Tuesday’s Random Thoughts

So much is happening in our nation and in the world that often events move so fast that many of us cannot keep up with it all. Here are a few quick thoughts about some of these happenings.

  • Syria and Iraq.  The President gave a good speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week.  (You can read it here.)  However, in his remarks there and to the American people, he has assiduously avoided the use of the word “war.” For those flying the combat missions and on the ground in Iraq, legal definitions of “war” make little difference.  For them, we are at war.  As a minimum, the Obama Administration should have the Department of Defense and Central Command come up with a name for the operation.  From the Middle East to Panama we have over the last few decades named all of our significant military undertakings.  This one should be no exception and would, psychologically, help the American people to understand the nature and seriousness of our commitment.  Something like Operation Desert Lightning might work.
  • White House Security.  As many of you are aware, the Secret Service has had a series of revelations of breakdowns in their procedures for protecting President Obama and his family.  So far, most of the suggested changes to improve that security involve expanding the security perimeter around the White House and making it harder for normal citizens to access the area.  Indeed, the security perimeter along Pennsylvania Avenue has already been expanded.  Wrong answer.  Review and follow the protocols.  The failures of the Secret Service cannot be fixed by imposing increasing restrictions on the people. One of my biggest disappointments in recent years is going to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell and Freedom Hall.  The security procedures required to get into the building were worthy of any security check for any airport in the world.  Bad news that our symbols of freedom are hidden away behind tight security.
  • Congress.  Whether or not we are technically at war, Congress has an important role to play in making sure that our Armed Forces are not sent needlessly into harms way.  Although the last time that Congress actually passed a resolution declaring war was long ago (in June 1942 against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary), they have debated and passed resolutions supporting significant military operations.  Other than authorizing funds to begin to train Syrian fighters, Congress left town last week for campaigning without addressing the current actions against ISIS.  (Incidentally, this is the earliest Congress has left town for mid-term elections in fifty years — after having worked only eight days following a five-week summer recess.  Nice work if you can get it.) There is no more important matter for our government as a whole and for Congress in particular than national defense.  The only good news here is that it was a bipartisan agreement. Perhaps the only one of the past year.  Neither party wanted the “operation” against ISIS to get in the way of the campaigns surrounding the mid-term elections.  In other words, most Representatives and Senators did not want to have to go on record with a vote either for or against military action in fear of having to explain it during the campaign.   Shameful.
  • Baseball.  On a more positive note, at least in this area of the country, both the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles won their divisions and are in the playoffs.  It is too much to hope that they will meet in the World Series, but the locals can dream.  Already the debate is underway as to what to call it.  Battle of the Beltways?  The Parkway Series?  It would be fun.  And no comment on baseball could be complete without a comment on the retirement of Derek Jeter.  As a rehabilitated Boston Red Sox fan (Jetah — you suck!) I tip my hat to the man.  It is too easy to get carried away about what our various sports teams mean to the country and one can question what role it should play.  But all of the leagues and those in sports would be well served if their players were as consistent — on and off the field — in grace and leadership as Derek Jeter.

I could go on, but this is enough for today.  It is a fast paced world that we live in, indeed.

In Search Of Evil

Please forgive me while I muse out loud about the nature of evil.  This piece is not meant to be about, for, or against, any particular religious view.  Most religions address the nature of evil and the human dimension of fighting it off.  In many religions, Satan, or a similar being, is the embodiment of evil. While I will muse about Satan, this is not intended to be a religious discussion.  Or at least I think not. Non-religious people certainly recognize and ponder the nature of evil.  It is more than just a religious concept.  Spoiler alert:  That said, I will write about God and Satan, among other approaches to trying to understand evil.  Stop reading if this is not your thing and you would rather not get into it.

With the nearly constant bombardment of video images depicting the actions of the Islamic State (or ISIS, or ISIL — all the same entity), one immediately thinks of that group as evil.  Adolf Hitler and his Nazi supporters were evil.  Josef Stalin was evil.  Pol Pot was evil.  Narco-terrorists are evil. The list could go on and on.

However, I wonder why, or perhaps more accurately, how, people become evil.  I do not think that it is in the nature of humankind to be evil.  My premise has been and continues to be that, given a chance, people are inherently good and will do the right thing.  Although this premise is tested daily, I still consider the vast majority of people to be good.  So what happens to the others?  I do not think that they were born evil.  Although there are psycho-paths and people lacking any empathy what-so-ever, I see their actions as more a matter for psychiatrists than necessarily a manifestation of the existence of evil, which still leaves some of their actions clearly defined as evil.  Nor do I excuse their behavior in any way, shape or form.  However, I do not think that most of what we see today, or historically, as evil actions in the name of nations or dictators is coming purely from mental disorders. Perhaps some, but not many.  It is too facile to say that they are all psychopaths.

On a Judeo-Christian religious level, most believe that God is the Supreme Being.  God knows all and as the Creator, by definition, created everything in the universe.  God would not create Satan.  In the Old Testament (such as in the Book of Job) God sometimes sends Satan to do his bidding — in this case to test Job. If Satan exists, it is not as an equal to God.  How can there be an equal competition between good and evil — manifested as God versus Satan — for the souls of mankind?  There cannot.  God is all-powerful. He is not going to lose to Satan in any endeavor.

To me, Satan stands as a symbol of free will.  We have the curse and the gift of determining our own destiny.  It is a human decision as to whether or not to do the right thing.  When humans choose the wrong path, evil deeds occur.  So do our historical evil doers choose to be evil or are they on some other path?  I am not sure.  To some degree, it depends on which side of history one sits.  As has been written many times, the winner dictates the history.  In war, evil things happen on both sides. From other cultures’ perspectives the United States has done evil things.  Did we choose to do evil?  I say no we did not.  Either we were ignorant of the consequences of certain actions, or as a nation we decided that certain actions were necessary to achieve our goals.  Is it possible that Hitler, Stalin, and others, including the current leaders of the Islamic State were not born evil?  Is it possible that their actions were, and are, in the pursuit of what they consider to be a greater good and thereby necessary? If they wrote the history would they depict their actions as evil?  Are people evil or are their actions evil?  Does it matter?  I am no expert.  And I am no apologist for those that do evil things — there are no moral equivalencies here.  I am merely trying to find my way through a troubling problem.  Why does evil exist and how is it manifested?

How do good people go bad?  Nature or nurture?  I am not the first to ponder these questions, nor will I be the last.  The world is a fearsome and complicated place.  Perhaps the answer to what constitutes evil lies somewhere near Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion on hard-core pornography — that it is hard to define but “I know it when I see it.”  (An opinion he later professed to regret.)

This is not to say that evil is in the eye of the beholder.  It is to say that some things are universally considered evil and other things may be subject to motivation and context.  Some profess that all war is evil.  Evil things happen in war, but the necessary aspect of many wars (not all) does not inherently make them evil.

I have grappled with this for a long time and have no good conclusion.  I hold to my basic premise that humans are born good and want to do the right things with their lives.  I am challenged in resolving that outlook with the day-to-day evidence to the contrary in our lives.


Between Iraq and a Hard Place

As I commented in my post of 17 June, the United States has a difficult task ahead in figuring out how to deal with the advances of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Although their progress slowed in late June and through July, as you are aware, they have now turned northward towards the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.  These ISIS fighters are a much more formidable force, with skilled tacticians and some sense of strategic objectives, than most originally thought possible.  On Thursday, President Obama authorized the use of American air power to avert a humanitarian disaster and to help the Kurds resist ISIS advances.  More on that in a moment.

For months the Obama Administration resisted pressure to get involved again in Iraq.  Primarily,  it was because there was no clear path to follow without significant changes in the political climate in Iraq.  In the end, with extremely few historical outliers, wars can only be ended through political means.  The loser gets to decide when the war is over, no matter how badly beaten they may be.  The situation is the same in Iraq.  The Shiite dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki is extremely unpopular in many areas of the country.  Until a broader based government is in place, there is little to no chance of stability returning to Iraq.  The United States cannot fix that.  And yet, here we are getting involved again.

Part of the issue is that we cannot ignore the territorial spread of the pernicious tenants of the ISIS fighters.  They dominate much of Iraq, essentially controlling the northern and western parts of the country, as well as parts of Syria. There is no question that ISIS is bad news, bringing death and destruction to anyone that opposes them or their extremely fundamentalist view of Islam.  The role that the U.S. can play in stopping them is difficult to determine, especially as ISIS is also fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Part of the issue is that the Iraqi Army, at least those Sunni dominated units, do not have the will or the ability to oppose ISIS.  US military advisers and intelligence personnel have helped the Iraqi units that are willing to resist (unfortunately backed primarily by Shiite militia units) to stop them from advancing towards Baghdad, but is unclear how the Iraqi military will act to confront ISIS where it already exists.

The unexpected development is the inability of Kurdish fighters to stop the ISIS advance.  The Kurdish fighters, or peshmerga, are tough, experienced fighters.  They were expected to be a bulwark in stopping the ISIS advance and thereby preserving a part of Iraq that could be used as a staging area for further efforts against ISIS and to provide a bastion for United States military and other personnel to operate out of the United States Consulate in Irbil.  This plan fell apart this week as Kurdish forces were becoming overwhelmed by the ISIS fighters, partly because of their use of captured American heavy weapons that Iraqi forces left behind in their eagerness to abandon their posts in the June fighting.  The Kurds were the most supportive of U.S. efforts in Iraq and a bond exists between the U.S. military and Kurds.  Additionally, a very large humanitarian crisis was unfolding as tens of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the ISIS forces found themselves stuck atop a barren mountain range without adequate food or water.  The combination of factors could not be ignored.

Complicated indeed.  Thus, President Obama’s decision to provide air power to try to alleviate the situation.  This effort is currently underway in two parts.  First, air drops of food, water, and other supplies are taking place for those trapped on the barren mountains.  It was a situation that only a major power could alleviate.  Second, fighter/bomber forces were authorized to protect the airdrops and to attack ISIS fighters where they threatened Kurdish forces protecting U.S. interests in Irbil.  This part is more difficult to understand.  Both parts of the operation could potentially drag the U.S. back into combat in Iraq or conversely, tarnish our reputation as a world power.  Only time will tell, but here are the pitfalls that I see coming and that may be difficult to avoid.

The United States, with the United Kingdom, has already undertaken a nearly similar effort in providing relief in this part of Iraq.  It occurred in 1991 and was called Operation Provide Comfort.  This effort took place following Gulf War I when Saddam Hussein turned his wrath inward on his own people following his defeat in Kuwait.  In short, a humanitarian crisis developed as tens of thousands of Kurds fled Saddam’s forces and were trapped without food and water.  The U.S. and U.K. began air operations to provide food, water, and other supplies to the Kurds.  As it happened, there was no expertise on the Kurdish side to assist in the effort, so it was decided to put logisticians on the ground to help the air dropped supplies land in the proper places and to distribute those supplies.  This precipitated the need for security forces to also be on the ground to protect the logisticians.  This led to a major undertaking.  I trust that some of the current planners in the Pentagon, Baghdad and Irbil remember this operation, and how what seems to be a simple thing — getting food and water to people who need it — can quickly become a much larger and more involved task.  It is never as simple or easy as it seems.

More worrisome to me are the “limited” air strikes.  The tenants of military forces, simply put, are “Deter, Defend, Defeat” — deter the enemy from attacking, defend against attacks if deterrence fails, and then defeat the enemy.  We already know that ISIS is not and will not be deterred by the threat of limited air strikes.  The intent of the authorized action is to defend the Kurdish fighters, the results of which are unknown and will be unknown for some time.  We also already know that limited air strikes (despite the headlines and rhetoric, a total of twelve 500 pound bombs and a drone strike in the desert are a pin prick) will not defeat ISIS.  So where are we going?  Heavier airstrikes?  Special forces on the ground to locate targets?  More advisers in Iraq?  The path ahead is unclear to me, and there is no obvious strategy at play in the use of our military force.

My concern is that either the United States — and it is unlikely that we will get any other nation actively involved to help us — will get drawn into another major conflict in the Middle East, or do little more than what we have done already the last few days and look ineffective at best in our efforts.  We are in a tough situation, sure to be damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

There are some that can make a good case that we should get involved yet again in Iraq, especially against such an evil force as ISIS.  I am not so sure.  In the end, only the forces on the ground — Iraqis, be they Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites — with their own homes and families hanging in the balance can make a difference.

There are a number of intermediate steps that can be taken, of course, without full American involvement.  The question is how effective they will be.  Remember that we spent eight years, nearly a trillion dollars, and lost 4,487 Americans in our last attempt to fix the problem.  It does not seem to me that a few bombs from some carrier based F-18s are going to solve it now.

These are indeed dangerous times.  Actions are required.  Let’s hope that our leaders understand history and make the right decisions.