Saturday, July 28, 2007

Plights of Iraqi Refugees and US Iraq Veterans

This is the essence of letters to my senators and congressman prompted by an international conference on Iraqi refugees held on July 26 in Amman, Jordan.

I am distressed that by starting a war that it has now virtually lost, the United States has created a hell on earth in Iraq. According to the New York Times, 750,000 Iraqi refugees now live in Jordan, and 1.5 million live in Syria. Another 50,000 leave Iraq every month. Craig Johnstone, the UN deputy high commissioner for refugees, told the BBC, "The international community, I think, has neglected the plight of the refugees from Iraq so far, but they are beginning to act."

On a related issue, we need to help Iraqis who have worked for the US leave Iraq if their life is threatened. As a retired Foreign Service officer who worked frequently with “foreign service nationals” (FSNs) at embassies abroad, I feel particularly strongly that we should help them. I am distressed that we seem to be allowing only a handful of Iraqis to seek refuge in the US, when we should be helping thousands. It’s nothing compared to the number of Vietnamese who came to the US as a result of the Vietnam war.

I do not think immediate withdrawal from Iraq is the best course of action to bring closure to the Iraq war. I think we need to reinstate the draft and increase the number of troops in Iraq to 500,000 to 1 million until we can stop the terror there and bring enough peace for Iraqis to live in their own country. However, if we are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to bring peace to Iraq, then we should leave and let the Iraqis end the civil war as soon as possible with their own internecine bloodletting. As an American I am dismayed that we have brought upon ourselves this choice between two horrible alternatives.

I was a draftee who went to Vietnam, unlike Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Vice President Cheney. I was the Science Counselor at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, in the mid-1990s when then Vice President Gore visited for an anniversary marking the end of World War II. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski introduced Gore to the audience of Polish war veterans at the Ambassador’s residence in Warsaw by noting Gore’s service in Vietnam. The Poles applauded loudly, but many Americans murmured, “Doesn’t he know Clinton didn’t serve?” As a Vietnam veteran, I will probably never forget the American hostility towards Gore for being a veteran and the difference in attitudes between the Poles and the Americans. I’ve seen it all my life; when I returned from Vietnam to the relatively conservative University of Alabama, all anybody wanted to hear about Vietnam was how many atrocities you committed or saw. I was grateful to have served along the DMZ where, unlike farther south, anybody you saw outside your perimeter was almost certainly a bad guy. For many in Vietnam telling the good guys from the bad guys was difficult, but it seems much more difficult in Iraq.
I realize that Americans are now trying to make up for their former open prejudice against veterans by praising those who fight in Iraq. But news reports make it clear that those fighting are a relatively small group of mostly white Christians from small towns in the mid-American heartland. Upper class and upper middle class citizens from comfortable cities and suburbs applaud them so that the wealthy don’t have to go. Until the last few days, Wall Street celebrated the carnage in Iraq by hitting new highs of the Dow Jones average.

Unless the US beefs up its military presence in Iraq, which unfortunately I doubt because of the unwillingness of most Americans to make any sacrifice for the “war on terror,” I pity the poor Iraqi war veterans. Because of the shoddy treatment of these vets by Walter Reed Hospital and the Veterans Administration, President Bush set up a commission led by former Senator Dole and former Secretary Shalala to help improve their treatment. This is a good start, but the problem for the future is that there will be so few Iraqi vets. Because they are being sent back again and again, the total number of vets is small, especially when compared to World War II or even Vietnam, where most soldiers served one tour. Thus, in the years to come they will have a very small political constituency to fight for the benefits they need. Once the war is off the front pages, they are unlikely to get much from the government.

I don’t know what happened, but the recent resignation announced by Coloradan Jim Nicholson as Secretary of Veterans Affairs is discouraging. I am guessing that, perhaps in private, the Dole-Shalala panel had some tough words for the VA because of its failure to meet Iraq war veterans’ needs.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Why Do We Encourage Troops To Leave the Military?

We don't have enough troops to maintain order in Iraq, but by paying contractors two, three, maybe five times as much as soldiers make, we encourage the best troops to leave the military and return to Iraq as civilian contractors carrying guns. There are almost as many US government contractors in Iraq as there are soldiers, although many of them are Iraqis working for us. But many are also former soldiers who left the military to make more money as mercenaries. Recent press reports have pointed out the downside for contractors if they get hurt, but if they don't get hurt, they get rich. It's a gamble that many make.

We should have enough troops to do what we need done in Iraq. I think this even includes Halliburton's jobs of running mess halls and driving trucks. Of course, we could never do this with the small Army and Marine Corps that we have, but that means that we need a bigger military until this war is won, not that we go hire a bunch of South African thugs to act as body guards for senior Americans.

While military salaries and bonuses are growing to keep some semblance of parity with the contractors, the country will be bankrupted if we take it too far. Of course, Bush is oblivious to the financial cost of the war. He's aiming for a trillion dollar war.

Why Don't Republicans Support the Troops

If the Republicans really cared about our troops in Iraq they would get them some help, not just send the same troops back to Iraq again and again. No doubt a lot of the troops believe in what they are doing in Iraq, but I doubt that many of them want to do it 52 weeks a year, year in and year out. They want and deserve a break. But with the current Army and Marine Corps, there are not enough of them to hold down Iraq and have sufficient stateside downtime. Actually there are not enough of them to hold down Iraq as it is; that's why Iraq is descending into chaos and anarchy. We ought to have 500,000 to 1,000,000 troops there for a while, maybe a year, to re-establish order.

It's clear now that we lost the war when we allowed looting to break out after the US troops first took Baghdad. Ministries were destroyed; key records were lost; key personnel disappeared; archaeological treasures were stolen. The country was disintegrating before our eyes, and we did nothing. Now we reap what we sowed then.

So, if we're serious about Iraq, we must re-establish the draft. But I don't think we are serious; so, if not, then it's time to leave. We can try to leave gracefully and leave as many Iraqi police and army troops in place as possible, but it's likely to be a bloodbath.

As an American, I feel awful every time I see or read about a suicide bombing, or a beheading, or an assassination. As Colin Powell told Bush, the Pottery Barn principle applies, "If you break, it you bought it." We bought it big time. Terrible things happened before we invaded, but then it was Saddam Hussein's fault; now it's our fault. We are not murdering too many people (although a few according to press reports), but we are failing to maintain order and a civil society. George Bush blames Maliki, but Bush is responsible. It's his war. He failed. America failed. Why would he start a war, and then lose it? It's total incompetence and cowardice.

Iranian Invasion When We Pull Out of Iraq

One possibility, of many, is that when the US leaves Iraq, Iran will step in and annex Iraq either formally or de facto. Iran and Iraq have already fought a bitter war in which Iraq used chemical weapons and we, under Reagan's guidance, sided with Saddam Hussein. If Iraq descends into chaos after we leave, can we expect Iran to keep hands off? If the Shiites are unquestionably in power when we leave, Iran might stay out. On the other hand, if there is the least chance of the Sunnis taking over again, why should Iran risk it. It would be foolish for Iran to take that risk. The US intervened strongly in Central America during Reagan's presidency when we thought the Communists were coming to power there. There is likely to be an Iranian Ollie North who will push for invasion, maybe using some weapons supplied by the real Ollie North.

Should that possibility keep us from leaving? Maybe, but only if staying could change that outcome. If staying just keeps the lid on anarchy until we finally leave, what's the point? Iran could take over in 2008 or 2010 or 2020; it still takes over. We could hope for some kind of revolution in Iran, but it's unlikely to happen.

I think that we need to beef up the troops and re-establish order in Iraq, but Bush and the Republicans are too cowardly to do it. They won't re-establish the draft, which would be the only way to raise a sufficient number of troops to do the job. They'll just keep sending the same troops over there again and again for longer and longer tours with shorter and shorter stateside tours.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

New Gilded Age and the Military

The New York Times says this is the new gilded age, and it looks like it is. The are a lot of similarities to the beginning of the 20th century. Why didn't the US move into a new gilded age after World War II. Financially we were in even better shape than we are today, because almost every other industrialized country around the world was in shambles. The article asks why now instead of the 1960s or 1970s. One answer that keeps coming up is changes in regulatory and tax structure. Taxes today are lower; Glass-Steagall was removed from the books, allowing nationwide banking, etc.

Something the article doesn't mention is World War II. WW II is so far unique in our history in pulling the country together. Unlike Vietnam and Iraq, almost everybody served in the military and fought. Men from the upper classes and the Ivy League spent years with men from the farms and factories. There was a brotherhood and a sense of shared responsibility. Today there is none of that. The privileged classes don't fight in Iraq. There is less social mobility within American society.

After WW II men who served as officers and returned to run the business world felt a kinship for and obligation toward the less fortunate enlisted men they had fought with. Some of the elite, rather than going into business, went into politics and ended up passing some of the laws leveling American society, making taxes more progressing, limiting monopolistic practices, etc., the kinds of things that have been undone in the last 20 years.

While these men ran America, we had a somewhat golden (as opposed gilded) age where management and labor worked more or less together to make life better for everyone. Today there is very little of that. The head of FedEx is a Vietnam veteran, and while Vietnam was a very different war, FedEx probably espouses more social responsibility than most other corporations whose managers only know the brotherhood of business school at Harvard or some other elite university.

Checking Wikipedia for military service by some big business names, I found:

  • Bill Gates (Microsoft) - No service
  • Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway) - No service
  • Sandy Weill (Citicorp) - Did Air Force ROTC; wanted to be a pilot, but apparently could not qualify and did not serve in the active military.
  • Leo Hindery (AT&T) - No mention of service, but less than complete biographies.
  • Sumner Redstone (Viacom) - Worked in the predecessor to NSA during WW II.
  • Kenneth Griffin (Citadel hedge fund) - No mention of military service; sounds like he went straight from Harvard into managing hedge funds.
  • Lew Frankfort (Coach) - No mention of military service in Business Week bio.
  • Sheldon Adelson (Gambling/Las Vegas) - No mention of service in Forbes bio.
  • Larry Ellison (Oracle) - No mention of service in Forbes bio.
  • Paul Allen (Microsoft) - No mention of service in Forbes.
  • Jim Walton (Wal-Mart) - No mention of service in Forbes.
  • Robson Walton (Wal-Mart) - No mention of service.
  • Sergay Brin (Google) - No mention of service.
  • Larry Page (Google) - No mention of service
  • Michael Dell (Dell) - No mention of service.
  • Steve Ballmer (Microsoft) - No mention of service.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Condi Rice Is Paris Hilton of State Department

Condi Rice is supposed to be a foreign policy professional, but things have gone to hell in hand basket on her watch as Secretary of State. Arguably things have not gone as badly 0n her watch as they did on Colin Powell's. We haven't gotten into any new wars. We've reached an agreement with North Korea on nuclear issues, rather than breaching one. But Condi was in the White House fighting against Colin Powell on these issues during Bush's first term.

Condi has turned out to be a light weight when it comes to foreign policy. She basically lets herself be pushed around by whomever she's with. At the White House, it was the war mongering neo-cons, and she backed them. Now, at State, she to her credit is taking a more statesman-like position, but due to the people around her, not to any good sense of her own.

She dresses nicely and is telegenic, but like Paris Hilton, there's not much "there" there, unlike Robert Gates who appears to be personally moving the Defense Department in a more reasonable direction.