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The Politicians Are Scaring You Again
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Blog, Commentary and Articles - Foreign Policy, Military and War
Written by Sheldon Richman   
Thursday, 16 October 2014
The Politicians Are Scaring You Again
by Sheldon Richman
 
They are doing it again. “They” are the war-party politicians, Democrats and Republicans. “It” is scaring you into supporting another war in the Middle East.
 
When will the American people learn? If in a republic the people are the ultimate check on government power, a gullible, easily frightened public is a disaster waiting to happen. Where is the derisive skepticism Americans are reputed to feel toward politicians? A high-ranking official and, say, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour need only say “Boogeyman!” and Americans line up for orders.
 
“Americans are increasingly concerned that ISIS represents a direct terror threat, fearful that ISIS agents are living in the United States, according to a new CNN/ORC International poll. Most now support military action against the terrorist group,” CNN reported in September. “Seven in 10 Americans believe ISIS has the resources to launch an attack against the United States.”
 
Administration officials leave the impression that the Islamic State (ISIS), which holds territory in Iraq and Syria, directly threatens Americans at home, although when pressed, these officials won’t say this outright. In interviews President Obama says there is no “immediate intelligence” concerning a threat, but he insists the U.S. military must strike ISIS now or else... Obama wants it both ways: to scare the people into supporting a new American war in Iraq and Syria, without creating a panic. “We will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” Obama said.
 
Obama’s Republican critics show no restraint. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for example, goes to absurd lengths to frighten Americans. “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home,” Graham said. He forecast the deaths of hundreds of millions of Americans if something drastic is not done.
 
Thirty thousand ISIS fighters are going invade and kill 319 million Americans?
 
What about terrorism?
 
Veteran foreign correspondent Reese Erlich, who has been in northern Iraq recently, debunks the fearmongers in “10 Myths about Obama’s Latest War”:
IS [ISIS] is a vicious, un-Islamic, ultra-right-wing group that poses a real threat to the people of Syria and Iraq. But those people will defeat IS, not the U.S., whose motives are widely questioned in the region. IS poses no more of a terrorist threat to the American people than al-Qaida and its offshoots.
Clearly, ISIS has its hands full fighting Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish forces, so why the hysteria that some new and unprecedented threat faces the American people? Because irresponsible politicians know that public fear breeds public acquiescence.
 
Yet the Obama administration must have thought that ISIS wasn’t threatening enough, because during the first airstrikes in Syria, U.S. bombs also hit a hitherto unknown group said to be planning an imminent attack on America, the Khorasan Group. The first reason for skepticism is that the administration has redefined imminent also to mean not imminent.
 
A second reason is that hardly anyone had heard of the Khorasan Group, and it seemed to disappear as quickly as it arose. Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Intercept,
But once it served its purpose of justifying the start of the bombing campaign in Syria, the Khorasan narrative simply evaporated as quickly as it materialized.…
 
Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).
It turns out that the Khorasan Group was just an al-Qaeda cell, not some unique new threat against the American people, as it was presented. “There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner,” Greenwald writes.
 
This does not mean that ISIS-inspired terrorism inside the United States is inconceivable. But the threat does not remotely approach the existential, and ISIS has no need to dispatch agents to, or set up sleeper cells in, America. Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security warns that “lone wolf” terrorism by "self-radicalized" Americans is more to be feared than an ISIS plot.
 
The best way to avoid terrorism is to stop dropping bombs on Muslims. Meanwhile, everyone should take a deep breath. The risk of being a victim of terrorism is miniscule.
 
Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org ).
 
Is Obama Trying to Alienate Muslim-American Youth?
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Written by Sheldon Richman   
Tuesday, 07 October 2014
Is Obama Trying to Alienate Muslim-American Youth?
by Sheldon Richman
 
A 19-year-old Chicago-area man was arrested last weekend for attempting to help the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The U.S. government says Mohammed Hamzah Khan, an American citizen, faces 15 years in prison because he was at an airport with a ticket to Turkey and had left references to ISIS and a note to his parents saying he was going to Syria.
 
Meanwhile, the Obama administration says it will step up outreach efforts with American Muslims to counter ISIS’s campaign to attract young Western Muslims to its cause.
Is this any way for the government to keep the turmoil in Iraq and Syria from washing up on America’s shores?
 
The administration already has an answer to that question. When Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited Ohio recently to offer help to the Muslim community against the allure of ISIS, “he faced a litany of grievances from a group of mostly Muslim leaders and advocates,” the New York Times reports. “They complained of humiliating border inspections by brusque federal agents, F.B.I. sting operations that wrongly targeted Muslim citizens as terrorists.…”
 
According to the Times, administration officials “have found that security rules put in place to defend America from a terror attack have played a role in alienating young Muslim men and women — the exact group being courted by the Islamic State.”
 
So it appears the Obama administration needs to undo damage the U.S. government itself has caused. The Times continues,
Muslim advocates say there is deep suspicion that, despite all the meetings and the talk of outreach, the government’s main goal is to recruit informants to root out suspected terrorists.
 
“I don’t know how we can have a partnership with the same government that spies on you,” said Linda Sarsour, advocacy director for the National Network for Arab American Communities.
Yet the Department of Homeland Security seems more interested in paying for youth programs than in stopping its intrusive tactics, as though basketball leagues and chess clubs will distract young American Muslims from the U.S. government’s heavy-handedness regarding their civil liberties.
 
Let’s keep things in perspective. As the Times notes, only about 100 Americans have traveled to Syria or attempted to. That’s an insignificant percentage of the 2.6 million American Muslims. As journalist Shikha Dalmia notes, “A much higher percentage of Americans upset with the ‘system’ join violent gangs and political cults every year.”
 
Even if the numbers were much larger, the government’s charm offensive would still be misguided because of another factor — one that is alluded to by the Times and that may alienate young Muslims as much as civil-liberties violations do. The Times notes that the government’s domestic efforts come “as the United States carries out yet another bombing campaign across two Islamic countries.”
 
It’s unlikely that President Obama and his national-security team will consider the connection between U.S. bombings in Iraq and Syria, which have already taken civilian lives, and the alienation of young American Muslims. It’s hard to read sincerity into the administration’s campaign to win the loyalty of Muslim youth when, as Yahoo News reports, “the White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.”
 
Those so-called “strict standards,” by the way, treat any man of military age as a fitting target for American drone attacks elsewhere in the Muslim world. The victims can be acquitted of combatant status only posthumously.
 
Once again the administration is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It says it wants to keep the American people safe and American-Muslim youth out of the clutches of ISIS. But it also wants to drop bombs on ISIS in Iraq and Syria — and as we see, it cannot do that without killing Muslim noncombatants, including elderly men, women, and children. That in turn will endanger Americans by winning sympathy for ISIS among Muslims outside the region, including Muslim youth in the United States.
 
The best way to keep Americans safe and to prevent the growth of sympathy for ISIS in America is to stop bombing people in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
 
Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org ).
 
Will American Ground Troops Be Sent to Fight ISIS?
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Written by Sheldon Richman   
Thursday, 25 September 2014
Will American Ground Troops Be Sent to Fight ISIS?
by Sheldon Richman
 
With the United States dropping bombs on yet another Muslim country, we might benefit from a close look at President Obama’s anti–Islamic State strategy.
 
Obama and his spokespeople are always quick to make two points: first, that no American ground forces will be sent into combat against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and second, that the United States will merely be part, albeit a leading part, of a broad coalition of Arab and NATO countries.
 
The Obama administration’s emphasis on these points strongly suggests that Americans would not support a war against ISIS fought solely by the United States with American ground troops as part of the effort.
 
In his speech at MacDill Air Force base on September 17, Obama said,
As your Commander-in-Chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq. After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures. And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term.
Although Obama was at an air force base, he was probably talking more to the general public than to the assembled troops, many members of which may be disappointed in Obama’s pledge because combat experience is a valued résumé item.
 
He went on:
We’ll use our air power. We will train and equip our partners. We will advise them and we will assist them. We will lead a broad coalition of countries who have a stake in this fight. Because this is not simply America versus [ISIS]—this is the people of the region fighting against [ISIS].
Obama keeps saying that this is not just an American fight and that ground troops will not be necessary. Yet he also insists that ISIS threatens Americans in the United States. That naturally raises this question: what if the local ground troops that Obama counts on—the Iraqi and Kurdish armies and the alleged moderate Syrian rebels—aren’t up to the job? Many prowar commentators think they are not, and no one thinks air power alone can defeat ISIS.
 
The typical administration response is that they will be up to the job, so that event need not be planned for. When Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey told the Senate that in such an event he would recommend the dispatch of American ground troops, all hell broke loose because he had departed from the script.
 
The administration’s evasion of this important question is ominous. Even a confused policy embodies a logic. If Obama (despite the evidence) declares ISIS a significant domestic threat, and if the Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian forces fail, won’t he be pushed by the logic of his policy to send in American ground forces? After scaring Americans about ISIS and investing so much political capital, who can imagine him calling off the airstrikes and withdrawing?
 
As for Obama’s emphasis on coalition building, let’s not be fooled. This is a U.S.-led operation, and that is how the inhabitants of the bombed territories will see it. ISIS recruitment will soar.
 
But even if other coalition members shouldered most of the burden, why should Americans feel any better about the operation? The objection to a new U.S. war in the Middle East should not be that America would go it alone. Rather, it’s that America cannot police the world without doing a variety of harms. Bringing a posse of nations along doesn’t change that.
 
Obama tips his hand about who will bear the burden when he rhapsodizes about American exceptionalism. At MacDill he said,
[I]t is America that has the unique capability to mobilize against an organization like [ISIS].…
 
[W]hen the world is threatened, when the world needs help, it calls on America.…
 
[T]here just aren’t a lot of other folks who can perform in the same ways—in fact, there are none. And there are some things only we can do. There are some capabilities only we have.
In declaring war against the ISIS insurgency (with no congressional declaration), Obama has set the country on a course of intervention in two Muslim civil wars. It can’t turn out well.
 
Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org ).
 
Is the Foreign-Policy Elite Clueless?
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Written by Sheldon Richman   
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Is the Foreign-Policy Elite Clueless?
by Sheldon Richman
 
The American foreign-policy elite seems to have no idea what it’s doing.
 
Americans may believe the government — especially the foreign-policy side — is at least minimally competent, but when one surveys decisions from the last few decades, one has to wonder.
 
The current crop of policymakers, like earlier ones, know what they want to do: make the world safe for American leadership — or, less euphemistically, American hegemony: No rivals for American influence or access to resources and markets can be tolerated. As President George H.W. Bush said, “What we say goes.”
 
Even by that standard, the policy architects and executors look incompetent — or unbelievably cynical.
 
No better evidence exists than the policies that led to the so-called Islamic State and President Barack Obama’s response to it.
 
Let’s begin with March 2003. President George W. Bush, citing imaginary weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s fictitious connection to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, sent the military to invade Iraq, overthrow the government, and occupy the country. Saddam’s regime was secular, but he was a Sunni Muslim and the majority Shi’ites were especially oppressed under his dictatorship. With Saddam gone, the Shi’ites have dominated, and the emerging successor regime predictably moved close to Iran, the large Persian Shi’ite country next door. (Saddam, assisted by the U.S. government, launched a devastating eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s.) In response, al-Qaeda (which is Sunni) arose in Iraq for the first time and participated in an anti-U.S. and anti-Shi’ite insurgency, until the CIA paid the local Sunni tribal leaders to turn on al-Qaeda, whom they disliked anyway.
 
Thus Bush alienated the Sunnis and created a Shi’ite ally for Iran. Yet since 1979 (when the Islamic revolution overthrew the dictatorial monarchy of long-time U.S. client Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) Iran has been demonized (falsely) by U.S. administrations as one of America’s mortal enemies.
 
What was the Bush brain trust thinking when it did its favor for Iran? Was the plan to overthrow Iran’s government next or merely to have a perpetual crisis? Crisis, like war, is the health of the state, after all.
 
Under the American occupation and the U.S./Iran-installed regime of Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunnis were shut out of the army and civil service, not to mention repressed — so much so that when the Islamic State came along, the Sunnis were willing to tolerate its brutality rather than continue suffering under Shi’ite rule. Maliki is out now, but institutionalized sectarianism is not over.
 
Meanwhile, next door in Syria, the brutal Iran-backed dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad became even more egregious in 2011 in response to growing protests. Assad’s regime is also secular, but his and his cronies’ religion is related to Shi’ism, putting the majority Sunnis at a disadvantage. Obama, with the help of then secretary of state Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron, made a bad situation worse by declaring that Assad must give up power. Thus compromise would be suicidal for Assad, and al-Qaeda-type fighters from the region (such as next-door Iraq) were encouraged to flock to Syria because Assad’s days were apparently numbered. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was born when a capable and especially fanatical group of foreign fighters in Syria had strategic differences with the al-Qaeda affiliate.
 
So here we are. The Islamic State, a product of idiotic U.S. actions, controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, effectively erasing the border between them.
 
In response, Obama wants to obliterate the Islamic State (by air) without helping Iran or Assad or alienating Sunnis. Talk about squaring the circle! If recent history is any guide, arming the Iraqi army and the phantom moderate rebels against Assad amounts to arming the Islamic State. The nonaggression pact among the Islamic State and other anti-Assad groups, along with the U.S.-blessed Free Syrian Army's announcement that it would not join Obama's anti-ISIS coalition, seems to sink the president's plan.
 
Obama warns that the Islamic State could threaten Americans at home, yet American airstrikes make that more likely; the Islamic State’s murders of two American journalists were committed in retaliation for the first U.S. strikes.
 
If any part of Obama’s plan makes sense to you, you might have a future in the foreign-policy establishment.
 
Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org ).
 
Obama Follows Bush’s Iraq Playbook
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Written by Sheldon Richman   
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
Obama Follows Bush’s Iraq Playbook
by Sheldon Richman
 
U.S. politicians are exploiting the gruesome beheadings of two American journalists to whip up war fever against ISIS, the “criminal gang” masquerading as an organization of devout Sunni Muslims that controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. The American propaganda campaign seems to be working if recent polls are accurate.
 
No decent person is anything but appalled by those executions. But are they grounds for the United States to go to war?
 
No, they are not. Barack Obama says his job is to protect Americans wherever they are, but he doesn’t cite the source of this power. No such power is implied in the president’s oath of office, which obligates him only to “faithfully execute the Office of President” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.”
 
Article II of the Constitution vests the “executive power” in the president, but that just means he has the power to execute laws passed by the legislative branch. There is no blank-check language about protecting Americans, particularly outside the country.
 
Section 2 of that article of course says the president is “commander in chief” of the armed forces, but no matter how many times the war party repeats that phrase, it cannot be reasonably interpreted as unilateral power to take the country to war. Article I reserves the power to declare and finance wars to Congress alone.
 
True, since the end of World War II, presidents have assumed the unilateral power to make war, and most members of Congress have been more than happy to defer. But this does not mean that we who understand the danger of autocracy should acquiesce.
 
Obama says he can go to war against ISIS anywhere without “authorization” from Congress. (No one in government or the media uses the word declaration.) In his interview on Meet the Press, Obama said,
I’m confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people. And I’m always going to do what’s necessary to protect the American people. But I do think it’s important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy in, to debate it.
But understanding, buying in (whatever that means), and debating are not the same as authorizing through a declaration of war. Just because most members of Congress would hate to sign off on a years-long, offensive war less than two months before an election, that’s no excuse for Obama to exercise autocratic powers.
 
Note that Obama speaks of protecting the American people. He means Americans both abroad and at home. Americans of course are free to travel anywhere. If the U.S. government is to have the power to protect or avenge them abroad, it will have to be able to exercise military power globally. Such imperial power, which the government has long exercised, should disturb peace- and freedom-loving Americans precisely because it creates the potential for perpetual war, invites retaliatory terrorism, and requires high government spending and borrowing.
 
It may be taken for granted that a president can go to war when an American is killed overseas, but that kind of power is too dangerous to accept meekly. Americans, especially war correspondents, should be on notice that they travel at their own risk. This may sound callous, but the alternative is a global empire that we cannot afford either in blood or treasure.
 
What about protecting Americans at home? Here the irony of Obama’s position is striking. U.S. intervention in the Middle East is what endangers Americans at home. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda hit Americans here because for many years the U.S. government had perpetrated and supported violence against Arabs (Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Lebanese and others) — and it still does.
 
No al-Qaeda affiliate existed in Iraq before George W. Bush launched his invasion and occupation in 2003. ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and its execution of the two journalists was retaliation for recent U.S. bombings in Iraq. No doubt those murders were intended also to goad Obama into sending American forces, which would boost ISIS’s recruitment and prestige. Bin Laden did the same thing, bragging he would bleed the United States bankrupt through long years of war. He succeeded.
 
Hold on tight: Obama is about to replicate Bush’s folly.
 
Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org ).
 
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