Faking It

NBC News anchor Brian Williams publicly admitted yesterday that a story he had been telling about a wartime experience in Iraq was false, and apologized.  Williams had said, including as recently as a week ago, that while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down.  That didn’t happen; Williams and an NBC crew were aboard a following aircraft that was unhit.

The Williams incident is interesting, because as the story linked above indicates, he initially accurately recounted that he was not in the chopper that was hit by rocket fire.  But over the intervening years the story morphed, and last week in a tribute to a soldier at a hockey game Williams said “the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”  Why did the story morph?  Williams attributes it to the “fog of memory” after 12 years and constant viewing of the video of him inspecting the impact area, which caused him to “conflate” his experience with that of the soldiers in the stricken helicopter.

Of course, only Brian Williams knows how and why the real story became submerged beneath the fake one.  It’s hard to imagine ever becoming confused about whether you were in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket and personally felt the jolt of the impact and the fear about survival and the chaos of the forced landing — even if it was 12 years ago and you were a big-time newscaster who has had lots of exciting experiences since.

Many people might attribute the change in the story, instead, to the human tendency to exaggerate actual experiences to make our lives seem more interesting and worthy.  It’s a common phenomenon — who can forget, for example, Hillary Clinton’s debunked claim to have run across a Bosnian airport tarmac under sniper fire? — and it’s reflected in false resume entries, “fish stories,” and tales that grow in the telling over the years until the recounted story bears only a faint connection to the reality of the actual incident.

This doesn’t excuse a news reporter telling a false story, of course — but it does make you wonder how many of the personal incidents we hear about from public figures are true.  My grandmother used to say:  “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  It’s not a bad rule of thumb.

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The President’s Speech About ISIS

Tonight President Obama will give a nationally televised address about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group of murderous terrorists who have seized territory in those countries and intend to establish their own nation.  It’s an important speech for the President, and for our country.

It’s important for the President because he desperately needs to reestablish his credibility in the area of foreign affairs.  He has been dogged by ill-advised comments, like the one describing ISIS as a kind of “junior varsity” squad, that paint him as possessing a curious mixture of overconfidence, naivete, and ignorance about history and human motivation.

The President seems to believe that an inevitable historical arc will move us toward a world of eternal peace, diversity, and right-thinking people who inevitably will adopt every democratic liberal precept — without realizing that there are fanatics, like those who make up ISIS and Boko Haram, that are dead set on establishing an historical arc that bends in precisely the opposite direction.  In the past, President Obama has been unwilling to admit that he’s made mistakes, but if the brutality of ISIS at least causes him to shed his rose-colored glasses about the dangerous world outside our borders that’s a step in the right direction.

As for the country, it’s important that we recognize that ISIS is a different, and immensely significant, threat.  Unlike itinerant terrorist groups like al Qaeda that move from place to place depending on local conditions and shifting political winds, ISIS intends to establish a nation.  It has captured funds and an arsenal of weapons from Iraq and seeks to control oil wells and oil refineries that would provide long-term, ongoing funding for its terrorist aims.

There is an additional dangerous element to ISIS.  Any group that would videotape and publicize its beheading of innocent journalists obviously doesn’t subscribe to accepted social norms, and ISIS’ treatment of civilians and captured soldiers in Syria and Iraq further speak to its utter brutality and depravity.  ISIS actively seeks to recruit like-minded jihadists from countries across the globe, including the United States and Great Britain, and it’s not shy about describing its intention to take the jihadist fight to our homeland.  We should take them at their word.  No one should doubt that ISIS poses a grave threat to America, and if we don’t act to punish and defeat them the threat will only grow more severe.

According to the Washington Post, tonight the President will announce a plan to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East building support for broader action against ISIS.  This seems like a mirror image of the situation before the first Gulf War, when the actions of a rogue state threatened to destabilize an entire region and spread chaos on a much wider scale.  It’s time for the United States to form and lead a coalition, again, to defeat the latest rabid threat to the world to spring from ever-fertile grounds of the Middle East.

If President Obama is willing to accept that responsibility, I support him.  I don’t think we have any choice.

Richard’s First Trib Article

Here’s a nice Father’s Day present:  Richard’s first article in the Chicago Tribune has been published on-line.  It’s about rising gas prices in the Chicago area.

From the article, it sounds like Chicago gas prices are higher than they are here in the Columbus area.  And we’d better hope that Iraq doesn’t dissolve into chaos, because if it does we’re likely to see prices at the pump that are far higher than we’re seeing today — just in time for the “summer driving season.”

Iraq Goes To Hell

The news from the Middle East is pretty much all bad these days.  The latest troubling developments have happened in Iraq, where an Islamic militant group has made enormous gains in recent days and the Iraqi government seems to be teetering on the brink.

The militant group of extremist followers of the Sunni branch of the Islamic faith is called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS for short, because the Levant is another name for Syria).  They seek a fundamentalist Islamic state that spans parts of Iraq and Syria.  In Syria, they are fighting to topple the Assad government; in Iraq, they’ve captured the second-largest city, Mosul, another key city, Tikrit, and are threatening to move on Baghdad.  Accounts indicate that the Iraqi Army performed poorly in the fighting.

The Obama Administration seems to have been caught off guard by the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Iraq.  President Obama said yesterday that the United States would help the Iraqi government and had “not ruled anything out,” but also said that the situation should serve as a wake-up call for the current Iraqi government, which is accused of excluding Sunnis in favor of Shiites.  The White House later clarified that the President was speaking of air support for the Iraqi government and that the United States was not considering sending ground troops in to shore up Iraqi forces.

There’s going to be a lot of second-guessing about how the United States has dealt with Iraq in recent years.  Some Republicans have already resurrected criticism of how the Obama Administration handled negotiations for a status of forces agreement several years ago and did not keep any American troops in Iraq. It is hard not to be sick at the thought that the hard-won gains and relative peace achieved through the deaths of thousands of American soldiers who fought to topple the Sadaam Hussein government and then beat back the insurgency might be lost.  No one wants American deaths to be in vain.  Even worse, there are reports that the head of ISIS was in American custody in Iraq for a number of years but was released in 2009, even though he was believed to have been involved in torture and executions.

At this point, however, the issue is how to deal with the situation that currently exists.  President Obama has touted Iraq as a foreign policy success precisely because it has been a secular democracy.  If ISIS is successful in establishing a radical Sunni state that controls some of the most oil-rich territory in the world, and then engages in clashes with Shiite majority governments in the region, it could destabilize the entire Middle East and establish another haven for terrorists.  That prospect is alarming, and we need to figure out a way to prevent it from happening.

The Domino Theory And The Marshall Plan

One other point to consider, as the Obama Administration apparently entertains the possibility of military action against Syria:  how much of our analysis of this situation, and our options, is colored by our adherence to concepts and a worldview that are outdated?

In the ’50s and ’60s, our intervention in Vietnam and elsewhere was justified by “the domino theory,” which held that countries would topple like dominos into the Communist column if we didn’t intervene through military force or some kind of CIA scheme.  Our approach to foreign governments relied heavily on the money-oriented, Marshall Plan model that was so successful in western Europe after World War II.

Fifty years later, the Soviet Union is gone, the geopolitical map has changed, and our focus is on countries far away from western Europe and southeast Asia — yet the old themes play out, again and again.  The colossal sums we have spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Colin Powell’s “if you break it, you bought it” argument, have their roots in the Marshall Plan notion that if we spend enough money we can rebuild countries into grateful and dependable allies.  Advocates of our military intervention in places across the globe argue that we need to do so to prevent other countries from following the same course — like dominos.

We have wasted billions in Iraq and Aghanistan, with money going to corrupt politicians, village chiefs, and “warlords,” without much to show for it in terms of our geopolitical security.  And the domino theory doesn’t seem to apply to the Middle East, the focus of our most recent interventionist exercises, where neolithic tribal animosities and sectarian disputes that we can barely begin to comprehend have far more force than the events in the country next door.

The Assad regime in Syria is brutal and murderous.  Why do we think that a military strike to allegedly cripple its chemical weapons capabilities will change that?  And, if the Assad government falls as a result, why do we think its ultimate replacement will be more peace-loving or accepting of western notions of diversity and democracy?  If we don’t have assurances on those points — and we don’t — why should America become involved at all?

Some might call this mindset isolationism.  I think of it as an effort to focus on our country’s vital interests and to husband our blood and treasure until those vital interests truly are at stake.  I just don’t see what is happening in Syria, tragic as it is, as involving our vital interests.

Secretary Clinton Stands Down

Hillary Clinton has stepped down from President Obama’s Cabinet.  After battling health problems, she has been replaced as Secretary of State by John Kerry.

With so much of international diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of any Secretary of State until the years pass and secrets become public.  In Clinton’s case, we know that the United States has managed to avoid become embroiled in any new wars during her tenure and that our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally winding down.  We also know that efforts to “reset” relations with the Russians haven’t made much progress, North Korea, Iran, and Syria remain rogue states, and Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos.  And the Holy Grail of American diplomacy — brokering a conclusive Middle East peace deal — eluded Secretary Clinton just as it eluded every one of her predecessors.  Her legacy as Secretary of State may be dependent, in significant part, upon what historians conclude about how, if at all, her stewardship affected the takeover of the American compound in Benghazi and the killing of the Ambassador and three other Americans.

What we can also say about Secretary Clinton, however, is that she was a good soldier for the President.  She didn’t make any trouble, didn’t try to upstage him, and by all accounts worked hard at her job and developed good relations with the career diplomats at the State Department.  She didn’t seem to let her ego get in the way — and in these days of celebrity politicians, that’s saying a lot.  When John Kerry’s tenure at the State Department has ended, I wonder whether we will be able to say the same thing about him?

Women In Combat

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reportedly will announce today that the long-time ban against allowing female soldiers to participate in combat operations will be ended.  The move is being made upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The decision would overturn a 1994 edict that barred women from participation in ground-combat units.  It also recognizes the reality of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the turmoil of terrorist-oriented wars has caused female soldiers operating in “combat support” roles to become involved in combat itself.  In those chaotic situations, women have performed coolly, competently, and with valor — like the well-trained, capable soldiers they are.

The primary objections to women soldiers in combat have been that they could create a sexually charged atmosphere that might detract from performance of the mission and might not be physically capable, from a strength standpoint, of performing all tasks that could be necessary on a particular operation.  The first excuse seems antiquated, and in any case can be addressed by proper training of soldiers of both sexes and attentive leadership.  The answer to the second concern is easy — establish the physical capabilities that actually are needed and see whether individual women, as well as individual men, can meet them.  If so, they should be permitted to participate.  What is the point of arbitrarily excluding professional soldiers who want to serve and can do their duty?

I’m all for knocking down exclusionary barriers — particularly those that arose from outdated cultural and social mores.  I’m glad we are discarding the lingering, Victorian era notions about the delicate conditions of women and giving them the opportunity to fully serve their country and pursue a military career, if that is their choice.