The What If Game


1. (Logic) expressing what has not happened but could, would, or might under differing conditions

—from the Free Dictionary

Leon Panetta, who has served his country marvelously well, is now out selling books. That means he is required to go to reputable places like 60 Minutes, as well as to cognitive sewers like Bill O’Reilly’s show. All in a day’s work, I suppose.

What you are not likely to hear discussed, especially if you watch a lot of cable television news, is the following, which is found in Panetta’s book, Worthy Fights:

President Obama revamped a nearly broken economy, waged an aggressive campaign against terrorism, extricated the United States from two wars, and refocused the mission of our military; the result is a safer nation and a more prosperous one.

Nope. You’re not likely to see much about that glowing assessment of the Obama presidency. What you will most likely see are interviewers and pundits obsessed with these two questions:

1. Did Obama make a grave mistake in 2011 by not leaving troops in Iraq? 

2. Did Obama make a grave mistake in 2012 by not arming the so-called “moderate Syrians”?

I have become sickened by the amount of bad-mouthing and second-guessing and ass-covering that has gone on relative to those two issues. Don’t get me wrong. I expect right-wingers to bad-mouth and second-guess President Obama. You can make a fine living in the conservative media world doing that. What I am a little surprised at, though, is the amount of ass-covering that has gone on among former Obama officials, including former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, as well as Hillary Clinton and now Leon Panetta.

So, let’s deal with the two main issues one at a time:

1. Did Obama make a grave mistake in 2011 by not leaving troops in Iraq? 

We all should remember that back in 2011 the biggest fear associated with not leaving troops in Iraq had little to do with the potential spillover from the budding conflict in Syria, which at the time had not turned into the completely chaotic mess it is today. The biggest worry was over whether our military departure would strengthen the hand of Iran, not only in Iraq but across the region. Keep that in mind as you hear all the know-it-alls today talk with certainty about what we should or shouldn’t have done in 2011. In our bombing of ISIL, both Syria and Iran are on our side. That’s how screwed up the whole thing is and I don’t know of anyone who predicted such a thing.

On this particular issue, Hillary Clinton, who was there at the time, had the president’s back. When asked about it in June, she said:

Let me say on Iraq, because it’s in the news and it’s a dreadful deteriorating situation, the deadline on Iraq was set – was set by the prior administration, that if there were not a status-of-forces agreement, which is the agreement under which American military forces can be positioned in a country to provide services that are agreed to or asked for by the host country … there would not be American troops.

And when President Obama came in, he was obviously not an enthusiast about the Iraq war from the very beginning, very strong critic of it, both its initiation and its handling. There was a lot of effort to work through with the Maliki government what such a status-of-forces agreement would look like.

At the end of the day, the Maliki government would not agree. So the decision was made, in effect. There could not be American troops left, without such an agreement.

On this point, Panetta, echoing criticism from Republicans, says that Obama should have pushed harder against the former prime minister of Iraq because keeping 10,000 troops there would have given us “leverage on Maliki to keep them in the right place.” I guess it never occurred to Panetta that the reason Maliki did not want to be pushed is because he did not want us around to keep them in the right place. That was sort of Maliki’s whole point.

In any case, all of that speculation makes for good Monday-morning commanding, but it is gross speculation. People should remember that when we were negotiating with Maliki about leaving troops there, we were talking about a residual force of some 3,000 to 5,000 to 10,000—depending on your source—which, in Panetta’s words, “could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.” Get that? After more than a decade in Iraq, it was still necessary to train and secure Iraq’s military as sort of a counterterrorism insurance policy. Exactly how long were we supposed to keep doing that? How long were we supposed to keep paying the premiums?

But beyond that, I will ask a better question—since I have yet to hear one journalist ask it—of all those who claim, either with certainty or something less, that we should have left thousands of troops in Iraq: What would have happened when ISIL came across the border? Where would we have gone to get our counterterrorism insurance check?

I’m listening.

Oh, some will say that if we had kept thousands of troops in Iraq that ISIL wouldn’t have dared come there to fight and to conquer in the name of Allah. You know, all that “peace-through-strength” stuff, the kind of stuff that only works to deter rational people. ISIL leaders, who use beheadings to send messages to Westerners, hardly qualify as rational people. They really do want to set up an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, and the presence of U.S. troops would likely have made their resolve stronger not weaker.

That leaves us with the likelihood that had we left troops there in 2011, they would today be engaged in on-the-ground battles with ISIL. They would be fighting and dying. And there would likely be many thousands more U.S. troops there to fight and die with them. Is that what Obama’s critics really want? Huh? If they do, they should say so.

Finally, as I said, I have never heard a single journalist ask anyone, anyone who claims we should have left a residual force in Iraq,  just what that force would have done when ISIL invaded. Please tell us. What?  Panetta wrote in his book:

To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.

On what evidence can he base his belief? We already know that many non-Kurdish Iraqi military forces left the battlefield—and left a lot of our equipment behind for ISIL to use later. Is it conceivable that a few thousand U.S. troops could have stiffened their spines? And would ten thousand troops wearing American flags have been able to tame sectarian violence that has been a feature of life in the Middle East since 632 A.D.? Is there even a shred of evidence to support such a claim?

If President Obama had done what Panetta and others asked him to do, if he had insisted on leaving thousands of our soldiers in Iraq, we would probably now be involved in a war that no one would have to go to the trouble of parsing. As it is, we are only using airstrikes to attack ISIL, and somebody else, somebody who has much more at stake at the moment, is doing the hard fighting and dying. From an American perspective, that doesn’t exactly sound like a grave mistake to me.

2. Did Obama make a grave mistake in 2012 by not arming the so-called “moderate Syrians”?

This one drives me out of my mind.

Hillary Clinton recently went out of her way to let the world know she was in favor of arming those mystical moderates in Syria, suggesting, but not insisting, that had Obama done so things would look a lot different now. But if you read the actual interview she did with Jeffrey Goldberg (misleadingly titled, “Hillary Clinton: ‘Failure’ to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS”), she actually said something very sensible. Goldberg had asked her if she agreed with former ambassador Robert Ford’s contention “that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have.” At the end of her reply she said:

I totally understand the cautions that we had to contend with, but we’ll never know. And I don’t think we can claim to know.

No. We will never ever know. And we sure as hell can’t claim to know. But there are a lot of people who, now that things have gone really, really badly, do claim they know. Leon Panetta has added some fuel to that mostly right-wing fire of certainty on this point by saying to 60 Minutes:

Scott Pelley: In retrospect now, was not arming the rebels at that time a mistake?

Leon Panetta: I think that would’ve helped. And I think in part, we paid the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS.

Maybe we did pay a price for not doing something. Maybe ISIS would not have grown so strong if we had flooded the battlefield with our weapons. But we will never know what kind of price we would have paid for doing something, for doing what Panetta thought, in good faith, we should have done. That’s what makes all this stuff so hard for leaders and so easy for after-the-fact critics. Panetta slapped President Obama on this issue by saying in his book:

Hesitation and half steps have consequences as well—and those remain to be determined.

Let me say here that Panetta is right to say that hesitation and half steps do certainly have consequences. Just like rushing in and taking full steps. That’s not exactly a profound claim. Both action and inaction have consequences that cannot be confidently known in advance. But if you listen to some folks talk today, they claim to have known exactly what the consequences of Obama’s hesitation to arm some Syrian rebels would turn out to be. Hooey.

The truth is that, forgetting what little we knew two years ago, we still don’t know today if there are really any Western-style moderates on the Syrian battlefield. We only know that, given what has developed, we have to take our chances and hope that the ones we think might be moderates don’t end up turning against us at some future point. It has come to that in Syria and Iraq. But we don’t know if it would have been better or worse if we had taken another course of action in 2012. One can easily imagine any number of scenarios, including one in which ISIL ends up with tons of American weapons that we shipped into Syria. Imagine how Fox “News” would have reported that, even as that network is fast to condemn Obama for his “dithering.”

To all this, I will here cite the words of our wise, if freethinking, Vice President:

We Americans think, in every country in transition, there’s a Thomas Jefferson hiding behind some rock or a James Madison beyond one sand dune. 

Given what has happened across the Middle East over the past two years or so, given how Islamic belief systems in the region are mostly incompatible with our idea of democracy and our expansive conception of human rights, any Jeffersons or Madisons over there are more likely to be beheaded than to lead a revolution that ends with a secular republic.

And that should make everyone at least a little sober in their judgments.


[Getty UN photo; Haider Al-Assadee/EPA Iraq photo]


  1. It is indeed sobering when a respected figure like Panetta criticizes his boss through Monday-morning quarterbacking, as he does in his book. Wise in politics, he also understands the business of book selling and he knows that controversy sells. It’s disappointing, but I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising.

    The spirit of American exceptionalism and expectations of short-term gratification seem as firmly embedded in today’s culture as they were in Teddy Roosevelt’s day. This has been so consistent over the years that the rest of the world has been trained to expect us to come riding to the rescue on every crisis. The latest example of this I’ve seen is the substantial armed forces of Turkey, our American-trained and American-equipped NATO ally, standing idle while ISIS destroys and kills innocents within actual visual range of the Turkey-Syria border. Unbelievable.

    At the very heart of this dilemma, as you allude, is the issue of nation-building as a means of remaking the world in the image of our own democracy. That worked with Japan and Europe, and with South Korea, but in none of those was religion a central issue. That, it seems to me, is the critical difference. Also looming here is another important meme: the notion in voters’ heads that a president ought to be able to change the world in 4 or 8 years, never mind that our last war is 11 years long and not quite over yet.

    Where have all the soldiers gone?
    Gone to graveyards, every one
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn?


    • Jim,

      Your point about an idle Turkey is one that I have pondered for several days now. I have tried to understand the complicated dynamics behind what appears to be a very dumb strategy on their part. From what I have learned, Erdogan is playing a very dangerous game of chicken with us and with the Kurds in order to extract concessions from both. We will know shortly how that game will end, likely either with Turkish soldiers rescuing Kobane from ISIL or with a bunch of dead Syrian Kurdish fighters who died trying without Turkey’s help (which some think is Turkey’s goal).

      My worst fear is that there is some kind of understood “deal” between ISIL and Turkey. Something like: “You can have Kobane as long as you don’t bother us.” God, I hope it isn’t anything like that. But if Turkey doesn’t do something soon, what has been a pretty good alliance (all things are relative in the region, of course; there are many moral concerns) will soon falter and threaten even more instability. I don’t think it will come to that, but we are closer than we have been since Turkey entered NATO.  And there are some saying now that Turkey should be tossed out of that alliance, since it has refused to use its powerful military and strategic location (two of the main reasons it became a member of NATO in the first place) to help in this crisis on its border.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  October 9, 2014


    Believe it or not, I try to be apolitical in considering issues in the Middle East today. If only we had …….. kind of Monday morning quarterbacking makes no sense to me. We face what we face in the MIddle East today, so what to do about it becomes the compelling question.

    I don’t know how many times I have read that if SCOTUS had not interferred and Gore been elected then we would have (or have not) done ………. Well Payton Manning got his ass kicked in the Super Bowl last year but “only if Tom Brady had……” things would have been different. I’m sure you get that point but Lord knows how King and others will react to such!

    Yes, I have recently watched gloating pundits on Fox just thrilled with some isolated quotes coming from Panneta. They immediately take those cherry picked quotes and conclude the GOP will gain control of the Senate after the Nov election. Are you kidding me????

    I have not read Panneta’s book nor intend to do so either. I am sure however that you and I could cherry pick that book to support our own positions, opposing each other in some cases! Why bother at least for now. One would have to read Gates and Panneta, and probably Rumsfield and others as well. For me at least, I only hope Woodward is working hard on a book to settle some issues (or try to do so) starting back with Benghazi, which still bothers me a lot!

    Actually my concerns go back much farther than Benghazi, which was a flash in the pan, a crisis that was unexpected and handled poorly in my view. Hell the Arab Spring took the American public by surprise as it evolved and we still don’t understand it very well or what to do about it, fundamentally.

    It boils down to Bush II went all in with power and Obama began to extricate us from such use of military power. As a result of both efforts we are where we are today and it is a mess. So what next for America in the Arab world, how to continue to fight terrorism, how to deal with all radical Islamists all over the world, including right here in America (see Oklahoma, etc.), etc. Bush called for fighting and Obama called for talking. So, again, what next for America.

    I submit, again, that there is a middle ground, between all out fighting (conventionally) and talking. It is called deterrence and it worked. But deterrence demands available military power and the clear will to use it “if…….”. Americans only think of nuclear issues when deterrenced is discussed. I submit that our conventional deterrence, NATO, CIA, FBI, “sneaky limited engagements” never publicized, etc. was a mainstay of the Cold War for 50 years and we eventually won it.

    One final point about something Panneta just said, on O’Reilly. He said our government is managing by crisis, not effective leadership, or words to that effect. I agree with that view almost 100%. This is what we will do, long term, with radical Islam. It will take ……… in terms of conventional military power, agumented by lots of expensive intelligence, electronics, financial tracking, spies on the ground all over the place, drones all over the place, and the willingness to strike secretly and quickly when the need arises. We will then stay that course until …….. God Bless America and may our radical opponents just burn in hell!!!

    We have brutal, violent in the extreme, “nuts” as opponents in the world today. We oppose them with all our strength and will put so much pressure on them they will just die or decide to just “go away”.

    As for “boots on the ground”, you bet we will have them there. Except our opponents will never see or hear them until a bullet goes through their crazy head(s), selectively and individually with no moral constraints to just kill the assholes, over there and hopefully not here!! Here in America the rule of American law will prevail, by the way.

    Incidently, we respect, even encourage Free Speech on the part of our opponents. Speak all you like Mr. Mullah. But then you can stay awake at night waiting for a SEAL to arrive in your cave, tomorrow night!!! America reserves the moral right to just blow you away (over there) after you call for jihad against us!! And if you decide to speak as such in America, we have laws like treason, sedition, etc. that apply and we WILL use such legal protection against you in America. You won’t get shot in America but wind up in Colorado, you bet if you keep talking that way. One other point to consider. Call for and try to generate opposition to America, in America, and you can be assured that every dime you receive and spend or every email, text or phone call will be carefully tracked and used against you, anytime, anywhere, legally.

    Welcome to WAR in the 21st Century!!



    • I agree it does no good now to hand out blame. The Iraq war was a terrible mistake, unleashing all kinds of negative consequences, but that doesn’t tell us anything at all about what to do now. Neither does wondering what might have happened if we had armed a couple of Syrian rebel groups or left thousands of troops in Iraq.

      I fail to see the legitimacy of your Cold War analogy, as applied to the problems with terrorism in the Middle East. We aren’t dealing with nation states or rational players. These people are infected with a jihadist plague. They cannot be deterred in the same way the Soviets were deterred by our nuclear capabilities (and, yes, that is the main reason the deterrence worked, even though conventional weaponry and commitments didn’t hurt). 

      As for effective leadership against “radical Islam,” all of the things you listed have been employed by Obama, yet he gets zero credit for it. In fact, he gets condemned by people on both ideological sides, the right for not doing enough and the left for doing too much. It is insane. The man has killed more terrorists that Dick Cheney could ever dream of killing; he has dropped more bombs on terrorist leaders than John McCain could ever imagine; he had Osama bin Laden killed, for Allah’s sake. Yet he is attacked for ineffective “leadership.” Obama can’t win no matter what he does, so I suppose he has just decided to do what he thinks is best for the country.



  3. ansonburlingame

     /  October 9, 2014

    Jim got his post in as I was writing mine and thus did not see it. I offer one comment on what he said, “Nation building doesn’t work”. I agree whether the disagreement is secular or religious. We “nation build” Germany and Japan but only after unconditional surrender and total occupation happened. We never tried to “nation build” the Soviet Union but it went away after the economic battle was won, behind an awesome military line in the sand that all KNEW we would use, if…….. .

    We think in terms of nation building small countries using “ideas” with only limited military engagement, if any such engagement. Just consider how well nation building is working for use in just Mexico if you will and the threat to America from Central America in terms of hordes of immigrants. Is that a threat? Many will argue no, not at all. They are just like the Irish that became part of the America melting pot, right?

    I ended my above comment referencing “21st Century War”. I have now posted a blog entitled Operating in a Crisis Mode (since before 9/11) and offered a rather right wing idea about how better to fight such a war today. LIberals will cringe but some, maybe, will blend such thoughts into their own framework to be considered. We certainly cannot keep doing or not doing what we have been doing, or not doing. If you want a “taste”, consider viewing Benghazi in terms of “Munich” (in 1972).



    • Anson,

      First of all, I dispute this claim you made in your piece:

      Since Egypt got its ass kicked in 1973 by Israeli military power, all out (except nuclear) power, Israel has not had to use overwhelming military power to remain intact and relatively secure.

      I suggest you study the Yom Kippur War a little more closely. If it weren’t for Operation Nickel Grass—an American airlift that replaced lost materiel—Israel may have resorted to using nuclear weapons in 1973 in order to keep from getting its ass kicked. In fact, U.S. intervention very nearly led to a direct confrontation with the Soviets, not to mention it triggered the oil embargo that threatened the U.S. economy. So, it was the United States that essentially saved the day.

      Having said that, your Munich strategy sounds very much like what Obama is doing. We kill terrorist leaders who have done, or are planning to do, us harm all the time. We hunted down and killed bin Laden, as well as other high-ranking leaders. Drones killed 55 al-Qaeda militants and leaders in Yemen in April. The day before we killed 10 militants in Yemen. In August we killed more there. The group of al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen are considered to pose the greatest threat to us. Early in September we may have killed the leader of al-Shabaab in Somalia. Recently we killed members of the Khorasan Group in Syria. Not long ago we killed “The Turk,” the leader of al-Nusra Front. We are dropping bombs daily on ISIL. So, I don’t know what you think we should be doing that we are not now doing, all over the region.



  4. Randy, loved the term “cognitive sewer” when describing O’Reilly etal.


    • Thanks, Gerry. Whenever I visit O’Reilly’s show, I have to clean the shit off afterwards. That’s my definition of a sewer.


  5. ansonburlingame

     /  October 11, 2014


    I will try to reply to all three of your comments above, ignoring the O’Reilly slam as unimportant.

    You claim that Israel won the Yom Kipur War only because of American support. True or not, so what. They won it and have not had to use overwhelming troops on the ground and in the air since then to remain “alive”. Their battle has been a much more secret war since 1973 and they continue to win it from time to time. Just in the case of Gaza recently, it will take a few years now for Hamas to resupply.

    Why is Al- Qaeda still up and running in a different form? Why in God’s name did ISIL become a real force? Why is Libya a real mess? Why is an Iraqi government still a fictional government, governing the entire country of Iraq?

    By and large Obama is a great speaker and has American interests, abroad, in his “heart”. I don’t dispute that. But he has been even more ineffective than Bush II in advancing our interests abroad and American’s are now seeing that far more clearly than anytime before in the last six years. He needs a win and hasn’t found one yet, over there. Why?

    When one gets in this kind of fight, air power does not provide “wins” that resolves the problems. Sure, shock and awe from the air is impressive and might show “resolve” for TV watchers in America. Rumsfeld sure thought that to be the case. Blow up a bunch of stuff from the air that then just put those remaining back on their bicycles, right!!!! Wrong of course.

    We have spent $ TRILLIONS to beef up intelligence. I would HOPE we now know where all the little rat’s nests might reside, in America and abroad. But we have failed to go in and clean out every little rat’s nest we find, anywhere. Instead we try to keep track of all the little rat’s and wait until they decide to bite someone. You won’t defeat the Black Plaque doing that, for sure. You have to kill lot’s of rats, or ……….

    Never, ever could Obama and most liberals consider a bunch of radical Islamists “rats”. They are humans and deserve ………. That is a good moral appoach, until you happen to be an American with an ISIL warrior headed your way, or a Kurd, Iraqi, etc.

    One last thing, Turkey. Turkey wants TWO things, a dead Assad (along with his supporters) and a bunch of dead Kurds, with whom they, Turkey, have been fighting a 3 decade war against Kurds, in the form of PKK. Turkey is NOT going to support either one of those factions in Syria and as well will want a Sunni faction to gain total power in Iraq.

    What Turkey is doing right now, not supporting one group over another because they oppose both groups, is not a surprise from the Turkish perspective, a selfish perspective. But welcome to geopolitics, not a humanitarian world. I also note that Russia is doing nothing to support our new efforts against just ISIL. Nope, they just keep Assad in place and strong enough to survive!!



    • Anson,

      1.) You shouldn’t ignore “the O’Reilly slam as unimportant.” It is crucial to understanding what is wrong with the country.

      2.) My claim about the Yom Kippur war was to counter your claim that the Israeli’s kicked the ass of the Egyptians. They didn’t. They needed big brother to come in before they nuked the hell out of the place. I think that is an important point because it shows how much they depend on the U.S.  I also think that entitles us to some fair amount of influence over their politics, don’t you?

      3.) Obama “needs a win”? What? Are you kidding me? There isn’t any “win” to be found. There is no winning against terrorism, as a tactic to achieve a religious goal. You can kill every ISIL bastard breathing right now, but there will be more to come. And until non-fanatic Islamic leaders reform their faith in a very public way, there will be plenty of safe havens for the terrorists to take temporary refuge in order to plan their attacks.

      4.) And are you kidding me with this line:

      Never, ever could Obama and most liberals consider a bunch of radical Islamists “rats”. They are humans and deserve ……….

      We are dropping bombs on those people like it was raining. Obama has called ISIL a cancer. He is trying to get other Muslims to wage a ground war against them in hopes of wiping them off the face of the earth. Calling them “rats” would be tame compared to what he is doing. Where are you getting this stuff, Anson?

      5.) Your assessment of Turkey’s motives is mostly correct and it demonstrates why you are wrong about Obama finding a “win” in the region. This stuff is not conducive to producing long-term victories, only some kind of manageable chaos.



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