Before we start a new war with ISIS, let’s remember how we stumbled into the last two

Summary: As we gear up for new wars in Syria and Africa, and rejoining old wars in Iraq, let’s a pause to think. Success will depend on learning from our failures since 9-11. Our greatest failures have been our initial failures: seeing the situation incorrectly and beginning before we have accurate information about our foe. The combination creates almost insurmountable barriers to success, barriers that we construct. We can do better.

Learn from mistakes


  1. Familiar bad news about our new wars
  2. Reminders from the past
  3. We’re winning! Like always.
  4. Let’s remember the great advice we need the most
  5. For More Information

(1)  Familiar bad news about our new wars

It’s become the one of the two standard themes for the starts of our wars: US intelligence tells us that we know little about our enemies. As Eli Lake explains in “ISIS Baffling U.S. Intelligence Agencies“, The Daily Beast, 14 August 2014 — “It’s been two months since ISIS took over Iraq’s second-largest city. But U.S. analysts are still trying to figure out how big the group is and the real identities of its leaders.” Excerpt:

The U.S. intelligence community is still trying to answer basic questions about the jihadists who tried to wipe out Iraq’s remaining Yazidis and who now threaten to overrun the capital of the country’s Kurdish provinces.

In a briefing for reporters Thursday, U.S. intelligence officials said the government is re-evaluating an estimate from early this year that said the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had only 10,000 members. These officials also said intelligence analysts were still trying to determine the real names of many of the group’s leaders …

While many U.S. officials have warned publicly in the last year about the dangers posed by ISIS, the fact that the U.S. intelligence community lacks a consensus estimate on its size and the true identities of the group’s leadership may explain why President Obama over the weekend said the U.S. was caught off-guard by the ISIS advance into Kurdish territory.

{the usual fear-mongering follows, presented as analysis}

The second theme which marks the start of our wars: errors and outright lies about the wars. The sinking of the USS Maine and the Spanish-American War, the Tonkin Gulf Incident, Saddam’s WMDs and alliance with al Qaeda, and Afghanistan’s key role in 9-11. Let’s hope that what we are told about our enemies in this new phase of the Long War is more accurate than what we’ve been told so far.


Lessons learned

(2)  Reminders from the past

Afghanistan: SecDef Rumsfeld interviewed by Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s “Live Today”, 8 March 2002 — Looking back 12 years we can see that five months after the invasion Rumsfeld was either grossly misinformed, lying, or both, as this looks like a combination of lies, exaggerations, and errors. Excerpt:

Q: Give our viewers a sense of the scope of this battle. How many al Qaeda and related fighters are there?

Rumsfeld: Well, it’s not clear to me. … These are very well trained fighters. These are hard dead-enders. These are hardline types. …

Q: Now when you say dead-enders, tell our viewers what you mean by that.

Rumsfeld: Well, I mean we’d be happy to have them surrender. But we haven’t seen anyone coming in and surrendering. …

Q: How realistic is that prospect that they could get hold of those kinds of weapons of mass destruction?

Rumsfeld: Well, we know they’re intelligent; we know they’re well financed; we know there are thousands of them. We know that they’ve got activities in 40, 50 or 60 countries. … Now it does not take a leap of imagination to understand that, with the desire they’ve demonstrated — and we have all kinds of intelligence evidence to that effect, that the al Qaeda terrorists want weapons of mass destruction, and the people they’ve dealt with over the years having those kinds of weapons. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that that is a very serious threat.

Q: Is there a link between these al Qaeda terrorists who still may be at large and the government of President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad?

Rumsfeld: I’m not going to get into intelligence information about where those links are. We know the countries that are on the terrorist list, and that’s one of them.

Iraq: SecDef Rumsfeld Press conference, 18 June 2003 — Three months after the invasion, much of what Rumsfeld knew was wrong. Excerpt:

And there’s no question but that in those regions where pockets of dead-enders are trying to reconstitute, General Franks and his team are rooting them out.

In short, the coalition is making good progress. It was made possible by the excellent military plan of General Franks and by the terrific leadership of the stabilization effort by Mr. Jay Garner and his team.

Iraq:  SecDef Rumsfeld press conference, 22 October 2004 — Seven months after the invasion Rumsfeld was totally deluded about our foes:

So I would submit that the thrust of your question was not only imprecise but inaccurate, the idea that anyone is suggesting this is easy or that there are just a few problems or people.  We’ve said repeatedly that it is tough and complicated and that there are a variety of different elements opposing the Iraqi government and the coalition.

And as you know well, they include a variety of categories, including foreign terrorists — relatively small number compared to the total, but probably among the most lethal criminals, people who do things for money — a relatively larger number of foreign regime elements and, quote, “dead enders,” people who have it in their mind that they have a chance to take back that country for a vicious dictatorship.

(3)  We’re winning! Like always.

Terrorism expert Max Abrahms is an assistant professor of public policy at Northeastern U.

The US public find losing 4GW wars difficult to accept because we’re told that we’re winning until near the end, after years of losing. Most of our geopolitical experts (sensible people mindful of their careers) act as cheerleaders for our wars, and so assure us of success until we lose.

Learn from mistakes, don't deny them

(4)  Let’s remember the advice we need the most

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

The source of this brutal insight is not an ancient Chinese proverb, Benjamin Franklin, or Albert Einstein.  Attributing it to these sources conceals the nature of our problem, revealed by the actual source: it’s an adage of Alcoholics Anonymous. They know everything about dysfunctionality (details here).

(5)  For More Information

See all posts about

  1. Intelligence agencies – how they work, how they don’t
  2. Information & disinformation

Some posts about disinformation operations run against us:

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2009
  2. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  3. Psywar, a core skill of the US Military (used most often on us), 26 November 2008
  4. Concrete evidence of government info ops against us, but it’s OK because we are sheep, 2 December 2008
  5. How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped – and what we can learn from this, 13 October 2009
  6. Another example of war advocates working their rice bowls, 24 December 2009



18 thoughts on “Before we start a new war with ISIS, let’s remember how we stumbled into the last two”

  1. I must assert that at no time in American history has the onset of war been truthfully revealed to the public. Please name any military incursion that has had transparency to the press or the public?

    1. “The Situations”?

      Were you there in the public then? I am assuming you are not 85 years old. Seems one thing in common with your list – ancient history where not too many if any are alive. I challenge that notion strongly. There have been many expose and documentaries regarding reasons and causes for wars and our involvement at the time.

      Of course, that list of yours seems to also revolve around a group of “good reason wars” with digestible concepts for our going to war. The Civil War clearly does not belong on that list at all. Don’t dismiss the overwhelming evidence regarding the lack of completeness in revealing the true causes and reasoning behind our involvement in these wars. As you stated previously many times, the huge bureaucracy that is the US government doesn’t change too much when things generally work.

      Of course why would they change? The American public has swallowed it and done nothing but support the troops regardless of the war footing or theater.

      Let’s be real, the government can’t really tell us everything but that is just part of the proof that we do not know much about the wars we fight. Even soldiers on the ground don’t know too much.

      1. Drake,

        I have no idea what you are attempting to say.

        History is a matter of study, of which first person testimony is one source of data — and not the most reliable. The rest of your comment appears to be hand-waving as rebuttal. Whatever.

    2. FM,

      I am merely saying that it seem to be that entering into a war is something a democratic government such as ours doesn’t seem to offer transparency or full disclosure as to the reasons to enter that war or what is known about a positive outcome. This is clear now, as your post describes, it has been exposed in wars of the recent past (20th Century) and it probably universal throughout our nation’s history.

      Moreover it might just be a principle of nations at war that the public is fed whatever necessary to keep them in line with the government’s aims. The truth about who, what, when (how long) and why to fight is not something that the American people get from our government.

      My opinion is simply that since it has been a historical trend, even a principle doctrine that we should not assume that we will ever get this type of disclosure in the future.

      I don’t necessarily have a rebuttal to your well theme posting, just an observation about the collective arrangement between those in the US government who wage war and those of us in the streets.

      Since we no longer have a draft, perhaps the professionals in our armed forces don’t think we need such details and undeniable facts in order to burn our military dollars and spill our service members blood.

  2. FM asserts: “I don’t know what you consider adequate (we don’t live in Heaven), but the situations in 1812, the Civil War, WW1, and WW2 were well understood by the US public.”

    Sorry, but this is ludicrous and utterly contradicted by the available evidence. The evidence clearly shows that [1] the Civil War was sold by the North to its population and by the South to its population as a quick trivial skirmish that would be over in 6 months; the South proclaimed its attack against Fort Sumter as a Union attack against Confederate forces. And the South billed its war effort as a short march to inevitable victory, despite the fact that the South had not a single ironworks factory at the time, and all the industrial capacity of America lay above the Mason-Dixon line. The South also claimed that it was fighting for “state’s rights,” a transparent lie — the South was fighting for the economic interests of a tiny minority of slaveholders. In 1860 most of the millionaires in America lived in the deep south; they were plantation owners. [2] WWI was sold to the U.S. public as ‘the war to end all wars’ (that worked out well, didn’t it?), and anti-German hysteria was ginned up by Woodrow Wilson’s administration to the point where schnausers were kicked to death on the streets, performances of Beethoven were temporarily banned, and a set of extreme laws were passed as consequence of which people were stripped of their American citizenship and sentenced to prison merely for making speeches against America’s entry into WW I. [3] FDR ran in 1940 on the explicit promise that he would keep America out of WW II; meanwhile, he was bily engaged in chicanery like the Lend-Lease Program to Britain.

    The sheer amount of propaganda and lies attendant upon America’s entry into WW I and WW II is startling. Billboards portrayed Germans as huns and monsters, and leaflets were widely distributed accusing German troops of raping and murdering Belgian nuns and infants, quite similar to the propaganda employed in 1990 when a nurse lied about witnessing Iraqi troops removing infants from incubators in the ICU. During WW II, Japanese were portrayed as sadistic monsters eager to cannibalized small chlidren and rape women — you can see this is cartoon like the Max Fleischer Superman cartoon “The Japoteurs.” (The cartoon has been pulled from DVD collections but can be viewed on YouTube.) American citizens of Japanese descent were portrayed as sadistic sneak saboteurs, whereas in actual fact there is not one single documented case of any American citizen of Japanese heritage engaging in a single act of sabotage against America. This propaganda was used to forcibly relocate hundreds of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent, and then steal their property, including their houses and their businesses in much the manner in which the SS stole the houses and property of Jews in Germany from the 1930s onward.

    1. Excellent post Tomas!!

      While FM still considers that there is a massive volume of facts available regarding the starting reasons for wars, that is absolutely hindsight. At the time of the war’s start, the American public is first whipped into a propaganda driven froth and then fed a triggering cause. It is seen EVERY TIME WE FIGHT! Stop denying the truth FM. To engage in war, it is never about strategy or righteousness. It is about defending our ‘way of life against an atrocious enemy.’ We do not engage in war like a chess match. We seek to slay the infidel…hmm sounds a bit like the driving motivation behind the Islamic message to its own people. Am I going to far? Am I spewing sacrilege?

      Human beings are the same the world over. They seek security and cultural assimilation. Sure we Americans benefit from damn good security comparatively and a cultural diversity which seems to struggle with sanity in pockets (Ferguson?), but seems to be pretty great considering the alternatives.

      The difference in the US is that we have a lot to lose and that makes us susceptible to fear mongering by our government. They always have more reasons to go to war. They always have significant resources devoted to ‘selling the war’ and ‘misinformation’.

      Let’s call it what it is – a game something like chess…

      1. Drake,

        I reply to quotes to avoid what you are doing here — making stuff up and giving rebuttals to it. Win!

        It is the most common form of “discussion” in comments — it’s the primary comment form of climate activists — and is quite the waste of time.

      2. Drake,

        One example:

        “At the time of the war’s start, the American public is first whipped into a propaganda driven froth and then fed a triggering cause. It is seen EVERY TIME WE FIGHT!”

        I said exactly that, and — unlike you — gave specific examples.

    2. I have been a reader of your site for several years. I find the ‘comments engagement’ part of your moderator ethic very diligent work indeed. However you suffer from “cherry picking” and “ducking” people like me and Tomas. It is your site though so when you say I win I have to feel good about it.

      The win is really nothing but using thoughtful debate to engage the members of the board. I think you place too much emphasis on “quotes” which are really just other people putting their version of facts and opinions into some publication. Which for arguments sake means nothing at all.

      Basically you have just said that only if it is a quote, which you can discredit as easily and my keyboard, it is worthy of your rebuttal otherwise forget it. That is lame as hell. I look to you as an intelligent person with access and will to research these topics, but you fail utterly as a discussion member on your own board when someone poses a differing opinion. If you take the elite position then educate me. I find your position on this particular topic amateurish and short-sighted.

      It is clear that that the start of wars in this country have always been shrouded in ulterior motives, misinformation and tailored ‘facts’ to keep the current regime from having to deal with a major loss of public confidence. It usually works, especially at the onset of war. However it tends to waver and dwindle in the longer term (Civil War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan). It is pretty hard to refute these claims regardless of “quotes”.

      I find it hard to believe you refute my synopsis of how America’s wars are sold to the citizens of the time because I have no suitable reference, but you provide nothing in return.

      I do understand that you need to draw the line somewhere as to when and why you will engage since there are so many mouths to shut in your opinion. This site would benefit from you backing off and letting others engage themselves…why squash anyone who reads your work and bothers to even fill out the fields below to post a comment?

    3. Some quotes regarding war entry:

      Juicy accounts regarding the US governments shenanigans during the Cold War

      A quick history of misinformation at the starting of US wars:

      This is about 10 minutes on Google. 229M hits for “false reasons for US wars”

  3. What are the legit and illegitimate reasons for war (according to current US views) ? Are the reasons hidden from the public because our public morals are inconsistent with practical politics? (Love that sausage, but don’t want the animal cruelty videos over breakfast.) Are they hidden because of self serving decisions by public officials? Is war profiteering a major driving force, or a incidental ? Congress has given over it’s war-making power to the president – what’s with that?

    Hey, a voter wants to know.

    1. Hans,

      “Are the reasons hidden from the public because our public morals are inconsistent with practical politics? ”

      What is the evidence supporting this statement? We have massive documentary evidence for past wars. up to and including Vietnam — no secret reasons.

      What we do see is that the government’s reasons are considered insufficient for the public, hence the invention of a casus belli. The sinking of the USS Maine, the Tonkin Gulf incident, Saddam’s nukes & alliance with al Qaeda, and the fictitious deep role of Afghanistan on 9-11.

      “Congress has given over it’s war-making power to the president”

      See the life of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, the great impostor. People don’t want responsibility, and are often happy to pass it off to others. So long as we let them.

  4. A possible indicator of the long term effects of our foreign policy failures is a full page ad in the August 18, 2014 Forbes magazine inviting young people to “Discover your path to leadership” at the United States Military Academy. I don’t remember ever seeing an ad for West Point.

  5. Advertising for West Point seems especially weird because (unless I’m mistaken) you need to get a congressman to send a letter of recommendation in order to get into West Point. Your average son of a gas station attendant need not apply.

    Hans asked: What are the legit and illegitimate reasons for war (according to current US views) ?

    Brigadier General Smedley Butler asserted in his speech “War Is A Racket” that the only legitimate justification for America to go to war, in his judgment, was if the continental United States were attacked by a foreign power. (He was writing in the 1930s, back before Hawai’i or Alaska became states.)

  6. “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

    On this, I swear I’m getting ‘Vietnam Flashbacks’ on Obama pushing out Maliki This is all from memory, but how I recall it, is that Kennedy pushed out (killed, bang, bang dead) Diem because he was corrupt some claimed — but does corruption made you ineligible to be a US client head of state? Like come on. It was really the same thing exactly, a clumsy America-centric view of religious divisions in Vietnam. Applying American political sensibilities to a country with a very different history. Diem was Catholic and Kennedy thought he could shuffle things around to make the Buddhists happy. What really happened was every single leader after Diem and no legitimacy — because ultimately they were blatantly, on the surface pawns of the USA, and the USA was bombing and killing people.

    I suspect it plays out the same. By this first, intial thing we’ve done, we’ve doomed the entire ‘Iraq war 3’ to certain failure. That any leader won’t be able to unite the country, because he came in via Washington, and we’re the people who want to kill Arabs — who wants to be part of that? I mean I understand, when we talk to Arabs directly we deny this, but if you watch the news here, listen to the talk radio — you’ll get the idea. More to the point, what Arab guy is going to put his life on the line for this? I don’t see how this turns out well for the USA.

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