Saved by the Russians

OPINION|TD ORIGINALS

Russia Isn’t Getting the Recognition It Deserves on Syria

Scott Ritter

Russia Isn't Getting the Recognition It Deserves on Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Sergei Chirikov / AP)

At a time when the credibility of the United States as either an unbiased actor or reliable ally lies in tatters, Russia has emerged as the one major power whose loyalty to its allies is unquestioned, and whose ability to serve as an honest broker between seemingly intractable opponents is unmatched.

If there is to be peace in Syria, it will be largely due to the patient efforts of Moscow employing deft negotiation, backed up as needed by military force, to shape conditions conducive for a political solution to a violent problem. If ever there was a primer for the art of diplomacy, the experience of Russia in Syria from 2011 to the present is it.

Like the rest of the world, Russia was caught off guard by the so-called Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011, forced to watch from the sidelines as the old order in Tunisia and Egypt was swept aside by popular discontent. While publicly supporting the peaceful transition of power in Tunis and Cairo, in private the Russian government watched the events unfolding in Egypt and the Maghreb with trepidation, concerned that the social and political transformations underway were a continuation of the kind of Western-backed “color revolutions” that had occurred previously in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).

When, in early 2011, the Arab Spring expanded into Libya, threatening the rule of longtime Russian client Moammar Gadhafi, Russia initially supported the creation of a U.N.-backed no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes, only to watch in frustration as the U.S. and NATO used it as a vehicle to launch a concerted air campaign in a successful bid to drive Gadhafi from power.

By the time Syria found itself confronting popular demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar Assad, Russia—still struggling to understand the root cause of the unrest—had become wary of the playbook being employed by the U.S. and NATO in response. While Russia was critical of the violence used by the Assad government in responding to the anti-government demonstrations in the spring of 2011, it blocked efforts by the U.S. and Europe to impose economic sanctions against the Syrian government, viewing them as little more than the initial salvo of a broader effort to achieve regime change in Damascus using the Libyan model.

Moscow’s refusal to help facilitate that Western-sponsored regime change, however, did not translate into unequivocal support for the continued rule of Assad. Russia supported the appointment of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head up a process for bringing a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, and endorsed Annan’s six-point peace plan, put forward in March 2012, which included the possibility of a peaceful transition of power away from Assad.

At the same time Russia was promoting a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis, the U.S. was spearheading a covert program to provide weapons and equipment to anti-Assad forces, funneling shipments from Libya through Turkey and into rebel-controlled areas of Syria. This CIA-run effort, which eventually morphed into a formal operation known as Timber Sycamore, helped fuel an increase in the level of violence inside Syria that made it impossible for the Assad government to fully implement the Annan plan. The inevitable collapse of the Annan initiative was used by the U.S. and its European allies to call for U.N. sanctions against Syria, which were again rejected by Russia.

While Russia continued to call for a political solution to the Syrian crisis that allowed for the potential of Assad being replaced, it insisted that this decision would be made by a process that included the Syrian government, as opposed to the U.S. demand that Assad must first step down.

The Military Solution

The failed Annan initiative was replaced by a renewed U.N.-sponsored process, known as Geneva II, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat with extensive U.N. experience. The Geneva process stalled as Brahimi sought to bridge the gap between the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition—which insisted upon Assad’s resignation as a precondition to any talks about the future of Syria—and Russia, which continued to insist that the Assad government have a voice in determining Syria’s future.

Complicating these talks was the escalation of violence inside Syria, where anti-Assad forces, building upon the massive amount of military aid received from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, aggressively pushed for a military victory that would moot the Geneva II process.

By June 2013 the situation had devolved to the point that the U.S., citing allegations that the Syrian government was using a nerve agent against rebel forces, was considering the establishment of no-fly zones in northern Syria and along the Jordanian border. While sold as a humanitarian move designed to create safe zones for Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting, the real purpose of these zones was to carve out large sections of Syrian territory where the opposition could organize and prepare for war under the umbrella of U.S. air power without fear of Syrian government retaliation.

The concept of Syria’s chemical weapons being used by the U.S. to justify military action against the Syrian government was not hypothetical. In 2012, President Barack Obama had declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be considered a “red line,” forcing the U.S. to act. When, in August 2013, a major chemical weapons incident occurred in Ghouta (conclusive attribution for the attack does not exist; the U.S. and NATO contend that the Syrian government was behind the attacks, which the Russians and the Syrian government claim were carried out by anti-Assad opposition for the purpose of compelling U.S. intervention), it looked like the U.S. would step in.

Committing to a larger war in Syria was not a politically popular move in the U.S., given the recent experience in Iraq, and when Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September 2013, the Russians suggested a solution—the disarmament of Syrian chemical weapons under the supervision of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). When Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to that possibility, Russia and Syria jumped on the opportunity, paving the way for one of the great disarmament achievements of modern times, an action that won the OPCW the Nobel Peace Prize for 2013.

The disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons was a huge success, for which Russia received little recognition, despite the major role it played in conceiving and overseeing its implementation. Russia had hoped that the disarmament process could lead to the establishment of international confidence in the Assad government that would translate into a diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva. This was not to be; a major peace conference planned for 2014 collapsed, and efforts to revive the failed talks were sidelined by the escalation of violence in Syria, as the armed opposition, sensing victory, pressed its attacks on the Syrian government.

The situation in Syria was further complicated when, in 2013, the organization formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and started carving out a so-called caliphate from the ungovernable expanses of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Having established its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Islamic State launched a dramatic offensive in early 2014, capturing large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. By 2015, the Syrian government, under pressure from anti-Assad rebels and the forces of Islamic State, was on the brink of collapse.

The consequences of the loss of Syria to forces dominated by radical Islamic ideology do not seem to have been fully considered by those in the West, such as the U.S. and its European allies, which were funneling military aid to the rebel forces. For Russia, however, which had its own experiences with Muslim separatist movements in the Caucasus region, such a result was deemed an existential threat, with thousands of Russian citizens fighting on the side of Islamic State and the anti-Assad opposition who would logically seek to return to Russia to continue the struggle once victory had been achieved in Syria. In September 2015, Putin urged the Russian Parliament to approve the intervention of the Russian military on the side of the Syrian government. The Parliament passed the resolution, thus beginning one of the most successful military interventions in modern times.

The impact of the Russian intervention was as dramatic as it was decisive. Almost immediately, the Russian air force helped turn the tide on the field of battle, allowing the Syrian army to launch attacks against both the anti-Assad opposition and Islamic State after years of losing ground. The Russian intervention helped pave the way for the commitment by Hezbollah and Iran of tens of thousands of ground troops who helped tipped the scale in favor of the Syrian government. The presence of Russian forces nipped in the bud all talk of Western military intervention and created the conditions for the Syrian government to eventually recapture much of the territory it had lost to Islamic State and the anti-Assad rebels.

Unheralded Peacemaker

The connection between military action and diplomacy is a delicate one. For some nations, like the United States, diplomacy is but a front for facilitating military action—the efforts to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq stand as a prime example. For Russia, however, the decision to intervene militarily in Syria was not seen as an end unto itself, but rather as the means by which Russia could shape the political landscape in such a manner as to make a political solution realistic. From the Russian perspective, the Geneva II process was an empty shell, having been hijacked by Saudi Arabia and its anti-Assad proxies.

In January 2017, Russia took the diplomatic offensive, initiating its own peace process through a series of summits held in the Kazakh capital of Astana. This process, which brought together Turkey, the Syrian government and Iran, together with Russia, quickly supplanted the Geneva II talks as the most viable vehicle for achieving a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. By directly linking diplomatic talks with the fighting on the ground, the Astana process had a relevance that Geneva II lacked. For its part, Russia was able to woo Turkey away from insisting that Assad must leave, to a stance that recognized the territorial integrity of the Syrian nation, and a recognition that Assad was the legitimate leader of Syria, at least for the time being. The Astana process was lengthy and experienced its share of ups and downs. But today it serves as the foundation of a peace process that, unlike any of its predecessors, has a real chance of success.

Bridging the gap between the finesse of diplomacy and the brutal violence of military action is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. For its part, the United Nations has undertaken so-called peacekeeping operations with mixed effect. In recognition of the importance and difficulty of this kind of work, the Nobel Committee awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize to the U.N. Peacekeepers. When the diplomatic solutions reached in Astana needed to be implemented in Syria, Russia turned to the most unlikely source for turning objectives into reality: the Russian military police. A relatively new entity in the Russian military establishment, formed only in 2012, the military police were tasked with a wide range of missions, including convoy protection, area security, restoring law and order and resettlement operations.

In late 2016, as the Syrian army was positioned to recapture the city of Aleppo from rebel forces, Russia deployed a battalion of military police to Syria. The mission of these troops was not to engage in frontline fighting, but rather to restore law and order and win the trust and confidence of a civilian population wary of the potential for retaliation at the hands of the victorious Syrian army.

By all accounts, the Russian military police performed admirably, and soon the Russian ministry of defense dispatched more battalions of these new peacekeepers, who quickly established a reputation of being fair arbiters of the many cease-fire agreements brokered through the Astana process. The Russian military police were ubiquitous, whether policing the no-man’s land separating warring parties, escorting convoys of rebel fighters and their families to safe zones or providing security for OPCW inspectors.

The final phases of the Syrian conflict are playing out in northern Syria today. The last vestiges of the anti-Assad opposition, having been taken over by al-Qaida, are dug in in their final bastion in Idlib Province, their ultimate defeat at the hands of the combined Russian-Syrian armed forces all but assured. The American intervention in northeastern Syria, begun in 2015 as a means of confronting and defeating Islamic State but continued and expanded in 2017 as a vehicle for destabilizing the Assad government, has imploded in the face of a geopolitical reality in transition, facilitated in large part by the combined forces of Russian diplomacy in Astana and Russian-led military action on the ground in Syria.

By successfully wooing Turkey away from the U.S., Russia has dictated the reality on the ground in Syria, greenlighting a Turkish incursion that put the American forces deployed there in an impossible situation, prompting their evacuation. While the U.S. continues to maintain a military presence in Syria, occupying a border crossing point at Tanf and a series of military positions along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in order to secure nearby Syrian oil fields, the ability of the U.S. to logistically sustain this force is doubtful, making its eventual withdrawal from Syria inevitable.

Moreover, by compelling an American withdrawal from northeastern Syria, Russia broke the back of the U.S.-supported Kurdish autonomous entity known as Rojava, and in doing so prevented a larger war between Turkey, the Kurds and the U.S.

In greenlighting the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, the Russians invoked the 1998 Adana Treaty, which guarantees the sovereign inviolability of Syria’s borders. The processes involved in stabilizing the Turkish-Syrian border, defeating the anti-Assad forces in Idlib, evicting the Americans from Syrian soil, and integrating the Kurds into a future Syrian government are lengthy, complex and not necessarily assured of a positive outcome. One thing is certain, however: The prospects for peace in Syria are greater today than at any time since 2011. And the fact that Russia has deployed even more battalions of its military police to Syria to oversee implementation of the current cease-fire bodes well for the prospects of success.

Despite literally salvaging victory from the jaws of defeat, the scope of the Russian accomplishment in Syria is muted in the United States, thanks to rampant Russophobia that has insinuated itself into every aspect of the domestic political discourse. Under normal circumstances, the Russian accomplishment in Syria would have been deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, if not for the Russian diplomats and leaders who oversaw the effort to forge peace from the furnace of war, then at least for the Russian military police whose actions in Syria embody the very definition of humanitarian peacekeeping.

Over time, international historians will come to appreciate what Russia accomplished in Syria, potentially ending a sectarian conflict that could easily have served as the foundation for a decades-long conflagration with regional and global consequences.

Whether American historians will ever be capable of doing the same is unknown. But this much is true: In the years to come, children will be born of parents whose lives were not terminated or otherwise destroyed by a larger Syrian conflict that almost assuredly would have transpired if not for the honest broker services provided by Russia. Intentionally or not, Russian diplomacy prevented the United States from embarking on a foreign policy disaster of its own making. While it is highly doubtful that Americans will ever muster the moral fortitude to say so publicly, those who know the truth should find the time to whisper, “Thanks, Putin,” between the barrage of anti-Russian propaganda that floods the American mainstream media today.

Like it or not, in Syria, the Russians saved us from ourselves.

Scott Ritter
Contributor
Scott Ritter spent more than a dozen years in the intelligence field, beginning in 1985 as a ground intelligence officer with the US Marine Corps, where he served with the Marine Corps component of the Rapid…

Trump on War

Karl Marx said that war was equivalent to dumping a portion of the nation’s wealth into the sea. Absolutely true. Trump got it right about the waste of the USA in the wars in the Middle East.

Trump’s Antiwar Speech Deserved a Better Reception

This article originally appeared at TruthDig.

That’s right, sandwiched between Trump’s standard braggadocio about how he single-handedly secured “a better future for Syria and for the Middle East,” and his cynical pivot to decry his opponents’ supposed desire to accept “unlimited migration from war-torn regions” across the U.S. border, was one of the strongest blasts of antiwar rhetoric delivered by a sitting U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower.

If any other president—think Obama—or major liberal political figure had spoken so clearly against endless war and so poignantly diagnosed the current American disease of military hyper-interventionism, CNN and MSNBC would’ve gushed about Nobel Peace Prizes. It must be said, of course, that Trump has hardly governed according to these peacenik proclamations—he has, after all added more troops in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia, and merely reshuffled the soldiers from Syria across the border to Iraq. Nevertheless, even if the president’s actions don’t match his words, the words themselves remain important, especially from a 21st century, post-9/11 commander in chief.

No doubt, Trump’s partial withdrawal from Syria was initially clumsy, and it’s extremely difficult to parse out any sort of coherent doctrine in his muddled Mideast policy. Reducing troop levels in Syria isn’t much of an accomplishment if it’s followed, as it might be, by a shift toward drumming up or executing a Saudi/Israeli-pressured war with Iran. Still, the speech, though problematic in several areas, deserved a fairer reception from the corporate media establishment.

Beyond the intellectual dishonesty of some press outlets’ displays of reflexive anti-Trumpism, there’s the salient fact that none of the president’s critics have proposed a practical, long-term alternative strategy for the U.S. military in Northeast Syria. Crocodile tears for the Kurds are naught but a cynical cudgel with which to attack the president; there was never any established plan to permanently carve out a viable Kurdish statelet in Syria, or serious weighing of the military, diplomatic and economic costs of such an endeavor.

So, since none of the mainstream networks were willing to do it, let’s review some of the sensible things Trump said in the meat of his speech, nuggets of earthy wisdom that this forever war veteran, for one, wishes Trump would follow through on:

The same people that I watched and read – giving me and the United States advice – were the people that I have been watching and reading for many years. They are the ones that got us into the Middle East mess but never had the vision or the courage to get us out. They just talk.

This is demonstrably true. The politicians (Democrat and Republican), failed retired generals, and Bush/Obama era intelligence community retreads are the very people who crafted the failed, counterproductive interventionist policies that Trump inherited. They never had answers to the tough questions regarding why their countless military missions never stabilized the region, what the endgame of these endless wars would be, or how, exactly, the U.S. would or could extricate its troops from the Greater Middle East. Why does anyone still listen to these establishment clowns?

How many Americans must die in the Middle East in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts?

That’s a hell of a good question, Mr. President. If the term is, indeed, “must,” then the logical and ethical answer should be zero. And that should preclude any absurd, future war with Iran—if only Trump would follow through with his still-unfulfilled campaign promises.

Across the Middle East, we have seen anguish on a colossal scale. We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars. But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded – so many – the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began.

That’s the rub, now, isn’t it? Though the $8 trillion figure might be a tad high, Trump isn’t far off. The Cost of War Project at Brown University came to the same general conclusions after an exhausting and ongoing study of the outlays and outcomes of America’s post-9/11 wars. In fact, the reality is even worse than Trump claimed in the speech. By a lowball estimate, researchers at Brown demonstrate that these region-shattering wars have killed 244,000 civilians and 6,950 U.S. soldiers, and they have created 21 million refugees. For all that, Trump is correct to note that, even by State Department global terrorism statistics, the region is less safe, less stable and infused with more Islamist “terrorists,” who’ve multiplied faster than America’s beloved troopers could ever hope to kill them.

The job of our military is not to police the world. Other nations must step up and do their fair share. That hasn’t taken place.

Also true, or at least it ought to be. Unfortunately, “policing” the world is precisely what Bush II and Obama (and Trump himself) has had me and my fellow soldiers doing since at least October 2001. And it hasn’t worked, hasn’t made America safer, hasn’t made the world a better place. Quite the opposite.

As for Syria, at least now—much to the chagrin of the bipartisan establishment elite—Russia, Turkey, the Assad regime and the Kurds are negotiating an admittedly messy settlement in their near abroad. And if it is truly a mess, as it’s all but certain to be, then what’s so bad about having Putin mired in it? All this talk of “surrendering” Syria to Putin is so much exaggerated malarkey. Syria has always been a Soviet, and then Russian, client state, home to a longstanding naval base at Tartus, and clearly in Moscow’s orbit. In that sense nothing has changed, and as before, Syria—even if ruled by an Assad and backed by a Putin——presents no tangible, let alone existential, threat to the United States, unless, that is, Islamic State does reconstitute. However, Russia and Assad, at least, have a distinct interest in avoiding that outcome.

Taken as a whole, Trump’s remarks included some profound and piercing antiwar material, along with the usual nonsense one expects from this president. As such, accompanying the quite appropriate criticism of the speech, an honest media doing its job ought to have cheered the parts of value and generated a national conversation about Trump’s appraisal of the woes of American forever war. Then, a functioning press should’ve held the president’s feet to the proverbial fire and asked him why his practical actions so rarely cohere with his, in this case, sensible words. That the media has not, and will not, take antiwar rhetoric seriously and grapple with real questions of militarist policy is further proof that it, along with Congress and the generals, was bought and sold long ago by the military-industrial complex.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

American Sahib

American Sahib by Eddie James Girdner (2016) 416 pp.

Available from Amazon.com.

This novel is largely autobiographical but contains a good deal of fiction. It is mostly about life in a Punjabi village in the late 1960s.

I wrote this book in 2015 and then put it aside for several years after publishing it. It was based upon my two years in Punjab, India (1968-1970).

I had forgotten somewhat how the narrative unfolds. So I read it again this summer to see what I would think of it.

If someone is looking for a patriotic book that only praises America, the Peace Corps, the US Government, then this is not the book. It pokes a lot of fun and criticism at the USA. And it does not spare India either. So one should read it with an open mind. If one does not have something to say, then why bother to write the book?

The book has not been sanitized by a corporatist publishing company to make it safe for a neoliberal global agenda.

The book has some love affairs. Not unusual. This often happens in life itself, so it should not be surprising to discover it between the pages of a novel. One might be surprised at how many people object to such things. So many Americans seem to have a puritanical bent of mind. Often hypocritically, however. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Reading the book after three years, I was rather surprised. I hoped that I could look at it somewhat more objectively. Quite frankly, I was surprised at how good it was. I just don’t know of very many books that describe life in Punjab as well as this one does. Prakash Tandon, of course, Punjabi Century and Beyond Punjab are great books. But a somewhat different genre.

I found the book to be such a revealing description of life in a remote village in Punjab and in the towns in those days. Now that was fifty years ago. Half a century of water under the bridge. The book is quite funny in many places. The book is not only literature, but a political and economic analysis of a developing country without all the academic jargon. British colonialism, Indian politics, and the USA in the global system. America as an imperialist hegemon. A good deal of political economy spills out of the pages. And what the locals think of America and Indian politics might be interesting.

The love scenes spice up the book somewhat, breaking the monotony of village life. The dichotomy between the city and the countryside is stark. Escape is necessary to keep one’s relative sanity.

The perspective of the left in India, the relevant communist analysis of society emerges. Comrades are in the street, some actual members of the Communist Party of India. The author finds their analysis honest and convincing. They are often hauled off to jail. Actually, I think the members of the US State Department could benefit by reading this book. They could certainly learn something. This would surely be their ruination, as a part of that outfit. Unfortunately.

The author cannot resist mentioning the stupid things one hears on VOA, the Voice of America. Actually, the voice of Dick Nixon in the late 1960s. One picked it up on shortwave radio, the twenty-five meter band in India. Dick, the US President, hates the Peace Corps and sets out to kill it. Or as much of it as he can. He almost did. The US Presidick, for the author.

It always amused me how US congressmen in Washington were afraid to send young Americans abroad, especially to developing countries. What were they so afraid of? Why, simply that they might learn something and bring their ideas back to America. The old mushroom syndrome once again. Keep the people in the dark and pile horse shit on them. That’s the way one grows mushrooms. Americans are mushrooms. No shit. But why insult mushrooms? They are useful.

I will not even mention Tiny Hands Trump. Things can always get worse.

There is a good deal of satire in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again.

It came to my mind that it would be incredibly instructive for students in a South Asian studies program in an American university to read. It is very informative in a simply way. But I don’t think that most American professors would have the courage to use it in their classes. The book steps on too many toes and is too unorthodox. Political correctness has ruined so much freedom in academia, it seems. The very place that it should not be ruined.

I am not saying that this is a great novel, as a novel. I do not claim to have any expertise to evaluate the book as a novel. But it is an interesting story. I think that it is a fun book. It is full of ideas. I just had some things that I wanted to say, and so I said them in the form of a novel. I would like to think that I have learned something living outside the USA for a third of a century. And all in so-called developing countries.

I guess that young Indians, especially Punjabis, might enjoy reading it. That is, if they knew about it. So many know English. The book is written in very simple language. It is also good just for entertainment. That is, if one has a critical and intellectual bent of mind.

It is not a bad book to have on one’s book shelf.

July 21, 2019. Akarca, Seferihisar, Turkey

Images of Punjab in the 1960s

On American Aggression

We’re Not the Good Guys

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

Headlined “U.S. Seeks Other Ways to Stop Iran Shy of War,” the article was tucked away on page A9 of a recent New York Times. Still, it caught my attention. Here’s the first paragraph:

“American intelligence and military officers are working on additional clandestine plans to counter Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, pushed by the White House to develop new options that could help deter Tehran without escalating tensions into a full-out conventional war, according to current and former officials.”

Note that “Iranian aggression.” The rest of the piece, fairly typical of the tone of American media coverage of the ongoing Iran crisis, included sentences like this: “The C.I.A. has longstanding secret plans for responding to Iranian provocations.” I’m sure I’ve read such things hundreds of times without ever really stopping to think much about them, but this time I did. And what struck me was this: rare is the moment in such mainstream news reports when Americans are the “provocative” ones (though the Iranians immediately accused the U.S. military of just that, a provocation, when it came to the U.S. drone its Revolutionary Guard recently shot down either over Iranian air space or the Strait of Hormuz). When it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror, I think I can say with reasonable confidence that, in the past, the present, and the future, the one phrase you’re not likely to find in such media coverage will be “American aggression.”

I mean, forget the history of the second half of the last century and all of this one so far. Forget that back in the Neolithic age of the 1980s, before Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein turned out to be the new Adolf Hitler and needed to be taken down by us (no aggression there), the administration of President Ronald Reagan actively backed his unprovoked invasion of, and war against, Iran. (That included his use of chemical weapons against Iranian troop concentrations that American military intelligence helped him target.) Forget that, in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush launched an unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, based on false intelligence about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and his supposed links to al-Qaeda. Forget that the Trump administration tore up a nuclear agreement with Iran to which that country was adhering and which would indeed have effectively prevented it from producing nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. Forget that its supreme leader (in fatwas he issued) prohibited the creation or stockpiling of such weaponry in any case.

Forget that the Trump administration, in a completely unprovoked manner, imposed crippling sanctions on that country and its oil trade, causing genuine suffering, in hopes of toppling that regime economically as Saddam Hussein’s had been toppled militarily in neighboring Iraq in 2003, all in the name of preventing the atomic weapons that the Obama-negotiated pact had taken care of. Forget the fact that an American president, who, at the last moment, halted air strikes against Iranian missile bases (after one of their missiles shot down that American drone) is now promising that an attack on “anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force… In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.”

Provocations? Aggression? Perish the thought!

And yet, just ask yourself what Washington and the Pentagon might do if an Iranian drone were spotted off the East Coast of the United States (no less in actual U.S. air space).  No more need be said, right?

So here’s the strange thing, on a planet on which, in 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 149 countries, or approximately 75% of all nations; on which the U.S. has perhaps 800 military garrisons outside its own territory; on which the U.S. Navy patrols most of its oceans and seas; on which U.S. unmanned aerial drones conduct assassination strikes across a surprising range of countries; and on which the U.S. has been fighting wars, as well as more minor conflicts, for years on end from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria to Yemen, Iraq to Niger in a century in which it chose to launch full-scale invasions of two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), is it truly reasonable never to identify the U.S. as an “aggressor” anywhere?

What you might say about the United States is that, as the self-proclaimed leading proponent of democracy and human rights (even if its president is now having a set of love affairs with autocrats and dictators), Americans consider ourselves at home just about anywhere we care to be on planet Earth.  It matters little how we may be armed and what we might do. Consequently, wherever Americans are bothered, harassed, threatened, attacked, we are always the ones being provoked and aggressed upon, never provoking and aggressing. I mean, how can you be the aggressor in your own house, even if that house happens to be temporarily located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or perhaps soon enough in Iran?

A Planet of Aggressors and Provocateurs

To mine the same New York Times piece a little more, here’s another paragraph:

“Some officials believe the United States needs [to] be willing to master the kind of deniable, shadowy techniques Tehran has perfected in order to halt Iran’s aggressions. Others think that, while helpful, such clandestine attacks will not be enough to reassure American allies or deter Iran.”

Of course, such clandestine American attacks would, by definition, not be “aggression,” not given that they were directed against Iran. Forget the grim historical humor lurking in the above passage, since the present Iranian religious hard-liners probably wouldn’t be there if, back in 1953, the CIA hadn’t used just such techniques to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government and install its own autocrat, the young Shah, in power.

As that Times piece also emphasizes, Iran now uses “proxy forces” throughout the region (indeed it does!) against U.S. (and Israeli) power, a tactic Americans evidently just hadn’t thought about employing themselves in this century – until now. Americans naturally have no proxy forces in the Greater Middle East. That’s a well-known fact. Just out of curiosity, however, what would you call the local forces our special ops guys are training and advising in so many of those 149 countries around the planet, since obviously they could never be proxy forces? And how about the Afghan and Iraqi militaries that the U.S. trained, supplied with weaponry, and advised in these years? (You know, the Iraqi army that collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014 or the Afghan security forces that have been unable to staunch either the growthof the Taliban or of the Afghan branch of ISIS.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. Yes, the Iranians can (and sometimes do) provoke and aggress. It’s an ugly planet filled with aggression and provocation. (Take Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Crimea and Ukraine, for instance.) The Chinese are now aggressing in the South China Sea where the U.S. Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations – though no provocation there, as the Pacific’s an American lake, isn’t it?

In short, when it comes to provocation and aggression, the world is our oyster. There are so many bad guys out there and then, of course, there’s us. We can make mistakes and missteps, we can kill staggering numbers of civilians, destroy cities, uproot populations, create hordes of refugees with our never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, but aggression? What are you thinking?

One thing is obvious if you follow the mainstream media: in our world, no matter what we do, we’re still the good guys on a planet filled with provocateurs and aggressors of every sort.

War to the Horizon

Now let’s think for a moment about that remarkable American comfort level, that unprecedented sense of being at home practically anywhere on Earth we choose to send armed Americans – and while we’re at it, let’s consider a related subject: America’s wars.

If, in the early 1970s, you had told me or any other American that, in the nearly half-century to come, the U.S. would fight wars and other lesser conflicts of almost every imaginable sort in startling numbers of places thousands of miles from home, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, countries most Americans couldn’t then (or now) find on a map, I guarantee you one thing: we would have thought you were nuts. (Of course, if you had described Donald Trump’s White House to me then as our future reality, I would have considered you beyond delusional.)

And yet here we are. Think about Afghanistan for a moment. In those distant days of the last century, that country would undoubtedly have been known here only to small numbers of young adventurers eager to hike what was then called “the hippy trail.” There, in a still remarkably peaceful place, a young American might have been greeted with remarkable friendliness and then spaced out on drugs.

That, of course, was before Washington’s first (covert) Afghan War, the one the CIA oversaw, with the help of Saudi money (yes, even then!) and a major hand from the Pakistani intelligence services. Do you remember that conflict, which began in 1979 and ended a decade later with the Red Army limping out of Kabul in defeat, heading for a land, the Soviet Union, which would implode within two years? What a “victory” that proved to be for America, not to speak of the groups of extremist Islamic militants we helped to fund and support, including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

And keep in mind as well that that was our “short” war in Afghanistan, a mere decade long. In October 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, instead of launching a police action against Osama bin Laden and crew, the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade that country. Almost 18 years later, the U.S. military is still fighting there (remarkably unsuccessfully) against a thoroughly rejuvenated Taliban and a new branch of ISIS. It now qualifies as the longest war in our history (without even adding in that first Afghan War of ours).

And then, of course, there’s Iraq. By my count, the U.S. has been involved in four conflicts involving that country, starting with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the ensuing war, which the administration of President Ronald Reagan supported militarily (as the present one does the Saudi war in Yemen). Then there was President George H.W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein after his military invaded Kuwait in 1990, which resulted in a resounding (but by no means conclusive) victory and the kind of victory parade in Washington that Donald Trump can only dream of. Next, of course, was President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq (mission accomplished!), a grim and unsatisfying eight-year conflict from which President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops in 2011. The fourth war followed in 2014 when the U.S.-trained Iraqi military collapsed in the face of relatively small numbers of ISIS militants, a group that was an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which didn’t exist until the U.S. invaded that country. That September, President Obama loosed the U.S. air force on Iraq and Syria (so you can add a fifth war in a neighboring country to the mix) and sent U.S. troops back into Iraq and into Syria where they still remain.

Oh, yes, and don’t forget Somalia. U.S. troubles there began with the famed Black Hawk Down incident amid the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 and never, in a sense, really ended. Today, U.S. Special Operations forces are still on the ground there and U.S. air strikes against a Somali militant Islamic group, al-Shabaab, have actually been on the rise in the Trump era.

As for Yemen, from the first U.S. drone strike there in 2002, the U.S. had been in an on-again, off-again low-level conflict there that included commando raids, cruise missile attacks, air strikes, and drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, another offshoot of the original al-Qaeda. Since, in 2015, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched their war against Houthi rebels (backed by Iran) who had come to control significant parts of the country, the U.S. has been supporting them with weaponryintelligence, and targeting, as well as (until late last year) mid-air refueling and other aid. Meanwhile, that brutal war of destruction has led to staggering numbers of Yemeni civilian casualties (and widespread starvation), but as with so many of the other campaigns the U.S. has involved itself in across the Greater Middle East and Africa it shows no sign of ending.

And don’t forget Libya, where the U.S. and NATO intervened in 2011 to help rebels take down Muammar Gaddafi, the local autocrat, and in the process managed to foster a failed state in a land now experiencing its own civil war. In the years since 2011, the U.S. has sometimes had commandos on the ground there, has launched hundreds of drone strikes (and air strikes), often against a branch of ISIS that grew up in that land. Once again, little is settled there, so we can all continue to sing the Marine Hymn (“…to the shores of Tripoli”) with a sense of appropriateness.

And I haven’t even mentioned PakistanNiger, and god knows where else. You should also note that the American forever war on terror has proven a remarkably effective war for terror, clearly helping to foster and spread such groups, aggressors and provocateurs all, around significant parts of the planet, from the Philippines to the Congo.

Addicted to war? Not us. Still, all in all, it’s quite a record and let’s not forget that looming on the horizon is another possible war, this time with Iran, a country that the men overseeing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (includingpresent National Security Advisor John Bolton) were eager to go after even then. “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad,” so the saying reputedly went in Washington at the time. “Real men want to go to Tehran.” And it’s just possible that, in 2019, Bolton and crew will be able to act on that much delayed urge. Considering the history of American wars in these years, what could possibly go wrong?

To sum up, no one should ever claim that we Americans aren’t “at home” in the world. We’re everywhere, remarkably well funded and well armed and ready to face off against the aggressors and provocateurs of this planet. Just one small suggestion: thank the troops for their service if you want, and then, as most Americans do, go about your business as if nothing were happening in those distant lands. As we head into election season 2020, however, just don’t imagine that we’re the good guys on Planet Earth. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many good guys left.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.comand is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlandsseries) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright Tom Engelhardt 2019

Dodged a Bullet for Now

The US has not started the latest war against Iran yet. But I have no doubt that it will be underway at some point. I wish like hell that I was wrong about that! Give me strength! I hate to see that shit starting again with the same playbook as in Iraq. I wrote a book about it. But empires must be empires till they finally collapse.

Giving Trump Credit (But Not Too Much) on Iran

The Donald made the right call. Now that’s a rare statement. Calling off – or at least delaying – a military strike on Iran was prudent. Nevertheless, there was something deeply unsettling about the whole thing. The system is broken, perhaps irreparably.

The president never even considered seeking congressional approval before playing emperor and unleashing death and destruction on a sovereign nation. Why would he? Essentially every president, since Truman, has done the same thing one time or another. Unilateral executive action has been the American norm pretty much since World War II wrapped up. Seen in this context, Trump isn’t so anomalous as many would like to believe. Korea kicked off the trend. But the Vietnam advisory mission, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Libya, and Syria – to name the highlights – were all undertaken without the constitutionally mandated consent of the legislature.

In that sense, a dozen or so more palatable and polite emperors, I mean presidents, paved the way for the coarser and more buffoonish reality TV star currently calling the shots in the White House. Americans’ collective sin of ignoring foreign policy and ceding unilateral power to the executive branch has truly, and definitively, come home to roost. That’s partly why I find the protestations from Democratic lawmakers to be more about partisanship than principles. Genuine legislators – that spent more time following international policy instead of obsessively raising money – would all revolt and restrain the president regardless of their political party. We’re unlikely to see that.

None of this should be seen as a defense or normalization of Trump. The manis scary. His threats, vagueness, and propensity to turn on a policy dime are genuinely disturbing. So is his blatant affinity for autocrats the world over. The point is that I shouldn’t have to give “credit” to Trump when he acts prudently and demonstrates restraint. I, we, should not have to hang on the words and pronouncements of any one man. The populace, the media, the congress should not be relegated to spectators held hostage by the whims of any one man.

It doesn’t necessarily matter whether that person is Donald Trump or Barack Obama, per say. The system, as designed in the Constitution, judiciously places the supreme power of warfare squarely on Capitol Hill, on the collective judgment of the peoples’ elected representatives. Discussion, debate, deliberation – these ought to be the hallmarks of any rather profound decision to kill and maim other humans. Instead, in 21st century America, we “elect” – not necessarily by the popular vote count – an emperor and then watch and see what he does with our military and, heck, our nuclear arsenal for that matter.

Which places this author, and all Americans really, in the awkward, and pathetic, position of having to praise the lunatic-in-chief for not doing the unthinkable. All of us feast on the decisional scraps of one Donald Trump. It’s been normalized to such an extent that hardly anyone notices any longer. All Americans are essentially too trapped in the Matrix of imperial war to recognize the crumbing of national institutions. It easy (and somewhat accurate) to blame congress, or the media, or various presidents themselves, but the rot runs much deeper. Average Americans have forgotten how to be true citizens, forgotten how to mobilize in the streets and demand change. Too busy eking out a living after forty years of working wage stagnation, and no longer required to serve in America’s imperial wars, the people have opted out. We’re all guilty, all complicit, in the hijacking of the Constitution. So it was that I personally endured combat in two ill-advised, immoral wars in the Greater Middle East.

See, there are consequences for executive overreach and popular apathy. We can count the costs to the tune of $5.9 trillion spent, some 7,000 American soldiers killed, and about 480,000 dead foreigners. All of this occurred with either a congressional rubber stamp or, often, no stamp at all. While congressmen and senators were busy dialing-for-dollars, my soldiers were in the field killing and dying in rather real wars. I’m sure thankful that I’m out of the business of death-dealing, but also remain deeply unsettled by the knowledge that any war in Iran will affect, and forever damage, a new generation of officers and soldiers. Americans will then vacuously thank, and hollowly adulate, the troops involved. Almost no one will ask why those servicemen were sent to war in the first place, or question the process by which they were sent. All the while, the last remnants of the American republic will continue to crumble.

So here we are, hostages to one – rather disconcerting – man, Mr. Donald Trump. We’ll collectively wait for his decision on whether to call off, delay, or launch a new Mideast war, this time with Iran. It’s absurd and need not be this way. Citizens, real citizens I mean, could hit the streets, flood their congressmen’s’ offices, and shut down the whole damn country until the president adheres to the Constitution. It’s genuinely possible, but, of course, will not happen.

Instead, we’ll all remain glued to our TVs and phones, wondering what the emperor will do next. And when that supreme leader decides, occasionally, to show restraint, I’ll be in the awkward and insane position of giving Donald Trump “credit” when he doesn’t embark on another illegal war in our name. And more’s the pity.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor toAntiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen