wrote,

"I can be fairly confident I’m smarter than almost every single member of the Press Corps but that’s not saying much, and it’s only because the conventions and practices of their reflexively group-thinking profession make them stupid."


"I think we really need to do something to stop ISIS."

What do you know about ISIS that you haven't learned from the Press Corps? Do you have any trustworthy sources with firsthand knowledge of ISIS and their actual behavior?

American foreign policy is always driven by domestic politics. Domestic politics are too much driven by the Press.

Congratulations on your 10th anniversary. Keep writing bold opinions even when they differ from those held by smart people. Smart people, like the poets, tend to lie too much.

Lance Mannion

Ken, Thanks. I'm good for at least another 10, I hope. All I know about anything is what I read in the newspapers, but I always make a distinction between the political press corps and other journalists and reporters.

Philip Ebersole

I think that President Obama is a brilliant politician, but his brilliance consists in defending the status quo in a way that makes him acceptable to progressives and reformers.

He has staffed his administration with holdovers from the Clinton and Bush administrations, and his policies in regard to Wall Street, business regulation, military intervention and government secrecy are continuations of the policies of those administrations.

I admit I am not smart enough to know how to deal with ISIS. There may not be a way to deal with ISIS.

I'm pretty sure that ISIS can't be defeated by means of bombs, flying killer robots and passing out weapons to people of dubious loyalty, while continuing to try to overthrow the government of Syria, which is one of the main enemies of ISIS.

Maybe this is a Middle Eastern problem that it is up to the people of the Middle East to solve.


"Sure, it'll suck to be a Chaldean, or an Alawite, or a Yazidi, or a Shia, or an ecumenical Sunni in much of the plain of Nineveh, because the local actors with the means to do anything don't give a rat's ass. And we can't do anything either, albeit for different reasons."

Let me get this straight: it's okay for them to die as collateral damage because we need to be seen doing nothing?


I am here because this showed up in my FB feed. (Thanks Ed Kazala.) I'm only going to comment on the immediate situation, which is obviously, the IS(IL) problem. Doing nothing at this point, is not an option. You can argue that all our information is filtered and may not be accurate, but it's all we've got to go on. Furthermore, we've had a hand in creating this situation, and have a responsibility to attempt to undo our complicity here. Whatever we do, will create more death, and most likely more extremists. I am under no illusion here. Arming the so called moderate rebels in Syria is a fools errand. Even the moderates have the stated objective of overthrowing Assad, which we claim to support, but under current conditions we may not. Look at what happened in Egypt where we supported free and open elections only to change our mind once the Muslim brotherhood took power. What happens if the so called moderates in Syria, with our help, oust Assad, and then it becomes clear that IS is the more dominant force in the vacuum? So, what should we do?

If the stated policy is to eradicate IS, it is not a realistic one. It would seem that the best possible objective would be one of containing the immediate threat in the region. No solution along these lines is possible without cooperation from the various sectarian factions and state actors in the Middle East, and I would add Turkey and Russia into the mix. I would argue that whatever coalition is formed, the containment needs to be inside of Syria. Force the fighters that are inside of Iraq, and push them back inside of the Syrian territory. This puts Assad in the position of defending himself from his detractors and opposition, and most likely will involve support from Russia, and possible other sectarian groups from around the region. This would seem to run counter to our previously stated position of removing Assad from power. Under the current circumstances, I don't see any other viable option.

Davis X. Machina
Let me get this straight: it's okay for them to die as collateral damage because we need to be seen doing nothing?

Yes. If I've learned one thing from all the progressive and liberal blogs I read, it's that there's nothing worse than American imperialism. So putting it in a cage is worth any price -- especially if it's paid by people I don't know.

It's American exceptionalism in reverse. It's not that we're a Shining City on a Hill -- rather the opposite -- it's that we're the Focus of Evil in the World.


JD, Davis X Machina, his point was that American intervention is highly likely to make things worse. See Iraq for an example - we made Saddam look good!

James Nostack

"Let me get this straight: it's okay for them to die as collateral damage because we need to be seen doing nothing?"

They wouldn't die as collateral damage: they would die because it seems to be the express goal of ISIL to kill them. And it isn't "okay" for them to die: it is a horrible, unimaginable tragedy.

But since 1953--61 years!--the United States has proven that its intelligence, military, and diplomatic systems are operating from a state of near-total ignorance and incompetence. I would almost argue we are worse than ignorant: we possess anti-knowledge and anti-competence at anything resembling a political grand strategy.

It is horrible that these people will die if we do nothing. Many more people will die, over the course of untold decades, if we "do something." (And many of the people who urge us to "do something" often mean "do anything!", and all too often that translates to "let's kill some people," because the alternative, as nanute points out, is to achieve "cooperation from the various sectarian factions and state actors in the Middle East, and I would add Turkey and Russia into the mix," which if it could be done easily would have been done long before this.)

Your alternatives are: weep impotently as people are killed; or, kill other people perpetuating an endless cycle of violence that will kill many, many more on a matter that is, viewed coldbloodedly, not a matter of our national interest; or, achieve some miracle of diplomatic cooperation in which the governments of the world's most volatile region, many of whom are funding ISIS, agree to collaborate to end ISIS.

Those seem to be the basic options. Weeping impotently is horrible, but it seems like the most realistic outcome.

John Thompson

Clinton did not fail morally or geopolitically by avoiding military intervention in Rwanda. The geopolitical aspect is obvious - our security was unaffected by events in Rwanda, and our access to markets or commodities in which Rwanda participated was not hampered. But the moral aspect deserves some consideration also.

If you read the Wiki on the Rwandan Genocide, you will see that the Hutu were disfavored by the German colonial forces during the 1880s, and that their lands were reapportioned among the rival ethnicity, the Tutsi, much like the land settlements following Cromwell's invasion and occupation of Ireland. There was a civil war going on, and the Hutu who committed the massacres had substantial grievances with the Tutsi going back at least as far as the German colonial period. What would our intervention have accomplished? If Iraq is any indication, we could stop large troop movements through maintaining air superiority, and we could reduce a civil war to assassinations and car bombings in the short term. And then, as soon as we leave, the old grievances return.

Whatever moral obligation we have to the innocent men, women and children of the world, we have an equal or greater one to those that we would put in harm's way. That obligation is to identify a promising strategy or to withdraw if there are none.

CP Norris

"And what I want to know, more than that you were right about Iraq in 2002, is if you think Bill Clinton failed morally and geo-politically when he did nothing about Rwanda."

A lot of people seem to have some kind of Rwanda intervention that happened in their heads and went really, really well. And they use it as an argument in favor of other wars. (For others, there's a war against Germany that began in 1936 and went much better than the WWII in this universe.)

Bill Clinton had many moral failings but that wasn't one of them. We simply don't know what would have happened in a US invasion of Rwanda. It's not clear to me that we know what the plan would have been. It's not even clear to me that we'd be on the same side as our fellow Security Council member, France.

If I had to lead it, with 100% hindsight, I guess I would destroy RTLM's main transmitters (though they had mobile transmitters once they started fleeing west). I'd preemptively disarm the refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania, though that would do nothing for the genocide proper. But I have no confidence in those proposals, because I don't know how many American or local deaths I'd be willing to tolerate.


Lance -- Congrats on ten years. Feel indebted to James Walcott for stumbling on to you. I feel like we have must have the same spirit animal.

Don't sell yourself short or self-censor based on perceived shortcomings in knowledge. I enjoy reading you for the questions and self-doubt that make so many of you essays present as journeys toward getting it right, whatever the "it" is.

On ISIS, I feel totally at sea as well. I recommend Juan Cole for reassurance. If he's flummoxed by the situation and the potential for a solution, I'd say we're in good company.

News Nag

Do something but both less and more than you're letting on. It's what Buddha and Jesus would have done. Mohammed may have just gone in and kicked ass and been correct as well.

If we, the U.S., hadn't instigated all this in the first place, I'd say stay out of it, maybe. The ultimate threat though is that the Shia-Sunni split in the larger region will be drawn into a widespread and expanding whirlpool of 'taking care of business', with the ferocity of the Iran-Iraq War (which we also ginned up), and with a resultant oil shock like the world has never experienced, and negative repercussions for two to three decades.


I know exactly what you mean. I can't criticize him either, though I try pretty hard sometimes. It always goes soft before I hit publish. Where I've been lucky a couple of times is in assuming whatever he wants to do isn't the disgusting thing everybody thinks it is. For instance in the budget negotiations of 2011 when he was supposedly trying to sell us all out to the Republicans I thought he was doing some tricky negotiation and hoping to give nothing away, and it was true, and he succeeded; and in Syria exactly a year ago, contemplating strikes against ISIS's enemy, I thought he was hoping to avoid adding more violence to the mix without looking as if he was backing down, and that's what happened. This time I don't think I know, but I'm certain, against the media consensus, that he seeks to save civilian lives and the Constitution too.

Philip Ebersole

I took your questions as a challenge to review my own past judgments about all this issues.

. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991, my first reaction was that this was no business of Americans. The United States had no treaty with Kuwait, and Saddam would have been happy to sell oil to Americans.

Then I got caught up in the war propaganda, and became a war supporter. I would have stuck to my first thought if I had realized the United States was committing itself to 10 years of low-level war against Iraq. The bombing and blockade of the Clinton era caused enormous suffering without any positive result.

. During the time of the Rwandan massacres, it never occurred to me to think that the United States should intervene militarily. I was sorry for the poor Tutsis, but not so sorry that I was willing to see neighbors and loved ones sacrifice their lives.

In hindsight, U.S. forces were unable to suppress a Sunni-Shiite civil war while occupying Iraq, so I doubt if they could have pacified Rwanda. The massacre began and ended in 100 days in 1994, so it would have been all over by the time U.S. forces were mobilized.

. I favored the bombing campaign in Kosovo because I believed in protecting the Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleansing by the Serbs. But the result was ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovar Albanians. With hindsight, I see the bombing campaign was a mistake.

The intervention in Bosnia, which I favored at the time, may have done some good, at least more good than harm, but it also is an example of what happens when people want their governments to intervene to prevent atrocities, but don't want to see their loved ones die to accomplish it.

    Tora Bora
. It's too bad that Osama bin Laden escaped to Pakistan in 2001 from his cave in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains. Maybe he would have been captured if the U.S. government had given this higher priority.
    Iraq in 2002
. I was one of those who thought the invasion of Iraq, although based on lies, might work out for the best. I thought that the Iraqi people would be grateful to the USA for having liberated them from the tyrant Saddam Hussein, and that the result would be a democratic Muslim Arab nation in the Middle East whose people thought well about Americans.

Whether or not that would have been possible, it was not the goal of the Bush-Cheney administration. Their aim was to set up a puppet government, get control of Iraq's oil and create permanent military bases in Iraq, while arranging sweetheart contracts for American businesses.

    Killing bin Laden
. I was both glad and ashamed when a U.S. special operations team entered Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. I was glad the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks had paid with his life for the deaths of thousands of Americans.

I was ashamed that the U.S. government conducted a gangster-style execution rather than turning him over to an international court to be tried for crimes against humanity. I am sure the reason why this wasn't considered was that Osama would have revealed too much at his trial that would be embarrassing to the U.S. government. Saddam Hussein was denied a fair trial for the same reason.

. Just to show how slow I am to learn, I was uncertain that the overthrow of the Qaddafi government in Libya was a bad idea. The result was to reduce the country to anarchy, and to make it a safe haven for terrorists. And, like the similar effort to overthrow the Assad government in Syria, it shows foreign rulers that there is nothing to be gained by trying to stay on the good side of the U.S. government.

The governments of Italy and France initiated the military intervention. Possibly the U.S. government joined in so as not to be left out of the spoils.

. I admire the Kurds, based on everything I've read about them. They have fought bravely for their freedom for decades without engaging in acts of terrorism against civilians, they don't persecute people because of their ethnicity and religion.

I would be glad to see Kurdistan become an independent nation, but it would have be created out of territory now part of Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and I'm not willing for the USA to commit to breaking up these nations. I don't have a good answer for this.

So that's my history of bad judgment. What I think I've learned from it is:

The U.S. government should not attack or plot the overthrow of governments who do not threaten us (and by "us", I mean the American people, not corporations that happen to be based in the United States).
The U.S. government should not intervene in foreign civil wars.
Humanitarian military intervention usually isn't.
While the reign of despotic government is bad, anarchic lawless violence is usually worse.
Different strategies and tactics are required for dealing with governments, political movements and criminal organizations.
"Go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." (John Quincy Adams).

joe from Lowell

Traditionally, problems like this are handled by muddling through. Figuring out something to do about the problem that will work well enough for the time being, rinse, repeat.

Muddling through gets a bad name. In a complex situation full of pitfalls, it beat the heck out of the alternatives: 1) some grand plan that's supposed to solve the problem once and for all by getting to the root of things (like the Iraq War), or 2) ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away, sometimes leavened with insisting there is no problem, dammit!

Muddling through is rarely satisfying. Guess what? Politics isn't there to make you feel satisfied.

President Obama seems to be muddling through as best he can, and I'm very glad it's him in charge. I'm glad he has a muddling-through mentality, and I'm glad for his competence at executing muddles.

Jason Street

"That Iraq and with it the rest of the Muslim world was a democracy waiting to be declared was a lie they told themselves to justify their other lies but they believed it and based their military strategy on it."

That's a very good point--and it's the thing that people have a hard time understanding. The people of this region want to be themselves. They don't want to be small "d" democrats. They don't want to be Europeans. They don't want to be Americans. They want to be who they've always been and they want to be left alone. Tom Friedman used to ask for "six more months" because he knew he was wrong about what the people we were trying to help wanted. They wanted nothing to do with us. They didn't want us there in the first place and they don't want us to come back.

In Iraq, there are about 26 million people being terrorized by about 25,000 hardened terrorists who ride around in pickup trucks. Through incompetence and a lack of planning, the government of Iraq cannot deal with this situation so the people are going to have to do it themselves. They are going to have to decide what kind of country they want and build it for themselves. We cannot do it for them (we can help, but we can't become overly involved and do it for them).

For me, the correct response as a liberal is, "if you want to live in fear of ISIS, then that's on you. If you want to be free of their terror, you have to get behind your government and volunteer to go fight them."

Whole entire divisions of Iraqi troops are collapsing in the face of a few thousand fighters. That's a leadership/corruption/competence issue that no amount of American involvement can fix. The Iraqis, having inherited a broken country from us, simply have to go do it for themselves. Yes, America is certainly culpable for Iraq's problems, and for the instability of the region, but our disengagement is an absolute certainty.

What Senators McCain and Graham conveniently forget is that there was, and remains, absolutely no political will for the United States to fight a war on the ground in the Middle East. There's money, blood, treasure and a surplus of vehicles but there is no political will. They want a Democrat to commit the troops so that a Republican can take them out and reverse the Bush stigma.

I hope we don't fight a third Iraq war because someone forgot their history.


I think if one just examines the situation from a purely military perspective, the solution becomes apparent. A group of 10 or 20 thousand men with AK-47s and balaklavas, with a handful of captured tanks for which they have no training or maintenance capacity, and no artillery or air power, is so much weaker than its neighboring states as to be laughable, and those neighbors are themselves quite weak in a world perspective. If ISIS is indeed threatening those states (which, according to the rhetoric emanating from them, it is, though I don't quite see it) then they ought to do something about it. There seems to be this insistence on constantly placing American lives and money on the front lines of every conflict, with no effort made to ascertain whether there are other states who might be more threatened and who might be willing to fight for their own security. And if those other states *aren't* willing to do so, we ought to reconsidered how much of a threat they represent to us.


(1st timer)

The Powell Doctrine states we fight to clearly obtain concrete objectives with more than enough resources to do so.

Alas, even in a democracy without a draft, the search for someone so smart as to reject the idea that we just do 'something/anything' and then--what the heck--muddle through decades of blowback and consequences, (such as: build the ramps so our shattered warrior kids can be wheeled into their houses.)

Say again why we should protect Mecca and Medina on behalf of the Saudis?


vicometepicabia, one thing you forgot in citing ISIS's assets: a lot of money from oil sales and ransom payments. As you know Bob, "money makes the mare go." It can buy help to fill its needs. I'm trying to remember the name of that Iranian arms dealer who was notorious in the 70s and 80s and whose name kept turning up in every questionable thing that happened in that region. Oh yeah: Adnan Khashoggi.

He appears to have retired, but there are plenty of guys like him around, I'm sure.

Dan M

The overriding moral problem with the ISIS problem is that the area ISIS currently controls is not going to be have even the absolute basics of decent government with any amount of effort that under even the remotest consideration. The degradation of every institution that makes life bearable for ordinary people is almost total. Schools, police, water, whatever else you care to name, its just gone.

There are two things that can be justified, though you have to admit what you can't do to approach them correctly. First ISIS must be prevented from taking more territory anywhere the local population is willing to oppose them. This means attacking ISIS's conventional military capabilities whenever they show themselves. JDSAM their heavy equipment to smoking wreckage anytime and any place they try to employ it. As recently demonstrated this makes it impossible for ISIS to take territory in places like Kurdistan. Second make it clear to the ISIS leadership that they will live under the threat of death by drone forever. That won't make them go away, but it makes them spend a LOT of their time an resources trying to stay alive. You just have to admit that more than this is utterly impossible in the absence of a Sunni Arab army run by sane, competent people and capable of extended expeditionary deployment.


@newsnag: "Do something but both less and more than you're letting on."

That's where Obama tends to aim.

Luca M

Can I take you back to the sentence: "I think we really need to do something to stop ISIS."

Who is "we" and where does this compulsion come from. If by "we" you mean the USA and the compulsion is born from an innate sense of exceptional status as a political entity, then I would ask you to revisit the notion that Mr Obama is indeed the smarter guy in your two-hander.

He accepted his status as president of your country with the precise intent of providing a global leadership nobody invited him to claim. This does not suggest an excess of intelligence, emotional or otherwise.

Personally I was happier in a world before the various Bushes and before the younger one asked a certain John R Bolton (looks like Yosemite Sam but acts dumber) to lay waste to the United Nations.

Because it is precisely in these occasions where multi-lateral legitimacy is sought and common purpose required, that the unilateral will of even the brightest president feels inadequate.

I cannot help you in your quest except to suggest to you and your benighted leader, to restore the role of the United Nations, reverse the temptation to retool Nato as a servant of empire, acknowledge where most of the beheadings are taking place ... which is some way south of the Isis terroritories and seek a return to that status quo ante-Bush that gave that unfortunate Mr Fukuyama the dutch courage to mispronounce the end of history.

Isis: first things first. Start by outing the Middle East potentates pouring fuel on the various fires. Render their will and actions transparent to the Western electorates they would have act as their proxies. Reveal who the organ griders truly are and the monkeys they maintain on their payroll in your legislative environment.

Let's have some true visibility and then perhaps we can have another chat. Till then, resist your urge to fix things. Let's carry on talking about your feeings ...


"I’m not bothering with any arguments that are based on the assumption that whatever we do is wrong because we’re the ones doing it."

I disagree conditionally. Everything 'we' do should be scrutinized because of who 'we' are. As MLK not-so-famously pointed out, the U.S. is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," bar none. Violence, in its myriad forms, is our leading export. Whatever we touch has a way of turning to blood, sh-t, and suffering. Until we're ready to acknowledge this, and honestly examine why we consistently work this magic-- whether the executive branch is headed by a 'liberal' or 'conservative' champion-- there's little point in discussing solutions. (For those liberal imperialists and American exceptionalists not inclined to indulge in such generalized, namby-pamby introspection, such an examination could easily and fruitfully be restricted to the current old-lady-who-swallowed-the-fly situation.)

In that vein, of course, expecting a chief contributor to the formation of today's problem to help solve that problem-- without so much as an honest assessment of his contribution-- seems rather dim, and disastrously so. But this is who and what we are, innit?

Tom O'Farrell

Their dilemma is that liberals cannot hang onto their fondly held delusions (well I suppose they are actually illusions) any longer in the face of what is apparently pure evil. Although a lot of them never will change I suppose. Thinking of it another way, we can attack and defeat IS using the Obama policy of air strikes to aid local militaries, or we can do nothing which really means we are siding with IS because we are literally aiding them by doing nothing. It's black n' white, one or the other. It's GW Bush's "They are either for us or against us" applied here. I am for attacking them, each person has to decide for themselves. My gut feeling is that IS is going to collapse quite quickly. They are not numerous, they are relatively lightly armed, they are stretched across larger areas than is prudent from their point of view, and this also means vulnerable supply lines, and no local support. The forces ranged against them are too powerful for them.

Junaid Noori

This post is just weird.

ISIL is no more of a threat than the various militias that exist inside Iraq such as the Badr brigades and the Peshmerga. In fact, al-Nusra is probably likelier to launch a terrorist attack against the US. ISIL's philosophy is that of Zarqawi: the real enemy are Arab despots in the region.

Stop elevating your President. The list of disastrous decisions he has made are huge.

Lance Mannion

Junaid Noori, I re-read my post three times. I can't find where I said ISIS/ISIL poses a threat to the United States. Would you re-read it or actually read it once and find where I said that?

C Fons


I think this a thoughtful post but it lacks a discussion of the reasons why the US intervenes and to what ends. If we can figure this out then I think we can understand why US intervention is almost always a bad idea (WWII yes, Vietnam No).

There are economic, strategic, political reasons why the US invades Cuba, Cambodia, Iraq. The US state serves certain factions and is a faction itself at times, so if we understand the forces that want war, and not just the personalities that are nominally in charge, we can say bombing Somalis or Yemenis is not going to serve our interests.

Another problem is the presentism of this post. Is 10 years really a wide enough scope to understand or evaluate US actions in the Middle East or the world? I think there has been a pretty consistent desire for economic, strategic and political advantage internationally since at least 1898. The 2 parties also have been quite indistinguishable with their imperial aims for quite some time.

Some thoughts.

Lance Mannion

C Fons, I don't think the post lacks any of that. You just put it there. Actually, so did many commenters before you. Which is what comment threads are for. I asked a question. People have responded, thoughtfully and at length, which I appreciate very much. Seems to me you're taking issue with me for not anticipating your comment and writing it for you ahead of time. Which is a way of saying instead of asking the question I should have already known the answer and the answer is C Fors is right on all the points.

C Fons

Wow, just re-read the post and I don't see any analysis of economic or strategic reasons for war.

We must be reading different posts.

Have a nice day.

delia ruhe

I'm just one of those pinko Canadians, who are deeply mistrusted by a lot of Americans -- and I have no special knowledge.

But right now, I'm asking myself why the US has bothered to arm most of the Middle East if not so that they are prepared to fight their own battles. It's they, not America who stand to lose the most if ISIS is not somehow "contained" (to borrow a favourite term from Washington).


I think this is bit of a mixed up post. The start is the somewhat cringe-inducing "Obama is way smarter than me!", then you get around to what seems to be the point, ISIS/ISIL, and say:

"The President, smart as he is, isn’t much help on this. He doesn’t seem to know the answers."

Then you thoughtfully ask for comments, suggestions about how the U.S. should respond to ISIS/ISIL, with an apparent skew toward Obama's position (whatever that is!), even though you said he's not much help.


Plus, Lance, even though you appear to backtrack on it, I think the "Obama is smarter than me" thing is a mixed up, and even dangerous way to approach the relationship between citizen and president/government, for a number of reasons.

1) Saying "I'm smarter than Bush" is being a bit silly and/or obtuse. Bush had advisors for just about every aspect of his presidency, especially foreign policy. They included people who are probably "smarter than you" in lots of ways - Joint Chiefs and their aides are no slouches in the smarts department - including on Iraq, and the Middle East. A whole bunch of us were not as smart as a bunch of people in the Bush admin about Iraq - but we were sure as hell right about Iraq. The same is true regarding Obama. (I'm not smarter than Obama and advisors, but I feel very safe saying I was right about Afghan Surge and they were deeply, awfully wrong.) Giving trust to a government over a particular policy/action because "the president is smarter than me" is very wrongheaded. Imagine an erstwhile Tom Paine writing that about George III, who was, in fact, very, very smart.

2) Many people who don't want us to try to solve a problem in Iraq by bombing Iraq - again (after other agains) - might not be "smarter than Obama," but they might be "right," in every applicable measurement of the word and concept.

3) You almost certainly "smarter" than Obama in a number of ways. I don't think this needs to be explained.

4) Richard Nixon. The guy was crazy smart. Super-smart, smarter than everyone in the room smart. Think about that, and apply your formula to that.



I want to add:

' What happened was that I realized that in order to criticize him I had to make myself smarter by making myself more knowledgeable. Once I set out to do that, though, I was in trouble. The more I learned, the more I learned I had to learn. Worse than that---worse as in a bigger blow to my pride---the more I learned the more I learned that I wasn’t smart enough to learn a lot of things I needed to learn. It’s as Richard Feynman was fond of saying in various iterations: The more I know, the stupider I get.

I found myself having to admit that for seven years I’d been pretty much blogging off the top of my head (If you do the math here, you’ll see I just told you I’ve been at this for ten years. In fact, today is the blog’s Tenth Anniversary.) and that had to stop. '

While I might quibble - not-so-smart people not only have a right to criticize their government, they have a right to be heard - that is extremely thoughtful, humble, and honest, and much needed, in any case. Well done.

doug r

Look, the reason ISIL "took over" parts of Iraq so quickly is that the Iraqi army let them. The Shite President, who spent most of his political life in Shite Iran turned the Iraqi army into a Shite militia which oppressed and harassed the Sunni parts of Iraq. When the Sunni wahabists of ISIL showed up, the Iraqi army abandoned all the nice equipment that the Americans left behind. Some of the local ISIL commanders are former Iraqi army officers, much like the insurgency after the US invasion.
ISIL does not control the whole country. An accurate map shows they control corridors between Sunni towns. A well planned air campaign targeting former American equipment could be extremely effective and splinter and weaken ISIL enough for local forces to rout them.
I think you'll find support for them in the Sunni parts of Iraq disappearing if the Iraqi government develops a more secular army and ISIL weakens and the people get sick of ISIL's shit.

Philip Ebersole

Well, I don't think I'm as smart as Obama, either. As far as that goes, I think the vast majority of Presidents during my adult lifetime were smarter than me. President Richard Nixon, in my opinion, was the smartest of all, both in being well-read and in political astuteness, but that doesn't put him above criticism.

I think the answer to this was given by John Dewey in his defense of democracy. The average voter is not capable of making presidential decisions, but the voter is capable of knowing how those decisions turned out.

In the same way, Dewey said, he himself was not capable of making his own shoes, but he was capable of knowing whether his shoes fit or not.

Lance Mannion

Folks and in particular those of you dropping by thanks to Glenn Greenwald:

"This didn’t mean I decided he couldn’t or shouldn’t be criticized. I certainly didn’t start thinking he was never wrong.

What happened was that I realized that in order to criticize him I had to make myself smarter by making myself more knowledgeable. Once I set out to do that, though, I was in trouble."

This post isn't about whether or not citizens have a right to criticize the government or the President. Of course they do and of course they should, loudly and often. And it's not about whether or not YOU'RE smarter than the President. It's about my responsibility as a blogger not to ask people to waste their time reading my rants when I have no idea what I'm talking about!

And I'm not being humble. I'm being vain. I pride myself on knowing my stuff and it was a blow to my pride when I realized I didn't know as much stuff as I took for granted I knew.

I really don't feel I know enough about what's going on in the Middle East to offer an opinion about what should be done. That's why I asked for help here, and I've gotten a lot of help in these comments. I'm very grateful for that. And I recommend people read the comments as well as my post.

Doug K

Tom Tomorrow sums up the case for war:

We will of course get the manic pixie dream insurgents,
"they will do exactly what we want and nothing more, then politely return the weapons and money"

Like you I trust President Obama, and believe he is playing a game where I don't even know all the rules. But now the bombs have landed, unknown numbers of innocent civilians have died, their family's survivors will not love US..
JD, are these deaths OK as collateral damage ?

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