Tag Archives: Peter Feaver

The Lack Of Preparation And Focus On The Imminent Zombie Problem Is Disturbing

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

In unveiling his first formal National Security Strategy Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama called for “a strategy of national renewal and global leadership,” emphasizing U.S. economic strength as the foundation of American power and promising to deepen U.S. alliances and partnerships around the world.

The Cable has obtained the text of the 52-page document, which the White House is planning to roll out later today.

The NSS was the product of months of deliberation and consultation inside the administration. Its lead author is Ben Rhodes, the president’s lead foreign-policy speechwriter and a deputy national security advisor. It represents both a repudiation of some of the most controversial aspects of the Bush-era strategy and a continuation of many of its key elements.

The opening letter from President Obama begins with a call to arms:

“Time and again in our nation’s history, Americans have risen to meet — and to shape — moments of transition. This must be one of those moments,” it starts. “We live in a time of sweeping change. The success of free nations, open markets, an social progress in recent decades has accelerated globalization on an uprecedented scale.”

He then pivots sharply to the tense national security atmosphere and the war against Islamic extremism — though the word “Islamic” is no longer in the document, as the administration seeks to head off concerns that the United States is at war with the Muslim world:

“For nearly a decade, our nation has been at war with a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” it reads. “Moreover, as we face multiple threats — from nations, non-state actors, and failed states — we will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades.”

Daniel Drezner:

Through the magic of the search function, here’s a short list of what’s hot and what’s not in the NSS:  Here are the number of mentions for the following words:

Russia:  12

China:  9

Europe:  7

Japan:  2

Brazil:  3

India:  7

Africa:  12

Israel:  9

Palestine:  1

Al Qa’ida:  21

North Korea:  3

Iran:  9

Iraq:  19

Afghanistan:  16

Pakistan:  11

nonproliferation: 13

terrorism:  14

pandemic:  7

volcano:  0

cyber:  11

Doha round:  1

zombies:  0

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy:

The roll-out of President Obama’s National Security Strategy tries to frame the strategy as a repudiation of his predecessor’s. But the reality is that the new strategy is best characterized as “Bush Lite”, a slightly watered down but basically plausible remake of President Bush’s National Security Strategy. If you only read the Obama Team’s talking points, or only read the mainstream media coverage, which amounts to the same thing, this assessment may come as a big surprise. But if you actually read the Obama’s NSS released today, and President Bush’s most recent NSS released in 2006, the conclusion is pretty obvious.

  • President Bush’s NSS emphasized effective, action-oriented multilateralism to address the challenges of the day: to “strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends” and to “develop agendas for cooperative action with the other main centers of global power.” Obama’s NSS emphasizes “comprehensive engagement” built on the “cornerstone” of our traditional allies but expanding outwards to include “more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence.”
  • Bush’s NSS emphasized that our national security did not rest solely on material factors (eg., the balance of military forces) but also on the strength and appeal of our moral values, especially America’s commitment to defend and advance “human rights protected by democratic institutions.” Obama’s NSS makes the same point: “The United States rejects the false choice between the narrow pursuit of our interests and an endless campaign to impose our values.”
  • Bush’s NSS recognized that international institutions were flawed but essential and thus needed to be reformed. Obama’s NSS makes the exact same point: “we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time and the shortage of political will that has at times stymied the enforcement of international norms. Yet it would be destructive to both American national security and global security if the United States used the emergence of new challenges and the shortcomings of the international system as a reason to walk away from it. Instead, we must focus American engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests…”
  • Bush’s NSS identified the most urgent threat to be the nexis of WMD proliferation (especially nuclear), terrorists, and state sponsors of terrorism. Obama’s NSS makes the same determination, “there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states.”
  • Bush recognized that the war on terror would require all elements of national power, from military to law enforcement to soft power, and Obama’s NSS makes the same point.
  • Obama’s NSS even explicitly endorses America’s prerogatives to use military force well before it is a last resort — “While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can (emphasis added)” — and unilaterally — “The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests.” (emphasis added)

Perhaps the most striking continuity is in the recognition that America must lead. This was an important theme of Bush’s NSS. Effective action depended on American leadership – “the international community is most engaged in such action when the United States leads.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

It’s an impressive document, and goes a long way towards providing a coherent framework for American foreign policy and national security which makes sense of what the administration has been doing and offers a roadmap to where it wants to go. From my perspective, the most interesting — and strongest — part of the NSS deals with the administration’s new approach to al-Qaeda. The most problematic is the gap between its strong commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law and its practice thus far with regard to things like drone strikes.

The NSS lays out “a comprehensive strategy” in what it repeatedly calls a war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, one “that denies [al-Qaeda and its affiliates] safe haven, strengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a bankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity.” It defines this in narrow terms: “this is not a global war against a tactic — terrorism or a religion — Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa’ida, and its terrorist affiliates.” It places this war within the perspective of broader foreign policy concerns, and warns against overreaction to terrorist provocations — pointing out, correctly, that al-Qaeda’s strategy hopes to trigger such American overreactions, leading to counterproductive political responses and interventions which drain our resources, alienate our friends, and radicalize Muslims around the world. Much of the NSS can be read as a multi-level, robust strategy to prevent such self-defeating responses, while doing everything actually necessary to disrupt and defeat the threat which actually exists.

Spencer Ackerman at Washington Independent:

There’s a certain caricature of Obama on the right that holds he only accepts American exceptionalism — the view that America has an outsize role to play in global affairs — in the sense that he finds America exceptionally blameworthy. The responsible exercise of U.S. foreign policy for Obama, goes this view, is to restrain it until it withers away. Charles Krauthammer offered that thesis. Mitt Romney put it in hardcover. Sarah Palin put it on Facebook. And it won’t go away with the National Security Strategy, because it was never tethered to reality. But the National Security Strategy demonstrates how it’s the exact opposite of what the Obama presidency is about.

Every single focus outlined in the National Security Strategy is about the maintenance of American power on the international stage in an era when the international order is less tethered to the traditional power of big alliances of states than ever, thanks to global financial destabilization, super-empowered individual extremists or proliferating nuclear weapons. American power, Obama argues, rests on insolvent foundations if it doesn’t invest in domestic priorities, principally “the long term growth of our economy and competitiveness of our citizens.” It won’t rally global actors to a common purpose if it doesn’t pursue “comprehensive engagement” with the world, predicated on the international institutions that represent and reflect the world’s forums for expression of consensus standards of behavior. And it won’t possess credibility if it violates “respect for universal values at home and around the world.”

That creates an interlocking series of obligations for implementing the strategy. “National security draws on the strength and resilience of our citizens, communities, and economy,” Obama argues, so that requires the maintenance and integration of not only military, diplomatic, development, intelligence and economic power, but also of domestic prosperity and justice. This is a blueprint for investing in health and education as much as it is a blueprint for investing in the military. When you think about it, how can you really separate the two? The military is worried about the security implications of the obesity epidemic, after all. This is a broad expansion of a military concept known as “interdependent capabilities,” where the assets within one service or branch or department can support and magnify those of others — applied across the government, and across governments.

Second, it requires a “a rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests. International institutions must be more effective and representative of the diffusion of influence in the 21st century. Nations must have incentives to behave responsibly, or be isolated when they do not.” International power isn’t a “zero-sum game,” Obama argues — a central refutation of Bush’s insistence that the U.S. ought to never allow a new superpower to develop — with one major conceptual exception. Isolated nations and actors really do face zero-sum situations against an international community united around common norms. And that’s how Obama argues American leadership can marshal institutions for common objectives over the long term.

Eli Lake at The Washington Times, before the release, on John Brennan’s speech about the NSS:

The new strategy, according to Mr. Brennan, will continue the George W. Bush administration strategy of seeking to distinguish al Qaeda terrorism from the religion of Islam. Mr. Brennan specifically said the Obama administration would no longer use the terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” “because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community.”

At the same time, the new strategy states that the United States remains on a war footing against al Qaeda and seeks to destroy the group and its affiliates, Mr. Brennan said. He further noted that the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks is different from other Muslim terrorist groups that might have local grievances.

The emphasis on homegrown radicals reflects the recent trend of attacks and attempted attacks in the United States by U.S. citizens or residents who were inspired to wage terrorism as a result of information posted on the Internet.

The latest such attempt was purportedly made by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born naturalized American arrested in connection with an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a homemade car bomb in New York City’s Times Square.

Andrew Exum:

In summary, I would have liked to have seen a more ruthless prioritization of efforts. If I were a reporter working the national security beat and could ask Sec. Clinton just one question today, my question would be, “Madam Secretary, this strategy lays out some very ambitious goals for the United States. But if we could only do three of the things on the list of activities, what would they be? What, in other words, are this nation’s top priorities in national security — whereby if we get other stuff wrong but get these specific things right, we can sleep soundly at night?”

UPDATE: A couple of my friends have written some good dissenting opinions in reply to my comments. The first objection (written by my officemate, the GZA aka The Genius, and soon-to-be-posted in full on Tom’s blog) is basically, “Exum, as usual, you’re complaining too much. The NSS is not meant to match ends, ways and means. It is intended to outline the broader way in which the administration thinks about the contemporary security environment. The NSS can’t allot resources because we have this thing called the legislative branch — you may have heard of it? — which does that. The QDR and QDDR are the documents that should then identify ends, ways and means.”

My response to that is, uh, first off, the QDR preceded the NSS. Which, we can all agree, is as f***ed up as a football bat. Also, the QDR also punted on setting priorities, something that has frustrated both allies with whom I have spoken as well as key legislators. (See, Abe! I am aware of the Congress!) I will note my major complaint about all of this, though, after I cover the second objection.

The second objection is that these kinds of “strategies” are really just long political speeches focused on national security. There is a little in there for everyone, and everyone’s activities and opinions are at least acknowledged if not promoted. The document is, at the end of the day, intended more for external consumption than for internal use.

The problem with this is the internal leadership vacuum that results. Like it or not, people in the Departments of Defense, National Intelligence and State — not to mention USAID and the combatant commands — will refer back to this document to justify their programs and budget requests before both the administration and the Congress. And who can blame them? It’s an official document signed off on by POTUS himself. All of those good progressive voices who fret the military has too much power and is dictating strategy from below need to take note here: when you produce something-for-everyone documents like this NSS and the QDR which do not set firm priorities, you’re essentially asking departments and commanders below you in the food chain to set their own priorities. Or, at best, you are forcing them to constantly be seeking guidance as to what your true priorities are.

I may be asking for too much — I don’t know. But both the QDR and this NSS strike me as thoughtful, intelligent, comprehensive and … kinda empty. Because these documents do not establish clear priorities or recommendations, I am left studying the budget like everyone else for clues as to what the U.S. government’s real priorities are for national security.

UPDATE: More Drezner

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, GWOT, Homeland Security, Political Figures

Bringing It All Back Home Or Back To The Iraq Future

Tom Ricks in the NYT

Whether or not the elections bring the long-awaited political breakthrough that genuinely ends the fighting there, 2010 is likely to be a turning-point year in the war, akin to the summer of 2003 (when the United States realized that it faced an insurgency) and 2006 (when that insurgency morphed into a small but vicious civil war and American policy came to a dead end). For good or ill, this is likely the year we will begin to see the broad outlines of post-occupation Iraq. The early signs are not good, with the latest being the decision over the weekend of the leading Sunni party, the National Dialogue Front, to withdraw from the elections.

The political situation is far less certain, and I think less stable, than most Americans believe. A retired Marine colonel I know, Gary Anderson, just returned from Iraq and predicts a civil war or military coup by September. Another friend, the journalist Nir Rosen, avers that Iraq is on a long-term peaceful course. Both men know Iraq well, having spent years working there. I have not seen such a wide discrepancy in expert views since late 2005.

The period surrounding the surge of 2007 has been misremembered. It was not about simply sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq; it was about using force differently, moving the troops off big bases to work with Iraqi units and live among the people. Perhaps even more significantly, the surge signaled a change in American attitudes, with more humility about what could be done, more willingness to listen to Iraqis, and with quietly but sharply reduced ambitions.

The Bush administration’s grandiose original vision of transforming Iraq into a beacon of democracy that would alter the Middle East and drain the swamps of terrorism was scuttled and replaced by the more realistic goal of getting American forces out and leaving behind a country that was somewhat stable and, with luck, perhaps democratic and respectful of human rights. As part of the shift, the American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, also effectively put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll.

Looking back now, I think the surge was the right thing to do. In rejecting the view of the majority of his military advisers and embracing the course proposed by a handful of dissidents, President Bush found his finest moment. That said, the larger goal of the surge was to facilitate a political breakthrough, which has not happened.

All the existential questions that plagued Iraq before the surge remain unanswered. How will oil revenue be shared among the country’s major groups? What is to be the fundamental relationship between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? And what will be the role of Iran (for my money, the biggest winner in the Iraq war thus far)?

Nir Rosen at Rick’s place at Foreign Policy has a different point of view:

It’s been frustrating to read the latest hysteria about sectarianism returning to Iraq, the threat of a new civil war looming, or even the notion that Iraq is “unraveling.” I left Iraq today after an intense mission on behalf of Refugees International. My colleague Elizabeth Campbell and I traveled comfortably and easily throughout Baghdad, Salahedin, Diyala and Babil. We were out among Iraqis until well into the night every day, often in remote villages, traveling in a normal Toyota Corolla. Our main hassle was traffic and having to go through a thousand security checkpoints a day. Stay tuned for our report next month about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq (which deserves more attention than political squabbles) and the situation of Iraqis displaced since 2003. Stay tuned for my own article about what I found politically as well. And finally stay tuned later this year for my book on the Iraqi civil war, the surge, counterinsurgency and the impact of  the war in Iraq on the region.

From the beginning of the occupation the US government and media focused too much on elite level politics and on events in the Green Zone, neglecting the Iraqi people, the “street,” neighborhoods, villages, mosques. They were too slow to recognize the growing resistance to the occupation, too slow to recognize that there was a civil war and now perhaps for the same reason many are worried that there is a “new” sectarianism or a new threat of civil war. The US military is not on the streets and cannot accurately perceive Iraq, and journalists are busy covering the elections and the debaathification controversy, but not reporting enough from outside Baghdad, or even inside Baghdad.

Iraqis on the street are no longer scared of rival militias so much, or of being exterminated and they no longer have as much support for the religious parties. Maliki is still perceived by many to be not very sectarian and not very religious, and more of a “nationalist.” Another thing people would notice if they focused on “the street” is that the militias are finished, the Awakening Groups/SOIs are finished, so violence is limited to assassinations with silencers and sticky bombs and the occasional spectacular terrorist attack — all manageable and not strategically important, even if tragic. Politicians might be talking the sectarian talk but Iraqis have grown very cynical.

When you talk to people they tell you that the sectarian phase is over. Of course with enough fear it could come back, but Shiites do not feel threatened by any other group, and Sunnis aren’t being rounded up, the security forces provide decent enough security, and they are pervasive, there is no reason for people to cling to militias in self defense and besides militiamen are still being rounded up, I just don’t see enough fuel here for a conflagration — leaving aside the Arab/Kurdish fault line, of course. (Though if Maliki went to war with the Kurds that would only further unite Sunni and Shiite Arabs.) The Iraqi Security Forces like Maliki enough, even if they prefer Alawi. The Iraqi army will not fall apart on sectarian lines, it would attack Sunni and Shiite militias, if there were any, but these militias are emasculated. They can assassinate and dispatch car bombs but they can’t hold ground, they can’t engage in firefights with checkpoints. The Iraqi Security Forces might arrest a lot of innocent people, but they’re also rounding up “bad guys” and getting a lot of tips from civilians. The Iraqi Security Forces might be brutal, sometimes corrupt, but they no longer act as death squads, they take their role very seriously, perhaps too seriously, but these days anything is better than the recent anarchy and sectarian massacres.

Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan in WSJ:

Success remains possible, but only if the Obama administration abandons the campaign rhetoric of “end this war” and commits itself to helping Iraqis build a just, accountable, representative government. It needs to establish long-term security ties that will bind our two states together, including the continuing deployment of American military forces in Iraq if the Iraqis so desire.

Many fundamental questions will be answered this year about how Iraq is to be governed that will shape its development for decades. Is the election free, fair and inclusive? Do all communities emerge from it with leaders who they feel represent them? Is there a peaceful transition of power? What is the relationship between the central government and provincial governments? What role will the military play in the evolving political system? Does Iran get to vet Iraqi political candidates? What relationship will the U.S. have with Iraq over the long term?

Tehran seems to know what answers it wants regarding Iraq’s future. Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked doggedly in 2009 to rebuild the coalition of the three major Iraqi Shiite parties that had run in 2005 as a bloc. That effort failed when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to join.

The Iranians then actively but unsuccessfully lobbied for Iraq’s parliament to pass a closed-list election law in October 2009 in which the people could not choose particular candidates, seeking to increase their control of political parties and thus electoral outcomes.

On Jan. 7, 2010, when Foreign Minister Mottaki visited Iraq, the Accountability and Justice Commission (which was established in August 2003 to vet individuals who might serve in the government for links to the Baath Party) announced that it was banning more than 500 candidates from the upcoming parliamentary elections. They included some of the most prominent Sunni leaders who had been running on cross-sectarian lists.

Ahmed Chalabi, a leading member of the Iranian-backed Shiite list, helped drive the ban through the commission. So did Ali Faisal al-Lami. Mr. Lami was arrested in 2008 for orchestrating an attack by the Iranian proxy group Aseeb Ahl al Haq (AAH) that killed six Iraqis and four Americans in Sadr City. AAH splinters re-activated its military activities, after a year long cease-fire, by kidnapping an American contractor on Jan. 23. AAH is nevertheless running candidates such as Mr. Lami for parliamentary seats.

But politics is by no means Tehran’s only sphere of influence in Iraq. The Iranian armed forces violated Iraqi sovereignty on at least two occasions in 2009—U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone in Iraqi territory in March 2009, and Iranian troops ostentatiously seized an Iraqi oil well in December 2009 as the Iraqis completed a round of international oil bids.

Jackson Diehl in WaPo:

How odd, then, that Iraq — where the United States has invested $700 billion and the lives of more than 4,300 soldiers over the past seven years — is no longer a top priority for the White House, the State Department or nearly anyone in Congress.

Two Americans who understand how big the stakes are — U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and top commander Gen. Raymond Odierno — were in Washington last week to explain. Iraq’s March 7 election and what follows it, Hill said, will “determine the future of Iraq . . . and also the future of the U.S. relationship with Iraq.”

Said Odierno: “We have an opportunity in Iraq today that we might never get again in our lifetimes . . . to develop a democratic Iraq that has a long-term partnership with the United States.”

Compare that with Obama’s account of Iraq in his State of the Union address: “We are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. . . . We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.” That pledge means that even while Iraq passes through this crucial turning point, U.S. forces will be reduced from 98,000 now to 50,000 on Sept. 1.


First among these is Iran, which has a simple strategy for the coming months: Turn the elections into a bitter sectarian battle — and thereby ensure that the next government will be led by its hard-line Shiite allies.

To an alarming extent, the campaign is succeeding. Tehran’s leading agent, as both Hill and Odierno noted, is Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite who in 2002 played a major role in persuading the Bush administration to go to war. Now he has managed to have hundreds of candidates eliminated from the election on the mostly bogus grounds that they were or are loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. His targets are not just Sunni leaders but secular nationalists — the two most important banned candidates are leading members of cross-sectarian alliances. The success of those tickets would be a triumph for Iraqi democracy — and a huge setback for Iran.

Chalabi aims to become prime minister of the next government, which would be a disaster for Iraq and for Washington. And worse outcomes are possible. Also angling for power are Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who oversaw the interior ministry when it was infamous for torture and death squads; and Ibrahim Jaafari, who as prime minister oversaw the eruption of the sectarian war of 2006-07.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

The headline here is that General Odierno is planning contingencies for slowing down U.S. drawdown plans, but I don’t actually think that’s much of a story.  Of course he is — it would be irresponsible to not plan for contingencies. But I’ve seen little indication that the Obama administration, or for that matter Gen. Odierno, has been anything but committed to the drawdown from Iraq. That commitment has been clear, and that’s all the the good.

There’s been a mini-boom of late in commentary urging Obama to delay his timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, or at least to “do more” —  the Kagans are shocked, shocked to discover that Iranians are influential in Iraq, Jackson Diehl just wants Obama to care more about Iraq (without any hint of what policies might follow). They should be ignored. The administration is handling Iraq calmly, maturely, and patiently,  has demonstrated in word and deed its commitment to its drawdown policy, and has tried hard to thread a devilish needle of trying to shape events without triggering an extremely potent Iraqi backlash. It is possible, if not likely, that there could be slippage on the August deadline of getting to 50,000 troops, mainly because the elections slipped all the way to March. That’s one of the reasons I always was skeptical of pegging the drawdown to the elections, but that ship has long since sailed. But the SOFA target of December 2011 for a full U.S. withdrawal is a legal deadline, not a political one. It could only be changed at the request of the Iraqi government, and not by American fiat. While Iraqi politicians may say in private that they may be open to a longer U.S. presence, very few will say so in public — because it would be political suicide in a nationalist, highly charged electoral environment.

The drawdown will probably matter considerably less than people expect. With the new SOFA-defined rules of engagement, U.S. forces have already stopped doing many of the things associated with the “surge.” The Iraqi response to American efforts on the de-Baathification circus demonstrate painfully clearly that the nearly 100,000 troops still in Iraq gave very little leverage on an issue which the U.S. at least publicly deemed vital — a point made very effectively by Ambassador Hill at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. The sharp backlash against even the measured criticisms by U.S. officials offers an important lesson:  Doing the sorts of assertive things which may please Obama’s critics are highly likely to spark a negative reaction among Iraqis, generating more hostility to the U.S. role without actually accomplishing anything. The U.S. is wise to avoid them.

That doesn’t mean that things are rosy. The de-Baathification circus has demonstrated the fragility of Iraqi institutions, and helped to reignite sectarian resentments and fears (many Sunnis feel targeted, while many Shia are being treated to an endless barrage of anti-Ba’athist electoral propaganda). There’s very much a risk of long, drawn-out coalition talks after the election. It isn’t certain how a transition from power will go, should Maliki’s list lose, given the prime minister’s efforts to centralize power in his office over the last few years. There may well be a spike in violence by frustrated losers in the elections. If there’s massive fraud on election day, things could get ugly. The elections, already marred by the de-Baathification fiasco, may well end up producing a new Parliament and government which doesn’t really change much. There are big, long-deferred issues to confront after the elections, such as the Article 140 referendum over Kirkuk.

But none of those issues would be resolved by an American effort to delay its military drawdown. They generally fall into the “sub-optimal” rather than the “catastrophic” category. An American decision to delay the drawdown would not likely be welcomed by Iraqis in the current political environment. Nor would it generate more leverage for the U.S. over internal Iraqi affairs. Iraq’s future is not really about us, if it ever was — not a function of American military levels, commitment, or caring, but rather of internal Iraqi power struggles and dynamics.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

First of all, Odierno has no power to decide whether troops stay or go. He is bound, as the United States is bound, by a standing agreement on the status of forces with Iraq, and any stay beyond the dates contained therein would represent a violation of international law. Second, “if something happens” is far too broad a category to make a determination on troop levels. Something will happen, as it has been happening in Iraq ever since the invasion, as it will continue while groups jockey for power. It will happen with 100,000 US troops in the country or 50,000 troops or 5 troops. Our presence has no impact on that whatsoever.

I’m getting very nervous about this. You’re starting to see the very serious people demand we stay in Iraq, in one case using the circular argument that we must remain to stop Ahmed Chalabi, who was instrumental in us invading Iraq in the first place, from becoming Prime Minister. Our foreign policy establishment can only conceive of starting wars, not ending them. We are currently occupied with two of the three longest wars in American history – and if some neocons have their way, a third will follow soon. It’s time to leave Iraq to its people, as the President has consistently stated. No election or act of violence can change that.

Spencer Ackerman on Odierno:

Here’s the transcript. Odierno starts his Q&A with the Pentagon press yesterday by noting that after 2011 the U.S. military presence, by mutual agreement, will be “what we’d usually have at a normal embassy, a military contingent that would help to support Iraq.” Iraq will have to request any additional military presence, and Odierno says he’d probably expect some requested help with all the U.S. weaponry we’ll continue selling to Iraq. Later on, long after the contingency-planning line — which occurs in the context of his recent anti-Chalabi comments about Iranian influence in Iraq — he says that he expects the drawdown to 50,000 troops by September to hold “probably somewhere through the middle of 2011, and then we’ll begin to draw down to zero.” Zero. Unless there’s some request by the Iraqis and the Obama administration accedes. Big difference between 96,000 troops (where we are now) and a bunch of guys to help Iraqis use an American tank.

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy:

Senior figures in the Defense Department and U.S. military leaders on the ground in Iraq have signaled that they are watching closely to determine whether conditions on the ground will permit sticking with the withdrawal timetable negotiated by President Bush in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. Apparently, they still estimate that conditions will allow a responsible withdrawal, but the mere fact that they are signaling concern should be, well, concerning for our political leaders.

The desire of the political community to put Iraq in the rear-view mirror is understandable, but misguided. The national security challenges that are receiving front-burner attention — especially Afghanistan and Iran — are integrally linked to the policy trajectory in Iraq. Since the fateful surge decision, the Iraq policy trajectory has been far more positive than anyone, academics or practitioners, thought likely. But the progress remains reversible and if Iraq unravels, then all of the other national security problems will get that much more difficult to address.

The theme of the academic conference was bridging the gap between academics and practitioners. In taking the collective eye off the ball on Iraq, it seems academics and practitioners may be unfortunately all-too-much in synch.

Spencer Ackerman, riffing off Feaver:

Over the last several years, there’s been a lot of head-nodding in foreign policy circles that we have to put our shoulders to the grindstone and take Seriously the fact that we’re waging two prolonged wars. Now, as a statement of fact, if you find yourself in two wars, ignoring at least one of them is obviously undesirable. Alternatively, ending at least one of them — particularly if one of them isn’t in the national interest — is a good idea. But when people started saying that Iraq distracted from Afghanistan, I’m not sure if the full implication was really absorbed. I remember the Bush administration, implausibly, pushing against it, saying this-or-that combat brigade or intelligence asset might be in Iraq but that didn’t mean Afghanistan was shortchanged.

But perhaps the right lesson is to replay that war is too complex and demanding to have to compete with a whole other war simultaneously, for any sustained period. It’s not just a question of launching discrete military strikes — your occasional Hellfire missile — or having X-number of troops or X-amount of money. It’s that you only have so many exceptional officers. You only have so much time in the day. You only have so many creative intelligence analysts. You only have so much mental ability to process complex and ever-changing amounts of data that mean the difference between life and death and the protection of national interests. There’s only so much human beings, organized into groups for the purposes of accomplishing a task, can do. War is hard.

Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan

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Dammit, Janet

Michelle Malkin:

It has been, in the words of Queen Elizabeth II, an “annus horribilis” for DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Beginning with her embrace of the impotent euphemism “man-caused disasters” to the hit job on conservatives and veterans that she was forced to apologize for, to her assertion that crossing the border illegally “isn’t a crime per se”, to her boneheaded claim that 9/11 terrorists came in through the Canadian border, Ja-No has confirmed time and again that she’s not ready for prime time.

Today, she caps off her horrible year by playing Big Pollyanna in the wake of the Flight 253. The botched bombing — foiled by a faulty detonator and brave passengers, not by homeland security bureaucrats or any preemptive measures by intel officials — shows that the in Ja-No’s fantasy world.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

Understandbly, the White House is trying very hard to get out in front of the would-be Christmas bomber story. The head of the Department of Homeland Security isn’t helping. I watched her on three shows and each time she was more annoying, maddening, and absurd than the pevious appearance. It is her basic position that the “system worked” because the bureaucrats responded properly after the attack. That the attack was “foiled” by a bad detonator and some civilian passengers is proof, she claims, that her agency is doing everything right. That is just about the dumbest thing she could say, on the merits and politically. I would wager that not one percent of Americans think the system is “working” when terrorists successfully get bombs onto planes (and succeed in activating them). Probably even fewer think it’s fair that they have to take off their shoes, to endure delays and madness while a known Islamic radical — turned in by his own father — can waltz onto a plane (and into the country). DHS had no role whatsoever in assuring that this bomb didn’t go off. By her logic if the bomb had gone off, the system would have “worked” since it has done everything right.

Thomas Joscelyn at The Weekly Standard:

In fact, contrary to what Napolitano says, there are an increasing number of “suggestion(s)” that the “system” failed miserably.  Abdulmutallab’s father says he contacted the U.S. embassy to warn American officials about his son’s radicalism weeks ago. If true, and he still wasn’t prevented from getting on an American-bound airliner, then this was a “system” failure. According to this accountfrom CBS News, U.S. officials knew about Abdulmutallab for two years and while he was not on the no-fly list (a failure in and of itself), he was “on a list that includes people with known or suspected contact or ties to a terrorist or terrorist organization.”

So, how did the “system” work if U.S. officials were warned about Abdulmutallab by his father, after knowing about him for two years, and yet didn’t manage to do anything to stop him?

Ed Morrissey:

I suppose one can make that argument — if one assumes that the system includes allowing a man included on a watch list onto an airplane, allowing his visa to remain in force even after his own father informs the US that he’s become a radical jihadi, assuming that any explosive said terrorist will smuggle onto the plane will fizzle out, and that only quick thinking by the other passengers on the plane kept the jihadi from trying it again while he barbecued his crotch.

Is that the actual system we put in place after 9/11? Because if it is, a lot of heads need to roll, starting with the woman who believes that this near-miss represents a validation of the system. Most of us would prefer to keep the known radical Islamist terrorists off the plane in the first place.

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy:

The almost-successful terrorist attack on Christmas day has led some to demand that heads roll in the Homeland Security Department, beginning with the top head, Janet Napolitano.

To be sure, Napolitano wins the award for dumbest spin of the year when she claimed that “the system worked.” But I think it is premature to fire Napolitano, and not simply because she has changed her spin.

It is premature because it takes time to figure out exactly what went wrong and thus who should be held accountable and in what fashion. The naval standard of accountability — the ship ran aground so the commander is automatically relieved — might result in her immediate dismissal. But for bureaucracies devoted to strategy against a cunning adversary, such a standard can lead to a zero-defect mentality.

Rather, the incident calls for a thorough congressional investigation – one that asks the tough questions and obliges members of the administration, including Napolitano, to answer those tough questions. There are all sorts of questions about who knew what, when, and what they did about it.  But I am most interested in what the investigation will reveal about the bureaucratic mindset, and here I am not talking about a zero-defect mentality but a potentially more pernicious mindset. One of the more important revelations of the 9/11 Commission investigation was the pervasiveness of what Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the “pre-9/11 mindset.” The mindset led the Clinton administration to view al Qaeda as merely a law-enforcement problem and, as a consequence, to limit themselves on what they might do to counter the threat. The Obama administration has likewise made a big point of seeking to reinstate the law enforcement mindset throughout the counterterrorism enterprise. Congressional investigators should pursue the leads to determine whether this mindset has taken hold and led to the security lapses that almost resulted in the decade ending with another devastating terrorist strike on American soil.

Bottom line: the “law enforcement mindset” may not be appropriate for fighting terrorists but it is appropriate for overseeing the national security bureaucracy. It may well be that there were lapses of judgment and oversight that rise to firing offenses. But let’s investigate the alleged crime before we execute the sentence.

Tom Bevan at Real Clear Politics:

It’s fine for Napolitano to want to reassure the American public that the skies are safe. That’s part of her job, too. But she should be smart enough to find a way of doing that without treating the American people like a bunch of morons and dupes.

Clearly, when a person who has been flagged for investigation of being a suspected terrorist (alerted to the presence of US officials by his father, no less) manages to get through security and take a seat on a US-bound airliner with a bomb strapped to his crotch, the system is not working the way it’s designed to.

The reason we didn’t have a major terror attack over Detroit three days ago is because of the heroism of the passengers on Flight 253 and the fact Abdulmutallab’s bomb had a faulty trigger. Neither of those things are part of “the system” that the government manages to ensure (to the best of its ability) that the public is safe from terrorists when they get on an airplane.

Despite sufficient warnings, that system failed – and the Secretary of Homeland Security made a fool of herself by going on television yesterday and asserting the opposite.

UPDATE: Napolitano corrects herself – but not before using the weaselly and untrue excuse that her comment yesterday was “taken out of context.” Again, the DHS Secretary appears to believe the American public are a bunch of morons.

Daniel Pipes at The Corner:

While it’s good to see that even Obama appointees can learn from their errors, Napolitano’s original gaffe reveals a state of mind among this country’s top decision makers that so long as hundreds of people do not perish, all is well.

Abdulmutallab’s near-success and Napolitano’s idiotic response tell Americans about the weakness of counterterrorist efforts so many years after 9/11. In brief, because law enforcement refuses to “threat profile” and focus on Muslims, the flying public is both inconvenienced and unsafe.

UPDATE: James Joyner

John Cole responds to Joyner

Joyner responds to Cole

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Bush, Kerry, bin Laden… Your Tora Bora Updates

Scott Shane at NYT:

As President Obama vows to “finish the job” in Afghanistan by sending more troops, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has completed a detailed look back at a crucial failure early in the battle against Al Qaeda: the escape of Osama bin Laden from American forces in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001.

“Removing the Al Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat,” the committee’s report concludes. “But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide.”

The report, based in part on a little-noticed 2007 history of the Tora Bora episode by the military’s Special Operations Command, asserts that the consequences of not sending American troops in 2001 to block Mr. bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan are still being felt.

The report blames the lapse for “laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.”

Its release comes just as the Obama administration is preparing to announce an increase in forces in Afghanistan.

Laura Rozen at Politico:

In advance of Obama’s Afghanistan policy roll out this week, a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee report investigates Osama bin Laden’s December 2001 escape from Tora Bora. “Like several previous accounts, the committee’s report blames Gen. Tommy R. Franks, then the top American commander, and Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, for not putting a large number of American troops there lest they fuel resentment among Afghans,” the Times reports.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are scheduled to testify before the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees this week, the first time a Secretary of Defense has sat before the foreign relations committee in decades, one staffer said.

Meantime, under political pressure, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari turns over nuclear controls to the prime minister. But Pakistan’s nuclear controls are really in the military’s hands, South Asia hands say.

Steve Benen:

Towards the end of the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry tried to raise public awareness of an issue Americans hadn’t heard much about. In December 2001, the U.S. had pinned down Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, but the Bush administration decided not to send additional troops.

George W. Bush, just two weeks before Election Day, was incensed by the criticism, and tried to characterize this as attacks on the military. “Now my opponent is throwing out the wild claim that he knows where bin Laden was in the fall of 2001 — and that our military had a chance to get him in Tora Bora,” the then-president said. “This is an unjustified and harsh criticism of our military commanders in the field.”

It was an odd thing to say. Far from being a “wild claim,” the Bush administration itself came to the same conclusion Kerry did — two years beforehand.


This is not to say that success at Tora Bora would have eliminated the threat posed by al Qaeda, but the fiasco allowed the terrorist network’s top leaders to escape and continue with their efforts.

The events at Tora Bora was largely ignored by major media outlets — perhaps because they were too embarrassing to the administration soon after 9/11 — but for the record, Kerry was right, and Bush was wrong.

Tom Maguire:

We have kicked this around too many times.  First, Kerry is being a retroractive genius – no one has produced any contemporaneous criticism from Kerry of the Pentagon/Administration strategy in Afghanistan, but he gave a Larry King interview from December 2001 that can certainly be read as supportive (or see Kaus or Geraghty; Media Matters questions the context).  As a comic bonus, Kerry also ruminated about the importance of expanding the war beyond Afghanistan and cited the need to keep pressure on Saddam Hussein; I guess it was only later that he realized Saddam was a distraction and a Bush obsession.

Jules Crittenden:

So, eight years later, what’s the point?

The horse is still out, and going forward, the vaguely hinted-at suggestion is that it’s important to stay focused on barn door open-closed operations.

NYT notes this comes as President Barack Obama prepares to boost the number of troops in Afghanistan. AP says the report is not just about goring that dead Bush ox, it also “could also be read as a cautionary note for those resisting an increased troop presence there now.”

Sounds very thoughtful, responsible on Kerry’s part, maybe even senatorial. And it’s a novel approach. Instead of just bashing Bush, using Bush to bash anti-war Dems who might be inclined to bash Obama. Obliquely. The weird part is that, while Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld were repeatedly whacked for going light both in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, neither news report indicates that Kerry is interested in whacking Obama, who after an exhaustive and lengthy period of review and revision, reportedly is getting ready to give his commander less than he asked for.* A quick glance at the 29-page report indicates it is entirely a rearview and doesn’t go so far as to suggest what Obama should be doing at all, beyond Kerry’s vague “hope that we can learn from the mistakes of the past.”

Which is always important. At the moment, the mistakes of the present and future are arguably of more pressing concern. Here’s a plan to avoid them:

Give your highly experienced field commanders what they ask for, a counterinsurgency plan to aimed at winning, rather than some fraction of a counterinsurgency plan aimed at exiting ASAP.

And get on with it.

Robert Farley:

I should hope that the absurdity of conservative commentary on Afghanistan is self-evident, but to summarize briefly, the Obama administration is currently under wingnut fire for a) under-resourcing the Afghanistan mission, and b) failing to do exactly what Stanley McChrystal wants (even as it, apparently, does pretty much exactly what Stanley McChrystal wants). The patent stupidity of these arguments is manifest, as the Bush administration evidently under-resourced the Afghanistan mission for some seven years before Greater Wingnuttia noticed what was happening, and the Bush administration further overrode the authority of local commanders when those commanders had unpleasant things to say, generally to the loud applause of aforementioned Wingnuttia (see, for example, the Bush administration’s decision to push forward with the Surge, in spite of the resistance of the larger US military establishment). There’s some risk, of course, in making it All About Bush, but then I suspect we’re not yet close to accounting for the lasting damage that the Bush administration (and its cheerleaders) did to US security.

The latest cause for re-examination comes with the utterly unsurprising news that the Bush administration completely botched the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in 2001 and 2002 by failing to deploy sufficient forces to Tora Bora, and by relying on Afghan proxies to fight Al Qaeda forces. The administration was abetted in its ineptitude by Tommy Franks, who apparently didn’t believe that capturing or killing the man responsible for murdering 3000+ Americans was very interesting or worthwhile. Franks “genius” went down the memory hole around the same time that Donald Rumsfeld became persona non grata among the Wingnutty, but it bears recollection that Franks was, for a while, the Greatest American Hero Evah for Destroying the Mighty Legions of Saddam Hussein. I actually think that Franks’ execution of the early weeks of the Iraq War was more capable than the retrospective judgment allows, but nevertheless it’s fair to say that his inclusion in the pantheon didn’t last very long.

Jules Crittenden, Standard Bearer of the Knights of Wingnuttia, seizes the opportunity to blame this all on …. John Kerry. Rather than denying the now-consensus position that the Bush administration developed and pursued an utterly disastrous Afghanistan policy (and really, this holds regardless of your larger attitudes about the Afghanistan War), Jules describes examination of the failure in the following terms:

So, eight years later, what’s the point?

The horse is still out, and going forward, the vaguely hinted-at suggestion is that it’s important to stay focused on barn door open-closed operations.
Indeed. It’s never worth taking time to examine massive government failures.

UPDATE: Peter Bergen at TNR

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy

Spencer Ackerman

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Well, It Is Nowhere Near As Embarrassing As Tonya Harding

So I guess you heard: Chicago didn’t get the Olympics.

Via Kevin Drum, we have:

Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner:

Chicago is out of contention. Obviously I had way too much confidence in the Obama administration’s political skills. But I’m sure that Obama will be a lot more persuasive with the Iranians.

John J. Miller at The Corner:

Wow, what an embarrassment for Obama. If he can’t work his personal magic with the Olympians, why does he expect it to work with the Iranians?

Last week, I wrote that if he made the trip to Copenhagen, then Chicago’s success was probably a done deal. Others have said this as well. In the scheme of things — health-care legislation, the fate of Afghanistan — this is small potatoes, and probably a blessing for the people of Chicago. But the symbolism looms large.

Rich Lowry at The Corner:

We Can Take Some Comfort . . .   [Rich Lowry]

. . . in this distressing hour that the Iranians, Russians, Chinese et al. are push-overs compared to the International Olympic Committee. Right?

And Drum:

You know times are tough when the NR gang all have to use the same gag writer to produce their lame jokes.  Of course, the real loser in all this is Oprah, but I notice that none of these guys has the guts to take her on.  Probably wise thinking.

Matthew Cooper at The Atlantic:

I wrote a few days ago that it was a risk for Obama to go to Copenhagen, and now we know it didn’t pay off. Will it be a big blow in the long run? I doubt it. It takes a whack out of his global superstar image, but if he had not gone and Chicago didn’t get it, then he might have taken a hit, too. I suspect Obama’s got to be angry that Chicago was eliminated so quickly and that the Americans clearly didn’t have a sense of that, or he wouldn’t have gone. No Illinois pol is going to dis the president for going. Now if he doesn’t go to Copenhagen for the Climate summit this winter…

David Frum at New Majority:

I’m stunned. I had been telling friends for days that Chicago must have the thing in the bag, because there was no way any half-way competent White House staff would allow a president to travel to a foreign city and make a public request for something without certain knowledge that the answer would be “yes.”

The rejection of the president’s suit is a humiliating rebuff. It’s also another ominous warning that for all the talk of this White House’s Chicago Way toughness, in the clinch it reveals itself credulous, placating, and soft. I wonder what they are thinking about Obama in Tehran today? Actually, I don’t wonder. I can guess.

Doug J. (being sarcastic, of course):

This presidency is over. How can Iran and Russia and North Korea and all the Hitlers of the world take us seriously now that the Olympic committee has laughed in the president’s face?

The bipartisan thing would be for Obama to resign now.

Josh Marshall at TPM:

Good for Obama, for trying to get the Olympics for the USA and for his home town. But I have to say I’m not terribly surprised if the Olympic big-wigs were not crazy about being big-footed by the American president. Maybe it had nothing to do with it at all. Apparently South America has never hosted the Olympics, making Rio a logical choice.

(I think I may go insane if I hear one more cable news yakker say they’re “shocked” and “stunned.” I mean, 9/11 it ain’t, right? I think we’ll recover.)

Rio De Janeiro will host the Olympics.

UPDATE: Peter Feaver in Foreign Policy

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Filed under Political Figures, Sports

Our Corn Flakes Are On Fire

homer epic fail

Bob Woodward in WaPo:

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict “will likely result in failure,” according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

His assessment was sent to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Aug. 30 and is now being reviewed by President Obama and his national security team.

McChrystal concludes the document’s five-page Commander’s Summary on a note of muted optimism: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”

But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy:

I have a few initial assessments of my own:

1. It is not good to have a document like this leaked into the public debate before the President has made his decision. Whether you favor ramping up or ramping down or ramping laterally, as a process matter, the Commander-in-Chief ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters without it appearing concurrently on the front pages of the Post. I assume the Obama team is very angry about this, and I think they have every right to be.

2. A case could be made that the Obama team tempted fate by authorizing Bob Woodward to travel with General Jones (cf. “whisky, tango, foxtrot”) in the first place and then sitting on this report for nearly a month without a White House response. You cannot swing a dead cat in Washington without meeting someone who was briefed on at least part of the McChrystal assessment, and virtually every one of those folks is mystified as to why the White House has not responded as of yet. The White House will have to respond now, but I stand by my first point: leaks like this make it harder to for the Commander-in-Chief to do deliberate national security planning.

3. Without knowing the provenance of the leak, it is impossible to state with confidence what the motives were. For my part, I would guess that this leak is an indication that some on the Obama team are dismayed at the White House’s slow response and fear that this is an indication that President Obama is leaning towards rejecting the inevitable requests for additional U.S. forces that this report tees up. By this logic, the leak is designed to force his hand and perhaps even to tie his hands.

Michael Goldfarb at TWS:

According to the McChrystal assessment, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Yet Obama is slow-walking the troop increase for political reasons, even as it seems likely that he will, in the end, do the right thing and send the necessary reinforcements.

The assessment also says that “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” Obama’s hand-picked commander has laid out a strategy for defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban. During the campaign Obama had promised to give the war in Afghanistan the attention and resources necessary to do just that — in explicit contrast to the Bush administration whom he alleged had diverted the resources and attention of the military from the real threat of al Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

McChrystal leaves no doubt about what must be done if Obama is to keep his word — more troops and very soon. The president cannot delay that decision any more — not for the sake of his health care initiative or anything else. And in any case, as a matter of politics the best thing for Obama and the Democrats is to win the war. Yesterday Obama immodestly compared himself to some of the great presidents of American history. “Maybe you hear what people had to say about Abraham Lincoln, or what they had to say about FDR, or what they had to say about Ronald Reagan when he first came in and was trying to change our approach to government.” That answer came in response to a question from George Stephanopoulos about the health care town halls during the August recess. But it wasn’t legislative accomplishments that made those men great presidents. It was their decision to commit fully to the major conflicts of the day — and to win decisively.

Spencer Ackerman:

Everyone I interviewed for this story made it clear that there would be no resource request, at all, unless and until Obama has determined the strategy advances that core anti-al-Qaeda interest. That includes , as you’ll see from the sourcing in the piece, people in McChrystal’s circle. I can’t conclude from my reporting that McChrystal is engaged in any power play. Nor is Petraeus engaged in any such power play. The military leadership is getting what it has said for years it wanted: a thorough and deliberative process from the political leadership to determine what the national strategy ought to be. Not a rubber stamp and not knee-jerk rejectionism. It’s all on Obama’s shoulders.

Update: On the other hand, this leak surely came from whomever wants troop levels increased

Rich Lowry at NRO:

I’m just starting to read the memo now, but this leak was ideally timed — whether intentionally or not — to push back against Obama’s weak performance on the Afghan war yesterday. Suddenly, he doesn’t know what the strategy is? This is a way for McChrystal’s voice — missing so far from the debate — to be heard loud and clear, making the case for counter-insurgency tactics and more troops to back them up.

Michael Crowley at TNR:

It’s an awfully uncomfortable spot for Obama to be in. During the campaign he spoke often–albeit usually in the context of Iraq–about heeding the advice of his commanders on the ground. Now he’s in a position where he may not want to accept it. As I wrote in my last print piece, this line of thinking helped George W. Bush screw up Iraq. That said, what the generals want is not the only consideration here. Their job is to tell Obama how the war can be won. Obama’s job is to decide whether, in the context of America’s myriad priorities at home and abroad, it’s worth the projected cost.

Ed Morrissey

Andrew Sullivan

Joe Klein in Swampland:

The President needs to know what the next Afghan governmnet is going to look like–will there be a runoff between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah? If Karzai still manages to score more than 50% after the phony ballots are tossed, will Abdullah and other Karzai opponents endorse the Karzai government? What sort of moves will Karzai make to restore some confidence in his government?  Are the Canadians going to stay in Kandarhar Province, are the British going to stay in Helmand? Are the Dutch and Australians going to stay in Uruzgan?

Obama was absolutely right on the Sunday talk shows: troop levels aren’t nearly as important as strategy. He has, at most, one more shot at getting this right. The military piece is only one part of the picture–but for many conservatives, like John McCain, it is the only piece that matters. That is a disastrously myopic way to look at an exceedingly complicated problem. Any attempts by the military, or their allies, to pressure a troop increase now are premature and misguided.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

And yet the president dawdles—waiting for what? Is it health care or some other agenda item that concerns him? We don’t know, but what is evident by the McChrystal recommendation ( and by the apparent need to leak its contents, stemming no doubt from frustration with the White House stall) is that there is good reason to be concerned that the president’s failure to make a prompt decision may in and of itself impair our ability to succeed. The president may not like what he’s hearing (”Toward the end of his report, McChrystal revisits his central theme: ‘Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure’”), but he owes the country a timely decision—or at least an honest explanation as to why he finds it so hard to make up his mind.

Kevin Drum

Dave Schuler

UPDATE: Leslie Gelb at WSJ

Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent

Max Boot in Commentary

UPDATE #2: George Packer in the New Yorker

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Come On, Come On, Listen To The Biden Talk


Joe Biden in the WSJ:

“The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”

Daniel Drezner (via Sully):

If Biden was just shooting the breeze off the record, I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with anything in the quotes.  I’m pretty sure, however, that part of “smart power” is not being gratuitously insulting to fellow members of the nuclear club.  Maybe, just maybe, they’ll take this kind of dumbass statement personally.

Don’t take my word for it, though — take Joe Biden’s:

It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they’re dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you. It just is not smart.

The word “stupid” has been thrown around a lot this week, but I think it applies pretty well to Biden’s language.

Andrew Sullivan:

The sad truth is: Biden cannot shut up. But his job as veep requires him to shut up. Dan is right: on the merits, Biden isn’t wrong here. Just completely unprofessional and unable to maintain the discipline to perform his job without constantly undermining his boss. I’d say someone needs to tell him to shut up. But it hasn’t worked for the last thirty years of his bloviation. So why would it work now?

Peter Feaver:

But the quote and the insight that really stands out concerns Russian pride and the dangers of drawing public attention to their predicament:

It won’t work if we go in and say: ‘Hey, you need us, man; belly up to the bar and pay your dues…It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they’re dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you.In other words, Biden said that the United States was going to be able to bend Russia to our diplomatic position but we should not say so publicly.  This raises the obvious question of whether Biden, in this very interview, had done just that. That question occurred to the Wall Street Journal, and they apparently posed it to a Russian spokeswoman who declined, diplomatically, to comment even while largely affirming Biden’s analysis.

I am inclined to give the Vice President a pass on this “gaffe” for two reasons.  First, I think he is more right than not in terms of his geopolitical analysis; Putin has overplayed the Russian hand and deft American statecraft should be able to do better. Second, for years I have been giving a version of this provocatively contradictory message in talks about relations between the United States and our transatlantic allies (or, as I puckishly label them, our transatlantic “in-laws”).

Daniel Larison:

What may be most remarkable about this is that this is not being treated as one of Biden’s legendary gaffes, but rather as an appropriate and acceptable comment. As I was saying earlier this week, the administration must think that Russia’s relatively greater weakness at present will make it more compliant, but I never expected any of its top members to come out and say exactly that. Bizarrely, Biden was offering all of this as evidence in favor of why the “reset” was going to work. In other words, for Biden the “reset” has always meant Russian concessions and submission, and it will “work” because Russia lacks the means to do anything else. This is staggeringly wrong.

Jay Newton-Small at Swampland:

Biden, I’m told, was simply trying to play bad cop to Obama’s good cop. After all, the straightforward, nice guy “I looked into his eyes and saw his soul” routine wasn’t exactly effective. This isn’t the first time Biden’s propensity for telling it like it is has gotten him in to trouble. So, while it’s usually the VP’s job to play bad cop, maybe saying that they’re on the brink of becoming an irrelevant third world country takes things a little too far.

Via Larison, Greg Scoblete:

And I think the mixed messages coming from the Obama administration – with Biden poking Russia in the eye and Obama taking a more conciliatory tone – are reflective of the fact that it’s not sure how to handle this situation.

And via more Larison, NYT:

At the gathering with displaced Georgian children from South Ossetia, Mr. Biden saved his harshest words for Russia.

He said he believed that Moscow “used a pretext to invade your country,” weighing in confidently on the question of whether Mr. Saakashvili should be blamed for ordering the Aug. 7 shelling of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. He said Russia had paid dearly for invading Georgia, arguing that “all the countries that surround them are now saying very harsh things to Russia.” He promised the children that the United States would press Russia to comply with the French-brokered cease-fire agreement, and that if they continued to defy it, “it is a problem for them.”

He noted the largess of Americans — “they said, ‘It’s O.K., take my money, raise my taxes’ ” — in pledging $1 billion in aid to Georgia after the war. Only five million people live in Georgia, making it one of the highest per capita recipients of American aid in the world.

“You should understand, America cares about you, cares about you personally,” Mr. Biden said. “We care about all of you, and we’re not going to leave you. It’s a hard journey, but we’re not going away.”

And Isaac Chotiner at TNR:

This is certainly a nice sentiment, but should the vice president be going so far in promising support to Georgia? If Russia does not comply with the ceasfire, the United States is going to make trouble? Really? And Americans are perfectly willing to see their taxes raised to help the Georgian people? The stakes are currently much lower, but this does put one in mind of the CIA’s efforts (via Radio Free Europe) to encourage serious resistance in Hungary in 1956, only to then inevitably abandon the Hungarians.


We knew that Biden was a hawk and was embarrassingly pro-Georgian during the August war, going so far as to visit Saakashvili that same month, and it was already clear how meaningless all of this “reset” talk was. Even so, I don’t know of any American politician other than McCain who has been so reckless and ideological in his statements about last summer’s war in Georgia. This can’t be written off simply as Biden’s normal idiocy. He was representing the administration on a major trip overseas, and this trip seems to have been calculated to serve as an insult and warning to Moscow based on Biden’s itinerary and his public remarks.

To take Biden’s claims in order, his claim about the Russian invasion is true only if by “pretext” he meant the Georgian government’s decision to escalate some small border disputes into full-scale war. It is worth noting that the ethnic Georgians who were unfortunately expelled from South Ossetia have not lived under Tbilisi’s authority for almost twenty years. There were probably not any children in the audience old enough to remember a time when South Ossetia was meaningfully part of Georgia. That doesn’t mean that they and their parents don’t think of it as part of Georgia, but it does draw our attention to an important distinction between the claims of the Georgian governmen and the political realities of the region. It also serves as a useful reminder that South Ossetia’s inclusion as part of Georgia is something relatively very recent and artificial. It has less history as part of Georgia than South Tyrol does as part of Italy.

Abe Greenwald at Commentary focuses on another Biden remark:

If you’re an enemy, we’re sorry. If you’re a friend, you’re sorry. Two days after Hillary Clinton told India to take it easy on all that industry and economic dynamism stuff, Joe Biden tells Georgia, still occupied by Russian troops, to quit whining and accept impotence like a good U.S. ally[:]

Vice President Biden told this nation’s leaders Thursday that they would never be able to use military means to recover territories lost in last year’s war with Russia, and urged them to do more to deepen democratic reforms, a senior administration official said.

That’s not mere meddling. That’s what Michelle Obama might call “downright mean.” If you take Biden’s words as policy, that is. There are two other possibilities. First, Biden is being Biden, letting the muse guide him off the reservation into the land of incoherence. Second, Obama is being Obama, counterbalancing the pro-Georgian line he took with Putin last week against its opposite so that when things go kablooey he can test the political winds, refer back to one of his two faces, choose a direction, and cite his consistency.

J.E. Dyer in Commentary:

As Abe nicely captures it, Joe Biden’s advice to Georgians this week is a masterpiece of end-of-life counseling. A “good counselor/bad counselor” dynamic seems to be emerging with the Obama-Biden foreign relations team. Biden’s entourage also performed a key role in a subtle interplay during the Georgia visit, when Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Grigory Karasin, warned third parties against selling arms to Georgia. Karasin invoked a January decree by Medvedev on “measures taken to prohibit the supply of military and double-purpose products to Georgia.” Said Karasin: “The decree foresees the use of special economic measures in relation to nations, international organizations and individuals supplying military equipment to Georgia.” The U.K. Guardian interprets this as a threat to the United States, but the Moscow Times may be more accurate in emphasizing the threat to Georgia’s regular arms suppliers in Eastern Europe. Either way, the assurance issued yesterday by a senior official traveling with Biden that the U.S. will not be selling arms to Georgia could not have been timed better to evoke appeasement.

More Larison

Spencer Ackerman

Ariel Cohen at The Heritage Foundation

Pravda, who tell Biden to “Shut it.”

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