The interview was conducted July 12 in Gates’s office at the Pentagon, several weeks before he announced a sweeping series of cuts to key programs, including the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Excerpts:
Fred Kaplan: You may remember the last time I was here, which was late in 2007. You had one of these countdown meters. And I asked you at the time — I said, you know, there are some people on the Hill who would like you to stay for whatever the next term is. And this line of yours has been quoted a fair amount. You said, “Well, I never say never, but the circumstances under which that would happen are inconceivable to me.” “Inconceivable” is a pretty absolute word. So what happened? Why are you … here? Why did you stay?
Robert Gates: Once there started being speculation around that time that I might be asked to stay no matter who was elected, I confess that I started what ended up being eight- or nine-months-long covert action. And it was to try and build a wall of clarity that I did not want to stay high enough that nobody would ever ask me.
FK: (Laughs.) Well, “inconceivable” goes quite a ways up there.
RG: And I, you know, I was very consistent for a long period there in saying that, because I really didn’t want to be asked, knowing that if I were asked, I would say, “Yes.” For the same reason I never hesitated — you know, I wrestled with the [director of national intelligence] job a couple of weeks back in January of 2005. The instant [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley called me about taking this job, I said, “Yes.” I just — in the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, “No.”
And I felt the same way going into 2008 — that if somebody asked, I worried a lot about the baton getting dropped in the changeover between administrations. And so I knew if the president, whoever was elected president, asked me to stay that I would say, “Yes.” Now, you know, the timing was always sort of vague in my mind: six months, a year, just to provide a smooth transition and so on — [it] ended up being longer than that.
FK: So what would you hope would be your legacy of all this? I mean, are people looking back at the Gates era or whatever —
RG: Well, as a historian, I’m generally inclined to let the historians think about that. Or writers.
FK: Wait, you just contradicted yourself. If you are a historian, I mean, that makes you perfectly capable of commenting.
RG: (Laughs.) Yeah, but at some distance. You remember the old line [Chinese leader Zhou Enlai gave] when asked about the French Revolution?
FK: Too soon.
RG: Well, first of all, I never forget that the primary task that I was given when I took this job was to put Iraq in a better place. And the nation has been engaged in two wars every single day I have been secretary. So the outcome of those two wars I think will be huge elements people look at. And by the way, if I stay just until January —
FK: January of what?
FK: Mm, hmm.
RG: Nice try. (Laughs.) If I stay until January of 2011, I will have been in this job — I’m the 22nd secretary of defense, and I’ll have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors. And those four are Robert McNamara, Don Rumsfeld, Cap Weinberger, and Charles E. Wilson. (Laughter.)
I think the toughest thing in public life is knowing when to dance off the stage. And to leave when people say, “I wish you weren’t leaving so soon,” instead of “How the hell do we get that guy out of there?” And the other aspect of this is, like I said, two separate wars for every day I’ve been on the job is very wearing. And there’s a certain point at which you just run out of energy.
[Then there’s] this rebalancing and all these initiatives with respect to the budget, trying to get rid of programs that don’t measure up, aren’t needed, or at least cap them in terms of the numbers. And I suppose a third would be — and I certainly didn’t intend this when I came here — a rigorous reinforcement of the principle of accountability. It’s a very, very rare thing for a senior person to be fired in this town, and I’ve done a bunch.
In the dying months of the Bush administration, a weary Robert Gates took to surreptitiously carrying around a clock. Given by a sympathetic friend, it displayed the days remaining until Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, when he would be relieved of his duties as secretary of defense. Gates’s family has been thought to eagerly await the day the veteran of six presidential administrations could finally step down. The secretary himself scoffed at speculation he might stay on.
The surprise, of course, is not that Gates is leaving, but that he stayed so long. With unfinished wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, he simply couldn’t bring himself to turn down the request he always feared was coming from President Barack Obama. “In the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, ‘No.’ ”
Even then, he initially expected to stay only a year. But he has since become an indispensable member of the administration, pressing reforms to the Pentagon budget and implementing Obama’s Afghanistan plan of trebling troop numbers to 100,000 with a view to commencing a drawdown next summer. Yesterday, General David Petraeus, commander of the joint U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan, stressed that stabilization would be gradual and refused to rule out requesting a delay in the withdrawal date.
As an expected reshuffle of administration personnel occurs after November’s midterms, Gates may well find 2011 is the best time to depart. Yet as the servant of a president potentially forced to fine-tune his Afghanistan strategy, he may just as easily find himself facing fresh calls to stick around. Of course, this is a man who obviously has changed his retirement plans before.
Set your countdown clocks to 2011, when Robert Gates, Defense Secretary to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, plans to step down. “It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012,” he tells Foreign Policy, in an exclusive interview. “This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year.”
[UPDATE: Fred Kaplan, the author of the Foreign Policy article, emails to point out that Gates may be bluffing. Indeed Gates has done it before. Writes Kaplan:
Gates did not tell me that he is leaving in 2011. He said that he’d like to leave, and thinks he should leave, in 2011. However, I begin the piece by noting that, in my last interview with Gates, at the end of 2007, I asked him if he’d consider staying on in the next administration. He replied, at the time, that the circumstances under which he’d do that were “inconceivable.” So when I interviewed him for FP last month, I asked him what changed. He confessed that he’d been engaging in a “covert action.” He was telling everybody that he really wanted to go, in hopes that this would discourage the next president from asking him to stay – but all along he knew that if the next president did ask him to stay, he would.
Considering that the 2012 election season is set to begin at the end of 2010, this may suggest an early 2011 exit for Gates. Gates departure may be felt less on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where there are many cooks in the kitchen, than in his personal crusade to bring some level of rationality to the defense budget. It’s an uphill slog that now depends significantly on Gates own credibility and star power. Fareed Zakaria asks today, “Can anyone seriously question Gates’s ideas on the merits?” Probably not. But with Gates gone, it will be that much easier for the approriators and the lobbyists to gain, once again, the upper hand.
In the coming months, lots of people will be cranking up their computers and burning up the airwaves with commentary on the just-announced departure of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sometime in 2011.
Evaluating his legacy as SECDEF when he ultimately leaves next year will be important for the historical record, but the challenges his yet-to-be-named successor will face are more important.
For instance, there’s little doubt that the war in Afghanistan will still be a major focus in 2011 — not to mention the challenge of managing the White House’s mandated drawdown next summer. Don’t forget about Pakistan. Plus, with lots of American trainers likely still in Iraq next year, attention will need to be given to that region as well.
And there’s Iran, which will either be a nuclear-weapons state or darn close to being one by the time Gates leaves the E-Ring for the last time. Unfortunately, the current policy approach just isn’t making headway. The new secretary is going to face the less-than-amusing task of handling Tehran’s atomic ayatollahs.
Secretary Gates has the unenviable task of presiding over the latest “hollowing-out of the military,” as Jimmy Carter’s Army chief of staff Edward C. “Shy” Meyer once described it. Even before the announcement by Gates, the Bush-appointed Republican technocrat kept on by President Obama, of his intention to cut $100 billion from the defense budget over the next five years, the secretary had already eliminated what were arguably each of the armed services’ highest-priority programs: the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the Navy’s DDG-1000, the Army’s Future Combat System, and the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
What do these have in common, besides their being crucial to the modernization of the sponsoring service? They are all indispensable to the projection of power by the United States. Secretary Gates has made it fairly clear that that’s not his priority; he wants to retool the military to fight today’s counterinsurgency operations and not much more. If history is any guide, the result is going to be a vacuum of power that will be filled by America’s enemies and one-time allies — to our extreme detriment.
Even so, Gates has let it become known that he would like to cut even further. He’s been bad-mouthing the Navy’s aircraft carriers, even though he told Kaplan he wasn’t crazy enough to attack them frontally. On the other hand, he seems to be signaling that he is crazy enough to think we no longer need an amphibious warfare capability or even the U.S. Marines Corps.
I first saw this reported by Ben Smith for Politico.com and was a bit surprised. Robert Gates is the current Secretary of Defense for the Obama Administration, and had been for George W. Bush as well. This could be a crucial decision made by Gates as much of the attention in Obama’s presidency is now focused on the two wars started by the Bush Administration, but expected to be finished by Obama.
Robert Gates, pillar of Obama’s national security policy, tells Fred Kaplan he’ll leave some time next year, ensuring that the decision about replacing him is shadowed by Obama’s re-election campaign.
There’s no obvious replacement for Gates, certainly none with the same capacity to silence Republican attacks on the administration’s security policy. The most politically logical replacement may be HIllary Clinton.
Ben Smith is right. This could be yet another thing brought to the table by Republicans to admonish Obama and his handling of National Security issues, especially if a Democrat is appointed to take Gates’ place. Appointing Hillary Clinton, as Smith suggested, seems to me to be more of a tumultuous effort. This would involve having to find someone else to head State Department. Two crucial changes in two of the arguably most important cabinet positions could be costly politically and as far as his policies are concerned as well.
Robert Gates’s position as Secretary of Defense is about the only thing the Republicans haven’t extensively chastised Obama for in his first two years in the Oval Office. The RNC is certainly looking at this news and salivating.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made reducing and redirecting the Pentagon’s huge budget a priority.
On Monday, he pushed forward his initiative on that front. Included among the ideas he laid out is a recommendation to eliminate one of the military’s nine commands, the Joint Forces Command which is called Jiffycom by some. That command employs employs about 5,000 people, both uniformed military and private sector.
As NPR’s Tom Bowman reported for the network’s radio newscast.
TOM: What Gates wants to cut is called the Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va., that employs 3,000 private contractors.
The command was created a decade ago to get the military services to work more closely together, but Gates says that’s now largely been achieved.
Gates also wants to reduce the Pentagon’s dependency on those outside contractors.
GATES: To accelerate this process and achieve additional savings, I have directed that we reduce funding for service supported contractors by 10 percent per year for each of the next three years.
Gates told reporters that 200 Pentagon contractors work full-time just writing reports ordered by Congress.
Any money saved in these cutbacks, says Gates, will be used to help modernize the military.
The American Forces Press Service has a fairly comprehensive report on the briefing Gates gave reporters Monday. It contained this background on why the cuts are needed:
Money saved with these efficiencies will go back into funding needed military capabilities. “To be clear, the task before us is not to reduce the department’s top-line budget,” Gates said. “Rather, it is to significantly reduce its excess overhead costs and apply the savings to force structure and modernization.”
President Barack Obama has programmed in real growth of between 1 and 2 percent into future years’ defense budgets, but that is not enough to maintain today’s warfighting capabilities and modernize, which requires roughly 2 to 3 percent real growth. The savings in overhead are crucial to making up that difference, Gates said.
Gates continues to target political sacred cows for extinction, both weapons programs and bases that are so spread out across the county as to impact many congressional districts. He realizes he doesn’t have the political wind at his back on this one, just the opposite.
Winners: Troops in uniform, ship programs, weapons systems that are needed to fight current and future wars. Losers: Bloated defense and intelligence agencies, redundant bureaucracies, four-star generals and admirals guilty of “brass creep,” report writers, white-collar contractors.
That pretty much sums up the casualty report from the efficiency-campaign bombshells dropped today by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He is looking for $100 billion in savings from cuts in overhead costs over the next five years.
The Pentagon needs the savings to “sustain a military at war and prepare for future threats,” Gates said. There are no plans yet to cut the defense budget top line, but these measures are necessary for the Defense Department to preserve its current force structure and fund modernization programs within the flat budgets projected for the foreseeable future, he said.
“I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies — military and civilian alike — have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown over reliant on contractors, and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost,” Gates said at a news conference. His office alone has added 1,000 employees during the past decade, with little evidence that the expansion has added any real value, Gates said.
The bureaucratic ballooning and the excessive hiring of white-collar contractors must end, said Gates.
In Washington, you know a decision is controversial when the pushback comes before the announcement. Such is the case with Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s Monday bombshell that he wants to close Joint Forces Command.
The AP broke the news this morning that Gates would announce at a press conference his idea to shutter JFCOM’s gigantic base in southern Virginia as part of his drive to cut $100 billion from the Pentagon budget. He also announced a 10 percent cutback in the Defense Department’s use of contractors each year for the next three years and pledged to cut the size of his own staff and that of the larger Pentagon bureaucracy.
“The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint,” Gates said. “This agenda is not about butting the department’s budget. It’s about reforming and reshaping priorities to ensure that in tough budgetary and economic times, we can focus defense resources where they belong.”
But even before Gates spoke, a team of Virginia lawmakers sent out an advisory that they will hold “an urgent press conference” on the announcement Monday at 4 p.m. at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, near where the base is located. Reps. Glenn Nye, J. Randy Forces, Bobby Scott, and Rob Wittman were all scheduled to speak.
“The proposal by the Defense Department to close JFCOM is short-sighted and without merit,” Nye said following Gates’s announcement. “I appreciate the department’s attempt to rein in spending, but I have yet to see any substantive analysis to support the assertion that closing JFCOM will yield large savings.”
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner released a statement Monday protesting the announcement before it was made.
“I can see no rational basis for dismantling JFCOM since its sole mission is to look for efficiencies and greater cost-savings by forcing more cooperation among sometimes competing military services,” Warner said. “In the business world, you sometimes have to spend money in order to save money.”
Gates said he would work with JFCOM employees to ease their transition as the base closes and speculated that Virginia could benefit if the savings are reinvested in other local military efforts, such as shipbuilding.
I have to say, I admire Gates for taking the hardline on this budget, whether it’s pulling back on Navy war machines or getting the President to back a veto on an extra jet engine. Today’s announcement shows he’s serious about backing off the hose of spending attributed to the Department of Defense, an act that is doubly hard as we’re finishing up one conflict and continuing on with another. Besides which, the first place you’d look at to offset the deficit would be the defense budget, and this is the administration taking a proactive stance towards that budget.
Still, this will make some people pretty unhappy. JFCOM is tasked with co-ordinating the various branches of the military in training, future mission development, and organizational structure, and while those roles can be folded into other entities, it will take some time to transition. Furthermore, reducing contractor support by 10% annually for the next four years is no small potato either. But if anyone can push this through, it’s Gates.
Defense and security take up approximately a fifth of the federal budget. Twenty cents out of every dollar that you send to the government goes towards that slice of the pie. The nominal cost is somewhere north of $700bn per year. With the large budget deficits in our future, defense deserves a large amount of scrutiny.
Gates and the White House seem to realize this. Congress, however, doesn’t seem to share the appetite for budget cuts. This has led to some fierce battles over specific programs. The problem is that there are defense industries in every state and congressional district in the country. No congressman wants to give up the jobs that come with, for example, a second engine for the F-35, even if the Pentagon doesn’t even want it.
Congress will likely fight these budget cuts tooth-and-nail, but if we’re going to get deficits under control, the DoD can NOT be exempted from the pain. Off the top of my head, other programs that probably should fear the budget axe include the Marines’ V-22 Osprey and F-35B (with STOVL capability), the navy in general, and contractors.
Paul Krugman’s column today focused on the pain being felt in communities as essential services are cut back. His column talked mostly about the tax cuts that are set to expire this year. But don’t we need more and better teachers more than a special version of the F-35 that the Marine Corps admits it doesn’t really need? Wouldn’t we rather invest in our crumbling infrastructure than build another aircraft carrier when we already have an order of magnitude more carrier battle groups than any other nation? We spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. We can still have a conventional military that dwarfs any other nation, while making tough choices to weed out bad or only marginally useful programs. Our communities could really use the money.
I honestly don’t know whether the Pentagon’s decision yesterday to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) is wise or ill-advised. That’s a programmatic and bureaucratic decision that, candidly, I lack the expertise right now to make.
But what I do know is this: In the absence of budgetary pressure from the White House, the Pentagon most likely would not be seeking now to close down JFCOM while reducing its spending by some $100 billion over the next five years.
I also know that since Obama was elected president, the only government agency asked to make significant budget cuts has been the Department of Defense; and this is wrong. It is wrong because it is unfair, unreasonable and dangerous.
It is unfair because the U.S. military is really the only governmental entity that is being forced to scale back. Domestic social-welfare spending, by contrast, has skyrocketed. Yet where’s the hue and cry? It doesn’t exist.
But you can be sure that if it were the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency that were being forced to make cuts, the bureaucracies there would be vociferously protesting — and ditto their allied outside liberal lobby groups.
The U.S. military, of course, can’t protest and it doesn’t protest. This because of the principle of civilian control of the military. Military officials instead simply salute and say, “Yes, Sir.”
Meanwhile, the defense contractors and parochial elected officials make ill-conceived and unpersuasive appeals based on “jobs” and pork-barrel spending.
I say ill-conceived because defense spending should be explained and justified as a matter of military necessity, not as a “jobs program” for congressional constituents. And I say unpersuasive because everyone knows that these pork-barrel spending appeals are politically self-serving and economically dubious.
To be sure, there is an economic case to be made for defense spending. I’ve made that case myself here at FrumForum, and it is this: Just as defense spending helped to lift America out of a prolonged depression in the 1930s, so too, can defense spending help to lift America out of its current economic malaise.
But defense spending can be economically beneficial only if it plays to the central strength of America’s economy in the 21st Century. And that strength involves our ability to harness computer processing power and other information technologies to create new and unprecedented opportunities for individuals, even individual soldiers.
The politicians, however, don’t get this. Their defense spending schemes aren’t aimed at creating new 21st Century economic opportunities. They’re aimed instead at preserving old and ossified 20th Century “jobs programs.” Their efforts aren’t part and parcel of any overarching national defense strategy; they’re the economically wasteful byproduct of domestic political indulgence. And that is why they ultimately fail, both politically and economically.
In any case, it is extremely unfair to force the Department of Defense alone to bear the burden of Washington’s phony newfound fiscal rectitude.
Gates is canny to play off one set of interests against another (drop the Joint Forces Command, pick up another ship; give up a dozen generals, win a few more of those armored vehicles you’ve been eyeing). Maybe it will work. But by notching up his victories in this manner, he forgoes a path that would have yielded much greater savings.
The big money and the real savings lie precisely in the “force structure” and “force modernization” that Gates is aiming—and genuinely wants—to protect. In the question-and-answer period, he said that about half of the weapons-procurement budget goes for modernization—that is, for building new weapons, most of which have little or nothing to do with the wars we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the current budget ($549 billion, not counting the costs of our two wars) contains $137.5 billion for procurement, that amounts to roughly $70 billion.
Gates wants the Pentagon and the military branches to conduct a “clean-sheet review” and to “start setting priorities, making real tradeoffs, and separating appetites from real requirements” when it comes to things like contractors, headquarters, overhead, and so forth. And that’s all to the good. But he’s not launching any similar campaign when it comes to deployments and weapons systems. (In fairness, last year, he did cut about 20 weapons programs, including the F-22—more than any defense secretary in 40 years. But budget officials estimate that the bag of goodies is still bursting way beyond our ability to pay for them.)
The steps Gates took today have far-reaching implications; I don’t mean to minimize them. But there are other issues and questions that tap more deeply into the foundations of what he himself calls our “cumbersome and top-heavy” military, which has “grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost.”
For instance: How many submarines and aircraft carriers does the Navy really need? And do all those carriers need the same number of aircraft and escort ships? How many fighter planes does the Air Force really need? How many brigades does the Army really need?
Gates’ new reforms are based on two premises: First, that the nation can’t afford unceasing growth in the defense budget; second, that the nation can afford moderate growth in the defense budget, as long as the Pentagon shows good faith by slashing what any objective observer would label “waste.”
The first premise is unassailable, the second probably too optimistic. The fact is, we can’t afford growth in the defense budget, period. To get the cuts he’s after, Gates—as a matter of political realism—has to leave the rest of the budget alone. But at some point, some secretary of defense is going to have to open it all up to scrutiny.
It is possible that at some point in the next 12 months, the imposition of devastating economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran will persuade its leaders to cease their pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is also possible that Iran’s reform-minded Green Movement will somehow replace the mullah-led regime, or at least discover the means to temper the regime’s ideological extremism. It is possible, as well, that “foiling operations” conducted by the intelligence agencies of Israel, the United States, Great Britain, and other Western powers—programs designed to subvert the Iranian nuclear effort through sabotage and, on occasion, the carefully engineered disappearances of nuclear scientists—will have hindered Iran’s progress in some significant way. It is also possible that President Obama, who has said on more than a few occasions that he finds the prospect of a nuclear Iran “unacceptable,” will order a military strike against the country’s main weapons and uranium-enrichment facilities.
But none of these things—least of all the notion that Barack Obama, for whom initiating new wars in the Middle East is not a foreign-policy goal, will soon order the American military into action against Iran—seems, at this moment, terribly likely. What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq’s airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft. (It’s so crowded, in fact, that the United States Central Command, whose area of responsibility is the greater Middle East, has already asked the Pentagon what to do should Israeli aircraft invade its airspace. According to multiple sources, the answer came back: do not shoot them down.)
In these conversations, which will be fraught, the Israelis will tell their American counterparts that they are taking this drastic step because a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. The Israelis will also state that they believe they have a reasonable chance of delaying the Iranian nuclear program for at least three to five years. They will tell their American colleagues that Israel was left with no choice. They will not be asking for permission, because it will be too late to ask for permission.
When the Israelis begin to bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the formerly secret enrichment site at Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and possibly even the Bushehr reactor, along with the other main sites of the Iranian nuclear program, a short while after they depart en masse from their bases across Israel—regardless of whether they succeed in destroying Iran’s centrifuges and warhead and missile plants, or whether they fail miserably to even make a dent in Iran’s nuclear program—they stand a good chance of changing the Middle East forever; of sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.
If a strike does succeed in crippling the Iranian nuclear program, however, Israel, in addition to possibly generating some combination of the various catastrophes outlined above, will have removed from its list of existential worries the immediate specter of nuclear-weaponized, theologically driven, eliminationist anti-Semitism; it may derive for itself the secret thanks (though the public condemnation) of the Middle East’s moderate Arab regimes, all of which fear an Iranian bomb with an intensity that in some instances matches Israel’s; and it will have succeeded in countering, in militant fashion, the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, which is, not irrelevantly, a prime goal of the enthusiastic counter-proliferator who currently occupies the White House.
In an important article titled “The Point of No Return” to be published in The Atlantic tomorrow, national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg recounts something many people didn’t realize at the time and still have a hard time believing. President George W. Bush knocked back Dick Cheney’s wing of the foreign policy establishment – both inside and out of his administration – that wanted to launch a bombing campaign against Iran. In a snippet I had not seen before, Bush mockingly referred to bombing advocates Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys.”
George W. Bush was showing his inner realist not allowing his own trigger-happy Curtis LeMays pile on to the national security messes the US already owned in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But that was several years ago. Today, there is a new US President, more Iranian centrifuges, and a different Israeli Prime Minister – and Bibi Netanyahu seems closer to a Curtis LeMay, John Bolton or Frank Gaffney than he does to the more containment-oriented Eisenhowers and George Kennans who in their day forged a global equilibrium out of superpower rivalry and hatred.
Goldberg, after conducting dozens of interviews with senior members of Israel’s national security establishment as well as many top personalities in the Obama White House, concludes in his must-read piece that the likelihood of Israel unilaterally bombing Iran to curtail a potential nuclear weapon breakout capacity is north of 50-50.
I’m not sure I miss Bush’s penchant for nicknames (mine was “Joe Boy”): it was far too frat boy by a lot. But occasionally the President struck gold, as Jeff Goldberg reports in a new piece previewed by Steve Clemons today: he called Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer “the bomber boys,” after their obsession with going to war with Iran–an obsession Bush eschewed in his more reasonable second term, when he retrieved his foreign policy from the Cheney Cult.
In the end, Bush was completely overmatched by the presidency. His time in office–the tax cuts, the Iraq war, the torture, the slipshod governance, the spending on programs like Medicare prescription drugs without paying for them, the deficits, the failure to foresee the housing bubble–was ruinous for the country. But I’ve got to say that “Bomber Boys” is a keeper. Kristol and Krauthammer are hereby branded for life.
It is more likely that the president and his advisers are more worried about validating the Bush doctrine that a preemptive strike is justified when the threat of a rogue regime getting hold of a weapon of mass destruction is on the table. Everything this administration has done seems to indicate that it sees a potential strike on Iran as more of a threat to the world than the Iranian bomb itself. Since Obama is almost certainly more afraid of another Iraq than he is of a genocidal threat to Israel’s existence, it is difficult to believe that he will take Hitchens’s advice.
I think some people in Washington — and elsewhere — have been letting the Israelis twist in the wind in the hopes that Israel will solve our Iran problems for us, and take the blame. I don’t think these “leaders” will like the outcome, and if I were the Israelis I wouldn’t be trying too hard to make it pleasant. Irresponsibility can be expensive.
Goldberg notes that with success, the Israelis will buy time (probably putting the Iranian program back 3-5 years), earn the secret thanks of most of the moderate Arab regimes in the Middle East, and will have stopped potential proliferation to terrorist groups in its tracks.
Is that worth initiating a strike that could lead to World War III?
What will the Russians do if the Israeli’s hit Bushehr? It is likely they will kill Russian technicians in such a strike since they are building the facility under contract with Tehran. Will Vladmir Putin take the death of Russian scientists and technicians lying down? What if he retaliates against Israel? What would be the American response to that?
Unleashing Hezb’allah against the western world, stirring up trouble in Iraq by ordering the Shia militias into the streets, not to mention a missile campaign against Israel that could kill thousands (at which point Israel may decide that to save its people, it must expand its own bombing campaign, escalating the conflict to the next level) – this alone could ratchet up tensions causing the world to start choosing up sides.
And no America with the will or the self-confidence to step in and assist the world in standing down.
Obama’s foreign policy is not anti-American, unpatriotic, or designed to favor Muslims. It’s just weak. The president has made the conscious decision that the US is too powerful and needs to defer to supra-national organizations like the UN, or regional line ups like NATO or the Arab League when conflict is threatened. “First among equals” is not rhetoric to Obama. He means it. He has been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that most of the world’s troubles have been caused by a too-powerful United States and hence, only deliberately eschewing the promotion of American interests can redress this sin.
This will be the first world crisis since the end of World War II where American power and prestige will not be used to intervene in order to prevent catastrophe. Obama is betting the farm that his worldview will be more conducive to defusing a crisis than the more realpolitik and pragmatic point of view that has dominated American foreign policy for 65 years.
We are shortly going to find out whether good intentions really matter in international affairs
Somehow it manages to be both harrowing and mundane: No matter what Obama and Netanyahu end up doing or not doing, the Middle East is sure to be a more dangerous place in a year or two than it is even now — and yet we’ve been headed towards that Catch-22 for years, dating well back into the Bush administration. As dire as they are, the strategic calculations have become sufficiently familiar — a bombing run might not disable the program, might only postpone it for a year or two, might touch off a regional war with America in the middle — that I bet most readers will either glance at the piece or pass on it entirely as old news. The Iranian program is like having a bomb in your lap knowing that any wire you cut will detonate it, so you sit there and fidget with it in hopes that it’ll just sort of fizzle out on its own. Sit there long enough and even a situation as dangerous as that will start to seem boring. Until the bomb goes off.
I honestly don’t know what the answer to the Iranian nuclear question is.
The prospect of the likes of the Islamic Republic possession nuclear weapons is not something I look forward to. Then again, I’m still not all that comfortable with the idea of Pakistan having nuclear weapons, and don’t get me started about North Korea. Nonetheless, Pakistan has had those weapons for more than a decade now and they haven’t used them. Even same goes for North Korea. Both countries, of course, have engaged in nuclear proliferation, and that may be the greatest danger of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, not that they’d use them, but that they’d teach others how to make them. It’s entirely possible, then, that a nuclear-armed, or nuclear-capable, Iran, may not end up being as much of a threat as we fear.
Israel, however, doesn’t seem to be inclined to wait to find out how things will turn out. Their current leadership views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to Israel and, whether or not that is actually true, they’re likely to act accordingly. Unfortunately, their actions are likely to have consequences that we’ll all have to deal with.
A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.
The disclosures come from more than 90,000 records of incidents and intelligence reports about the conflict obtained by the whistleblowers’ website Wikileaks in one of the biggest leaks in US military history. The files, which were made available to the Guardian, the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel, give a blow-by-blow account of the fighting over the last six years, which has so far cost the lives of more than 320 British and more than 1,000 US troops.
Their publication comes amid mounting concern that Barack Obama’s “surge” strategy is failing and as coalition troops hunt for two US naval personnel captured by the Taliban south of Kabul on Friday.
WikiLeaks’ release of a 2007 Apache gunship video sparked worldwide outrage, but little change in U.S. policy. This massive storehouse has the potential to be strategically significant, raising questions about how and why America and her allies are conducting the war. Not only does it recount 144 incidents in which coalition forces killed civilians over six years. But it shows just how deeply elements within the U.S.’ supposed ally, Pakistan, have nurtured the Afghan insurgency. In other words, this has the potential to be 2010’s answer to the Pentagon Papers — a database you can open in Excel, brought to you by the now-reopened-for-business WikiLeaks.
Now, obviously, it’s not news that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligences has ties to the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami That’s something that pretty much every observer of the Afghanistan war and the Pakistani intelligence apparatus has known for the better part of a decade.
But as the early-viewing New York Times reports, WikiLeaks presents a new depth of detail about how the U.S. military has seen, for six years, the depths of ISI facilitation of the Afghan insurgency. For instance: a three-star Pakistani general active during the 80s-era U.S.-Pakistani-Saudi sponsorship of the anti-Soviet insurgency, Hamid Gul, allegedly met with insurgent leaders in South Waziristan in January 2009 to plot vengeance for the drone-inflicted death of an al-Qaeda operative. (Gul called it “absolute nonsense” to the Times reporters.)
Other reports, stretching back to 2004, offer chilling, granular detail about the Taliban’s return to potency after the U.S. and Afghan militias routed the religious-based movement in 2001. Some of them, as the Times notes, cast serious doubt on official U.S. and NATO accounts of how insurgents prosecute the war. Apparently, the insurgents have used “heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft,” eerily reminiscent of the famous Stinger missiles that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan provided to the mujahideen to down Soviet helicopters. One such missile downed a Chinook over Helmand in May 2007.
I’ve now gone through the reporting and most of the selected documents (though not the larger data dump), and I think there’s less here than meets the eye. The story that seems to be getting the most attention, repeating the longstanding allegation that Pakistani intelligence might be aiding the Afghan insurgents, offers a few new details but not much greater clarity. Both the Times and the Guardian are careful to point out that the raw reports in the Wikileaks archive often seem poorly sourced and present implausible information.
“[F]or all their eye-popping details,” writes the Guardian‘s Delcan Welsh, “the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity.”
The Times‘ reporters seem somewhat more persuaded, noting that “many of the reports rely on sources that the military rated as reliable” and that their sources told them that “the portrait of the spy agency’s collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.”
Der Spiegel‘s reporting adds little, though the magazine’s stories will probably have great political impact in Germany, as the Wikileaks folks no doubt intended. One story hones in on how an elite U.S. task force charged with hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda targets operates from within a German base; another alleges that “The German army was clueless and naïve when it stumbled into the conflict,” and that northern Afghanistan, where the bulk of German troops are based, is more violent than has been previously portrayed.
Otherwise, I’d say that so far the documents confirm what we already know about the war: It’s going badly; Pakistan is not the world’s greatest ally and is probably playing a double game; coalition forces have been responsible for far too many civilian casualties; and the United States doesn’t have very reliable intelligence in Afghanistan.
I do think that the stories will provoke a fresh round of Pakistan-bashing in Congress, and possibly hearings. But the administration seems inclined to continue with its strategy of nudging Pakistan in the right direction, and is sending the message: Move along, nothing to see here.
Under the headline “Pakistani Spy Service Aids Insurgents, Reports Assert,” a team of Times reporters summarize and analyze a huge batch of secret U.S. intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan. Those reports show, in compelling detail, that Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) has been actively – and regularly – aiding insurgents fighting Americans in Afghanistan.
The central claim in the piece is not new. Tom Joscelyn and Bill Roggio have written about ISI’s duplicity for years. See here, here and here for examples.
The Times report – along with the public examination of the trove of WikiLeaks documents – will almost certainly reignite the public debate over the war in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration’s strategy there. The president’s already soft support in his own party will probably soften further. The key question is whether nervous Republicans will join them.
The White House has reacted in full damage control mode to the release of classified documents detailing the U.S. military’s struggles in Afghanistan, which the New York Times calls “in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.”
To see the New York Times summary of the documents, click here. To see the Guardian’s coverage, click here. (Advance copies of the documents were provided to both the Times and Guardian, on the condition that they not be released until Sunday.) For more on Wikileaks and its founder, read this excellent New Yorker profile here.
In response, the White House press office is emphasizing two facts. First, the documents concern a time period (2004 to 2009) that precedes the Presidents latest new strategy for Afghanistan. Second, government officials have not exactly been secretive in the past about the connection between the Pakistani ISI and radical elements in the region that are working against U.S. interests. “In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who’ve argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence,” President Obama said, when he announced his latest strategy in December of 2009. (Indeed, in recent months, as TIME has noted, there has been some good news on this front, with the Pakistan government, including the ISI, taking more aggressive actions.)
“It is important to note that the time period reflected in the documents is January 2004 to December 2009,” National Security Advisor ret. Gen. Jim Jones said in a statement Sunday.”On December 1, 2009, President Obama announced a new strategy with a substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan, and increased focus on al Qaeda and Taliban safe-havens in Pakistan, precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years,” he continued. “This shift in strategy addressed challenges in Afghanistan that were the subject of an exhaustive policy review last fall.”
Some 180 of the war logs and raw intelligence reports concern previously reported allegations that the Pakistani intelligence services have been providing covert support to Afghan insurgents.
“Taken together, the reports indicate that American soldiers on the ground are inundated with accounts of a network of Pakistani assets and collaborators,” the New York Times reports.
But, the paper cautions, many of the raw intelligence reports and field threat assessments “cannot be verified,” while “many … rely on sources that the military rated as reliable.”
“The records also contain firsthand accounts of American anger at Pakistan’s unwillingness to confront insurgents who launched attacks near Pakistani border posts, moved openly by the truckload across the frontier, and retreated to Pakistani territory for safety,” the paper said.
This is going to be huge. And Wikileaks’ strategy to collaborate with mainstream media this time around should heighten the impact of this data. The Guardian is using the log to argue that it presents “a very different landscape” than the one put forward by coalition leaders. Meanwhile, the Timespicks out military concerns that Pakistani intelligence is directly aiding insurgents. That “real” journalists are in charge of these reports should move focus off the biases of Wikileaks and Julian Assange—as happened with their “Collateral Murder” video—and onto the leak itself. (Wikileaks agreed to not have any input into the stories built around their leak.)
It’s unclear at this time if this leak is related to the case of army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the Apache video. But this leak should cause a similar-sized uproar and deliver a more pointed impact than even that graphic video did. The elaborate packages put together by the Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian are only the beginning of this story.
The leaks are unlikely to affect the course of events on the ground. However, they may well affect the debate over the war here at home. In that regard, the effect is likely to be pernicious, intensifying the already existing inclination to focus on peripheral matters while ignoring vastly more important ones. For months on end, Washington has fixated on this question: what, oh what, are we to do about Afghanistan? Implicit in the question are at least two assumptions: first, that something must be done; and, second, that if the United States and its allies can just devise the right approach (or assign the right general), then surely something can be done.
Both assumptions are highly dubious. To indulge them is to avoid the question that should rightly claim Washington’s attention: What exactly is the point of the Afghanistan war? The point cannot be to “prevent another 9/11,” since violent anti-Western jihadists are by no means confined to or even concentrated in Afghanistan. Even if we were to “win” in Afghanistan tomorrow, the jihadist threat would persist. If anything, staying in Afghanistan probably exacerbates that threat. So tell me again: why exactly are we there?
The real significance of the Wikileaks action is of a different character altogether: it shows how rapidly and drastically the notion of “information warfare” is changing. Rather than being defined as actions undertaken by a government to influence the perception of reality, information warfare now includes actions taken by disaffected functionaries within government to discredit the officially approved view of reality. This action is the handiwork of subversives, perhaps soldiers, perhaps civilians. Within our own national security apparatus, a second insurgent campaign may well have begun. Its purpose: bring America’s longest war to an end. Given the realities of the digital age, this second insurgency may well prove at least as difficult to suppress as the one that preoccupies General Petraeus in Kabul.
Given President Obama’s glaring domestic policy missteps, it is understandable that the public has largely been blinded to his foreign policy failings. In fact, these may have been even more damaging to America’s future. He fought to reinstate Honduras’s pro-Chávez president while stalling Colombia’s favored-trade status. He castigated Israel at the United Nations but was silent about Hamas having launched 7,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip. His policy of “engagement” with rogue nations has been met with North Korean nuclear tests, missile launches and the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, while Iran has accelerated its nuclear program, funded terrorists and armed Hezbollah with long-range missiles. He acceded to Russia’s No. 1 foreign policy objective, the abandonment of our Europe-based missile defense program, and obtained nothing whatsoever in return.
New-START impedes missile defense, our protection from nuclear-proliferating rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Its preamble links strategic defense with strategic arsenal. It explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites. And Russia has expressly reserved the right to walk away from the treaty if it believes that the United States has significantly increased its missile defense capability.
Hence, to preserve the treaty’s restrictions on Russia, America must effectively get Russia’s permission for any missile defense expansion. Moscow’s vehemence over our modest plans in Eastern Europe demonstrate that such permission would be extremely unlikely.
The treaty empowers a Bilateral Consultative Commission with broad latitude to amend the treaty with specific reference to missile defense. New START does something the American public would never countenance and the Senate should never permit: It jeopardizes our missile defense system.
The treaty also gives far more to the Russians than to the United States. As drafted, it lets Russia escape the limit on its number of strategic nuclear warheads. Loopholes and lapses — presumably carefully crafted by Moscow — provide a path to entirely avoid the advertised warhead-reduction targets. For example, rail-based ICBMs and launchers are not mentioned. Similarly, multiple nuclear warheads that are mounted on bombers are effectively not counted. Unlike past treaty restrictions, ICBMs are not prohibited from bombers. This means that Russia is free to mount a nearly unlimited number of ICBMs on bombers — including MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) or multiple warheads — without tripping the treaty’s limits. These omissions would be consistent with Russia’s plans for a new heavy bomber and reports of growing interest in rail-mobile ICBMs.
Under New START, the United States must drastically reduce our number of launchers but Russia will not — it already has fewer launchers than the treaty limits. Put another way: We give, Russia gets. And more troubling, the treaty fails to apply the MIRV limits that were part of the prior START treaty. Again, it may not be coincidental that Russia is developing a new heavy-load — meaning MIRV-capable — ICBM.
New-START gives Russia a massive nuclear weapon advantage over the United States. The treaty ignores tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia outnumbers us by as much as 10 to 1. Obama heralds a reduction in strategic weapons from approximately 2,200 to 1,550 but fails to mention that Russia will retain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical because they are mounted on missiles that cannot reach the United States. But surely they can reach our allies, nations that depend on us for a nuclear umbrella. And who can know how those tactical nuclear warheads might be reconfigured? Astonishingly, while excusing tactical nukes from the treaty, the Obama administration bows to Russia’s insistence that conventional weapons mounted on ICBMs are counted under the treaty’s warhead and launcher limits.
By all indications, the Obama administration has been badly out-negotiated. Perhaps the president’s eagerness for global disarmament led his team to accede to Russia’s demands, or perhaps it led to a document that was less than carefully drafted.
What I find more interesting is the politics Romney is pursuing. He’s been playing the usual game for a potential 2012 nominee. Raising money, campaigning for candidates in this or that race. Mostly pure establishment stuff that builds a network, but does less to stay engaged with the base.
So, today it’s time for Romney to show some foreign policy chops and engage the masses. And as politicians have done for decades, he takes to the Post. Of course, he could have simply posted to a Facebook page. But that wouldn’t be good establishment politics. And Romney’s establishment rep could be one of his biggest obstacles assuming he’s serious about 2012. In a new media and political world, Romney looks decidedly old, though I did support him in 2008.
Unlike other potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney does not approach every potential political target as if he were carrying a machine gun on hair trigger alert.
That has allowed him to stay quiet when fellow Republicans try to outshout each other. Romney has stuck a few core issues, like the economy and foreign policy. He mostly avoided the health care debate, if only to try and minimize the comparisons Republicans made to his 2006 health care law. On social issues, he’s kept mum. If he decides to run for president, it will be in the mold of a conservative pragmatist grounded in American exceptionalism, a topic that has fascinated Romney for years. Mr. Romney subscribes to the point of view that a strong America is not an America that humbles itself; that Obama’s penchant for finding non zero sum opportunities in the post 9-11 world is naive. Romney is not a native speaker of this language, but he has surrounded himself with advisers who speak nothing else.
When Romney does choose to intervene in the political debate, it is often with great care. His op-ed in this morning’s New York Post uses some of his starkest language to date, calling Obama’s START treaty with Russia his “worst foreign policy mistake yet.” Does he believe opposition to Senate ratification is a political winner? As the privately acknowledged “invisible primary” frontrunner, is he attempting to use what leverage he has to make sure that his party does not capitulate on this issue, depriving him of the chance to draw a clear contrast with Obama? Or does he see this as an opportunity to burnish his foreign policy chops ahead of 2012? (I’ll have a post later that goes into the substance of his op-ed.)
How many dishonest and misleading things can Mitt Romney pack into one op-ed? There are a few. Romney’s first lie was remarkably brazen even for him:
He [Obama] castigated Israel at the United Nations but was silent about Hamas having launched 7,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip.
Neither of these things happened. One will look in vain for any speech Obama has ever given in which he actually castigated Israel, but it is even more certain that he never did this at the U.N. Castigate means censure, and if there is one thing Obama has never done it is censure Israel. The only thing Obama has been silent about with regard to Gaza was the excessive military operations Israel launched there immediately before he took office. A couple sentences later, Romney lies about missile defense in Europe:
He acceded to Russia’s No. 1 foreign policy objective, the abandonment of our Europe-based missile defense program, and obtained nothing whatsoever in return.
The missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic were scrapped, and they have since been replaced by proposed new installations in southeastern Europe. Unlike the previous plan, which guarded against non-existent Iranian ICBMs, this one could theoretically defend against medium-range missiles that Iran actually has. So missile defense in Europe has not been abandoned, and despite what Moscow may say the Prague treaty apparently does not rule out missile defense, either, so Romney is complaining about something that hasn’t happened.
Romney repeats a common misrepresentation of the Prague treaty, which is that it “impedes missile defense.” Dr. Jeffrey Lewis had a very useful review of the relevant parts of the new treaty that he wrote earlier this year, and his conclusion is worth citing here:
I think it is very hard to conclude that the treaty “limits” missile defenses. The treaty may have some implications for missile defense programs, but on the whole it is written in such a way as to create space for current and planned missile defense programs, including language that exempts interceptors from the definition of an ICBM [bold mine-DL] and the provision to “grandfather” the converted silos at Vandenberg.
Still, I suspect we will continue hear from some quarters that the treaty “limits” missile defense. This is a form of special pleading. The common-sense test is that no one would claim that the treaty “limits” conventional bombers, despite some provisions to separate conventional bombers from their nuclear-equipped brethren. By any consistent standard, the treaty limits neither.
As for Romney’s objection that the treaty “explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites,” Dr. Lewis makes what seems like a very sensible observation:
The advantages of this are obvious: otherwise, you would have Russian inspectors crawling all over US missile defense interceptors to ensure they weren’t stocked with contraband treaty-limited equipment.
In other words, this is something that seems like a concession but which could actually aid the development of missile defense.
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb recently wrote an op-ed in support of the treaty that addressed the missile defense question:
While some have alleged that the New START treaty will inhibit missile defense, this claim has been strongly refuted by Republican elder statesmen in their Senate testimony on the treaty. Former Secretary of State James Baker stated plainly, “There is, in fact, no restriction on the United States of America’s ability to move forward on missile defense in whatever way it wants.” Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was equally direct, testifying, “The treaty is amply clear, it does not restrict us … I don’t think there’s substance to this argument.”
In fact, Baker and Scowcroft are joined in supporting the treaty by almost every senior Republican national security leader from the past three decades, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Schlesinger, George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and the Senate’s foremost current expert on nuclear policy, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. They are joined by leading Democratic national security leaders, such as former Defense Secretary William Perry and former senator Nunn.
Romney’s other objections are more technical, but they don’t appear to be much better. One of the standard objections to the new treaty has been that warhead reduction could do Russia a favor, because Russia does not want the expense of maintaining such a large arsenal, but Romney claims instead that loopholes in the treaty will permit a Russian build-up of warheads. For Romney’s objections to mean very much, one would have to believe that Russia is intent on a massive arms build-up and is looking for some means to achieve this without formally violating arms control agreements. In fact, the more substantive criticism that advocates of disarmament could make against the treaty is that there are not going to be many reductions at all on either side, and the loopholes in the treaty will permit both governments to maintain their arsenals near their current levels:
Due to the loophole, the United States could avoid counting roughly 450 of its 2,100 presently deployed warheads, while around 860 weapons in Russia’s 2,600-warhead arsenal would not be counted, Kristensen said. As a result, the United States would only need to place 100 deployed warheads in storage and Russia would only need to remove 190 weapons.
It is therefore quite difficult to credit Romney’s claim that “New-START gives Russia a massive nuclear weapon advantage over the United States.” Were that to happen, the same withdrawal provision in Article XIV of the treaty that Russia could exercise could also be exercised by the United States. If we view the Prague treaty as a beginning rather than a dramatic accomplishment on its own, we could then build on it to negotiate reductions in tactical nuclear weapons. Rejecting the treaty because it has not solved every arms reduction problem in one move is just the sort of short-sighted opportunism we have come to expect from Romney and other leading Republicans when it comes to important matters of U.S. foreign policy.
Let’s take his rant—critique is too serious a word—line by line.
“New-START impedes missile defense, our protection from nuclear-proliferation rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Its preamble links strategic defense with strategic arsenal.”
Aside from the bad grammar and the suggestion that Romney’s ghostwriter was taking dictation over a poor phone line (he should have written “links strategic defense with strategic offense,” not “strategic arsenal,” which makes no sense), the first sentence is false, and the second is irrelevant.
There is nothing in the treaty that places any limits on the U.S. missile-defense program. (And several generals, many with a vested interest in the program, have so testified before the Senate foreign relations and armed services committees.)
Yes, the treaty’s preamble notes that there is a relationship between strategic defense and strategic offense. This is Arms Control 101. If both sides drastically reduce their offensive nuclear weapons, while one side greatly builds up its defensive weapons, then that side could (theoretically) launch a disarming first strike and, moments later, shoot down what’s left of the other side’s missiles as they’re launched in retaliation. The essence of nuclear deterrence—and strategic stability—is to maintain the ability to retaliate in kind to a first strike. Very small offensive forces, combined with very large defensive forces, erode deterrence and create a “destabilizing” situation.
However, we are far from this state of affairs. New START leaves each side with 1,550 nuclear warheads; the Pentagon’s missile-defense program envisions a few dozen anti-missile interceptors.
More to the point, as is the case with all treaties, preambles are not legally binding. In response to the Russians’ unilateral statement, President Obama’s negotiators added one of their own, noting that U.S. missile defenses “are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia,” but rather to defend against “limited missile launches” by “regional threats” and, to that end, the United States will continue “improving and deploying” its missile-defense systems.
“[New START] explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites.”
That’s right. But Romney doesn’t note that the managers of the missile-defense program say, privately and publicly, that they have no plan—and see no advantage—in doing this sort of conversion.
“And Russia has expressly reserved the right to walk away from the treaty if it believes that the United States has significantly increased its missile defense capability.”
This is true, but, as is the case with all treaties, Russia and the United States expressly reserve the right to withdraw for any reason if they believe it endangers their “supreme interests.” President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Treaty under such a clause. Any president, Russian or American, can pull out of this treaty, too, with three months’ notice. (See Article XIV, Section 3.)
However, the Russians would have to consider the following: If they did withdraw from the treaty, that would probably aggravate tensions to the point where the United States would probably accelerate missile-defense deployments and perhaps resume an offensive arms buildup, too—a resumption that we can afford a lot more than they can.
“The treaty empowers a Bilateral Consultative Commission with broad latitude to amend the treaty with specific reference to missile defense.“
This is silly. Previous arms treaties—negotiated by Democrats and Republicans—have created similar commissions. This one, like the others, has no “broad latitude to amend the treaty.” In fact, Article XV of New START states explicitly that the commission can make no changes that affect “substantive rights and obligations.” Its purpose, as noted in several other sections (Articles V and XIII of the treaty, Part VI of its protocol), is to “resolve any ambiguities that may arise” over the 10 years that it remains in effect. These articles contain no “specific reference to missile defense,” by the way.
“The treaty also gives far more to the Russians than to the United States. As drafted, it lets Russia escape the limit on its number of strategic nuclear warheads.”
Again, there might have been some static on the phone line. The treaty does let Russia get by without cutting any of its strategic “delivery vehicles” (missiles and bombers). Each side is limited to 700, but Russia right now has only 600; the United States has 850, so it will have to cut back a little. However, both sides will have to reduce their warheads—the actual nuclear weapons—to 1,550. And, for what it’s worth, Russia, which now has 2,787 warheads, will have to cut back more than the United States, which now has 2,252.
“For example, rail-based ICBMs and launchers are not mentioned.”
First, neither Russia nor the United States has any rail-based ICBMs or launchers. Second, the treaty does deal with mobile ICBMs, in two ways. Article IV, Section 1 states that ICBMs can be deployed “only at ICBM bases.” If, in some perverse wordplay, the Russians claim that a railroad line is a “base,” Article III, Section 5b notes that an ICBM is counted under the treaty’s limits the moment it leaves the production facility (which other sections of the treaty place under constant monitoring); it doesn’t matter where the missile goes afterward, it’s still counted as an ICBM. So while mobile missiles might not be “mentioned” by the treaty, they are, in effect, restricted.
“Similarly, multiple nuclear warheads that are mounted on bombers are effectively not counted. Unlike past treaty restrictions, ICBMs are not prohibited from bombers. This means that Russia is free to mount a nearly unlimited number of ICBMs on bombers—including MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) or multiple warheads—without tripping the treaty’s limits.”
This is where I began to wonder if Romney had fallen prey to someone, perhaps a spy from Sarah Palin’s camp, who wanted to make him look like an idiot.
ICBMs are not “mounted on,” or loaded inside, bombers. The only nuclear weapons carried by bombers are bombs; that’s why they’re called bombers. (Many years ago, some B-52s and B-1s were equipped with air-launched cruise missiles, which flew through the atmosphere, as opposed to intercontinental ballistic missiles, which arc outside the atmosphere. These ALCMs are almost completely phased out, in any case.) Certainly bombers are incapable of carrying MIRVs (which, by the way, are “multiple warheads” loaded onto the tips of missiles).
I think Romney’s ghostwriter might have mixed up one of his talking points. New START counts each bomber as if it is carrying just one nuclear bomb, even though it almost certainly carries several. This counting rule was established for practical reasons. A bomber might carry three bombs one day, a dozen the next, with no need to alter its design. There’s no way to verify how many it’s carrying. So they agreed just to count one bomber as one bomb.
The thing is, this counting rule is to the United States’ advantage, not Russia’s. We have 113 heavy bombers; they have 77. So, if this is what Romney’s ghostwriter meant to take note of, it’s not a problem with the treaty, not from the U.S. point of view.
“Under New START, the United States must drastically reduce our number of launchers but Russia will not—it already has fewer launchers than the treaty limits. Put another way: We give, Russia gets.”
As noted above, this is irrelevant. Both sides do have to reduce the number of warheads, which is to say weapons, and Russia has to cut more than the United States does.
“The treaty ignores tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia outnumbers us by as much as 10 to 1.… Russia will retain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical because they are mounted on missiles that cannot reach the United States. But surely they can reach our allies, nations that depend on us for a nuclear umbrella. And who can know how those tactical nuclear warheads might be reconfigured?”
True, the treaty does not limit tactical nuclear weapons. But this isn’t a gotcha point; both sides explicitly recognize this fact. Obama hopes to tackle the issue in a follow-on treaty, though doing so will be very hard, since Russia regards its tactical nukes as a counterweight to U.S. conventional military superiority.
Still, three points need to be made here. First, a Senate rejection of the treaty won’t limit tactical nuclear weapons, either. If the choice is to ratify the treaty or reject it, the point is irrelevant. Second, the “nuclear umbrella”—the U.S. commitment to threaten enemies with nuclear retaliation if they attack our allies—is unaffected by the presence of Russian tactical nukes; the rough parity in strategic (or long-range) nuclear weapons is far more decisive. Third, I know of no source claiming that Russia has 10,000 tactical nukes. The number is classified (and probably not precisely known by anyone, perhaps including the Russians), but the real number is believed to be about 2,000, compared with the United States’ 500 (and no serious strategist or military officer believes we need anywhere close to that many for any purpose).
Some very strong responses to Romney’s piece have already been published by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and the Center for American Progress’ Max Bergmann, but perhaps the most detailed, point-by-point refutation comes by way of Slate‘s Fred Kaplan, who exposed Romney’s piece as vapid nonsense.
In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and—let’s not mince words—thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty in the July 6 Washington Post.
Senate Republicans are looking for some grounds — any grounds — to defeat this treaty, which was signed in April by President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, and which will soon come to the Senate floor for a vote.
Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, clearly feels the need to pump up some foreign-policy swagger in advance of the 2012 presidential primaries. But one would think he could have found a ghostwriter who had even the vaguest acquaintance with the subject matter.
Kaplan literally goes line by line, in as thorough a take-down as I’ve seen in quite a while. Romney is left looking like a fool.
In the larger context, my biggest concern is that opposition to the treaty will become a standard Republican move to prove one’s right-wing bona fides. That would be a disaster — this treaty needs to pass, and like all treaties, it’ll need 67 votes in the Senate. That means at least eight GOP senators have to vote for it if it comes to the floor this year, or probably more if it’s voted on next year.
Several officials with stature among Republicans — Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Henry Kissinger, Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein, Colin Powell, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Reagan Chief of Staff Howard Baker, former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) — have already endorsed New START, and have urged Congress to ratify it. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mullen has said the treaty “has the full support of your uniformed military.”
Whether Senate Republicans listens to this group or Mitt Romney remains to be seen.
In a surprise agreement negotiated by Brazil, Iran agreed to ship much of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey. The deal is similar to one negotiated with Western countries last October, but could now complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to ratify international sanctions against Iran.
Under the new deal, negotiated at a three-way meeting including Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran would ship 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Turkey for storage. In exchange, after one year Iran would be eligible to receive 265 pounds of material enriched in France and Russia. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said the country would continue to enrich uranium on its own, despite the new deal.
Under the similar deal negotiated last October, Iran would have shipped around two-thirds of its stockpile out of the country, leaving it with too little material to make a nuclear weapon. Since that time, Iran’s stockpile has grown significantly.
However, Iran’s apparent cooperation with the new agreement could make it less likely that Russia and China will support tougher sanctions against Iran in the U.N. security council and puts President Barack Obama in the awkward position of potentially rejecting a deal, nearly identical to one he negotiated months earlier.
Two potential problems have emerged with the nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran agreed with Brazil and Turkey Sunday and announced today.
Under the agreement (available here), Iran has essentially accepted the October 2009 fuel swap deal, agreeing to send 1200 kg of its low enriched uranium to Turkey within a month of the agreement being accepted by the U.S., Russia, France and the IAEA. In return, within a year, it would receive 120kg of highly enriched fuel for Iranian nuclear medical use, the agreement pledges.
One potential problem is that back in October, removing 1200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium from its then-stockpile of 1800 kg of LEU would have given a few months for negotiations to proceed without the pressure of Iran having an immediate breakout capacity.
Nine months later, Iran has accrued a bigger LEU stockpile now estimated at 2300 kg; removing 1200 kg therefore leaves Iran with 1100 kg, just enough for a breakout capacity. Since that stockpile is under IAEA safeguards, this may not be a deal breaker for most members of the international group known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), since the deal would be seen as a potential confidence building measure that would be accompanied by a return to international nuclear negotiations.
What’s seemingly potentially more problematic is that since February, Iran has been higher enriching small quantities of low enriched uranium to 20% at a research facility at Natanz, allegedly for nuclear medical needs. It is currently producing about 1 KG of the 20% higher enriched uranium a month, the Federation of American Scientist’s Ivanka Barzashka said.
But scanning the text of the agreement, there’s no mention of Iran halting its 20% higher enrichment under the deal, even though the deal would make way for the international community to provide Iran with the higher enriched fuel it supposedly requires for nuclear medical purposes.
David Albright, the former weapons inspector, writes that the widespread skepticism that has greeted the Brazilian-brokered deal is justified:
The news this morning that Iran had agreed in principle (the text of the agreement published by the Guardian notes that Iran will inform the IAEA of its official agreement to the deal within seven days) to send 1200 kg of its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey has been greeted skeptically by the European Union, the United States, and others concerned that this declaration is merely an attempt to delay the imposition of U.N. Security Council sanctions. The Security Council is debating these sanctions as a result of Iran’s continuing defiance of calls to halt its enrichment of uranium and accept adequate IAEA inspections. Thus, while clarifications should be sought, this declaration provides no reason to stop negotiating in the Security Council the imposition of sanctions on Iran.
Sure enough, as soon as I run with my previous post on the Iran enrichment offer, here’s White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s official comment. It’s fairly noncommittal. It doesn’t rule out the prospect that the foreign-enrichment deal might be substantive, but Gibbs highlights the concern the previous post did: that Iran appears to reserve the right to continue to pursue enrichment to a threshold state for a weapon (and for the technical side of why that is, check out Arms Control Wonk). As well, Gibbs wants more demonstration of why the deal can begin to settle Iran’s nuclear account without a new round of sanctions, and reiterates the U.S.’s commitment to diplomacy (i.e., not war not war not war) when it comes to that account.
So, at first blush, nothing really ruled in or ruled out.
So let me make a guess. The deal goes nowhere. It falls through. But for a good six to eight weeks, the Iranians are the good guys, the ball is in the West’s court, the sanctions’ effort in New York loses steam, Turkey and Brazil vote against any sanctions’ resolution, and Moscow urges France and the United States to consider the swap deal as a good bridging proposal to “build upon.”
That’s the beauty of the deal negotiated by Turkey and Brazil. It puts the West into a corner for two reasons: first, because it allows Iran to break its isolation — with Turkey and Brazil now having negotiated a deal independently of the U.S., the Security Council, the IAEA, or the P5+1, it’s the U.S. and the EU that look isolated.
And second, because now President Obama, President Sarkozy, and President Medvedev (or Prime Minister Putin, who knows?) — the original promoters of the transfer deal from last October — will have to say whether they are prepared to go the extra mile and do what Iran demands in exchange for transferring its uranium to Turkey — something they were not prepared to do back in October. My guess is that Russia will go one way, France and the U.S. the opposite way. So here’s the master stroke: in one fell swoop, Iran managed to create a rift inside the UN Security Council and the Vienna Group at the same time.
Give Iran credit then, as Jennifer and Jonathan note — it has just gained another few months.
Hamid Karzai is in Washington for a four-day love fest designed to show the world that, despite the occasional quarrel, the state of the Afghan-American partnership is sound. But not quite beneath the surface, discordant noises are all too evident.
hen Obama meets with Karzai on Wednesday, he has a fine line to walk. On the one hand, he does have to shore up Karzai’s confidence. It wasn’t just Eikenberry’s leaked memo that sent the Afghan president into a tizzy. Vice President Joe Biden had once walked out on a dinner with him (for good reason); U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke had yelled at him (ditto); finally, just before (perhaps prompting) Karzai’s flip-out, the Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. official threatening to kill or capture his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, for drug dealing.
On the other hand, Obama has to continue pushing President Karzai to clean up his act, even threatening him with consequences if he doesn’t. If Obama doesn’t succeed on both tracks, his war strategy is doomed.
The goal of a counterinsurgency campaign, after all, is not so much to defeat the enemy—in this case, the Taliban and other insurgents—but rather to secure the local population so that the government can provide local services and thus gain the people’s loyalty.
As Gen. McChrystal put it in a memo to Obama last September, the war’s focus must be on “the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population, by, with, and through the Afghan government.” (Italics added.) That same month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Afghan government’s corruption—and, therefore, its “lack of legitimacy”—posed as big a threat as the Taliban. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked, “We could send a million troops, and that wouldn’t restore legitimacy in the government?” Mullen replied, “That is correct.”
This assessment fits a broad historical pattern. A new study by the RAND Corp., How Insurgencies End, finds that weak democracies (and that’s one way to describe Afghanistan) have “a particularly poor record at countering insurgency,” winning only 15 percent of the time. To win such wars requires public support; and public support, the study concludes, “can be won only if reforms are both legitimate and effective.”
If Karzai doesn’t institute reforms—so that he can provide basic services and thus gain the trust of his people, and they don’t feel they have to turn to the Taliban—then the war is a waste of blood and money.
Given Karzai’s track record, it’s tempting to drop him and find somebody else. The problem is, there isn’t anyone else. Karzai is the only president of Afghanistan, and no viable alternative seems to be waiting in the wings. If Obama wants to fight this war (and he decided in December that he does, at least for now), he’s stuck with working “by, with, and through” Karzai. And that being the case, he and his senior officials have to act as if they’re working by, with, and through him enthusiastically. The appearance of ambivalence only emboldens the enemy.
Diplomats who know Karzai well stress that his style is quintessentially tribal and conspiratorial — traits that have been honed by Afghanistan’s history over the past three decades, when trusting the good intentions of foreigners was not a healthy bet. It was almost inevitable that Karzai would react to public criticism in such a mercurial way, denouncing America and threatening to join the Taliban.
As one diplomat observed some weeks before the Afghan leader’s visit: “When Karzai feels he is on the defense, he goes into a defensive crouch. If we want him on our side, we have to convince him that we are in this together.”
That’s the sort of advice that finally seems to have gotten through to the Obama team: Given that they have no alternative to working with Karzai, whom we have proclaimed the democratically elected president of Afghanistan, the best approach is to stroke him in public — all the better in an elaborate East Wing press conference. Save any criticisms for private meetings.
Not an ideal relationship, certainly, but for the moment a necessary one. Wednesday’s make-nice performance reminded me of the comment by humorist Wynn Catlin: “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”
At the White House this afternoon, Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai committed themselves to a “long-term partnership,” in Obama’s words, “that is not simply defined by our military presence.” Both expressed confidence in the ultimate success of a war in its ninth year.
All this happens as thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are moving into the city and surrounding environs of Kandahar. Senior officials in charge of shaping the operation have cautioned against viewing Kandahar as an iconic invasion campaign. Unlike the February operation in Marja, where 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops invaded and a governance structure of unproven capability was essentially airlifted into an area under Taliban control, the approach to Kandahar involves bolstering governance and economic efforts in parts of Kandahar currently under government control and expanding them outwards into Taliban-held territory. That will require intense and persistent coordination between NATO militaries, NATO civilians, their governments back home, Afghan security forces, local Afghan government officials and national Afghan government officials. A source in Kandahar considers it all a pipe dream.
That source passed on the following assessment of how counterinsurgency efforts across Afghanistan are shaping up, over a year after Obama embraced them at the strategic level and nearly a year after Obama tapped Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Amb. Karl Eikenberry to implement them. The source’s reluctant viewpoint, which is making its way through official channels in Afghanistan, is that the coordination necessary for successful counterinsurgency between civilian and military forces is not in evidence.
The source’s assessment, titled “A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency,” is reprinted below in full, with minor interruptions in the text for clarity.
A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency
The counterinsurgency methodology which is currently being employed in Afghanistan is not going to lead coalition forces to victory in this war.
The idea of “counterinsurgency” appears to be a viable way for success on paper. Military units, along with NGO’s [non-governmental organizations], the Department of State, GIRoA [the Afghanistan government], and other government agencies work together to emplace the clear, hold, build strategy in key areas of the battlefield. Like communism, however, counterinsurgency methods are not proving to be effective in practice.
Counterinsurgency methods must make quick and effective use of information. However, the joint environment of the theater of operation makes it difficult for efficient information dissemination. Coalition units are still apprehensive about distributing information to consumers who do not wear the same uniform — and many units still have major breakdowns in following guidance directing the flow of information up to higher decision-making elements; or down to the soldiers on the ground. The result of stove-piped information sharing channels maximizes the amount of time that insurgent forces have to seek out coalition vulnerabilities and exploit them.
The passive approach taken to reintegrate the enemy is also proving to be ineffective. Coalition forces who are using the idea of projects and Provincial Reconstruction Teams to pacify local insurgents are experiencing long delays in getting their recommended courses of action approved, funded and then complete. Additionally, there is often a poor hand-off from kinetic [read: military] forces who relinquish control of a previously hostile area to non-kinetic groups who are empowered to “win hearts and minds.” It is evident that there is little attention to ensuring that the local population is prepared for the transition of combat troops occupying their home one month and then smiling faces knocking on their doors the next. Additionally, coalition participants are not yet capable of recognizing the human terrain of their area once they assume control of it.
The human terrain layer of the battlefield is a necessary component of mission planning and success in a counterinsurgency environment. Coalition forces have become aware of the utility of understanding it but have failed to quantify their efforts in exploiting it. The fact that insurgent groups are still integrated within the population of areas that have been under coalition control for long periods of time is indicative of their ability to more effectively exploit the human layer of the battlefield and mitigate the effects of a counterinsurgency campaign. The adage still holds true today that “we have the watches, but they have the time.” The enemy still has the discipline to outlast our commitment to the area.
As if the breakdown of communication and process methodology in place isn’t enough to negate the effectiveness of counterinsurgency operations, we must also contend with the effects of the media, and a world population that cringes when it is witness to overt aggression and the marginalization of people. In this response, the leaders of this campaign have taken too many precautions to ensure that everyone is content with the tact taken. An effective counterinsurgency can only be waged by an organization that is capable of committing to support only those it empowers, remains quiet until it strikes, and effectively owns the world of information. Once it is capable of identifying the vulnerabilities in core infrastructure before the enemy is able to exploit them—and strikes with precision to seal them up, the enemy will dissolve and we will find the war is won.
The author of this paper clearly accepts several of the premises of counterinsurgency theory — in particular, the recognition that the sentiments of the local population are what McChrystal called “strategically decisive.” I asked what the author meant by the “core infrastructure” he identified as the key objective for operations in the memo’s last paragraph. The answer? All of the relevant considerations that shape an Afghan’s assessment of whether to side with the Taliban or with the Afghan government — the economic environment, the local power structure, and so forth. Spoken like a true counterinsurgent.
But the problem, in this individual’s view, is that NATO and Afghan forces are insufficiently and inconsistently contending for those key counterinsurgency prizes. Which is another way of saying the strategy is not succeeding on its own terms.
The continuing decline in stability in Afghanistan, described in the last report, has leveled off in many areas over the last three months of this reporting period. While the overall trend of violence throughout the country increased over the same period a year ago, much of this can be ascribed to increased International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) activity. Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago. At the same time violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010.
Translation: We have halted the Taliban’s momentum. Violence is up, but we expected this to happen as we escalated our activities.
The president’s December 2009 speech, we should note, explicitly called for halting the Taliban’s to be the #1 goal of our military efforts. So that’s good news. But for me, this report is not nearly as important as the one that will be delivered after the next Friedman Unit. The next FU will really and truly be important because a) we will be able to actually assess the full effects of the as-yet-incomplete Obama surge of troops and b) we will likely use that assessment to decide how fast and in what way we will begin to withdraw U.S. and allied units beginning in June 2011.
That having been said, if you are one of those — and I have heard this the most from military officers — who complains we do not have a strategy for the war, this report is instructive because it lays out, in detail, the strategy. You can then turn around and argue that the assumptions underpinning the strategy are faulty or that counterinsurgency is a poor operational choice, but you can’t argue that folks have not thought about ends, ways and means.
On the occasion of Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington and the beginning of a broad new counterinsurgency operation around the major city of Kandahar, two assessments of the conflict in Afghanistan have emerged that are worth perusing.
One account, provided by Spencer Ackerman, is a description from a Kandahar-based source of a counterproductive counterinsurgency that won’t result in victory, concluding that “the enemy still has the discipline to outlast our commitment to the area.” A second, provided by CANS’ Andrew Exum, is a declassified government assessment; Exum translates the bureaucratese: “We have halted the Taliban’s momentum. Violence is up, but we expected this to happen as we escalated our activities.”
The differing accounts reflect both the challenge of trying to create a coherent picture of what is going on in that region and whether America is actually using the right policy levers — be they military, political, or developmental — or even has the right levers to change the situation on the ground. (It’s a challenge I ran into reporting this story, from earlier in the year, on the problems of the U.S. strategy in the country.) Given the challenges of prediction and even measurement of success, Exum’s conclusion — that it will take another six months to assess the results of the surge in Afghanistan, and particularly how that affects the withdrawal calendar — is probably accurate. But even then it will be hard to answer whether the mission is worth the cost.
Two major events loom now–or perhaps not. One is Karzai’s peace jirga, scheduled for June, which won’t be much more than a futility festival if there isn’t some sort of Taliban presence. The other is NATO’s planned Kandahar offensive, another futility festival if Karzai’s government continues its history of corrupt and pathetic governance in the province. I have a nagging doubt about the latter event; unless there’s something I’m missing–entirely possible, by the way–the absolutely crucial civilian side of this operation is in disarray. But, again, the coming events in Kandahar will determine the future of the Obama Administration’s commitment to this effort.
Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.
Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.
On the presumption that Karzai is being accurately quoted — something his spokesman denies — this is starting to fall into some I-wish-a-motherfucker-would territory. A failed attempt at a power-grab calling the integrity of the next government into question leads Karzai to bandwagon with the Taliban? That’s like the guy at the Burger King angrily swearing that if he accepts my expired coupon he’ll be left with no choice but to give me unlimited refills. Let the Omar-Karzai negotiations begin! Can we throw in Ahmed Wali Karzai and a couple draft picks?
The governance effort in the south is about strengthening sub-national governance and creating credible, deliverable reachback to the ministries. Whether by design or by default, the effect is that it balances/reduces Karzai’s influence while bolstering the stuff he was supposed to be doing anyway in terms of making a material impact on Afghan lives. Obviously it’s a strategy that has its limits: Karzai still governs the country, appoints ministers, etc. (To say nothing of what sub-national governance means in an area, for instance, in which people self-identify as Taliban.)
He successfully stole an election — that should be a decisive verdict on his interest in a well-run Afghanistan. To the extent the U.S. has no choice but to stick with him, the current strategy of caring more about sub-national governance than Kabul governance for immediate-to-medium-term impact has its merits. It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing to dial down tensions, but if Karzai is just going to brazenly walk back his walkbacks, then it’s sort of pointless.
Daniel, don’t forget that Karzai was once with the Taliban (see page 2 of this declassified PDF document).
In recent weeks, the press has focused on Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi’s relationship with the Iranians and Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai going off the rails and threatening to join the Taliban. The press did not focus on — but could have — Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s meetings in Iran last week, and Iraqi politician Ayad Allawi’s embrace of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad earlier last month.
Too many policymakers, I’d argue, have not seen the forest through the trees. With any of these folks, it’s easy to say that the CIA or Pentagon or State Department simply got them wrong. That logic is too simple. All of these politicians pivot to maximize their own power and ally themselves with whomever they see as the dominant power. Previously, that was us. Now, it’s either Tehran or Damascus (in Iraq’s case) or the ISI’s Islamabad (in Karzai’s case). Karzai’s move comes not only amidst U.S. pressure to reform, but also after the success of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “strategic dialogue” with Pakistan. Behind all the self-congratulatory backslapping of the Obama administration and its fans in the press was a fact which Karzai certainly noticed — the White House acknowledged and legitimized Pakistan’s dominant role in Afghanistan.
Karzai clearly wants to portray himself as the strong man in the face of increased foreign troop presence in his own country and steady western pressure on him to run a cleaner, more effective government. But he often seems like he’s playing a double game. On March 10 he hosted Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, just hours after Defense Secretary Robert Gates had departed Kabul. What do we do about Karzai? On the one hand, he is beginning to fit the stereotype of the U.S.-backed corrupt foreign leader, i.e. Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen Cao Ky in Vietnam, Somoza in Nicaragua, or a host of others. On the other hand, he has a point: Whose country is Afghanistan anyway, theirs or ours? Can Obama execute his strategy in Afghanistan with Karzai? What should be the U.S. posture toward Hamid Karzai and his Afghanistan government?
The entire situation looks painfully like the one that confronted John F. Kennedy in the last weeks of his administration in dealing with Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. President Diem was instinctively authoritarian and corrupt, relying heavily on his extended family and allowing them to enrich themselves on the basis of his authority. Government contracts, including contracts that funneled U.S. assistance, were a substantial part of the graft problem. Ultimately, the Kennedy Administration appears to have concluded that Diem was too corrupt and incompetent to be an effective ally, and the Americans turned on him. Learning that the South Vietnamese army was plotting a coup, the Americans apparently gave the effort a green light. Diem was toppled, and he and his brother were shot and buried in a grave next to the ambassadorial residence of Henry Cabot Lodge in the first days of November 1963. Kennedy was himself assassinated only three weeks later, but the toppling of Diem was one of the events that triggered a change in policy ultimately leading to a heavy escalation of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. The American effort in Vietnam was consistently crippled by the impression that the Saigon government was a weak American proxy, lacking legitimacy to rule.
The legitimacy of the government in Kabul is essential to the success of the allies’ military operations there. Karzai thus presents a particularly thorny problem. He is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective, but to some extent the United States has contributed to that problem and that perception. And removing and replacing Karzai through extraordinary measures would likely only make the situation still worse. Karzai is Afghanistan’s elected president, and American policymakers need to accept that fact.
The issue here is not Karzai’s peevishness or ingratitude. The issue is whether, under the circumstances, a counterinsurgency campaign can work—whether we’re wasting lives and money.
One key question, which U.S. officials are exploring, is whether this rupture with Karzai can be mended. Some officials cite a chronology of events that suggests we may have (unwittingly) sent him off the deep end and that, therefore, we might be able to calm him back down.
It may be time for Obama to send Sen. John Kerry back to Kabul for another half-dozen meetings with Karzai, over 300 more cups of tea, as he did last October, when he persuaded the Afghan president to hold a second round of elections after the first round was proved to be so rigged.
Maybe Kerry can pamper Karzai with recitations of reassurances. If not, there’s trouble ahead. Obama could threaten to pull out of Afghanistan if Karzai doesn’t straighten up, but Karzai would surely see this as a bluff and might call it. Then what? If Obama really sees his commitment as vital to U.S. interests (and he wouldn’t have ordered the escalation if he didn’t), then he’s not likely to take the gamble.
Another option is to go around Karzai’s authority and deal more with Afghanistan’s provincial governors and tribal elders. This has been part of Obama’s plan all along. Last November, shortly before announcing his new strategy, Obama said in an ABC-TV interview that he and his advisers were focusing on “not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now.”
Gerard Russell, a former U.N. official in Kabul (who is now at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy), said in a phone interview Monday that the Western coalition is pursuing this approach to some extent. The ongoing military operation in Helmand province has elevated the power of some independent Afghans there, at the expense of Karzai’s people.
However, Russell added, there are risks to going around Karzai as the centerpiece of a strategy. “Karzai is very good at this sort of thing,” Russell said. “He could undermine these regional governors if they get too powerful.”
Former UN envoy Peter Galbraith just said on MSNBC that Afghanistan’s weirdo president, Hamid Karzai, is a junkie. “He can be very emotional, act impulsively,” Galbraith said on the Andrea Mitchell show. “In fact, some of the palace insiders say that he has a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports.” Ha ha, you should’ve seen the look on Chuck Todd’s face.
The U.S. military Tuesday reported the biggest surge in recruits since the end of the draft – an increase that likely will relieve pressure on troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan by allowing them to spend more time at home between overseas deployments.
The U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force sent about 169,000 new recruits for training in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The Pentagon said this was the highest figure since 1973, the first year of the modern all-volunteer force. The numbers also exceed the Pentagon’s goal for the year of 164,000 new service members.
Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said the larger-than-expected recruitment numbers – which were boosted by rising unemployment elsewhere in the economy – likely would reduce some of the burdens on soldiers serving overseas.
The Pentagon boasted this week that the U.S. armed forces have exceeded their recruitment goals for this year. Some officials attributed the success to high unemployment in the civilian job market, others to a spurt in civic-mindedness.
Whatever the theory, manyreporters assumed the numbers mean that more young men and women are joining the military.
In fact, however, fewer people joined the Army this year than last year. The Army exceeded its recruitment goals not because recruitment went up but rather because recruitment goals were lowered.
The Army is the service that has been having the hardest time finding new recruits in recent years, in part because it has borne the heaviest burden—and suffered by far the most casualties—in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
According to the Pentagon’s report,the Army’s goal for fiscal year 2009 was to sign 65,000 new recruits. It actually signed 70,045—amounting to 8 percent more than the target.
But the picture is less bright than it seems. Though the Pentagon’s report doesn’t mention this fact, in each of the previous two years, the Army’s recruitment goal was80,000—much higher than this year’s. The Army met those targets, but only by drastically lowering its standards—accepting more applicants who’d dropped out of high school or flunked the military’s aptitude test.
This year, the recruiters restored the old standards—a very good thing for troops’ morale and military effectiveness—but they signed up 10,000 fewer new soldiers.
It is, in other words, not the case that high unemployment or a new public spirit is leading more young men and women into the Army. It’s not the case that more young men and women are going into the Army at all.
The strange thing is, most of the analysis I saw in the initial stories about the Army’s ’09 recruitment haul didn’t chalk it up to a new public spirit but, rather, to high unemployment. Which made it almost a negative story for the Obama administration, since it just served to remind people of the bad economy (as if they needed a reminder). So the Army’s fudging its numbers is doubly bad news for the commander in chief: not only is the Army shrinking (when, per the Secretary of Defense and Congress, it’s supposed to be growing) but it’s making people think that it’s growing because times are so tough people have no choice but to enlist. Doh.
This is not the first time that the numbers have been fiddled with to make someone look a whole lot better. At my old blog, I routinely tracked recruiting numbers, and the May 2005 report was a golden oldie for numerical trickery:
“The New York Times is reporting on the May recruiting data for the active duty army. And it is a doozy: between 25% and 38% short with little hope of improvement. Why the wide range in the shortfall? Simple — I was wrong on how the numbers would be massaged — instead of combining Army numbers with the better Navy and Air Force numbers, the Army just decided to cut their objective by 1,350 recruits in the middle of the recruiting month.
So the Army was able to find 5,000 new recruits instead of the 8,050 that they initially wanted, and 6,700 that they finally decided that they wanted. With the new objective, this month does not look that “bad” compared to April, and comparable with March’s numbers.”
The Obama administration considered sending other envoys, according to the Washington Post, which quoted Asian expert Chris Nelson as saying Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was on the short list. Others had no doubt lobbied for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who negotiated the release of other Americans from oppressive regimes. Some even thought Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president, might have been a logical choice. CNN reports the North Koreans vetoed them.
The New York Times reports that the former president flew yesterday to North Korea in an unmarked jet and was greeted on the Pyongyang tarmac by both a young Korean girl, bearing a bouquet of white flowers, as well as North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan. The presence of the negotiator raised hopes that Clinton would also be able to open a dialogue about the North’s escalating nuclear program. In May, the government conducted its second nuclear test and then launched several ballistic missiles. The journalists’ capture was seen as a part of an overall campaign to force the West into engagement.
I’m sure the North Koreans would have pressed the nuclear issue with any visiting American representative, but the fact that the rep is Clinton–former president and husband of the current Secretary of State–does make this a bigger gamble for the Obama administration. After all, not many people would have believed the U.S. was rewarding bad behavior if it was Bill Richardson making this visit to Pyongyang.
If Bill Clinton can secure the release of the two women taken hostage by the regime in Pyongyang, it will be fantastic news, and worth every awkward “Bill Clinton Goes to North Korea for Women” headline.
Still, one can’t help but wonder how the Secretary of State feels at this moment. First her duties are limited by a slew of special envoys; now her husband is given responsibility for the most tense and dramatic diplomatic mission of this young presidency.
It would be fun to make him watch some Marilyn Monroe flicks with Dear Geezer, too, lots of good American presidential immorality irony there, maybe with the “Happy Birthday Mr President” footage as a short before the main feature, only Beloved Bouffant’s been a little sickly lately and might not up to a movie marathon. Too bad, because Glorious Safari Suit’s so … ronery. One thing Bill, just because you’re out of the country, someplace where no one knows you, don’t, whatever you do …
[…] The United States, as reported at the NYT link above, is eager to avoid linkage between the release of the captured journos and any of the other myriad issues. Good luck with that. And Bill’s track record in negotiations with the Norks … not so good. Last time, they got the aid and the nukes. However, it may be that giving them Bill to play with for a while will satisfy them. Hope so. As ill-advised as skulking around the North Korean border is, the Gore news agency in sending Laura Ling and Euna Lee into harm’s way was at least trying to address a real menace to the planet.
Normally I’d dismiss the idea of Clinton apologizing for the crime of journalism as North Korean propaganda, but after today’s betrayal of democracy, I’m not so sure. Exit question one: The media’s bound to greet this with another round of “Hillary marginalized!” stories, but isn’t it better that Obama sent a private citizen than the secretary of state? The difficulty here was giving Kim enough to get the journalists back without giving him so much that it would sacrifice the prestige of the U.S. government. Having the head of the State Department jet off to Pyongyang to beg for mercy would have been humiliating. Having the Clenis do it — well, who cares? Exit question two: Any hawk worth his or her salt will bristle at the thought of Kim being “rewarded” for kidnapping journalists with a state visit by a former C-in-C, but isn’t that perfectly consistent with our North Korea policy? They’re a major threat to launch a regional war but they’re also oddly easily placated by sporadic attention (and food assistance, natch) from the United States. A state visit every 10-12 years to keep Kim stable-ish and out of our hair seems like a bargain as a way to buy time until the regime eventually implodes.
Barack, Bibi, And The Bomber Boys
Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic:
Steve Clemons at the Washington Note:
Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:
Jonathan Tobin at Commentary:
UPDATE: Fred Kaplan at Slate
Joe Klein at Swampland at Time
UPDATE #2: Robin Wright at The Atlantic
Christopher Hitchens in Slate
UPDATE #3: Elliott Abrams at The Atlantic
UPDATE #4: Marc Lynch at The Atlantic
UPDATE #5: Heather Hurlburt and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads
Filed under Israel/Palestine, Middle East
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