The Lowe Down

Category: Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (53)

Chan Lowe: War with Syria


Thank you, Cheney, Rummy, Condi, Wolfie and the rest of the hubristic cabal that felt they alone held the solution to the geopolitical puzzle. Thank you, George W. Bush — who couldn’t find the Middle East on a map before September of 2001 — for giving them the keys to the car.

The Iraq debacle looms over any discussion about what to do in Syria, since we’re still recovering from the burns received from the last time we placed our hand on the hot Middle East stove.

Iraq, according to the neoconservative strategists of the Bush administration, was the key to stability in the region. If we toppled Saddam, a grateful Iraqi people would allow us to establish a model Jeffersonian democracy, creating a thirst for freedom among their neighbors. They in turn would overthrow their dictatorships, establish U.S.-friendly governments, and our source of oil would be secure for generations to come. Win-win.

They made a couple of mistakes. First, there is no such thing as an Iraqi people. “Iraq” is a construct whose borders were imposed by Europeans with little concern for the ethnicity, creed or compatibility of the enclosed peoples.

Second, in a “nation” with no democratic traditions, what the locals prize most isn’t freedom, but stability. The former concept is strange and abstract, the latter is very real and concerns daily life in the streets. Saddam Hussein, for all his sins, provided a healthy dose of social order. The daily mayhem in Iraq is taking a back seat to the news about Syria, but there are many Iraqis who believe life was a lot better for them before the Americans came.

It’s no surprise that our leaders are reluctant to involve us in Syria. We hate to stand back while a dictator gases his own people, but we’ve learned the meaning of “mission creep” the hard way. Besides, if we did get rid of Assad, a hostile Islamist faction could well replace him.

The American people would like to be the good guys, but thanks to the misadventures of the past, intervention — even for the most humanitarian of reasons — has become a political third rail.

As British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said in 1938 during the Czechoslovakia crisis:

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.

For post-Iraq America, that utterance doesn’t sound as craven as it once did.

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Chan Lowe: The Afghanistan Quran-burning


When you consider that there exists no coherent strategy for conventionally “winning” the war in Afghanistan, and that the only way we’ll ever exit that morass is if we somehow convince the natives to cooperate with us on a permanent basis, you realize what a tragedy the Quran-burning blunder really was.

We’ve been involved in that star-crossed chunk of real estate for over ten years now. Many families have lost loved ones who volunteered to fight for American freedoms, and were let down by a succession of civilian leaders who either never knew or lost sight of our strategic purpose for being there.

Maybe all the money, time, effort and lives we’ve squandered over there were starting to pay off in terms of convincing the locals we were working in their best interests⎯that’s a matter of debate. What we know for sure is that the fateful trip to the Bagram incinerator probably set us back several years in that fight.

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Chan Lowe: End of the Iraq War III


There were some who argued that the government should have imposed rationing of fuel, foods and consumer goods, as we did in World War II. Not because we needed to, but just to be a constant reminder that there was a war on.

It was somehow unseemly that people blithely gassed up their gargantuan SUVs while our troops were fighting in the oil fields. But the Bush administration felt that the best way to keep Americans from getting in the way of executing the strategy (whatever it was) was to keep the war below the radar. The American people, above all, should not suffer privation. Privation costs votes.

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Chan Lowe: End of the Iraq War II


It’s telling that several years ago, I drew a cartoon using the same trope of Nouri al-Maliki-as-hand-puppet, but back then the puppet-master was Uncle Sam. Maliki, at the end of Sam’s arm, had just poked him in the eye⎯it was about something he’d done in direct and public contravention of U.S. interests.

Like Hamid Karzai, his fellow stooge, Maliki felt it necessary once in a while to establish his bona fides as a home grown leader by sticking it to his patron. Appearing to be two-faced and ungrateful toward the superpower is the only way to command respect in that part of the world. Since we paymasters have nobody else to invest in, we’re forced to smile indulgently and suck it up.

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Chan Lowe: End of the Iraq War


Well, that was certainly a bust. In hindsight, it looks like our trillion bucks and thousands of casualties didn’t exactly produce the shining democratic example to other Middle Eastern regimes the neocons were hoping for.

Instead, we’re leaving behind a weak sectarian government that will be a puppet of the Iranians, the very bad guys Saddam was doing a fine job of containing before we took him out. Nice job.

Not that our troops let us down. They went in there and fought for their country, the way they wanted to and the way they were expected to. It was the civilian leadership that failed in its duty by squandering them in a pointless endeavor.

If you want to blame somebody for Iraq, blame Florida voters (and not for the reason you’d think). The late Lawton Chiles got tired of being a U.S. Senator from Florida and came back home to run for governor back in 1994. Had he not edged Jeb Bush out in that election, the smart son would have been the heir apparent to the presidency. Instead, W., as governor of Texas, was the only Bush left standing to anoint.

Jeb, whether or not you agree with his politics, would have been competent enough that Poppy Bush wouldn’t have felt compelled to attach training wheels to his boy’s administration in the form of Dick Cheney. Jeb probably wouldn’t have allowed Cheney and his paranoid fellow travelers anywhere near the White House, anyway.

Which is to say that we here in Florida had plenty of chances to screw things up, and we took advantage of every one of them.

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Chan Lowe: Patching it up with Pakistan


The part of the world into which we decided to stick our noses operates on a pretty simple principle: Money talks, tribalism rocks. Since we don’t belong to any of their tribes, the best thing we can do is wave a gallery of our own “tribal leaders,” lovingly engraved on our currency, under their noses.

The difference between a tribe and an “investment in loyalty” is that when you mess with a member of somebody else’s tribe, it can start a vendetta that lasts for generations. With the latter, the fealty only endures as long as money keeps coming, so the idea is to collect as much of it as you can before the benefactors throw up their hands, declare victory and eventually pull out, as they always do.

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Chan Lowe: The Iraq mess


While I’m away from the blog, I thought I’d run some cartoons from five years ago. It’s always surprising and instructive to see what was dominating our interest in those days, and how little some issues change.

Remember the old days, when it was considered unpatriotic to doubt the president?

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Chan Lowe: The death of Don't Ask, Don't Tell


It’s ironic that the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, while a victory for individual rights in America, actually gives the country another black eye.

At least we used to be consistent in the way we officially treated gays. Gay members of our armed forces had to keep their private affairs and proclivities in the shadows while their straight colleagues enjoyed their lives in the open. The official view of them was that they were depraved. It wasn’t just a passive rule; gay service members lived in continual fear of being “outed” by someone else and summarily discharged in disgrace. We don’t even have to go into the tragic loss of talent this represented at a time when our nation needed it the most.

At the same time, we denied those who put their lives on the line the very rights that they were defending for the rest of us. The combination of DADT and the federal Defense of Marriage Act was abhorrent⎯but there was, at least, a certain twisted reasoning to it. If gays weren’t fit to serve, it followed that they shouldn’t be allowed to claim the basic right to marry.

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Chan Lowe: The Iraq mess


It’s ironic that a country we have been occupying for eight years and spent a trillion dollars propping up is still having violent convulsions, while the Egyptians held a largely non-violent uprising earlier this year and are more on the way toward a stable democracy than our client state. Not that their troubles are over, by any means, but they’re farther along.

This is assuming, of course, that establishing a democratic model in the Middle East was the primary reason we invaded Iraq. Actually, it was just one of the later reasons, after the original rationales, like WMD, fizzled out.

One of the latest fads to sweep Washington comes from the Democrats: the concept of a “war tax” on all Americans to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Bush administration obligingly put on the national credit card so that we wouldn’t feel the pain. Republicans claim this is a non-starter, and some accuse the Democrats (as they did years ago, when Rep. Charles Rangel suggested reinstituting the draft in order to spread the burden throughout the population) of intentionally trying to diminish support for the wars.

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Chan Lowe: An imaginative way to win the war in Afghanistan


While our defense policy cheeses are making esoteric arguments about whether an anti-terrorism strategy or an anti-insurgency strategy is the best way to “win” in Afghanistan, here’s a little outside-the-box thinking that achieves both goals simultaneously.

We have an almost endless supply of this psychological weapon here in South Florida, and another advantage to deploying it is that we will be able to withdraw from the field knowing that we are leaving a warlike, cantankerous people in a far better mood than when we arrived.

In defense doctrine, that’s called “peace with honor.”

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Chan Lowe: Anti-Afghanistan war sentiment


Don’t you remember way back, like four or five years ago, when to talk about winding down a war was condemned as “cutting and running?” When to even question the president’s thinking on the matter of our various foreign military involvements was labeled as unpatriotic, that it was undermining our brave troops who were out there in harm’s way?

Well, today’s Republicans are betting you don’t remember, either. Now that we have a Democratic president running things, it’s all right to question motives like getting involved in a war overseas just to topple a dictator. And now that Afghanistan has lost its luster, we can simply label it “Obama’s War,” and agitate to withdraw the troops without fear that we’re undermining their morale in the process. That’s the wonderful thing about short memories.

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Chan Lowe: Weiner, with a twist


This morning I was mulling over cartoon ideas about the Weiner scandal⎯for example, Dominique Strauss-Kahn commenting with Gallic haughtiness on how we amateurish Americans can’t even figure out how to have a decent sex scandal that includes real sex. Then I realized that this material should be left to the late-night comics. Besides, I’d already stepped in that puddle earlier in the week.

Maybe it was time to say something meaningful, to put a spin on the sordid affair that made readers think a little about their priorities. Actually, this is as much about the media’s priorities. There is the entertaining side of the media, characterized by the New York tabloids. This news is fun to read, and you have to admit that the double-entendre headlines about Rep. Weiner are a daily guilty pleasure.

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Chan Lowe: With the Pakistanis as friends...


It rightly angers Americans to know that roughly $3 billion of the money we borrow every year from the Chinese flows down the Pakistani rathole to buy questionable loyalty as we try to prosecute an endless, increasingly pointless war.

When you see such brazenly duplicitous behavior out of people who are supposed to be our allies, you are tempted to just walk away and let them rot in the political cesspool of their own making. Unfortunately, that would be worse than what we’re doing now.

Don’t forget that these two-faced military types are all that stand between Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and some guy with a backpack and a detonator. Yes, they smile with one side of their mouths and make pro-forma gestures toward helping us root out terrorists. With the other side, they curse us for being in the vicinity. They aid our enemies as they reach for our wallets.

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Chan Lowe: Osama's big surprise


“Justice was done.”

I wonder. Sure, it’s fine for us to indulge in a patriotic frenzy, a kind of national end-zone dance over the death of America’s No.1 villain, but along with the jubilation, a couple of sober thoughts: There is a fine line between revenge and justice. To me, true justice would have been for bin Laden to recognize the error of his ways before he was executed, and to realize that in return for his acts, he would be deprived of something valuable to him. Not only that, but that he would have been made to understand that his life’s work had been worthless.

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Chan Lowe: The death of Bin Laden

A big day. More later.

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Chan Lowe: Arm the Libyan rebels?


We’ve done so well until now. Let’s not go and shoot ourselves in the foot. What little we know about this ragtag band of so-called “freedom fighters” is that they come from a part of Libya that is a popular recruiting ground for al-Qaida.

The UN mandate empowered the coalition to “do whatever is necessary” to protect innocent civilians from harm. We’re already stretching that language to the limit with our aggressive action, regardless of how you euphemize it (Did William Tecumseh Sherman really say, “Kinetic military engagement is hell?”).

“It wouldn’t be prudent,” to quote a former president, not to find out for certain that these people aren’t arsonists before we put gasoline and matches in their hands. Let’s take note, also, that the materiel we would supply to them isn’t exactly of the simple point-and-shoot variety. It’s sophisticated, as befits weaponry for which the U.S. taxpayers paid plenty in order that our defense contractors could bedazzle the bejeezus out of our military procurement people.

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Chan Lowe: Army psy-ops mind games


When Rolling Stone broke the story about a U.S. Army general in Afghanistan deploying his psychological warfare specialists to brainwash visiting members of congress, there was a good deal of reference made on TV news shows to The Manchurian Candidate.

Anyone old enough to remember when the Chinese were our sworn enemies rather than our bankers recalls the general creepiness we all felt about the secretive Middle Kingdom. When the novel and movie came out that suggested the Chinese practiced mind control, it struck a paranoid nerve.

Whether or not the Army really tried to persuade pols like Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain to send in more troops (as if the latter needed persuading), any revulsion and outrage we feel is due to the fact that they may have been subjected to nefarious head games as part of the process.

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Chan Lowe: DADT repeal and the home front


Last summer, I stayed in a motel in southern Vermont, right across the street from a VFW hall.

Actually, the “hall” was more of a shack, and had one of those portable plastic signs out near the street that said, “Thurs nite bingo.”

I think of this place now, because I know it is a sacred repository of true American values, values that are so cherished they were fought for in faraway lands.

I also think of it because I wonder how the first openly gay or lesbian veteran who goes in there and asks for a beer is going to be received. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that after some initial discomfort, that gay or lesbian vet and the others in the hall are going to discover that they have a lot more connecting them than separating them.

They’re going to find out that they share the same priorities, the same gut feelings about the country they served, and the same willingness to back those sentiments up by laying their lives on the line.

And maybe, just maybe, treating gay people exactly like everyone else will enter the pantheon of true American values worth fighting to protect.

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Chan Lowe: The loss of Richard Holbrooke


Who is this guy? Why do an editorial cartoon about him?

Richard Holbrooke may not be a household name, but it isn’t for lack of the man’s effectiveness. He was one of the most consequential American diplomats of the last fifty years, a titan of a man who was well-known and respected in international and domestic power circles, and who goes to his final resting place with mammoth accomplishments to his credit.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the Balkan Peninsula alone owe their lives to his tireless efforts in brokering the Dayton Peace Accords, using the power of his own words and personality to face down Slobodan Milosevic, after bullets failed to do the same thing.

He accepted a thankless task⎯trying to unravel the Gordian Knot of Afghan and Pakistani politics to find a sane way out for all involved⎯and died, tragically, with the task unfinished.

Richard Holbrooke didn’t tweet his fans every day, he didn’t have his own reality show, and he didn’t rouse crowds to a fever pitch with pop slogans. All that attention-getting would have been antithetical to his goals.

Instead, he did the real grunt work, toiling away in the brambles for the furtherance of his country’s interests, and even more nobly, for those of the world in general. We should always remember his name.

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Chan Lowe: Bush's memoir


For me, one of the most telling moments of the George W. Bush presidency occurred during a press conference. A newsman asked him if he could name any mistakes he had made, and the question took the President aback.

None that he could think of, he responded after some thought. Some would call this evidence of his resoluteness; others, of his foolhardiness.

In any case, we knew that his decision to invade Iraq was not something that kept him awake at night. What does keep him awake? Evidently, the verdict of history, because he is now seeking to shape it.

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Chan Lowe: The gradual erosion of Don't Ask, Don't Tell


I’m back. First off, I’d like to thank everyone who checked in on the blog while I was away recharging the batteries. I hope you enjoyed the vintage toons.

Onward to a topic that never seems to go away, regardless of the direction in which the country is moving. I ascribe it to the truism every politician is familiar with, which is that angry people are more likely to vote than those without a beef.

Surveys have shown that the military is no different than the nation at large, in that the younger the service member, the less likely the sexual orientation of one’s neighbor seems to matter.

Older members of the military are uncomfortable with the idea of gays serving openly, the same way that older members of the population at large have a problem with gays just being who they are. The reality is, older people are more likely to vote, so their sensitivities must be taken into account. Hence, the foot-dragging.

The military, as I’ve said before, is a great eraser of prejudice. If you can depend on your buddy to shoot straight and cover you, you stop caring about his or her color, creed, orientation, native tongue, or even what planet he or she may come from.

While we struggle through this uncomfortable period of transition, it might help to remember that the military exists to implement and facilitate national will through the projection of force. Since sexual orientation has been shown to bear no correlation to one’s suitability to serve honorably, it hardly seems germane to that mission.

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Chan Lowe: The Afghanistan morass


I haven’t read Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, yet, but enough has leaked out (all Bob Woodward has to do is belch and it becomes a weeklong media beltway story) to tell us that we’re really stuck.

Wars are always a confluence of pragmatism and politics. A political genius like FDR was able to unite the American people behind our involvement in World War II by laying out a clear purpose. In so doing, he provided the nation with a way of knowing exactly when it had achieved its objective.

It didn’t hurt his case that the Japanese pulled a sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet, or that we were fighting organized nation-states that knew how to officially surrender and cease hostilities when they were beaten.

In other words, in WWII the politics and the resoluteness of national will were not issues that needed tending, so we could turn our focus completely and wholeheartedly to prosecuting the war.

In the case of Afghanistan, we are bogged down building a nation whose “citizens” don’t even think of themselves as “Afghans,” and where the original purpose for invading⎯to root out al-Qaida⎯may no longer even be operative.

Besides, it appears that we’re losing. Americans hate to lose. What they hate even more is sacrificing American lives when they don’t see a clear purpose.

And in case we didn’t think things could get any worse, now we all know--thanks to Bob Woodward--that nobody in our leadership agrees on what to do to extricate ourselves.

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Chan Lowe: Burning the Quran


When the Founding Fathers bequeathed upon future generations the perpetual gift of the First Amendment, they probably gave some thought to the downside.

Unlimited free expression, while clearly the cornerstone of a strong democracy when made use of by responsible citizens, also cleared the soapboxes for all manner of speech: seditious, hateful, ugly and divisive.

Evidently, they decided that the positives outweighed the negatives, that a society rendered strong by the exercise of individual freedoms would be better able to withstand recklessness within its ranks without having to resort to dreaded (and self-destructive) censorship.

The fact that the nation has been having a lively debate about the intention by a small church in Gainesville to stage a mass burning of Islam’s most holy scripture is testimony to the Founding Fathers’ wisdom. While the behavior of these people repels us and makes us wince, it is behavior we must endure for the sake of our collective welfare.

Muslims around the world who do not appreciate niceties like our guarantees under the Bill of Rights assume that by allowing the burning to occur, the United States is tacitly condoning the act. All Americans will be tarred by it.

If you have any doubts about that, just think for a moment how many Americans believe that all Muslims are terrorists, based on the acts of a handful of madmen back in 2001, and how many of us have been mailing copies of the Quran to Gainesville to help fuel the flames.

All that “hearts and minds” stuff we’re trying to do in Afghanistan? It’s back to Square One for us. Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200.

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Chan Lowe: The end of combat operations in Iraq


Tuesday night, President Obama gave just about the only speech that could have been given to properly mark the transition of America’s role in Iraq.

He sounded like the maid stuck with cleaning up a hotel room the morning after it has been rented by a rock band. There really wasn’t much to say about the whole endeavor that was positive, except that our troops did their jobs superlatively. The whole subject is uncomfortable for us, because while our service members did their duty and in many cases made the supreme sacrifice, we’re at a loss to know what they did it for.

We’re at a loss because our leaders violated the sacred pact the civilian leadership has always had with the military: We will ask you to go into harm’s way on behalf of your country, and in return you can have faith that we will only ask you to do so if the cause is worthy, if the mission is clear-cut, and if it has a reasonable chance of success.

We went in because they said there were WMD. Well, there weren’t any. Then it was about democracy, and we “surged” to give the Iraqis time to form a government. They still haven’t formed one. The place is a hair’s-breadth away from anarchy.

We had intentions of building a Western-oriented Arab bulwark in the Middle East. The only thing the Iranians will lack after the last Americans leave is an engraved invitation to invade.

Americans like to win wars, particularly after they’ve spent a trillion borrowed dollars when there are pressing needs at home. With Iraq, there is no surrender at Yorktown, no signing ceremony on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, just a fizzling-out.

Years from now, after the accursed place recedes into painful memory, it will probably revert to what it was before: a dusty crossroads ruled by whichever warlord among its contentious populace happens to be the most ruthless.

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Chan Lowe: Leaving Iraq


So much for Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn Principle about Iraq: “If you break it, you own it.”

Just because Powell got snookered by the Cheney-Rummy tag team into being a shill for the bankrupt WMD argument doesn’t mean that everything he ever said ought to be disbelieved.

Sadly, even though he’s right on the Pottery Barn thing, it looks like we are leaving the place broken and only partially pasted back together with bubble gum and masking tape, ready to fall apart again at the slightest jarring.

What’s even sadder is that we don’t care anymore. We don’t care after spending a trillion dollars, sacrificing thousands of our best young people, maiming thousands more, and leaving even more thousands with psychological damage. And we can’t even begin to fathom what our altruistic act of political liberation has done to the Iraqi people.

Geopolitically speaking, we’ve removed the only counterbalance the West and the Arab world had to keep Iran in check. Saddam may have been a bad man, but he was doing some pretty effective work in that department. We’re enjoying the fruits of removing him from power now.

Knowing what we know now, was it all worth it? As a nation, we shy away from that question, because the answer might be too painful, and could throw doubt on our core belief in the myth of American exceptionalism; that we are a force for good in the world.

At this point, we just want to wash our hands of the whole mess. The Iraqis can keep the pottery shards, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

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Chan Lowe: U.S. combat troops leave Iraq


It’s a nightmare: a nation divided; a populace unable to move past its ethnic and sectarian differences; a central government paralyzed and powerless to lead a country; demagogues stirring up unrest…at least we Americans have a tradition of respect for the rule of law to fall back on when we find ourselves on the ropes like this.

Imagine what it’s like for the Iraqis…it has been said that they are such a fractious people that only a strong man along the lines of a Saddam Hussein could rule them, using fear as his enforcer.

Since Iraqi culture and thought have not been steeped in the nurturing humanistic broth of the European Enlightenment, any attempt to superimpose a framework of democratic government upon that country is like casting seeds on barren ground, so they say.

Moreover, their sense of tribal and sectarian identity is more deeply rooted than their concept of being a citizen of an Iraqi nation; consequently a central constitutional government will never gain legitimacy in the public mind.

Maybe what they’ll finally come up with is a uniquely Mesopotamian amalgam of government by the people and government by dictator, benevolent or otherwise.

Whatever. We’re outta there. What a tragedy that we had to go in at all.

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Chan Lowe: The leaked Afghanistan papers


This should tell you something about the shifting, treacherous sands we find ourselves in while fighting the longest war in our history: Leaked classified documents reveal to the American public that we’ve been indirectly financing our own enemy, and government types in the know dismiss it as “old news.”

Which is worse…that a website released the information, which is surely damaging to our cause, or that our leaders have learned to accommodate this travesty as part of the cost of doing business with the Pakistanis?

The Bush team thought they were the sharpest guys around. After 9/11, they were going to go in there, shoot ’em up, and show the Rooskies the right way to tame those Afghans. Bring back Osama’s head on a plate.

They should have known they were getting this country embroiled in a part of the world where, if the locals didn’t actually invent intrigue, they certainly refined it to an art form.

There’s a story about a meeting in the Holy Land during the Crusades between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the local warlord. It’s probably apocryphal, but that doesn’t mean it can’t teach us something:

Richard, in order to demonstrate his military might to Saladin, draws out his huge, heavy double-handed broadsword and, in one blow, smashes a rock to pieces with it.

Saladin smiles, and pulls out a silk handkerchief. He tosses it in the air and unsheathes his scimitar of fine Damascus steel, holding it out cutting-edge up while the kerchief flutters down across the blade, splitting itself in two.

That’s what we’re up against over there.

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Chan Lowe: Afghan corruption

hamid.gifHamid Karzai may be corrupt, but he’s no fool.

He knows it’s just a matter of time before we throw up our hands and pull out of his ungovernable country, so he’s following the time-honored script perfected by past U.S. clients: paying lip service until the last possible minute while secretly getting his affairs in order for his next act.

Afghanistan doesn’t have a history of being kind to its leaders when they retire—if they even get the chance to retire⎯and my guess is that Karzai is a keen student of history, specifically of figures like President Nguyen Van Thieu of Vietnam and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, who escaped the retribution of their people in planes loaded with looted gold bricks. Keep those engines warmed up, Hamid.

On another topic, I stumbled across this post and cartoon, which I wrote and drew on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January of 2009. What I predicted about our current national mood was so prescient that it surprised even me. I haven’t altered a word of it.

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Chan Lowe: Chef Petraeus' busy kitchen

kitchen.gifDavid Petraeus may be a bigger hero than most of us realize.

Here’s a guy who doesn’t just salute and say, “Yessir!” when called upon by his commander-in-chief, but he does so knowing there’s a good chance that in the end, he may be associated with the failure of the longest war in our history.

When you listen to all the supporters of the President’s Afghanistan policy, there appears to be a lot of wishful thinking involving the Afghan “police” suddenly identifying themselves as Afghans (instead of Pashtuns or Tajiks or whatever), and Hamid Karzai experiencing a spiritual conversion wherein the scales fall from his eyes and he emerges reborn as an enlightened Jeffersonian democrat.

I’m guessing that after the November mid-term elections, the White House will begin a gradual campaign to prepare the American people for failure, and come August of 2011, the nominal date for the beginning of the pullout, we will have been reasonably convinced that the fabled “conditions on the ground” have developed to a point where we can extricate ourselves with something approximating honor.

While reason would indicate that we might as well abandon our effort now as a year from now, politics does not. Obama cannot afford to be known as the man who “lost Afghanistan,” which is the way he would be cynically portrayed by those who secretly agree the situation is hopeless, but would hasten to profit in the short run from that very hopelessness.

It will be up to General Petraeus, the most respected man in uniform, to tell us that we did our best, and that we’re leaving the place better than we found it.

And for that, he’ll deserve yet another ribbon on that chestful of fruit salad.

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Chan Lowe: McChrystal, crazy like a fox?

McC.gifYou can go ahead and fault Gen. Stanley McChrystal for insubordination, but you have to give him credit for his impeccable timing.

Everyone is wondering why on Earth a smart guy like McChrystal would allow such intimate access to a reporter from Rolling Stone, of all places. Was he crazy? Maybe like a fox. Here’s a theory, admittedly far-fetched but plausible:

If you’re going to torpedo your own career, it’s best to do it now just as the situation in Afghanistan is really beginning to go south. That way, you may be written off as a frat-boy who couldn’t control his mouth, but your war-fighting prowess will never be called into question. Walking away in the middle of battle marks you as a quitter. You must be forced to leave.

To put a modern twist on Douglas MacArthur’s famous aphorism, “Old soldiers never die; they just end up on TV news as in-house military analysts.”

With the new cred McChrystal has just acquired by holding Obama and his team in open contempt, he’s a shoo-in to be Fox News’ next celebrity battlefield poo-bah. For all we know, Roger Ailes was already on the horn asking Big Mac to simply name his price before Obama had even finished his speech announcing his dismissal.

Meanwhile, the ever-dutiful and heroic General Petraeus, answering his commander-in-chief’s call, will preside over a degenerating mishmash involving military and civilian brass who don’t get along, locals who simply want us out so they can return to their feudal ways, and a corrupt puppet in Hamid Karzai whose only saving grace is his snazzy wardrobe.

It is Petraeus who will be tarred with the way things turn out. If, by some miracle, our final exit isn’t a debacle, then good for him.

Does anyone have a better explanation?

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Chan Lowe: The education of Barack Obama

idea.gifIt isn't so much the passage of time that has caused the scales to fall from Barack Obama's eyes; it's the view.

Things look a lot different from behind that big, heavy desk in the Oval Office than they do on the campaign trail.

Out on the stump, you can pretty much say whatever you want, attack whomever you want for whatever policy or character flaw, and the only thing you have to worry about is your continued credibility with your listeners. And oh, how they love it when you throw them a fat chunk of red meat.

Once in that hot seat, though, you're confronted with a kaleidoscope of moving parts never dreamt of in your philosophy, and you have to start worrying about things like what's good for the country, not only your base.

Your base just doesn't get it. They don't understand how the dominoes work over there. If you explained it to them the way it's been explained to you, they wouldn't believe it, anyway. But you can't blow them off, because you need them to bend over and give up something for you on health care.

So you sit there at the intersection of domestic politics and global strategy, trying to thread the needle in a windstorm.

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Obama makes the pitch for the Afghan war

plan.gifRemember that much-maligned line first uttered by Condi Rice when the Bushies were bamboozling congress and the American people into war in Iraq: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud?"

It turned out--as we now know to our everlasting regret--that Saddam had no WMD, and her cute turn of phrase, while mighty scary, was empty at its core.

This time, though, it's for real. It's now Barack Obama's unenviable job to convince an incredulous public that the old Domino Theory is still valid. If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban and al-Qaida is allowed to thrive there, the infection will spread even deeper into an already rickety Pakistan, and possibly overwhelm its government.

Normally, we'd just allow the warlords and nut jobs in that part of the world to cancel each other out, but we're talking upwards of 80 nuclear weapons here, any one of which in the wrong hands could mean disaster.

Obama's speech will have to be short, sweet and to the point: no "nation-building," no "nurturing democracy," no subtlety. If he's going to sell this thing, we have to come away thinking, "Either we commit, or someday we're all going up in a ball of flame."

Americans aren't good with abstract concepts (think, "deficit spending"). They do, however, understand matters of life and death.

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Afghan corruption

karzai.gifWhen it comes to corroding people's faith in their leadership, nothing is more effective than rampant corruption.

Since our ostensible goal in Afghanistan is to establish a stable, peaceful government, it makes sense that stamping out corruption would be in our best interests. When it's so pervasive, though, where does one even begin?

There are fabulous amounts of money washing around in a place that has only known poverty for centuries. It's not that the Afghans are any more corrupt than anyone else. If the opportunity exists, and there's no oversight to speak of, any typical person will take whatever he can.

Singapore, I read somewhere, has one of the cleanest governments in the world. As I recall, it's because the prime minister, who is in effect a dictator, decreed that the penalty for corruption by a government official is death.

Singapore also has closed-circuit cameras to catch people spitting in elevators, as well as sirens and flashers on vehicles that activate if their drivers exceed the speed limit, so one can go overboard in maintaining public order.

Probably the best--and only--way to cure the problem of government corruption in Afghanistan is for us to pack up our loot and go home. In a matter of weeks, there wouldn't be any government left to corrupt.

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Chan Lowe: Obama and the Afghan whirlpool

afghani.gifThis is one of those times when you wonder why anybody would want to be president, much less spend years of his or her life running for the job.

I remember the 2000 campaign, and drawing a cartoon commenting on how Al Gore had been preparing all his life to be president. He would probably not take a loss well.

Bush, on the other hand, looked like somebody who'd been drafted because his brother was defeated when running for governor of his state, which happened to be the case. After losing, he would probably shrug and say, "I tried, Daddy!" and happily go back to running his baseball team.

To him, being President was all about the cool plane and getting to wear that nifty windbreaker with the presidential seal on the chest. The rest--sadly--is history.

There is no upside to the Afghan war. We won't know when we've won, but we may well know if we've lost. Like Vietnam, it could go on and on, ensnared in the tentacles of geo- and domestic politics.

Not something you'd want to be commander-in-chief for in your worst nightmares.

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Chan Lowe cartoon: Karzai brings in the heavy artillery


Katherine Harris is surely one of the top five gifts to editorial cartoonists in the last ten years, two of the others being Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

Any excuse I can come up with to bring this one-of-a-kind individual out of mothballs makes for a red-letter work day. Katherine, I miss you so...

'Nuff said.

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Chan Lowe cartoon: The VA drops the ball

redtape.gifOur politicians are fond of sanctimoniously invoking the bravery and heroism of our troops in the field.

Being pols, they hope some of the sheen from the achievements of others will rub off on them.

Some of the same people who are quick to accuse others of "abandoning our troops" when war budgets are questioned have often been oddly silent regarding expending funds to fulfill our obligations to our warriors.

Once they come home from battle wounded, damaged, and/or with a duffel bag full of promises made to them when they signed up, their usefulness to our lawmakers as props seems to diminish.

The string of revelations about our mistreatment of vets, including the Walter Reed scandal and untold other embarrassments, shame this country. Now we find that the V.A., thanks to bureaucratic overload, is unable to process payments in a timely manner to our veterans-turned-students. They are having to beg and rely on the generosity of others to extend credit to them while they await the arrival of what is rightfully theirs. More money could solve this.

The truly infuriating part of this is that the cost of a couple of F-22 Raptors we don't need would probably cover the shortfall with ease.

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Chan Lowe cartoon: The Graveyard of Empires

serpent.gifAmericans have never been much for learning the lessons of history.

Part of it is that America is so different from other nations, founded on principle rather than ethnicity or geography.

A corollary to this is the myth of American exceptionalism, which, loosely translated, means: "Others failed in the past because they did it wrong. When we do things our way, we succeed. Plus, we've got God on our side."

When it comes to Afghanistan, a backwater that has been notoriously hostile to outsiders, "The Graveyard of Empires," we may learn that even our way won't win us the highway.

Take the Brits, for example. If you have any FAQ's about how to run an empire, they're the go-to folks. Anybody who can subjugate the entire Indian subcontinent--several hundred million people--for over a hundred years using nothing more than a few thousand civil servants and soldiers must know what they're doing.

Well, Afghanistan's inhospitable inhabitants and topography broke them, too. Even the Russian Bear lumbered off with a bruised backside.

Do we honestly think that we can cram our Age of Enlightenment ideals down the locals' throats and leave them with a functioning agrarian democracy in the Jeffersonian mold (well, growing opium poppies is a form of agriculture) through military might, just because we happen to be more charming than our predecessors?

It doesn't matter who's sitting in the Oval Office hot seat, be they Democrat or Republican. When it comes to Afghanistan, they're earning every penny of their salary.

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A fine mess...

There are several tragedies playing out as the Iraq war winds down. Well, as it winds down for us.

The first tragedy is the incredible loss of human life suffered on all sides.

Then, there's the tragedy of a great nation allowing itself to get bamboozled into a needless conflict, siphoning off its strength into a sand pit while the real threat lay elsewhere. Since there were no WMD, one is left to wonder as to the true reason. Maybe it really was "he tried to kill my daddy." Couldn't Bush, Rummy and Cheney have simply sent in a black-ops assassination squad to deal with that?

Not only did we spend gazillions and lose over 4,000 of our military (not to mention all the wounded), but we're leaving the place worse off for the average local than it was before, Saddam or no Saddam. Not to mention that Al Qaida is now a presence there.

Of course, all this is relegated to the inner pages now, because we're disengaging and the casualty level--that is, the American casualty level--is now negligible. Not for the Iraqis, of course, but we all know that Iraqi blood doesn't spur the kind of interest, ire or compassion that American blood does. Let' em cancel each other out, right?

Then, there's the loss to us of all the schools, hospitals, roads--you name it--that could have been built here in America with that money. There's all that debt our grandchildren wouldn't be saddled with.

And let's not forget how easily the American public and Congress were played. That's a moral tragedy we can all share the blame for. Except for those knee-jerk, unpatriotic war protesters. Remember them?

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Giving Iraq back to its owners

The talking heads use various metaphors: "It's going to be a hard road ahead."
"We're only entering the fourth quarter."

Well, we're giving the Iraqis back their country, for better or worse. Mostly worse. We've already been over how misbegotten this whole foray was, how it was the wrong war for the wrong reasons, all the blood and treasure lost in the sand.

The hard line rear guard Bush administration apologists claim that, regardless of all the bloodshed, the Iraqi people are better off now than they were under Saddam.

I wouldn't know, since I'm not there on the ground. I have a feeling they don't either. As we stand back and observe the inevitable sectarian score-settling, favoritism, corruption, and the other symptoms of a failing state as the Iraqis--who never thought of themselves as a "people," but a collection of tribes--jockey for power, we'll probably see a strong man emerge.

A populace grown weary of undending violence will turn to him for stability, and gladly trade in whatever trappings of "democracy" we bequeathed upon them at the point of the gun.

The new strong man, after all is said and done, will remind us a lot of Saddam Hussein. Maybe he won't look as ridiculous in a fedora. He'll probably deal with us on oil, because he'll need the money...which was what the whole thing was about in the first place.

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The Afghanistan mess

It just shows you that no matter who is in the White House, our republic--with all its awesome and high-priced might--remains at a disadvantage when it comes to asymmetrical warfare.

What do you do if you're the Taliban, you're armed with rocket-propelled grenades and maybe some old Enfield rifles the British left behind back in the Nineteenth Century, and you're fighting a foe who has precision missiles that can rain down destruction from the sky with no advance notice, obliterating an entire crowd?

You make sure the crowd he obliterates is the wrong one.

Remember, this battle is for hearts and minds, not body counts. You use jiujitsu, turning the aggressor's own bulk and momentum against him. Enough of these little mistakes, and pretty soon the whole country sees you as the heroic defender of innocent women and children.

What are a few thousand more deaths in a country that has suffered so much already, especially if they serve a strategic goal? The locals don't know the Twin Towers from the Doublemint Twins, and when you say "terrorism," they look at all the bodies of their friends and loved ones that need to be buried.

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The shifting sands of public opinion


Not to rain on President Obama's parade, but the American people (at least the current crop) do not weather hardship well. The difference between us and our forebears from the 1930's is that they never had it all that good to start with, so the Great Depression represented, for them, a more severe degree of personal restraint, not a quantum contraction of lifestyle as our current situation demands.

Our history of living high on the credit hog, those big fat cars and houses we really couldn't afford, the flat-screen TVs, the travel, the dining out, are all too vivid in our recent memory. We got used to the taste of prosperity, even if it was just a chimera. We want it back, pronto. A few more months of denial, and we're going to forget that the crash happened on George W. Bush's watch. All we'll think about is that Obama seems to be spinning his wheels at a furious pace, but we're no closer to moving back into our mcmansions.

That'll be right around when things start heating up for the off-year Congressional elections, and the Republicans will be more than happy to point out how little progress we will have made under an all-Democrat government.

How did it all begin? Heck, who will be able to remember that far back?

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The sole of a free people

forrmonnblogg.gif And we thought the French were an ungrateful bunch.

It's a fitting coda to the utter pointlessness of Bush's invasion of Iraq. Even the people we liberated at the cost of so much human life and treasure are literally hurling their very worst insults at our president as he tries to run his final "victory" lap.

Bush laughed off the incident in his simple-minded way, but it really is tragic that our massive undertaking has come to this. Is there any positive outcome, anything at all, that we can point to? We got rid of Saddam. Great--Iran is taking advantage of the power vacuum, as are the various domestic Iraqi sects and factions he managed to keep in some kind of restless order.

At the very least, we were hoping to leave behind a pro-American client state in the middle of a hostile region.

Instead, the locals are hailing the shoe-thrower as a national hero.

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Rummy: Master of the Universe

Here is a story that will leave you thanking your lucky stars that you are blessed to live in a functioning democracy:

I have a friend who lives in Santa Fe, NM. A lot of high-profile people either live there full time or play there part time, folks like Valerie Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (whom my friend calls "Flake and the Cupcake"). It's a wealthy, yet quiet environment where people who value their privacy are generally left alone.

My friend was walking along Acequia Madre, a street in Santa Fe's tony East Side, about two weeks after Donald Rumsfeld, arguably the most powerful man in the world while he was in office, had been deposed as Secretary of Defense. If you remember, the pressure became so great on President Bush from all sides of the political spectrum that he finally caved and threw Rummy off the fantail.

Anyway, imagine my friend's surprise to see the former Alpha Male of Washington in well-worn jeans, ambling along the street with his dog, smoking his pipe and carrying a pooper scooper.

Eventually, the dog did his business, the erstwhile commander of the most fearsome military force on the planet scooped up the mess, and strolled off back to his home.

Think this could ever happen anywhere else?

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Pakistan fires on U.S. helicopters


After Italy capitulated in World War II and then declared herself to be on the side of the Allies, Winston Churchill famously said, "With the Italians as friends, who needs enemies?"

One has to wonder what kind of foreign aid first allows the Pakistanis to export nuclear technology to our enemies, and then permits them to get huffy about U.S. incursions over a border that they are incapable of policing themselves.

Would the old Soviet Union have tolerated this kind of behavior from a client state? No howski. First, a warning--then Islamabad brulee. Certainly no more military funds.

No wonder the world has lost its respect for America when our puppets are doing all the yanking on the strings.

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Iraq war time horizon


It turns out this President is a lot more adroit with the English language than we thought. A timetable, as it turns out, was a "prescription for surrender." A time horizon, on the other hand, is something we can live with, particularly when a Democratic candidate seems to be gaining traction with a public tired of the war.

Not that it matters that much what he says anymore.

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Top Secret plans for invasion of Iran


That we are even discussing this scenario as a real possibility is a testament to Congress' abrogation of its Constitutional role in declaring war, and the President's eagerness to act like the very king the Founding Fathers feared.

Remember the good old days, like 1941, when FDR had to go and make an impassioned case for war before Congress would even go along? And that was after Pearl Harbor, when they actually DID something to us.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall to hear what G.H.W. Bush has to say about how his feckless boy has taken the old man's carefully constructed web of international alliances and understandings, and just blowed 'em all up real good, like a prankster flushing a cherry bomb down the boy's room toilet. Oh, well...that's the next guy's problem.

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Iraq and domestic politics


You'd have to be a little off to want to be President at a time like this. Fortunately, there are a lot of unrestrained egos out there. It's not hard to see the cynical plot developing on the part of the Republicans. Stay the course in Iraq that has no defined ending. Put up some doddering warhorse like McCain who will go down in flames like Bob Dole before him, and leave the impossible choices to the Democrats, who will have gotten elected on the promise that they would clean things up. The resulting chaos in the Middle East and high gas prices will guarantee G.O.P. electoral victories for decades to come.

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Vietnam redux


The risk with running a cartoon like this is that there are some younger readers who won't make the historical connection and therefore miss the point. I have to strike a delicate balance between losing some people and beating others with a sledgehammer. If you don't let the reader perform the final connection in his own head, you make him a passive observer rather than a participant in the cartoon. Obviousness is the enemy of wit.

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Bush and Cheney's war


Yesterday, when Vice-President Cheney was asked his reaction to the fact that a majority of Americans thought the Iraq war hadn't been worth it, he answered, "So?"

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Iraq, the fifth anniversary


Once again, it's the economy, Stupid.

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This Month Five Years Ago


This ran March 23, 2003, four days after Operation Iraqi Freedom began. It seemed like a nutty policy then to pass a tax cut with a war just starting. It appears even nuttier now that we know the actual cost after five years. But since the whole thing is being conducted off the books, why worry?

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More of this month five years ago


We ran this cartoon on March 23, 2003, four days after the invasion of Iraq began. Stock prices soared in a patriotic wave of irrational exuberance...many felt the war would be short and sweet. "Mission Accomplished" was yet to come.

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This month five years ago: Iraq War begins


Whaddaya know...the Iraq War started five years ago this month. I looked back in my archives and found a bunch of cartoons that were eerily prescient, under the circumstances.

This one appeared on March 26, 2003, just one week after "Shock and Awe."

I'll be bringing you more as the month progresses.

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About the author
Chan LoweCHAN LOWE has been the Sun Sentinel’s first and only editorial cartoonist for the past twenty-six years. Before that, he worked as cartoonist and writer for the Oklahoma City Times and the Shawnee (OK) News-Star.

Chan went to school in New York City, Los Angeles, and the U.K., and graduated from Williams College in 1975 with a degree in Art History. He also spent a year at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.

His work has won numerous awards, including the Green Eyeshade Award and the National Press Foundation Berryman Award. He has also been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His cartoons have won multiple first-place awards in all of the Florida state journalism contests, and The Lowe-Down blog, which he began in 2008, has won writing awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists.
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