Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

The U.S. war in Iraq is over. Who won?

Bernd Debusmann
Sep 3, 2010 13:43 UTC

The end of America’s combat mission, after seven and a half costly years, has raised questions that will provide fodder for argument for a long time to come: Was it worth it? And who, if anyone, won?

It’s too early to answer the first question, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man of sober judgment. “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run … How it all weighs in the balance over time remains to be seen.”

For a sizeable group of Middle East experts, the second question is easier to answer than the first. “So, who won the war in Iraq? Iran,” says the headline over an analysis by scholar Mohammed Bazzi for the Council on Foreign relations, a New York-based think-tank. His argument: “The U.S. ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shi’ite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history.

“As U.S. troops became mired in fighting an insurgency and containing a civil war, Iran extended its influence over all of Iraq’s Shi’ite factions.” As a consequence, U.S. influence has been waning, Iran’s has been rising, and there are predictions that Iran will fill the vacuum created by the drawdown of U.S. troops to 50,000 who will “advise and assist” the Iraqis.

When President Barack Obama announced the completion of the drawdown in a somber speech on August 31, he made no reference to Iran – a curious omission – but said that “in an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners.” In the case of Iraq, only optimists find it easy to see shining success.

America’s trouble with Islam

Bernd Debusmann
Aug 27, 2010 13:34 UTC

Of the many posters held aloft in angry demonstrations about plans for an Islamic cultural centre and mosque in New York, one in particular is worth noting: “All I ever need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”

As an example of wilful ignorance, it’s in a class by itself. It passes judgment, in just 12 words, about a sprawling universe of 1.3 billion adherents of Islam (in 57 countries around the world) who come from different cultures, speak a wide variety of languages, follow different customs, hold different nationalities and believe in different interpretations of their faith, just like Christians or Jews. Suicidal murderers are a destructive but tiny minority.

But for the people waving all-I-ever-need-to-know posters in front of national television cameras two blocks from “ground zero,” site of the biggest mass murder in American history, Islam equals terrorism. No need for nuance, no need for learning, no need for building bridges between the faiths. The mindset epitomized by the slogan mirrors the radical fringe of Islamic thought, equally doubt-free and self-righteous.

In drug war, the beginning of the end?

Bernd Debusmann
Aug 20, 2010 14:48 UTC

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Between 1971, when Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, and 2008, the latest year for which official figures are available, American law enforcement officials made more than 40 million drug arrests. That number roughly equals the population of California, or of the 33 biggest U.S. cities.

Forty million arrests speak volumes about America’s longest war, which was meant to throttle drug production at home and abroad, cut supplies across the borders, and keep people from using drugs. The marathon effort has boosted the prison industry but failed so obviously to meet its objectives that there is a growing chorus of calls for the legalization of illicit drugs.

In the United States, that brings together odd bedfellows. Libertarians in the tea party movement, for example, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of former police officers, narcotics agents, judges and prosecutors who favor legalizing all drugs, not only marijuana, the world’s most widely-used illicit drug.

Iraq, America and hired guns

Bernd Debusmann
Aug 6, 2010 13:50 UTC

Here is a summary of America’s future role in Iraq, in the words of President Barack Obama: “Our commitment is changing — from a military effort led by our soldiers to a diplomatic effort led by our diplomats.”

And here is a note of caution about that promised change: “Current planning for transitioning vital functions in Iraq from the Department of Defense to the Department of State is not adequate for effective coordination of billions of dollars in new contracting, and risks both financial waste and undermining U.S. policy objectives.”

Obama’s statement came in an Aug. 2 speech in which he confirmed that by the end of this month, America’s combat role would end. The 50,000 American soldiers remaining in Iraq (down from a peak of almost 170,000) would advise, train and support Iraqi security forces. By the end of next year, the last U.S. soldier would come home.

Afghanistan and America’s troubled backyard

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 30, 2010 14:11 UTC

The United States is spending around $6.5 billion a month on the war in faraway Afghanistan, where a large part of its effort is meant to help the government assert its authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.

Closer to home, the U.S. has allotted $44 million a month to help the governments of its closest neighbours – Mexico and Central America – assert their authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.
The two cases raise questions about American priorities. If money were the only gauge, one might draw the conclusion that it is 147 times more important for Washington to bring security and good governance to Afghanistan than to America’s violence-plagued next-door neighbours — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, 6,000 people have died in the past two and a half years, a number that dwarfs the military death toll of Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. Central America, according to a U.N. report, has become the region with the world’s highest murder rate, an average of about 1,300 a month.

Sarah Palin, big political lies and the U.S. immigration debate

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 23, 2010 13:55 UTC

The prize for the biggest political lie of 2009 went to Sarah Palin, the darling of the American right, for injecting fictitious “death panels” into the health reform debate. This year, fact-benders are hard at work to control the debate on another controversial topic, immigration. Competition is intense.

It comes from opponents of immigration reforms that would  simultaneously offer better control of the 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border, a new visa system, and a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the majority Mexicans, who are already in the country. The official term for this is “comprehensive immigration reform.”

But influential politicians insist there must be no reform before the border is entry-proof to illegals, and they portray the frontier as a virtual war zone, on both sides of the line.

Cuba and twisted logic, double standards

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 20, 2010 13:38 UTC

It is time for the United States to stop trading with China and ban Americans from travelling there. Why? Look at the U.S. Department of State’s most recent annual report on human rights around the world.

“The (Chinese) government’s human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas,” the report notes. “Tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated (in 2009).”

U.S. relations with Egypt should also be frozen, because “the government’s respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas…Security forces used unwarranted lethal force and tortured and abused prisoners and detainees, in most cases with impunity.”

US intelligence spending – value for money?

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 16, 2010 14:00 UTC

America’s spy agencies are spending more money on obtaining intelligence than the rest of the world put together. Considerably more. To what extent they are providing value for money is an open question.

“Sometimes we are getting our money’s worth,” says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank. “Sometimes I think it would be better to truck the money we spend to a large parking lot and set fire to it.”

The biggest post-Cold War miss of the sprawling intelligence community was its failure to connect the dots of separate warnings about the impending attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. It also laid bare a persistent flaw in a system swamped by a tsunami of data collected through high-tech electronic means: not enough linguists to analyse information.

In Afghanistan, history rhymes

Bernd Debusmann
Jun 29, 2010 14:09 UTC

The faltering war in Afghanistan brings to mind a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain and a less famous one by Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Twain: “History does not repeat itself but it rhymes.” Gates: “Tough decisions: … how to get out, when, and without losing face.”

The Gates quote, in his 1996 memoir (From the Shadows), refers to the Soviet leadership which by the mid-1980s had decided to end its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan but had not figured out exactly how to do that.

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989, at the end of an exit strategy which began with a sharp increase in the number of troops and centered on building up government forces to fight an insurgency rapidly gathering momentum.

A comeback for the American melting pot?

Bernd Debusmann
Jun 18, 2010 14:12 UTC

When U.S. President Barack Obama’s white mother married his black African father, in 1961, black-and-white marriages were one in 1,000 and inter-racial marriages were banned by law in 15 American states. Even where they were legal, mixed marriages were widely considered taboo.

Fast forward to the present and more than six out of 10 Americans approve of marriages between whites and non-whites. In 2008, one out of seven of all new marriages in the United States were between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to a study that looked at blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics.

The 2008 rate, a record, was double that of 1980 and six times that of 1960, partly because of weakened cultural taboos and partly because of successive waves of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, says the study, by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. It is one of several analyses culled from census data in advance of the release later this year of the results of the 2010 U.S. census. (The census is conducted every 10 years).

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