Monday, February 23, 2015

New winds blowing in the Middle East in our fight against ISIS

 Middle Eastern governments needed to fight ISIS are awakening . New winds are blowing thanks to both ISIS’ miscalculations and changes in our allies’ leadership.
 US strategy is to avoid Iraq II by keeping our engagement limited to air support, the spotters, trainers, and equipment needed to help local allies on the ground engage in the actual combat role and joint air support.  It has been an uphill climb for many complicated reasons to get our allies to join us. That is changing.
The Nouri al- Maliki government in control post occupation of Iraq became a Shia despot, refusing to share power with Sunnis and Kurds and replaced the US trained military leadership with incompetent cronies.  ISIS, comprised of Sunnis and Al Qaeda in Iraq, exploited that. Only when al -Maliki stepped down in August 2014 could the US begin to get the Iraqi army up to snuff and better equip the Kurds.  
A complication is that our chief allies in the region are Sunnis as are ISIS and are also engaged in a power struggle with Shia in Iran and in Iraq.  Arab Sunni kings and emirs allied with the US had feared to jeopardize their hold on power since they had many subjects sympathetic to ISIS.
 When ISIS burned to death a Sunni Jordanian pilot, it drove Arab Sunnis leaders and their streets to turn against ISIS. It was a gross miscalculation on ISIS’ part who had hoped to scare off military participation of US’ Sunni allies.   Jordan’s chief religious leaders condemned ISIS as un-Islamic and gave the King of Jordan political and religious cover to engage wholeheartedly.   The United Arab Emirates joined with Jordan.
 Saudi Arabia had nurtured the Wahhabi-Salafist puritanical violent jihadist form of Islam that permits killing of innocents. ISIS embraced the same interpretation. Some Saudi princes were a source of funding of ISIS. An elderly king did little to curb it.  With the new King Salman, Saudi Arabian’s top Muslim cleric February 23 denounced “terrorist groups... who have opted for savage and barbaric practices”.  King Salman proclaimed “terrorism is a scourge which is the product of extremist ideology…It is a threat to our Muslim nation and to the entire world.” Their next step: translating words to action.
An Egyptian secular military dictatorship replaced the Muslim Brotherhood in a 2013 coup.   The Christian Coptic community was subjected to persecution.  ISIS affiliates, trying to position themselves as the savior of Islam against Christian crusaders, beheaded Egyptian Coptic guest workers in Libya. If they thought Egypt would not care, they miscalculated, and Egypt took to the air in revenge.
Turkey’s Sunni Islamist government asked for US military aid to take the fight to Assad in Syria.  However,  Turkey still sees ISIS as the enemy of their enemies, the Kurds and Shia,  and  allows ISIS foreign fighters transit to Syria.
Europe and Australia, after terrorist attacks in Paris, Copenhagen, and Sydney began measures such as crackdowns and passport confiscation to stop their citizens from joining ISIS. In Bosnia, 45% Muslim, moderate and secular, a Salafist cleric recruiting ISIS fighters from unemployed rural youth, was prosecuted.

A version of this appeared in the  March 13 2015.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Who is in denial about ISIS? It is not President Obama

The US is embroiled in a domestic and foreign semantics war. President Obama explained why he uses certain words of “violent extremists” to describe ISIS in remarks at a White House conference February 18.  He unleashed a firestorm from domestic political opponents who  pounced on the President for not using “Islamic” as part of his ISIS tag.  He was “adrift in denial” per Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. Others questioned his love of country because of his “different” background all because he did not use the same words they did.
 It is not President Obama that is in denial.  Those in denial are the ones  who are blind to the fact  that we are in a war for hearts and minds of the rest of the over one billion Muslims who have not bought into ISIS’s ideology or methodology yet.   His critics are conducting a semantics war on Obama,  but  Obama  understands that the use of wrong  words can hurt our efforts to develop an effective alliance and undermine our campaign against ISIS.
 We depend on Muslim allies such as Jordan, the UAE, Egypt, and the Kurds to be the combat boots instead of us.    ISIS’ interpretation of Islam is not our allies’ and they are beginning to put their abhorrence into military action. February 19th Obama called on 60 nations, including Islamic religious leaders,  at a meeting at the White House to discuss combatting the ISIS message. Ticking them and our allies off with hostile remarks about their religion is not a sane strategy.
This is how he explained it February 18:   “Al Qaeda and ISIL …are desperate for legitimacy.  They try to portray themselves as religious leaders -- holy warriors in defense of Islam… And they propagate the notion that America -- and the West, generally -- is at war with Islam.  That’s how they recruit….  Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists and we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with those who perverted Islam”.   Those are not words of a person in denial or “clueless about radical Islam”. They are the words of someone thinking strategically.
Where the critics go very wrong is complaining that his words dictate his military strategy. His actions speak louder than words.  Look at what he is asking: war powers to take on ISIS, even at the risk of turning off his liberal supporters. He is planning to put more boots on the ground, limited to special forces, spotters and trainers. The air war is already in full swing.
There is a legitimate debate about whether to give the President the option of  a mass invasion and occupation of Iraq again. If the proponents of a re-enactment of the Iraq invasion and occupation get their way, this time there would be no end to occupation. Twelve years of occupation did not work.  Other than Iraq II, the critics have offered no workable alternative except more of the same he is already doing. They need to do better than just throwing verbal bombs at the President.

A version of this appeared in the Sky Hi News Feb 27, 2015

Saturday, February 14, 2015

GOP candidates' alarming lack of foreign policy experience and they stumble getting it


Nearly all of the GOP field of potential candidates for president lack foreign policy experience. That is alarming.   Whoever is elected to the White House will assume the mantel of the leader of the Free and Western World and must be able to command respect of our allies if they have any hope to lead them. Given the threats from Russia rising and ISIS inflaming, this is not the time for amateur hour, steep learning curves, and on the job education.  Too many mistakes in judgment calls based in ignorance while learning the ropes could be catastrophic for national security.
Three GOP governors set about lately to fill gaps in their resumes before they begin their campaigns for the White House.  They failed the” worthy of respect” test.  They were nearly laughed out of England.
 A four day visit of courtesy calls and viewing ancient architecture does not bestow credentials of foreign affair expertise on anyone whose total career has been absorbed by state and local issues.  In fact, the governors’ ignorance became painfully obvious when they incorrectly assumed they are on the same page with their host country.   The idea of gaining foreign policy experience is to listen and learn, not to lecture their hosts about what the people they are visiting should think. Stump speeches and campaign modes should be left at home.
 Gaining knowledge of beliefs held by foreigners does not necessarily mean agreement, but it is helpful in watching language and semantics when abroad to make a better impression, to win friends and influence people.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin this month refused to deny the concept of creationism in an appearance on British television. Interviewers’ faces could not mask their raised eyebrows and disbelief.. Walker confirmed what the more secular Europeans believe:    America is full of science deniers still stuck in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. What sells in Kansas on this issue gets few buyers in most of the world.
Chris Christie of New Jersey likewise stumbled when he pandered to a fringe group that opposed measles vaccines.  He allowed it was fine for parents to have a choice in vaccinating their kids. Sen. Rand Paul, though not in the UK, voiced something similar, linking measles vaccines to autism for which there was no scientific evidence.  Both had to do some quick back peddling.
The shrillest voice criticizing the careful semantics President Obama uses in referring to Muslims has been Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana.  He is the same governor who, while visiting the United Kingdom. lectured the English that  there were some parts of Great Britain  that were no go zones for British police because they were controlled by Muslims. That tidbit was news to the British, but it certainly hyped Muslimphobia back home. 
While most Americans usually do not make foreign policy the main factor in voting choices, it might be different in 2016, especially if we have not yet defeated ISIS.   The GOP needs to vet its candidates very carefully if they have any chance of beating a hawkish former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

A version of this was published in the  February 19 2015

Saturday, February 7, 2015

 I constantly ask myself why there are those so many determined to deprive people of their health insurance?  For the 56th time, the GOP dominated House voted to repeal the ACA (Obamacare) last week.  It was a futile exercise because President Obama still has the veto power. Do they just not care that insurance was unaffordable for millions before the ACA or are there other reasons? I can speculate on the answers.
Ideology plays a big role. I often hear expressed fear of federal government taking over. Small government is always better.  States’ rights should prevail.  Private enterprise should always do it instead. There are those who do not want any government to mandate them to do anything, much less help anyone else to be able to afford health insurance. 
The old status quo was tolerable, say some. Emergency rooms are good enough care; preventative care is not that important. So what if charity care and unpaid medical bills hike everyone else’s premiums. It is ok those stuck with unaffordable medical bills lose their homes or go bankrupt.
 Deficit hawks care more than anything that the ACA will run up the deficit in the next ten years. At least that is how Senate Republicans interpret a recent government report. Prior year reports showed it would reduce the deficit. Next year could show something different.   Legislative tweaks with payfor strategies and tackling entitlements are tougher to do.
However the reason for Obamacare in the first place was private sector insurers had already failed to cover so many and states other than Massachusetts were unwilling to provide a solution. So far the GOP has failed to agree among themselves on a comparably effective replacement.
And then there are partisan loyalists and Obama haters whose main motivation is to cripple President Obama. There is a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court which could rule that subsidies issued through the federal web site were illegal; only subsidies could only be provided through state exchanges. The chief plaintiff bringing the suit, David M. King, thinks the president is an “idiot” and has posted altered images of the first lady in Middle Eastern clothing.  A Court ruling against Obamacare would mean 80% of the 9 million beneficiaries of the ACA who receive those subsidies through the federal exchanges would be unable to afford their health insurance premiums.  That the thirty five states refusing to set up state exchanges would reverse themselves is slim since they have state houses controlled by Republicans hostile to Obamacare.
Obamacare is a failure? In spite of reparable computer glitches, the ACA is doing what it was designed to do even part of the way to full implementation.  By the end of 2016, 24 million fewer Americans will lack insurance, per the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.  Independent concluded premiums for employed and individuals have risen at a much lower rate than in the Bush years even accounting for the recession’s effect, nor will the ACA cost thousands  for everyone insured.  Fewer adults reported medical bill problems.  Destroying Obamacare would reverse those gains.

A version of this was published in the
Sources tapped for the posting:

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fear mongering should not shape foreign policy.

I grew up in a fearful world   and it is still one…only the players have changed and it is a much more complex world now that cries for new strategies. There are those who are quick to criticize President Obama as ignoring the  dangers of Islam or being feckless without a strategy, but they are vague about what they would do differently. They instead monger fear and hark to Cold War days.
 Fear is a political tool. It can be a powerful message to rally political support. It is easy to communicate and to grab emotions or to silence opposing views as being soft on something or are not living in their real world as they perceive it .
Hyping fear was not a strategy that ended the Cold War. It took patience, faith in ourselves, strength, and a cold calculation that spending the Soviet Union into financial ruin in an arms race would end it.  Yes, the Reagan strategy worked.
Times have changed since the Cold War I experienced. One size of tactics and attitudes do not fit all. It is a multi-polar world of threats, not a bi polar one. The nuclear threat still nags us, but many of our current adversaries are not in an arms race, but use low tech tactical methods and modern media. Terrorists often come from poor, oppressive countries and have little to lose. Immigrants to the West feel alienated.  Sunni and Shia are fighting for the control of Islam.  New generations have access to the internet and demand better governance and prosperity.
 In contrast, prosperity in Russia and China has given their leaders much more to lose in war now than before and more than ever, their leaders depend upon popular support. That is why President Obama’s  foreign policy uses economic sanctions as a tool and beefing up NATO as an implied threat to halt further Russian land grabs.
These realities call for smart strategies tailor made for such currents. This should not become a religious war between Christians and Islam in the same way we pitted capitalism against communism.  Insulting their religion or ginning up Muslimphobia is what ISIS hopes we do.  It empowers them, a relatively small cult of Islam, to recruit many others to their cause. As Pres. Obama said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN February 1,” we should align ourselves with the 99% of Muslims who reject the extremists.”, which explains his careful wording about practitioners of terrorism that  some on the right wrongly interpret as ignoring the threat.
There are alternatives to combat boots and occupation: Tough homeland security and building effective alliances.   Zakaria in a January 22 Washington Post column advocated a realistic counter to deal with radical Islam.    Increasing intelligence and counterterrorism (including carefully targeted drone strikes), improving integration of Muslims living in the West, and resilience, meaning  “terrorism doesn’t work if we are not terrorized, .. bouncing back and returning to normalcy” and not overreacting to ISIS beheadings.  Per that latter point, I  award the best responses to terrorist attacks: “Boston Strong” and “Je suis Charlie”.

A version of this appeared in the Sky Hi Daily News...February 5, 6 2015