Father's Day, 2014. I'm with my father in Portland, Oregon, and we just left Powell's Books, the largest used book store on the planet. Somewhat amazingly, we didn't buy anything. Though tempted, my father didn't buy Jared Diamond's recent book (Diamond's first big hit Guns, Germs, and Steel is likely his favorite book of all time; he's mentioned it probably every time I've visited him in recent years); and as for me, I didn't find Jabès Book of Questions or either of the other two books I was looking for. I'm disappointed, yes, but still--You gotta love Powell's.
We step through the drizzle to a Starbuck's across the street. My father sees the crowd inside and suggests we grab one of the outside tables under an awning.
"You want anything?" I ask. "Something without dairy? A soy milk cappuccino?"
"OK, whatever. But I need it sweet."
I go in to order our drinks. At the counter I see a sign: We now serve coconut milk.
"Is that coconut milk with coffee?" I ask.
"Yes. You can have it instead of milk."
"Is it good?"
"It doesn't foam as well as milk, but yeah, I think it's pretty good."
"Alright. One coconut milk single cappuccino and one coconut milk double cappuccino."
On my way out with the drinks, I see the Wall Street Journal by the door with headlines indicating that a major Shiite cleric has called on men to take up arms to defend Iraq's Shia community against the the ISIS insurgents now moving southward.
"You know what pisses me off?" I say to my father, putting down the drinks.
"Portland kids who work at Starbucks?"
"This ongoing fucking mess in Iraq, which has been completely predictable from the start. It pisses me off to no end."
"You mean the uprising they're having now?"
"No, I mean the whole thing from the beginning. We should've left Iraq alone and focused on Afghanistan. This has been the most shameful fiasco in our history. It makes the Vietnam War look like a stroke of genius."
"Yeah. It seems even worse over there now than it was under Saddam. They're all killing each other."
"What's infuriating is that it was all foreseeable. Even before we invaded it was clear toppling Saddam wouldn't result in a stable democracy. Even I--and I'm not by any means an expert on the Muslim world--even I could see it'd only bring chaos. The people that knew the territory, the experts on the region I mean, already in 2002 they were pretty much describing the exact conflict that's now raging. At the time of 9/11, al Qaeda wasn't in Iraq. Now, thanks to our invasion and post-invasion policy, they're all over the place."
"It was mismanaged, and the whole thing wasn't about al Qaeda anyway," my father says. "It was all just for oil. Even Greenspan, a lifelong Republican heavyweight, came out and admitted it."
"And did we get our oil? No. We got fucking nothing. We took out Saddam and the inevitable civil war broke out. On our penny."
"We've spent a trillion dollars there," he says. "Probably mostly wasted."
"Absolutely wasted. Iraq is divided between three ethnic groups that hate each other: the Shia in the south, the largest by population; the Sunni in the middle; and the Kurds in the north. They hate each other. Probably the only thing they have in common, except for maybe the Kurds, is that they hate us even more than they hate each other. Fertile ground for Western-style democracy, hey? And for us to be the ones who try to set it up. It's a pipe dream."
"And Syria's right next to Iraq, and there's war there too now. Is that also Sunni versus Shia?"
"So it's the same mess in two neighboring countries. Why don't these people ever stop killing each other?"
"Well, Christians have a long history of sectarian wars too. Look at Europe after the Reformation. It was brutal. And it continued until recent times. The Muslim world just still happens to be of a mindset that the West has more or less grown out of."
"So you don't think it's because Muslims are more warlike than Christians?"
"I think there's definitely something to that claim, sure. The Koran is full of calls to take up arms for Islam. If one group of Muslims sees a different group of Muslims corrupting what they see as the truth, they must take up arms to defend 'true Islam' from the corrupting influence of heretics. Thus the Sunni have little patience for Shia, and vice-versa."
"And you think Iraq avoided civil war in the past only because of Saddam's iron fist keeping the conflict down, is that what you're saying?"
"Saddam was a brutal dictator whose regime committed horrible atrocities. Don't get me wrong, as if I'm saying anything good about Saddam. What I am saying is that it was naive of our leaders to assume Iraq would stay in one piece after he was gone. That you could go and just have elections and everything would work out. It was nonsense. The line the Bush administration was pushing--Everybody wants freedom; we'll be welcomed with open arms; it'll be a cakewalk--it was all utter bullshit. Everybody wants freedom? Yeah, right. The Shia want freedom to get revenge for being crushed for decades under Saddam's Sunni thugs. The Sunni, for their part, want freedom to ensure the Shia never get the upper hand in government. Because they know they Shia will get revenge. So, sure, everybody wants freedom there, no shit, and for just that reason, Mr. Rumsfeld, it will NOT be a cakewalk."
"And lo and behold, as soon as Saddam was out, a low intensity civil war began, day fucking one. And once the American troops were out, the civil war could quickly shift into a more high-intensity mode, which again is just what has happened. And what pisses me off is that all this was obvious before we even went in. It was clear as day that we were only kicking a hornets' nest."
"We should have probably sent in a larger invading force," he says, turning back.
"I think it wouldn't have made much difference. Iraq's a powder keg, and it isn't our responsibility to keep a lid on it. Look what it has cost us. Let the Iraqis manage their own differences."
"By killing each other."
"Look, in a very real sense there's no such thing as Iraqis anyway. It's a fake country. The borders were set up by the British in the 1920s, and they intentionally kept these ethnic groups together under one government. It's an old imperialist trick. It's easier to control a state made up populations that don't get along. They're less likely to come together and organize resistance that way. Iraq has been a fake country from the start, designed to fall into civil war if the government were ever overthrown."
"That's pretty well put--the fake country part. You should write it down. A lot of people don't know anything about it."
"Pssh! People have been writing it down since before we even went in, better writers than me, but what difference did it make? Nobody pays attention to intelleckchuls when America wants to go to war. No, it's all anger about 9/11, Colin Powell, Dick Fucking Cheney--that's what people will listen to. After the Twin Towers went down, we Americans--who have enormous resources for understanding the world but really hardly know shit about it--we just got this idea into our heads that we had to go kill us some Muslims. And voila, there was Bush and Co., more than willing to point to Iraq. It had what Cheney called 'worthwhile targets'."
"And Dubya and his inner circle didn't know anything about Iraq and didn't try to learn anything either. When the State Department presented them with 4,000 pages of detailed contingency plans should the US decide to go in, plans written by the people in our government who had expertise on the region and the cultures involved--what did the Bush team do? They refused even to read the plans! Nope. Everything's gonna be alright. Shock and awe 'n all. We're goin' in. It's all documented. They refused even to look at them. They'd somehow gotten it into their heads that once Saddam was taken out, Disney World would forthwith erupt in the Middle East. It was absurd. I'm thinking Paul Wolfowitz deserves blame for a lot of it. In any case, we were drawn into a war that lasted a decade, got 4,400 Americans killed, cost us a trillion of dollars, and offered us nothing in return. It's criminal ineptitude at the highest level of government. And now the Fox crowd is trying to blame Obama that Iraq is still in chaos! Which is ridiculous for the simple reason that there is no fucking way Iraq wouldn't be in chaos. Because the so-called country Iraq is basically a recipe for chaos. Add three parts Shia, two parts Sunni, one part Kurd. Stir in massive oil revenue. Bring to simmer, then remove lid. Watch mixture explode in your face."
My father is laughing.
"But the current civil war only started because Obama withdrew our troops too soon, no?" he says. He's trying to provoke me.
"Withdrew them too soon? That's a funny one. This Iraq mess has already gone on longer than World War II! Think about it. And what can be done given the facts on the ground? Leave our troops there forever? The shit is going to hit the fan sooner or later, and the longer we stay there, every American life lost is another life wasted just kicking the can down the road. I'd say we should do our best from the outside. Dubya decided to take out Saddam, now we're stuck in the middle--between brutal Sunni militias on the one hand and Iran-backed Shia on the other. And when I said earlier I was pissed, and though I've gone on for half an hour about it, the truth is I haven't even gotten to the thing that pisses me off the most."
"It's this ISIS uprising, and how it reveals what hypocrites our leaders are when it comes to dealing with al Qaeda. ISIS is basically another flavor of al Qaeda, the group basically morphed out of a Qaeda in Iraq, the Syrian opposition and other linked groups. And what pisses me off is that John McCain, erstwhile American war hero become loudmouth ass-clown, last year made a surprise visit to Syria to meet with some of the fighters in that Syrian opposition, because, you know, we also don't like the Syrian government."
"And McCain's argument, critical of Obama policy, was that we should be arming and funding these Syrian 'freedom fighters'. My own attitude was that we should stay out of it, but McCain, you know, never tires of trying to push us into new military conflicts. The man never saw a war he didn't like. I shudder to think what would have happened had he become president."
"I voted for him," my father says.
"Well, then maybe you'd have liked what you got. In his first term he opens three new US fronts in Arab countries, then the pressures of office and the chorus of boos from Americans who think we've messed around enough in the Middle East starts to get to him, he suffers a heart attack, and Palin is the new American president. Your son, the day after she's inaugurated, fulfills a barroom promise and burns his passport."
"Hah hah. Anyhow, even if that moron Palin did become president, she'd just be a puppet of the people really calling the shots."
"To some degree yes, but the fact is that the president gets to choose who he or she listens to. Look at Bush. And I'd hate to see Palin's lineup of policy advisors. A few Duck Dynasty faces, Rush, her Wasilla high school math teacher as Federal Reserve Chairman. . . ."
"You think McCain's an idiot because he doesn't know how to use the Internet."
"Absolutely not. I think he's an idiot because some of that same bunch of fighters he posed with just last year, that Syrian opposition, is now part of ISIS. In other words, your party's candidate for president was basically suggesting we arm al Qaeda. It's despicable. Back in the Reagan years we had the excuse that we didn't quite know what the Taliban were capable of. In those days bin Laden was helping us fight the Soviets. But now we've got no excuse. We know very well who these people are and what their long-term goals are. But here's your party's main man smiling and shaking hands and saying we should actually start to arm them again!"
"What do they say about the enemy of your enemy being your friend? Sometimes politics is like that."
"Sure. But I think there's a limit. And in the Muslim world we frequently cross that limit. And we get burned in the end. And in any case the people with power to make policy should at least know something about what they're advocating for. Bush obviously didn't. McCain has the same kind of cowboy recklessness. There's plenty I don't like about the Obama administration, a helluva lot, but at least his people aren't full-out psychos."
"Let's get out of here," my father says. "It's getting cold. And enough politics. Talking about stocks is more interesting."
I make a yawning gesture.
"You know politics, I know investment. Politics don't interest me. From now on we talk PE, shorting, bonds. I'll explain shorting to you again."
"How was the cappuccino?"
"Nothing special. Should have been sweeter."
"Alright, let's hit the road."