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Jack is a graduate of Rutgers University where he majored in history. His career in the life and health insurance industry involved medical risk selection and brokerage management. Retired in Florida for over two decades after many years in NJ and NY, he occasionally writes, paints, plays poker, participates in play readings and is catching up on Shakespeare, Melville and Joyce, etc.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Articles on the Islamic State, Two Amusing Stories and Election Predictions Five Weeks Out


A Multi-Headed Problem

We have a multi-headed problem with the Islamic State (synonymous with ISIL or ISIL). Right now we are attempting to destroy it, defang it or merely contain it, and it appears we are uncertain as to which of the three is our strategy.  Supposedly, we have allies helping us, so that except for about 1600 “advisors,” our military involvement is limited to air strikes. 
Our allies, unfortunately, are limiting their assistance to activities in Iraq, which seem to be a few air strikes within Iraq, accompanying ours.  Like us, they are not committing ground troops, and are unlikely to, even if we eventually do.

More significantly, they are not joining us in bombing the Islamic State in its more secure Syrian redoubts.  Why not?  Well, all of them are opposed to Syria's brutal Assad regime, which ISIS is also opposed to!  In fact, much of Syria is now is controlled by ISIS in its guise as an anti-Assad rebel group. 
Our allies are not unhappy with that situation in Syria.  Our forming and arming a 5000 man Syrian rebel group to fight ISIS, but to hold off in trying to depose Assad, just isn’t going to happen, and if it does, 5000 is no match for ISIS’s 20,000 to 30,000 troops.  

Neither is the  Iraqi army is going to be able to rebuild itself and take on the vastly outnumbered ISIS army which initialed routed them without even working up a sweat.  The mostly Shiite Iraqi army needs the forces of Sunni tribal leaders to build a viable fighting force.  Right now, those tribal leaders are cooperating with, if not a part of, the Islamic State.  This is a second “head” to our multi-headed problem.

The Islamic State, Assad, Iran and Russia, and others, all contribute to our headache

To defeat ISIS, we cannot count on our supposed Sunni coalition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan) so long as they are more fearful of Assad (an Alawite, which is a sect close to Shi’a Islam) and his Iranian Shiite and Russian supporters.  We can only count on ourselves, and in doing so, we will end up inadvertently allying ourselves with the only parties in the Middle East whom we can count on militarily to work to defeat ISIS in Iraq and in Syria … and like it or not, these are the Syrians and their Iranian and Russian backers!  This is another “head” to our problem.  Do we want such allies?  Working with them would arouse the enmity of our supposed anti-ISIS coalition, which isn’t really a coalition, and while opposing the Islamic State, also wants Bashir al-Assad removed from power in Syria, as we also purport to do.  

I doubt if the President or anyone in the Congress is capable of coming up with a single solution to this problem.  Those who criticize the President for pulling our troops out of Iraq two years ago, and not supporting Syrian rebels earlier, have the comfort of hindsight.  If we still had troops in Iraq, ISIS still would have blossomed in Syria and eventually moved into Iraq anyway.  If we had backed Syrian rebels earlier, we might have found ourselves actually backing ISIS in Syria, since it is almost impossible to distinguish one rebel group there from another.  That is why we didn't intervene there in the past.

Right now, the best tactic for us is keep bombing ISIS wherever they can be found, twenty-four hours a day, try to avoid civilian casualties, and watch for an opening to enable us to work out a favorable strategic arrangement with the Russians and Iranians in Syria so they would agree to aid Syria with the assets necessary to destroy the Islamic State on the ground.  

There are a lot of bargaining chips which can be used in going in this direction.  They are related to Iran’s nuclear aspirations and desire to be the dominant power in its region, Russia’s desire to re-form what was once the USSR, the removal of Assad from power in Syria, the role of Turkey, the lessening dependence of the world on Middle Eastern petroleum, the borders of an independent Kurdistan and the future relationship of Israel to the Islamic states around it.  As an indication of the complexity of such bargaining, while Shiite Iran opposes Sunni ISIS in Syria and Iraq, they supported Sunni Hamas in Gaza where it was, at least in the eyes of the Israelis, indistinguishable from the Islamic State.

This is truly a multi-headed problem, resulting in severe headaches for those attempting to determine what our strategies should be (right now, defeating or containing ISIS and removing Assad from power) and the tactics needed to accomplish them.  It is evident that these strategic goals are to a great extent in conflict with each other.  Tylenol, Aspirin, Advil, Aleve, Motrin, Vodka ... take your choice.
Jack Lippman


Okay, you've read my thoughts on the Islamic State.  But here are the views of a true expert.  This originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, subsequently reprinted in the Palm Beach Post a couple of weeks ago.  It should be required reading for all Americans.

Islamic State is a Symptom, not the Disease

Andrew J. Bacevich  

(Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, is currently a fellow at Columbia University. His background is such that his understanding of the current situation in the Middle East is probably superior to almost anyone in government today. Biographical material is included at the end of this article.)

"Comprehensive strategy.” That's the operative phrase that the Obama administration has employed in rolling out its new campaign to take on Islamic State. With its connotations of scope and gravity, the phrase resonates — not unlike “extra heavy duty” or “bigger and better than ever.” Among observers on both the militant left and the militarized right, it has found favor. That the Islamic State poses something akin to a planetary threat has become the consensus view in such quarters. This, offered after perhaps a bit too much hesitation, is the response that may yet save the day.

In fact, whatever else we may say of the approach that the administration has cobbled together — American air power (assuming the availability of suitable targets) plus surrogates on the ground (if motivated to fight) supported by a hastily assembled coalition vaguely promising to assist “as appropriate” — it does not qualify as a comprehensive strategy. It's whack-a-mole all over again, the same method that Obama implemented in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, applied now on a larger scale.

Woe betide the patient treated by a physician unable to distinguish between symptom and disease. Woe betide the nation whose leaders suffer from the same failing. Unfortunately, that pretty much defines where the United States finds itself today.

The Islamic State fighters emerged from a set of nontrivial conditions afflicting many nations across the greater Middle East. Figuring prominently among those conditions are political dysfunction, economic underdevelopment and social alienation, along with the pernicious residue of European colonialism still lingering everywhere from arbitrary borders to thieving local elites. Those so inclined can throw into the mix the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people.

The key point is this: Were the United States and its partners miraculously to succeed tomorrow in destroying Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, those conditions would still persist. As a consequence, another “Islamic State,” under another banner, inspired by a new leader, would almost certainly appear. And we'll find ourselves right back where we are today. Indeed, Islamic State is itself a legacy organization, successor to the now defunct Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Now this is not reason to forgo attacking Islamic State, a truly vicious and vile enterprise (even if posing a negligible threat to the United States, a flood of overheated rhetoric notwithstanding). But the militants are a symptom, not the disease. American bombs and missiles might well suppress this particular symptom, but surely will not eliminate its cause or even prevent its recurrence.

Here we confront what should by all rights qualify as one of the major lessons to be drawn from the U. S. military's decades-long involvement in the Islamic world. Armed might, often expended at great human, fiscal and moral cost, holds little promise as the means to fix the problem. It hasn't worked. Trying harder won't produce a different outcome. Any strategy worthy of the name, therefore, will necessarily rest on something other than military power.

Of course, proponents of military action reflexively acknowledge that “there is no military solution” to this or that situation. Typically, they utter this platitude immediately before insisting that in the particular situation at hand no non-military alternative exists. So it's bombs away.

But take that platitude seriously and make it a basis for actual policy. That's when an authentically comprehensive strategy becomes possible.

What might form the basis of such a policy? Lowering the U. S. military profile, which has proved counterproductive (see the Obama principle: Don't do stupid stuff). Erecting effective defenses (deter and contain the bad guys). Living up to our professed ideals (demonstrating the universality of liberal values). On the margins, helping the peoples of the Islamic world to reconcile modernity with tradition (which implies making adjustments on their own terms).

A long-term proposition requiring considerable patience and not without risk? You bet. But the alternative is whack-a-mole from now until the cows come home. And that's no strategy. It's an admission of failure, accepting permanent war as inevitable.

                                                          *   *   *   *

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the US Military Academy, he received his PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University, he taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins. In the fall of 2014, Bacevich will teach a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) titled “War for the Greater Middle East” on the edX platform.

Bacevich is the author of Breach of Trust:  How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013). His previous books include Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010); The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008); The Long War: A New History of US National Security Policy since World War II (2007) (editor); The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005); and American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002). His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of scholarly and general interest publications, including The Wilson Quarterly, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, and The New Republic. His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times, among other newspapers.

In 2004, Dr. Bacevich was a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He has also held fellowships at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the Council on Foreign Relations.


Two Amusing Stories I Heard the Other Day

A passenger in a taxi, leaning forward, poked his finger through the opening in order to tap the driver on the shoulder and ask him a question.  This so startled the driver that he lost control of the cab, running it up on the curb.  Fortunately, no damage was done and no one was injured.  The driver apologized to the passenger profusely, explaining that this was his first day driving a cab, and that previously, he had worked for years driving a hearse.


A sign in a pet shop announced that two talking parrots were for sale, cheap!  When a visitor asked why no one had bought them earlier, the shop’s owner explained that all the parrots could say were the words, “I’m a prostitute, I’m a prostitute.”  “Well,” the visitor, who happened to be an Orthodox Jew, said, “I also have a pair of talking parrots, and I’d like to introduce them to your birds.  My parrots are very religious, though.”  The next day the man brought his religious parrots to the pet shop, each wearing a skull cap, prayer shawl and grasping a siddur (a Hebrew prayer book) in one claw.  The birds were introduced and the ones from the pet shop  immediately started shrieking, “I’m a prostitute, I’m a prostitute.”  Instantly, one of the “religious” parrots spoke out, “Quick, Moishe, drop your siddur, our prayers have been answered!”


Election Predictions - Five Weeks Out

It is difficult to predict the results of the upcoming elections.  I suspect that the large turnout in voters which would help the Democrats will not take place.  Without a Presidential race, Latino and Black voters will not vote in the manner they do in Presidential years.  Also, legislation to prevent supposed (but non-existent) voter fraud in states controlled by Republicans will also reduce the turnout.  Finally, there is a feeling of disquiet in the country brought about by continuing unemployment and the possibility of military engagement in the Middle East again.  Whether or not he is at fault for this, dissatisfaction with the President will not help Democratic candidates.  This dissatisfaction with Democrats will have a greater effect on the results nationwide since the Congress, at least equally at fault, is protected by many “gerrymandered” districts.  Finally, there continues to be a campaign against the Affordable Care Act which totally disregards what it contains and the benefits it has brought to millions of Americans.  

So, five weeks before Election Day, I make the following predictions: (1) The Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representative perhaps with a change of no more than four or five seats in their margin. (2)  The Republicans will gain the six Senate seats necessary to give them control of the Senate.  They will win Senate seats in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina and New Hampshire, all presently held by Democrats. 

Jeanne Shaheen  
Former G.O.P.  Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown may replace New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in very close race.

Unfortunately, this will not reduce the Congressional gridlock the nation has been experiencing since the Republican majorities, as is the case with their present House majority, will be compromised by uncooperative extreme right wing Republicans without whom they will not have a majority unless they cooperate with the Democrats (which they will be very reluctant to do).  So there will be gridlock until 2016. 



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Jack Lippman