ISIS

The Low-Bar Trope

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Democratic Primary Debate Participants, 27 June 2019: Michael Bennet, Joseph Biden, Peter Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernard Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang. (Credit: DonkeyHotey / Wikimedia Commons)

You have heard it said before. I’ve said it myself. As a colleague recently grumbled: “The bar is low. All I want is a return to the rule of law.”

Indeed, the bar is set low for the 2020 presidential election if it means Democrats should nominate the person most likely to defeat Trump, that candidates competing for the nomination should do no harm to one another in the primaries, and that they and their supporters should rally behind the Party’s eventual nominee on the assumption that winning the election will return the nation to the status quo ante.

Is a reset enough? Is restoring the state of affairs as it existed before Trump’s presidency the right goal and the likeliest way to win the election? (more…)

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Ghostly Metaphor: War at a Bargain

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Creditor’s Ledger Payments Book detailing creditor payments between 1958 and 1977 by companies commissioning work from Holmes McDougall. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.

Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars. (more…)

Two-Minute War

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Capt. Anthony Deiss, a public affairs officer with the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, South Dakota Army National Guard, visits with Richard Engel, NBC news correspondent, 7 July 2010, at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Credit: Sgt. Rebecca Linder, U.S. Army)

I have been watching network news regularly over the past year, since Mr. Trump assumed the presidency. I am not a big fan of network news. I default to newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian for more complete coverage. But the evening television news, given its entertainment format, is a way of keeping up with popularized versions of daily events.

It is easy to be ensnared and stupefied by the evening news melodrama. While watching the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on March 15, I was suddenly alerted by my internal propaganda detector to a two-minute story about a previously secret skirmish in Syria between US special forces and Russian mercenaries. The incident had occurred a month earlier, on February 7, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS forces recently had been driven off. Americans directly engaged Russians in combat for the first time in 50 years. The US officer in charge, Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, was concerned that the battle could lead to real war with Russia. (more…)

Imperialitis

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A UH-60 Black Hawk flies over the Bamyan River Valley, 24 June 2012. (Credit: U.S. Army)

“It’s the same forever war.”

Doug Ollivant, Senior National Security Studies Fellow, New America Foundation

Mr. Trump’s hedge in his August 21, 2017 speech on Afghanistan was to sustain an interminable war, choosing neither to quit the war nor win it in the foreseeable future.  He did say, “in the end, we will win,” but he offered no timetable.  His definition of victory was rendered in the verb form of the gerund—“attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”—which expresses a continuous, uncompleted action.  His generals advised him there were no feasible options other than holding the line by sending a few thousand more troops to sustain the stalemated war until the Taliban eventually decide they have more to gain from negotiation than armed struggle.  Even that, Mr. Trump allowed, might not happen:  “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows when or if that will ever happen.”  Mr. Trump’s new strategy is not “time based.”  It is timeless.

In short, there is no foreseeable military solution; the war cannot be won in any meaningful sense of the word; the immediate choice is between losing and not losing.  So, Mr. Trump opts to sustain the stalemate, or as one anonymous US military official puts it, “to chart a way forward well into the 2020s.”  A way forward does not mean a path to victory.  It means more of the same.

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Imperial Decline

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“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, oil on canvas, by William Merritt Chase, 1875. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tom Engelhardt is an uncommonly keen observer of the imperial globe. His blog, TomDispatch.com, points critically at what mainstream media ignore or condone. The blog functions as an “antidote” to how the news typically is reported. He’s been at it since the beginning of the global war on terror. Before that, he wrote insightfully on US war culture in The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). Now he sees signs of the beginning of the end of US empire.

Engelhardt sees the decline of American imperial power reflected in the words of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign theme: “Make America Great Again!” The word “again” is revealing. Rhetoric makes and reflects political culture.

In the 1950s, US wealth and power were “too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.” Their political vocabulary was devoid of superlatives such as “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensible.” After Vietnam, though, things went the way of Rambo. (more…)

U.S. Trounces Islamic State

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Credit: Library of Congress

The headline caught my attention: “Islamic State Getting Trounced in Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds, Survey Finds.”

The news story, written by Joby Warwick, appeared online on April 12, 2016 in The Washington Post. Warwick reports on national security and the Middle East.

In this story, Warwick features a new opinion poll that shows the Islamic State “is seeing a steep slide in the support among young Arab men and women it most wants to attract.”   The “survey suggests” that “overwhelming majorities”—“nearly 80%”—strongly oppose the Islamic State. That’s up from 60% a year ago.

More than half of the young Arabs surveyed ranked the Islamic State as the number one problem in the Middle East, and three-quarters predicted it would ultimately fail to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. “The survey found” that even those who do sign up with the Islamic State are motivated by economic hardships and unemployment, not by religious fervor. Religion is a rationalization, not a motive. Respondents also “tended to rank stability over democracy as a coveted virtue for an Arab state.” (more…)

Islamophobia

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Davids Samling, Copenhagen, Denmark, December 2012. (Credit: Orf3us / Wikimedia Commons)

A phobia is an extreme fear, extreme to the point of irrationality—a fear so large that it exceeds the danger posed. Sometimes it incapacitates us. Other times it incites us to violence.

Risk is inherent to life. That’s commonsense.

Americans crossing a busy London street are endangered by a traffic pattern contrary to their ingrained expectations.  They habitually look left before stepping off the curb. Consequently, they miss seeing the bus coming at them from the immediate right lane. One might be traumatized by the possibility of being run over by a bus—which has happened to some unsuspecting pedestrians—to the point of never walking the delightful streets of London or even visiting the UK. That is being paralyzed by fear of the possible.

Muslims have perpetrated terrorist acts in the US and abroad. In Manhattan, Boston, Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere. A Muslim neighbor, no matter how harmless he or she appears, could be planning another terrorist attack. Therefore, Muslims in general should be considered an existential danger? That’s an irrational conclusion provoked by fear of the unlikely. (more…)

Fear

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Photo of the Sunday, August 22, 2010 Cordoba House protest. (Credit: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)

Inspector Malcolm Fox—the protagonist of Ian Rankin’s Scottish crime novel, The Impossible Dead (NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2011)—reflects upon the ever-presence of fear, whether in news reports from 1985 or today:

When you’d stopped needing to fear a US-Soviet conflagration or an impending ice age, something else came along in its place. Fear of crime always seemed to outpace the actual statistics. Right now, people were fearing for their jobs and pensions, fearing global warming and dwindling resources. If these problems were ever resolved, new worries would fill the vacuum. (pp. 329-30)

Fear fills the vacuum of resolved problems. Fear engenders problems. Problems are a figment of fear, the chimera of exaggeration—or at least can be. Exaggeration, whether of crime levels or threats to national security, perpetuates the perception of crisis. The status quo remains on the verge of CRITICAL. (more…)

Atrocity

Mugshot of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi taken by US armed forces while in dentention at Camp Bucca in 2004. (Credit:  U.S. Armed Forces / Wikimedia Commons)

Mugshot of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi taken by US armed forces while in detention at Camp Bucca in 2004. (Credit: U.S. Armed Forces / Wikimedia Commons)

Stories of atrocity are compelling motives for war. They resonate to the myth of America’s special virtue. Our goodness exists by contrast with the enemy’s evil actions. As the enemy’s image darkens, our self-image shines (by implication). Shades of grey disappear.

Atrocity is a self-certifying story. Its psychological force and narrative function are sufficient both to persuade and to inhibit rebuttal. Its status as fact is presumed. Its verisimilitude is a cultural given. To question its authority is heretical.

It does not matter that stories of atrocity in past wars so often have proven, in retrospect, to be untrustworthy. We believe what we need to believe in the heat of the moment. Moreover, how can we tell that a given story is untrue, that it is mere propaganda? Especially when the story comes to us through the mainstream news media? Our only recourse seemingly is to accept all such stories on faith or reject all of them out of hand. Outright rejection reduces us to an untenable position of sheer cynicism. (more…)

Down the Rabbit Hole

"The White Rabbit," illustrated by John Tenniel, for "The Nursery Alice" by Lewis Carroll, 1890. (Credit: British Library / Wikimedia Commons)

“The White Rabbit,” illustrated by John Tenniel, for “The Nursery Alice” by Lewis Carroll, 1890. (Credit: British Library / Wikimedia Commons)

Who hasn’t found themselves tongue tied in a surcharged debate, especially when defending an unconventional opinion while everyone else postures on the side of conventional wisdom. There’s no room in the debate, nor is there sufficient time, to reframe the issue; the operative premises (presumed and expressed) work against your position; you are rushed and interrupted when you do try to speak up; and you are outnumbered. Only afterwards, when the debate is lost and long over, do you think of a brilliant reply.

It happens to the best of us. Maybe that is why so few of us care to express a dissenting opinion even though we are convinced that the war on terrorism is wrong headed.

War critic and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich recently took the hit and lived to report it. (more…)