Jan 13

At the end of 2012, Michael C was interviewed by Robert Tollast--who frequently writes on Iraq for the Small Wars Journal--for a piece in The National Interest, "Maliki’s Private Army". In hindsight, it’s kind of eerily predictive of Maliki’s future actions.

Jan 12

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)

Whatever it is about the Middle East, it causes staunch, free-market-loving Republicans to forget their economics. Mention Obamacare, government regulation, the minimum wage or any other social issue, and free-market, libertarian-esque Republicans will extol the virtues of economics. Yet as soon as they begin talking about Iraq or Syria, these lessons disappear. Specifically, these Republicans (and all policy makers in Washington, really) refuse to acknowledge the costs associated with foreign policy.

Specifically, the opportunity costs. (Which we’ve been writing about since I went to business school.)

As we reflect on the reemergence of a civil war in Iraq, it seems appropriate to see how well the U.S.--led by the Bush administration--acknowledged the opportunity costs of the first war in Iraq.

Let’s spell this out with a hypothetical example. You own a pizza shop. (In business school, I swear all the business examples involve restaurants, even though most MBAs work in consultancies or investment banks. Curious.) You have ten stores, each doing incredible business. I mean, you’re slinging pizzas to every wahoo on the block. Obviously, you want to expand. You have about a million in cash, and it costs about a million dollars to open a new restaurant. You have narrowed down your options to three different cities.

So what do you do?

If you are in charge of American foreign policy, you open up a restaurant in every single city and go into massive debt.

But wait, that doesn’t make any sense! You don’t have the cash or resources to do that. You would likely fail at every new city--because you can’t devote the time, energy, manpower and resources to each one--and could cost yourself your entire franchise. (This isn’t purely hypothetical. Many restaurants have over-expanded to ill outcome.)

This is what happened in Iraq in 2003. Despite fighting an ongoing war in Afghanistan and a new “war on terror” (which sucked up huge amounts of capital to build a massive new intelligence and domestic security apparatus) President Bush, Vice President Cheney and all their diplomatic, military and intelligence advisers told America that we had the resources (in business terms, capital) to invade another country.

Except we (America) didn’t.

The business metaphor also shows the incredibly poor return on investment of invading Iraq. As Dexter Filkins recently covered, we basically deposed a Sunni despot for a Shia despot, while radicalizing a population of Sunni Muslims. (Though, Dexter Filkins illustrated in this podcast a fantastic ability to cling to “sunk costs”.) In terms of “what did we get for what we spent”, we blew it.

The biggest opportunity cost is spending what you could call “war capital”, the support needed to wage wars. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spent most of America’s “war capital”, and spent it poorly. It also meant we ignored the war in Afghanistan for far too long, wasting support for that fight. So when it comes to other possible American wars like...

Enforcing President Obama’s redline in Syria? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of messy civil wars.

Bombing Iran to stop their nuclear weapons program? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of mission creep.

Intervening in Ukraine? Can’t because Americans don’t want another war (and Russia has nuclear weapons).

Do something more in Libya, Egypt, Yemen or wherever else Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol wants? Can’t because Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.

Most Americans, who live outside the confines of Washington D.C., understand that we don’t have the military capital to start another war in those places because we spent that capital (poorly) on Iraq. Nevertheless, despite widespread opposition, America started bombing Iraq anew and even put boots on the ground. Are there opportunity costs to that? You betcha, and we’ll discuss that on Thursday.

Jan 09

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: iraq Redux", please click here.)

When ISIS started taking territory in Iraq, America--with an assist from the media--became afraid of two things. The first was that ISIS would start launching Al Qaeda style attacks against the US, which Michael C debunked yesterday. The second was that…

ISIS IS ABOUT TO TAKE BAGHDAD!!!!!!!!!

Unfortunately, ISIS has been about to take Baghdad for over half a year now... 

- 12 June 2014, Al Arabiya, “ISIS Militants Plan to March on Baghdad

- 12 June 2014, The Daily Mail, “ISIS butchers leave 'roads lined with decapitated police and soldiers': Battle for Baghdad looms as thousands answer Iraqi government's call to arms and jihadists bear down on capital

- 15 June 2014, The Telegraph, “Iraq crisis: ISIS battles for Baghdad - June 15 as it happened

- 22 June 2014, Haaretz, “High anxiety in Iraqi capital as it awaits ISIS invasion

- 1 July 2014, Newsweek, “Expected to Take Aim at the 'Baghdad Belt’”

- 29 September 2014, The Daily Mail, “ISIS fighters now 'at the gates of Baghdad': Islamic militants fighting 'just one mile from Iraqi capital' despite days Western airstrikes

- 5 October 2014, The Washington Times, “Islamic State withstands bombing campaign, plots Baghdad invasion

- 11 October 2014, CBS, “ISIS encroaches on ultimate prize in Iraq

- 12 October 2014, Al Arabiya, “ISIS rallies ‘10,000 militants’ at gates of Baghdad

- 14 October 2014, Time, “180,000 People Flee Western Iraq as ISIS Inches Ever Closer to Baghdad

- 17 October 2014, The New York Times, “ISIS Keeps Up Pressure Near Baghdad as Iraqi Troops Hesitate

To be fair, ISIS “threatened” Baghdad mainly in June and October. But this collection is only a partial list. I only started collecting headlines like this after ISIS threatened Baghdad the second time, and I thought, “They haven’t taken Baghdad yet? They’ve been threatening them since June.” More important than that question is this one:

Can ISIS even take Baghdad?

Now, I’m no military expert--that’s Michael C’s area of expertise--but from my layman’s point of view, one thought stands out: Baghdad is majority Shia. True, finding accurate numbers on the actual demographic breakdown is not easy. But according to Newsweek and Joel Wing’s excellent Musings on Iraq--which cites the CIA fact book--Baghdad is 70 to 80% Shia. Secondly, the Shia majority has some very powerful militias ready at their disposal, as America learned the hard way.

In other words, ISIS won’t be waltzing into Baghdad anytime soon.

Jan 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

As the media responded to the death of American journalist James Foley at the end of last summer, the hype for a new war eventually caused 63% of Americans to support air strikes against ISIS. (Read Zach Beauchamp for great coverage on the over-reaction here.) The culmination, for me, was this article by Retired General James Allen [emphasis mine]:

“If all the actions of the Islamic State, or IS, to date weren’t sufficiently reprehensible, this act and the potential for other similar acts will snap American attention with laser-like focus onto the real danger IS poses to the existence of Iraq, the order of the region and to the homelands of Europe and America.

To make sure his readers understand the severity, he continues, “Make no mistake, the abomination of IS is a clear and present danger to the U.S.” Remarkably, General Allen provides almost no evidence to prove this point.

I’m not picking on just General Allen; no one in the Obama administration, including the President himself, or congressmen advocating for war, ever provided evidence that ISIS posed a threat to the US beyond “Trust us.” A perfect example is this USA Today article with the provocative headline, “Islamic State biggest threat since 9/11, sources say”. Again, beyond “sources”, it didn’t have any evidence.  

Since I can’t debunk every media article, I want to use General Allen’s op-ed as a case study in how to over-hype the threat of terrorists. So what evidence did Gen. Allen bring to bear? Here’s a list after reading and re-reading his op-ed:

- The Islamic State wants to establish a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

- There are foreign fighters in their ranks.

- They are a well-organized insurgent group.

- They have money and weapons.

- They beheaded one American journalist. (And since more.)

- Al Qaeda used Taliban support in Afghanistan.

- Finally, this vague sentence: “The leadership of the so-called Caliphate has been clear that it will focus on Western and American targets if given the chance...”

So all those factors point to a group that could and is threatening the current state of Iraq. At least they have a significant chance to carve out a chunk of territory for their own. The problem is many of those “facts” don’t lead to ISIS being a threat to America’s homeland, as General Allen claimed.

Take the first and last bullet points; they’re contradictory. If ISIS wants to establish a Caliphate, the worst thing it could do would be to provoke US, UK and European nations into re-invading Iraq. That would set back its plans years, decades or end them all together. (Ask the Taliban how it worked out for them.)

Further, US intelligence agencies really don’t know much about the group. In fact, the US Counter-Terrorism adviser contradicted the Secretary of Defense on whether ISIS posed a threat to the homeland. So its more accurate to say, “Some sources say ISIS isn’t a threat and other sources say they are.” The number of fighters under ISIS control vary wildly from one estimate to another. When the US intel community (and the media) don’t know much about a new terrorist group, they tend to overestimate their strength.

To top it off, this dire and immediate threat to the US finished the year by completely dropping out of the news almost altogether, except for articles about how ISIS ended the year stalled out.

(Oh, and using the evidence that because Al Qaeda was harbored by the Taliban that ISIS will surely harbor international terrorists isn’t evidence.)

Yes, ISIS committed a war crime when it executed a journalist in Iraq. Yes, ISIS is bad for the Middle East and civil wars are bad for the world. However, given that it is against their interests to attack the US, we don’t know how many troops they have in the first place, they don’t have a terrorist arm, it is probably reasonable to conclude they won’t attack the U.S. homeland.

If politicians really want to make the case for action against ISIS, they can, but they shouldn’t hype a terror threat on our homeland.

Jan 06

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", check out the articles below... 

- Future ISIS Terrorist Attacks and Beach Front Property in Arizona

- Waiting For ISIS or: The Islamic State is about to Take Baghdad!

- The (Opportunity) Costs of the First Iraq War

- The (Opportunity) Costs of ANOTHER War with Iraq

- Bad Media! or: The Media Failed on Iraq...Again

- Every Political Talk Show Needs a War Skeptic and Other Solutions for Our Pro-War Media

In one of our first posts, Eric C made a bold prediction. In “The Obama Blame Game Part 2”, he wrote that, “Since 2003 all terrorist roads lead through Iraq.” He predicted that, in the future, terrorists would be inspired by Iraq, trained in warfare in Iraq, and even funded/organized in Iraq. In short, invading Iraq would have more to do with promoting extremism than it did in stopping it.

Like other predictions we have made, Eric went from being wrong to right. Terrorism didn’t “go through Iraq”, as a succession of lone wolf, would-be jihadists--the failed Times Square bombing or the failed underwear bombing or the failed cargo plane attacks--had their origins in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, respectively. The Boston Marathon bombing had its origins with Muslim Chechens.

(Eric C clung to his point that, borne out by each of the above plots, the U.S. invasion of Iraq still inspired many, most or all of the would-be jihadists.)

Then came ISIS. When the Islamic State of Iraq/Syria/Levant beheaded Western journalists, it seemed to finally vindicate Eric C. And when they invaded Iraq, the Washington national security establishment jumped on board with Eric C’s thesis: ISIS (formerly the scary Al Qaeda in Iraq) is the new boogeyman of the moment. These national security types believe that if we don’t get involved in Iraq again, we will be attacked on our own homeland (though many were the same who advocated for invading Iraq the first time). 

In just the above four paragraphs, we’ve related Iraq to international terrorism, counter-insurgency, extremism, failed predictions, American politics, the failure of the Army, a “Getting Orwellian” topic, and we’ve only just started scratching the surface. Iraq, one of the reasons Michael C joined ROTC, one of the places he deployed (at the very end), one of the inspirations for this blog, is back in the news because its civil war (unsurprisingly) re-ignited. And that civil war involved the beheading of a US journalist that caused the country to believe ISIS was the most dangerous organization in the world. And that fear, in part, helped swing the balance of power in Washington in an election year.

So we have our “On V Most Thought Provoking Event of 2014”, though not without some controversy, which we debated yesterday.

Of course, the thoughts this war inspired are legion. Expect a good bit of debunking, controversial opinions, and unmentioned ideas.

In short, as a nation, still haven’t learned the lessons of the last decade.

Jan 05

If you read our post on “The Most Thought Provoking Events of the Year So Far: Bowe Bergdahl and Boko Haram”, then you read this:

“Then Iraq fell apart. (Spoiler alert: that’s our most thought-provoking event of the year. Unless some absolutely devastating catastrophe occurs between now and then.)”

And then we found out--or more accurately, Congress confirmed--that our country tortured detainees during the war on terror, including rectal feeding, the killing of prisoners, the capture and detention of innocent men, and many other war crimes and human rights abuses.

We both consider the torture report an “absolutely devastating catastrophe”. Not in terms of a foreign policy crisis, but a catastrophe of constitutional proportions; a revelation that America had, in response to 9/11, violated its core principles in a way that ranks with the worst sins in American history, like internment, the Sedition Act and Watergate.

For Michael C, the torture report was bad, but not bad enough to displace Iraq as the most thought provoking event of the year. For Eric C, it was all he could think, read or write about for a week. Frankly, we still don’t agree. To quote Intelligence Squared, “Well, that sounds like the makings of a debate, so let’s have it”: what mattered more in 2014: Iraq Redux or the Torture Report?

Eric C’s Argument:

I’ll concede one point early on: I certainly think both events are thought-provoking. (Though on a technical, behind-the-scenes level, I don’t feel as confident as Michael C writing about Iraq as I do writing about torture.) But the torture report matters more than America intervening again in Iraq, because of what it represents symbolically.

With Iraq, America just ended up making the same mistakes, again. With the torture report, at least we’re trying to learn from our mistakes. In short, Iraq represents more of the same; the torture report represents a country trying to move forward. At least there was a debate.

And that, to me, is what truly matters. After 9/11, our country made mistakes, and if we write about the torture report, I feel that On Violence can add to the chorus of people, pundits and writers trying to make our country better; with Iraq, I don’t feel like the lessons will be learned.

Michael C’s Argument:

Each year Eric C and I pick the most “thought-provoking” event of the year--the event that inspires the most unique thoughts or ideas--then we write about that for a week (or two). On that front, Iraq Redux just inspires more unique, On-V-esque ideas than the torture report.

Iraq Redux had poor media coverage (the constant threat of invading Baghdad; over-hyping of the threat of ISIS), fearmongering on terrorism (the beheadings of Western journalists), discussion of counter-insurgency theory (the debate on airstrikes or more troops in Baghdad), the ramifications of international relations theory (including the duty to protect innocents versus realism versus liberalism) to start.

This isn’t to say the release of the Senate’s report on torture isn’t thought-provoking. It pretty soundly took over the media for a cycle. It also unites certain conservatives and liberals. And it shows the uniqueness of democracies: how often in history have rulers of a country willingly admitted they committed war crimes?

But most of our post ideas aren’t unique, but more filled with outrage that it happened in the first place. That isn’t unique or thought provoking per se, just morally outraging.

Eric C’s Conclusion:

I’ve decided to concede this argument, for two reasons. The first is practical, but intellectually not admirable: we’re mostly done with a whole bunch of posts on Iraq and we (the Cummings Bros) have a very busy month ahead of us.

But on a thematic, what-this-blog-is-working-towards level, in discussing torture (the release of the torture report), Iraq (the rise of ISIS and America “needing” to engage Iraq militarily for the fourth time in four decades), and the NSA (the release of Citizen 4 and more revelations of citizen snooping), a new theme emerged:

America has begun pushing back on our collective over-reaction to 9/11.

Altogether, the outlines of a new series and an essay or two emerged, which we plan/hope to finish in the next few months, after we write about Iraq and a bunch of other random topics. A number of themes of the blog--the dehumanization of our enemies, the world is getting safer, an unquestioning faith in the national security establishment--help explain America’s overreaction to 9/11, and we want to explore it.

So enjoy our series on Iraq Redux, which begins tomorrow. But expect much, much more in the year ahead.

Dec 22

(Before we begin, as happens every holiday season, On V will be “On-V-cation” until January fifth.)

Welcome to our 700th post. Though we’ve been posting less frequently, we’re still adding to the collection. As we like to do every hundred posts, we’re sharing our best/favorite posts from the last 100.

To read more “Best of On V” collections, check out the sidebar or click here.

By the far the biggest, most popular series we’ve ever done was our “debunking/getting the facts out” about the Lone Survivor film and memoir. First off, find the comprehensive, 4,000-plus word comparison article here. We jumped at the chance to shrink that post down and sent it to Slate. In December, we analyzed Luttrell’s 60 Minutes interview, where he repeated many of the mistakes in the book, and we discovered a new mistake: that Ahmad Shah “killed 20 Marines the week before”. Finally, we detailed the appalling media coverage of the film’s release.

We also took on the mishandling of COIN in both the book and the movie.

To read all of our Luttrell/Lone Survivor articles, click here.

We finally got around to creating a home page for our “Getting Orwellian” series, now collected here. Our two favorite language posts were “Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate: Getting Orwellian on Hate Speech” and  “Islamo-Nazi-Facists: Getting Orwellian on Islamofascism”.

We also wrote about two wars that never happened in North Korea and Syria. On Syria, our favorite posts were “Syria-sly? or: the Media Coverage on Syria So Far” and “An Open Letter to Our Representatives on Syria”. Finally, Michael C wrote “I'm an Isolationist?”. Expect us to hit this theme hard next year.

On V's Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013” last year was the NSA. Unfortunately, the government’s still fighting terrorism ineffectively and violating our civil liberties, so expect more on this as well.

Other prominent series included our “Our Belated Week (or Month) on the 2013 Oscars”, Eric C’s series on how “COIN is Boring”. And Michael C started, but hasn’t finished, “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security”.

To close, some of our favorite individual posts were “The Non-Traditional On Violence Reading List” and Michael C’s not-nearly-read-enough guest post “The Officer as Manager Reading List” at “The Best Defense”. We also like “(Non-Time Travel) Thoughts on "Looper"”, “America Looks Gross Naked” and “The Moral Argument Against War Validating One's Existence”.

Enjoy, and once again, thank you for everyone’s support.

Dec 17

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

We grew up in a decade when foreign policy didn’t matter...at least it didn’t based on news coverage. The Berlin Wall fell--and the Cold War symbolically ended--when we were six; the twin towers fell twelve years later--kicking starting the “war on terror”--the year we graduated we high school. In between, America didn’t really have an enemy to face other than a running back who murdered his wife and white, Christian, anti-government terrorism.

Yes, our generation’s existential crisis was terrorism, perpetrated by non-state actors hiding in caves and deserts. We never got to square off against thousands of armed nuclear war heads. That’s a real enemy.

But good news: The Cold War is back! Russia invaded the Ukraine!

(Unless, once again, their economy finishes them off first.)

And since Russia is back in the news, we thought we’d debunk some of the myths we’ve heard about our former enemy and current rival (going back decades).

Before we start, let’s clarify something: we’re not pro-Russia, pro-communist, or, more accurately, pro-dictatorship. Obviously, Stalin’s Russia was a terrible place, perhaps the most evil country in the history of the Earth. (Yes, our World War II ally was probably “eviler” than Hitler. Nuance!) But lies or myths about that country don’t help the debate.

Endless Clapping

This first anecdote, endlessly repeated, is like the Ur-myth of dictatorship. In short, at the end of a local district conference, there’s a tribute to Stalin and everyone begins applauding for their leader. They keep clapping. And clapping. Eventually, after clapping for much, much too long, one man finally sits down. The next day, the man disappears, presumably sent to the gulag for disobedience or showing initiative.

We first heard this tale in high school in AP European History. It’s origin is pretty clear. It comes from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

On an emotional, communism-is-the-end-of-the-free-world level, this story works perfectly. It’s the ultimate example of bureaucracy and the end of free will. It begs the question: who would want to live in a dictatorship like this?

Except, on a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense. It would seem that every time a rally or conference was held in Stalin’s Russia, someone else would head to the gulag. Eventually there would be no one left in the state who wasn’t in the gulag. Or meetings would consist of hours or days of clapping until people fell over from exhaustion.

Of course life couldn’t go on like this. The Russian state would have had to develop a solution to this problem.

Turns out, they did: a bell. When it rang, you could sit down. So yes, this story is based on the idea that Russians clapped for long periods of time in honor of Stalin. And people feared being the first to stop clapping. But it’s also not as fatalistic or absurd as the anecdote. More to the point, why didn’t Solzhenitsyn mention the bell? Because it would that have made the anecdote less effective.

Standing in Line for No Reason…

A long time ago, I heard an urban myth that Russia had so many lines that if Russians saw a line form, they would just start standing in it. This interview summarizes it pretty succinctly, “A long line quickly forms, before anyone knows what's for sale. That's what often happened, Grushin said. ‘People would just stand in line hoping for something.’”

Again, logically, this anecdote doesn’t make any sense. If you probe slightly, you realize, no one has ever done this. How long would you wait in a line like this? Ten minutes? An hour? Ten hours? What if the line wasn’t moving? More importantly, why wouldn’t you just ask what the line was for?

Like the first myth, there’s probably a basis in reality for this. Lines would probably form quickly when a new product went on sale; shortages were a problem in Russia. And I’m sure some people hopped in line without knowing what was for sale. (But I’m sure they asked what was for sale very quickly.) The exaggeration comes from people just staying in line, waiting, without knowing. That makes no sense.

Strong Leaders

In America’s over-reaction to Putin--the On V position is that invading neighboring countries is one of the largest threats to international order, so America and Europe rightfully imposed sanctions on Russia. But taking control of Crimea is a far cry from Putin planning to invade all of Europe--he was often praised for his strength/dictatorial cunning.

This brought up an old explanation of Putin/Russia: since the time of the Tsars, Russians have simply preferred “strong leaders”. This Slate article from 2006 sums it up nicely:

“Whether it's single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians' long-festering desire for a "strong hand."

Interestingly, “strong leaders” can be code for dictators, tsars or just a really authoritarian president. In any meaning, it makes no sense at all. How can an entire culture simply prefer dictators to democracy? And could you make the same argument for America? Since the Civil War, virtually every president has expanded the power of the executive branch. And for a long time, you could have made the case that Britain and France and Germany and Japan and America needed/wanted/loved strong leaders. Even now you could make the case that certain politicians and people prefer a dictator to messy democracy, and those are developed countries.