- Associated Press - Thursday, August 14, 2014

Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, Yankton, Aug. 11, 2014

Back To Iraq: Our Never-Ending War?

Alas, to borrow what long ago became an overused play on words, America really does seem to be between Iraq and a hard place.

And we’re learning that there is no sure way of completely extracting ourselves from the war we ignited in Iraq 11 years ago.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would be launching airstrikes on the Islamic State group - known as ISIS - that has unleashed a ghastly reign of terror across parts of Iraq and Syria, and has become the newest rogue element to destabilize the tenuous (and, really, mostly nonexistent) stability of the Middle East region.

Besides using airstrikes and drone attacks to soften up ISIS forces, the U.S. and other nations are pledging humanitarian aid to refugees, includes at least 50,000 Yazidis trapped on a mountain.

So, despite the U.S. pulling out its combat troops in 2011, we find ourselves embroiled in hostilities there again - or still, if you wish to connect all the dots.

Soberingly, Obama noted Saturday, “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks. This is going to be a long-term project.”

Iraq is once again our problem.

In fact, it has never stopped being our problem, even after we left three years ago.

When we marched into Iraq in 2003 and took out Saddam Hussein, we created a dangerous vacuum in that part of the world. When democracy was finally introduced, we genuinely believed that Iraq would finally grow into a self-sufficient nation that could both govern and defend itself.

What we’ve witnessed instead was the installation of corrupt regime under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who promptly refused to do what we had advised (and probably plead for) him to do: to establish an inclusive government that would also represent all of the nation’s interests. Instead, al-Maliki began excluding Sunnis from key positions and even reportedly conducted systematic persecution.

Enter into this the Islamic State group, an organization so violent and extreme that even al-Qaida, from which ISIS sprang, wanted nothing to do with it. Its murderous, absolutist dogma has led to the mass slaughter of non-Sunnis Muslims, Christians and anyone else who came across their path. Well-funded and well-armed, ISIS began carving up Iraq and Syria to establish its own state.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi army virtually melted in the face of ISIS forces, leading to huge gains by the organization.

We must now return to a country from which we left in 2011 on poor terms. As Obama recounted Saturday, the U.S. left Iraq three years ago in large part because we were no longer wanted there. The Baghdad government refused to sign a security pact that would have protected U.S. troops from prosecution, and a large segment of the Iraqi population wanted us gone. Had we stayed anyway, we would have been seen as - and in fact would have become - occupiers.

Perhaps the lack of a U.S. presence in Iraq these last three years led to the ISIS crisis in the fact that we didn’t have on-the-ground intelligence, as some critics have stated. But again, we were no longer wanted there, and forcing our presence would have likely led to civil unrest of another kind.

Or perhaps it was the creation of the vacuum 11 years ago that has truly created this upheaval. There is no doubt that Saddam was a murderous tyrant, but he kept his nation under iron-fisted control. That control is gone, and whatever was left in Iraq has failed to show the will to lead.

And so we are back in Iraq, fighting again (albeit without troops on the ground, at least so far) in a war we no longer want, in a land where we have sacrificed so much already. But there is no walking away, no matter how much we wish to do so.


The Public Opinion, Watertown, Aug. 14, 2014

Are we going to get sucked back into Iraq?

President Obama is thinking about increasing the number of U.S. military advisers in Iraq above the 300 that have already been authorized.

The stated rationale behind the president’s possible move is to help get Yazidi Iraqis off Sinjar Mountain where they fled to escape fundamentalist Islamic militants who are trying to set up a new state modeled after their own interpretation of Islam.

Of course, the president’s reason for sending the first wave of advisers was to help the Iraqi government find a way to fend off continuing pressure from the advancing militant forces who at one point looked like they were on the verge of capturing Baghad. But they switched tactics, turned in other directions and captured large swaths of the county when Iraqi forces, in many instances, ran at the first sign of trouble.

ISIS militants have captured large parts of Iraq and Syria and, in effect, have become a law unto themselves. Disagree with them and you can do one of three things: leave, knuckle under or die.

The president’s latest goal is to figure out how to boost the capabilities of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, using them as a surrogate force to at least hold ISIS in check near territory controlled by the Kurds.

That sounds like a good idea, especially considering the human tragedy playing out on top of Sinjar Mountain where shelter, food, water and medical supplies are desperately needed by thousands of people.

But let’s say the U.S. gets the Yazidi off the mountain. Where do they go, who protects and feeds them and what’s the long-term solution? Does ISIS have to be destroyed so the Yazidi and others displaced by ISIS can go back to their original homes? If it does, who will do the fighting? The Iraqi political situation is a mess, the military isn’t dependable and the future of the country, what’s left of it anyway, is anybody’s guess.

What about the Kurds? The Kurds are more interested in protecting what they have and someday securing full independence and their own country. How much they would be willing to do, if anything, is unknown as is how long they would be willing to play a major role in the area,

So that brings us back to Obama’s advisers. Are they truly there in a limited capacity or will the U.S. military presence slowly increase until we’re rotating troops in and out of Iraq like we did during the recently-concluded war?

What about the U.N.? How come we haven’t heard much from that body about trying to forge a solution for the area? And even if the U.N. does come up with a plan, who do you think will provide the bulk of the troops and money to make it operational? It won’t be the French, you can count on that.

There’s no denying that what’s happening in large parts of Iraq is deplorable. But so is what’s happening in the Syria, Gaza Strip, eastern Ukraine, Nigeria, Sudan and in who knows how many other countries around the world. We have done next to nothing in those troubled regions, so what sets Iraq apart, other than the fact that we toppled the last stable (although dictator-led) government the country had and left in its place a corrupt, weak, ineffective replacement and military of questionable competence and loyalty?

Are we going to allow ourselves to get sucked in again? Is there a long-term plan or is this just a leaf on the wind response being moved by whatever wind blows from whichever direction?

And what about Afghanistan? We’re scheduled to be out of there by the end of the year and what we’ll leave behind is a corrupt, weak, ineffective government and military of questionable competence and loyalty. What will our response be when and if the country is engulfed by internal tribal, religious and political differences that have dominated the country for generations? Will we be sending “advisers” there, too?

If countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine and others need outside help, let it truly be an international effort. This time, however, let someone else provide the bulk of the money and troops.


Capital Journal, Pierre, Aug. 12, 2014

A problem we didn’t know we had: ‘excessive message management’

The Society of Professional Journalists and 37 other journalism and open government groups got the silent treatment when they wrote to the White House on July 8 and again on Aug. 5, urging President Barack Obama to rein in his administration’s use of excessive controls by federal public information officers. No word back on this from the Big Guy with his beautiful baritone voice. And that’s a pity.

The groups did get a letter back from the White House this week mentioning Obama’s protection for whistleblowers, a streamlined Freedom of Information Act process and access to online visitor logs. But the letter doesn’t address other concerns, including a key one: journalists’ restricted access to sources, government scientists and officials who have critical information of public interest.

The groups are objecting to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibitions on journalists’ communicating with staff without going through Public Information Officers. They also dislike requirements that government PIOs vet interview questions and that they monitor interviews between journalists and sources. The practices have become increasingly pervasive for decades, the groups say, but have significantly advanced in the past several years, including under the Obama administration.

We like a turn of phrase that SPJ President David Cuillier uses to describe what’s going on: “excessive message management.”

Surely the press and watchdog groups are right about that - a public information officer holding a leash on a journalist to manage the message cannot be what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. What’s the point of press freedom if federal agencies are going to control what’s reported? It’s like telling the watchdog when to bark and when not to bark.

It’s also bad for federal employees. It could lead them down the path of behaving like partisans in jobs where expertise, not politics, is what their country really needs from them.

What is worth noting is that in this case, it is a president from the Democratic Party who is clearly trying to control the message the press reports to the public. The irony here is that the most recent Pew Research survey of attitudes on the press, from August 2013, showed that far more Democrats than Republicans say that the press protects democracy. The survey showed 59 percent of Democrats hold that view, compared to 27 percent of Democrats who said the press hurts democracy.

In contrast, slightly more Republicans said the press hurts democracy - 46 percent - compared to 43 percent of Republicans who said it helps democracy. Sounds like a group of people not happy with part of the First Amendment, and it’s not an isolated finding. When compared to Democrats, Republicans offered “significantly more critical evaluations of the press on eight of the 11 measures tested” in the Pew Research survey of a year ago.

Yet here’s the Democrat in Chief, demonstrating what he really believes about the First Amendment - that you can work around it with message management. So much for democracy, and some Democrats, in America.

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