“Hopefully we get it more right than wrong” – organizing principle?
As Hillary Clinton was widely quoted as saying recently, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Maybe others have pointed out that this is a pretty stupid statement, but that’s far from the conventional wisdom. Think about the levels of stupidity here. Only “Great nations”? What, small nations don’t need to get their acts together? And who says the United States is a “great” nation and in what sense is it great and isn’t spouting a version of the American exceptionalism cliché just another way of doing stupid stuff? As organizing principles go, “Don’t do stupid stuff” is a great place to start. Then all you need to do is figure out what’s stupid and don’t do it: like not voting for war in Iraq in 2002.
What does the aspiring President Clinton offer for her own organizing principle? In her book Hard Choices, she writes: “Making policy is a balancing act. Hopefully we get it more right than wrong.” That means even less than “Don’t do stupid stuff.” That pretty much means: “we’re bound to do stupid stuff but we hope we won’t do too much stupid stuff.”
Of course that makes good political sense coming from the woman who, as Senator Clinton, voted to go to war in Iraq. As if that wasn’t totally knowable, in advance, as doing stupid stuff, really stupid stuff. That vote was a clever trap for intimidated Democrats, afraid to stand up to stupid stuff. Senator Clinton was not alone in that rush to war. She, along with Senators Kerry, McCain, Biden, Hagel, McConnell, Reid, and 70 other Senators, voted to support the administration lying us into that war on transparently dishonest evidence. It’s kind of cute, in a darkly disastrous way, that these same wrong-headed people are again among those braying most loudly for more war now. It makes a sort of amoral sense, since today’s mess is a continuation of the war they voted for because they presumably didn’t think it was stupid stuff that would last more than a decade.
“Hopefully we get it more right than wrong” unsupported by the stats
Senator Obama voted against the Iraq war in 2002, as did 22 other Senators. He campaigned in 2008 against getting into stupid wars. He demonstrated how little he understood his own principle by defending (and later enlarging) the war in Afghanistan as a smart war. As Hillary says: “Hopefully we get it more right than wrong.” The scoreboard does not offer encouragement.
With all that in mind, here are some vagrant thoughts about what “Don’t do stupid stuff” might mean in some parts of the world these days, where smart options are few and far between:
IRAQ. Backing the unreliable, probably unstable Baghdad government is moderately stupid, but probably necessary in current circumstance. Baghdad is in a bind that will only get worse if we just leave it alone: to fight ISIS, Baghdad might need to rely on Iran, which would not only annoy the U.S., but might make the Sunni part of Iraq determinedly independent-minded. This box is the one Baghdad built for itself (with U.S. help, to be sure), but consequences belong to them. The Baghdad third of Iraq is not vital to American interests, it’s hardly vital to Kuwaiti interests, so don’t do something more stupid than the present tenuous balancing act. Keep an eye on the exit.
NORTHERN IRAQ. Bombing ISIS in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam is not so stupid, but only in the short term. Losing control of the huge dam would endanger everything downstream even more than now. Killing some ISIS fighters at a distance isn’t likely to annoy much of anyone except the ISIS fighters. Also it helps with defending the Kurds and it helped the Yazidis, all plus marks.
KURDISTAN. Supporting Kurdistan is not so stupid now, but could turn out to be stupid in the long run, not that anyone can know from here (can they?). The current Kurdish state gives the impression of actually being a functioning, non-sectarian, tolerant, quasi-democratic state with its more primitive cultural id reasonably under control for the moment, especially compared to its neighbors. And Kurdistan has some oil. And Kurdish independence is annoying to Turkey and Iran.
TURKEY. Annoying Turkey is probably stupid, but also inevitable if we follow any sort of sensible course in the region. Turkey has been annoying others for years now, so it deserves to be annoyed in turn. Just the wide-open Turkish-Syrian border is annoying enough to deserve response, since that open border has been critical to the growing strength of ISIS, which some Turkish fundamentalists (like the prime minister?) see as a good thing when it’s going against Damascus and Baghdad, but pretty much not such a good thing if ISIS comes after Ankara (and why wouldn’t it, if it could, which it can’t?). Turkey, like Baghdad, has been playing an ugly, deadly game, and bailing Turkey out of its own mess would be really, really stupid unless it came with serious changes, in advance. Not gonna happen any time soon.
EASTERN SYRIA. Bombing ISIS in Syria is clearly stupid from the perspective of international law, but maybe not so stupid militarily if managed carefully (surgical strikes and all that other imaginary stuff). Something one might call “incursive bombing” on either side of the largely meaningless Syria-Iraq border could be helpful in buying time for whatever alternative forces may remain deserving of support (including the Kurds). “Incursive bombing” would need sensible targets (OK, name one!) and would have to be designed not to prop up President Assad any more than would be inevitable. The U.S. has already bombed the region 145 times, by its own count (all supposedly on the Iraq side of the border). The U.S. plans to go right on bombing indefinitely. Syria is bombing ISIS on the Syrian side of the border, so if the U.S. incursive bombing spreads, U.S. bombers will have to avoid running into Syrian bombers. Is there any evidence this isn’t really stupid stuff in the making?
SAUDI ARABIA AND QATAR. Giving the Saudis and Qataris a free pass is truly, truly stupid. But it’s been American policy for decades, not just when mostly Saudis attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11 only to have President Bush let all the Saudis in the U.S. get a free pass home without even a chat with the FBI. The Saudis and Qataris, officially and unofficially, helped nurture ISIS into its present ugly self. ISIS is their neighbor now. Let them take the lead in policing their own neighborhood. After all, they’re already police states.
CENTRAL SYRIA. President Obama came close to doing stupid stuff when he floated the idea of bombing Syria after the gas attack in Damascus, but the Congress and most Americans had no stomach for that, and then Russia came to the rescue and now Syria’s chemical weapons have been removed. Moral: if you threaten to do stupid stuff, maybe it will scare people enough so you end up accidentally doing something smart instead. Just don’t count on it.
IRAN AND ISRAEL. The U.S. policy of doing exceedingly stupid stuff in the bookends of the region is more than half a century old and intractable to the point of near-permanence. U.S. policy and behavior reinforces the maddest factions on both countries. And this stupid stuff fosters the other stupid stuff we do in between, although that’s stupid stuff we might minimize if not avoid.
There’s a pattern here: doing nothing is frequently the least stupid option. And there’s a smart part to doing nothing: accountability. Too many elements from Tel Aviv to Teheran count on the U.S. to be there in time of need, as either the Great Savior or the Great Satan. That’s what makes the U.S. the “indispensible nation,” which is also stupid stuff in which too many take false pride. Our role, as inconsistent and ineffective as it is historically, has the unfortunate consequence of allowing both friends and enemies to evade responsibility for their own circumstances.
Maybe the stupid stuff has a smart lining of sorts
And now President Obama is doing it again, with this new coalition of European participants and Middle Eastern camp followers. This is stupid stuff, when you find yourself having to coerce the people you’re supposedly saving to join in together in support of their own salvation.
This is stupid stuff, pretending ISIS is a threat to much of anyone but those next door. ISIS comprises some 10,000 fighters, not much more. Their strength comes mostly from present alliances with Iraqi Sunnis embittered by Baghdad and quite ready to have a state of their own with no ISIS involvement, should the opportunity arise.
This is stupid stuff, starting a new long war for the next President to manage. (It’s also smart, sweet, ironic, and cold-blooded payback that once again victimizes innocent, irrelevant parties.)
This is stupid stuff, but maybe not as stupid as the stuff the previous President pulled off, with bi-partisan support. On the other hand, taking the war deeper into the heart of the Middle East has apocalyptic potential.
This is stupid stuff, but maybe not as stupid as the stuff the war drum bangers charging toward the gates of hell would have the country do. But we might expect more from leadership than managing to do less stupid stuff that the hopefully-we-get-it-right crowd.
According to most reports, ISIS is widely hated in the Arab world. Assuming that’s true, the smart thing would be to offer to help them if they ever get around to wanting to fight ISIS rather than playing ISIS off against other enemies. We could wait a long time for that. And that’s a good thing.
The president’s plan to fight ISIS is stupid stuff in another way: it’s hardly adequate to the over-stated task. But that’s a smart thing about the stupid stuff. The hyper-rhetoric revives what’s left of patriotic flag-rallying around a White House whose party faces an election potentially more devastating than any proposed attack on ISIS. So the ISIS-fever, to the extent the president and his surrogates can generate it, seems likely to help Democratic candidates, at least to the extent that “fighting terror” drives other issues out of the news. Since those Muslims are going to be killing each other anyway, why shouldn’t they die to preserve a Democratic majority in the Senate?
And there’s another possibly smart move inherent in this stupid stuff over ISIS. The bloody bone of bombing and expanded killing in Iraq distracts the warrior class from its frothing over Ukraine, where they’ve been pushing for doing stuff that risks being existentially stupid.