Tag Archives: Tom Ricks

Superfly, No Fly, The Fly, Fly Girls, Fly The Friendly Skies

Eliot Spitzer at Slate:

From the spokesman for the new provisional Libyan government formed in Benghazi to the resistance fighter holed up in her apartment in Tripoli, the message from anti-Qaddafi Libyans to the West—and the United States in particular—is uniform: Help us!

Qaddafi is not Hosni Mubarak. The Libyan forces arrayed against the insurgency, unlike the Egyptian army, will show no restraint. This will be, indeed has already become, a bloody fight to the finish involving mercenaries and soldiers whose loyalty to the Qaddafi family is based on money and brute force.

Saif Qaddafi predicted “rivers of blood,” and we are now seeing them flowing from the streets of Tripoli to Libya’s other key coastal cities.

Yet the White House has offered little but antiseptic words, followed up by nothing meaningful.

However, the spectrum of options—both multilateral and unilateral—is quite broad, ranging from the creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone, to targeted attacks to take out what little remains of the Qaddafi air force, to covert efforts to keep the Qaddafi air force on the ground, to the provision of communication infrastructure to the resistance, to the provision of armaments so that they can fight on an equal footing.

Not only would our actual assistance be of great actual help, but the emotional impact of our intervention could sway many who remain with Qaddafi and bring them over to the side of the resistance.

Christopher Hitchens at Slate:

Far from being brutalized by four decades of domination by a theatrical madman, the Libyan people appear fairly determined not to sink to his level and to be done with him and his horrible kin. They also seem, at the time of writing, to want this achievement to represent their own unaided effort. Admirable as this is, it doesn’t excuse us from responsibility. The wealth that Qaddafi is squandering is the by-product of decades of collusion with foreign contractors. The weapons that he is employing against civilians were not made in Libya; they were sold to him by sophisticated nations. Other kinds of weaponry have been deployed by Qaddafi in the past against civil aviation and to supply a panoply of nihilistic groups as far away as Ireland and the Philippines. This, too, gives us a different kind of stake in the outcome. Even if Qaddafi basked in the unanimous adoration of his people, he would not be entitled to the export of violence. Moreover, his indiscriminate barbarism, and the effect of its subsequent refugee crisis on neighboring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, ipso facto constitutes an intervention in the internal affairs of others and a threat to peace in the region. In arguing that he no longer possesses legal sovereignty over “his” country, and that he should relinquish such power as remains to him, we are almost spoiled for choice as to legal and moral pretexts.

And yet there is a palpable reluctance, especially on the part of the Obama administration, to look these things in the face. Even after decades of enmity with this evil creep, our military and intelligence services turn out not even to have had a contingency plan. So it seems we must improvise. But does one have to go over all the arguments again, as if Rwanda and Bosnia and Kurdistan had never happened? It seems, especially when faced with the adamancy for drift and the resolve to be irresolute of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that one does. Very well, then. Doing nothing is not the absence of a policy; it is, in fact, the adoption of one. “Neutrality” favors the side with the biggest arsenal. “Nonintervention” is a form of interference. If you will the end—and President Barack Obama has finally said that Qaddafi should indeed go—then to that extent you will the means.

Libya is a country with barely 6 million inhabitants. By any computation, however cold and actuarial, the regime of its present dictator cannot possibly last very much longer. As a matter of pure realism, the post-Qaddafi epoch is upon us whether we choose to welcome the fact or not. The immediate task is therefore to limit the amount of damage Qaddafi can do and sharply minimize the number of people he can murder. Whatever the character of the successor system turns out to be, it can hardly be worsened if we show it positive signs of friendship and solidarity. But the pilots of Qaddafi’s own air force, who flew their planes to Malta rather than let themselves be used against civilians, have demonstrated more courage and principle than the entire U.S. Sixth Fleet.

There’s another consequence to our continuing passivity. I am sure I am not alone in feeling rather queasy about being forced to watch the fires in Tripoli and Benghazi as if I were an impotent spectator. Indifference of this kind to the lives of others can have a coarsening effect. It can lower one’s threshold of sympathy. If protracted unduly, it might even become brutalizing.

Thomas Ricks at Foreign Policy:

To help the president nudge the JCS in the ensuing discussion, here are the options he should ask to be put on his desk:

1. Best option: Give the Libyan rebels the aid they need to win. This may be no more than some secure communications gear and a couple of thousand rocket-propelled grenades to deter Qaddafi’s tanks and SUVs. (This may be already happening in some form.) Can we start flying discreet charter flights of stuff into some airports in the east? This needs to be ready to go ASAP — like yesterday.

2. More aggressive, riskier option: It is not in the interests of the United States, or the Libyan people, to see Qaddafi put down the rebels. So if Option 1 doesn’t work, what more do we need to do? I think here we want to think about direct action: Using Special Operations troops to corner and then capture or (if he insists) kill Col. Qaddafi. You do need tactical air on tap for this, both to finish off Qaddafi if he holes up and also to cover the extraction helicopters. This needs to be ready to kick off in 72 hours.

3. Third: And yeah, sure, let’s look at what a no-fly zone would look like. This is my least favorite option, because it is a half measure — which by definition is an act that is enough to get us involved but by itself is not enough to promise to determine the outcome. Still, is there any way to do it quickly and with less risk? I’ve heard things like stating “you fly, you die,” and not conducting extensive air strikes, just popping whoever flies. I am doubtful of this. Sen. Kerry’s simplistic “cratering” of runways is a non-starter — it is very easy to quickly fill in holes. Imposition of an American-led no-fly zone effectively would be a promise to the Libyan people, and it should not be an empty promise that allows Qaddafi to get aircraft in the air even occasionally to bomb rebellious cities. But it might be worthwhile to throw up a no-fly zone if only as a cover for Option 2, because it would have the effect of throwing sand in Qaddafi’s eyes. So the NFZ also needs to be ready to go in 72 hours.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

This is what a worst case scenario looks like: Qaddafi is ramping up the use of airpower against the rebels, increasingly confident that NATO and the U.S. won’t intervene. Actually, this is a next-to-worst case scenario: the real horror would be if Qaddafi breaks out the mustard gas. Either way, we have the spectacle of the Obama Administration standing by as freedom fighters are slaughtered from the air–prime fodder for shoot-first John McCain (yet again, and still, the headliner on a Sunday morning talk show–will wonders never cease?), Mitch McConnell and even for John Kerry.

There are several problems with the conventional wisdom. The biggest problem is that we have no idea whether the rebels in Libya are freedom fighters at all. Some are, especially the English-speaking, western-educated young people who are prime targets for visiting journalists. But how relevant are they to the real power struggle? Who are the non-English-speaking tribal elders? Are they democracy loving freedom fighters…or just Qaddafis-in-waiting? It’s a question to be asked not only in Libya, but also in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain. One hopes for the best–especially in Egypt, where there are signs that the Army is allowing at least a partial transition away from autocracy. But who knows, really? Even Iraq’s democracy is looking shaky these days as Nouri al-Maliki seems intent on consolidating his power.

Only a sociopath would have any sympathy for Qaddafi. And we should do what we can to calm the situation down…but I have this growing fear that the tribal/civil war in Libya may be as representative of what’s happening in the Middle East as the exhilarating people-power revolution in Egypt. This is truly a diplomatic conundrum: we can’t continue to support the autocrats in power…but by opposing them, we may be aiding and abetting the birth of a more chaotic, brutal Middle East. Those who express vast confidence about one side or the other–or who want to shoot first, as the inevitable McCain does–shouldn’t inspire much confidence. We should provide what humanitarian help we can; we should try to mediate, if possible…but we should think twice–no, three times–before taking any sort of military action.

David Frum at CNN:

Let’s do a quick tally of the Middle East’s nondemocratic leaders.

America’s friend Hosni Mubarak? Gone.

America’s friend Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? Gone.

America’s friend the king of Bahrain? Wobbling.

America’s friend the king of Jordan? Shaken.

On the other side of the ledger:

America’s enemy, the Iranian theocracy? The mullahs unleashed ferocious repression against democratic protesters in the summer of 2009 and kept power.

Hezbollah? It brought down the Lebanese government to forestall a U.N. investigation into the terrorist murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hamas? Last month it banned male hairdressers in Gaza from cutting women’s hair, the latest zany ordinance from the self-described Islamic movement.

If Gadhafi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still rule territory in a month’s time, and if Hezbollah and Hamas continue to rely on their armed presence to back up the militant policies they impose, the promises of Middle Eastern democracy will look very hollow. And the incentive structure of the Middle East will acquire a sinister new look.

Gadhafi’s departure from power in other words is not just a requirement of humanity and decency. It’s not only justice to the people of Libya. It is also essential to American credibility and the stability of the Middle East region.

Obama already has said that Gadhafi “must” go. Gadhafi is not cooperating — and to date, the insurgents have lacked the strength to force him.

The United States paid a heavy price for encouraging Iraqis to rebel against Saddam Hussein in 1991, then standing by as the Iraqi leader slaughtered rebels from the air. We still pay that price, for the memory of the slaughter is a crucial element in the distrust that so many ordinary Iraqis felt for the United States after Hussein’s ouster in 2003.

The president must not repeat that mistake. He’s already committed himself. Now the only choice he faces is whether his words will be seen to have meaning — or to lack it.

Daniel Larison:

The argument that we need to intervene in Libya for the sake of protesters elsewhere isn’t remotely credible, not least because no one is proposing that the U.S. make armed intervention against internal crackdowns a standing policy to be applied in all cases. If intervention in Libya were to deter other unfriendly governments from trying to crush protest movements with violence, Washington would have to make these governments believe that it was prepared and willing to do the same thing to them. Pushing unnecessary war with Libya is bad enough, but if it were just the first in a series of unnecessary wars it becomes even more undesirable.

The U.S. can lend assistance to Tunisia and Egypt in coping with refugees from Libya, and it is appropriate to provide humanitarian aid for the civilian population in Libya where it is possible to deliver it, but there is no reason to become more involved than that.

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Not Only Are The 1980s Over, Apparently The 2000s Ended Today As Well

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy:

In a speech to a disabled veterans’ group in Georgia today, U.S. President Barack Obama will draw attention to the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Under the current withdrawal plan, which the president says is on track,  the American force will shrink to 50,000 troops by the end of August, down from 144,000. These remaining “advise and assist” troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.

“Make no mistake: Our commitment in Iraq is changing, from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats,” Obama says in his prepared remarks.

Politically, the speech is likely an effort to draw attention to a largely unheralded success as criticism of the increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan mounts, particularly within his own party. The White House has pointed out that the total number of U.S. troops on the ground in both wars has declined from 177,000 when he took office to about 146,000 by the end of this month.

The U.S. military on Sunday refuted the Iraqi government’s claim that July was the deadliest month in the country since 2008. According to U.S. data, 222 people were killed in Iraqi violence last month, less than half the number claimed by Iraqi authorities.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

Well, at least he didn’t announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq under a banner that said “Mission Accomplished.” He did it in front of the Disabled American Veterans, the most grave and sober audience imaginable. And appropriately so, after a war that should never have been fought, a war that by some estimates will cost $3 trillion before it’s done (including the health care services rendered to those represented by the DAV), a war whose casualties number in the 100s of thousands. The war in Iraq hasn’t been much in the news over the past year, but this is an important moment, a moment for  reflection, for humility in the face of a national disaster.

There is no “victory” in Iraq, nor will there be. There is something resembling stability, but that might not last, either. There is a semblance of democracy, but that may dissolve over time, or in the next few months, into a Shi’ite dictatorship–which, if not well-run, will yield to the near-inevitable military coup. Yes, Saddam is gone–and that is a good thing. The Kurds have a greater measure of independence and don’t have to live in fear of mass murder, which is a good thing, too. But Iran has been aggrandized. Its Iraqi allies, especially Muqtada Sadr’s populist movement, remain a force that will play a major role–arguably one more central than ours–in shaping the future of the country. This attempt by western neo-colonialists–that is, the Bush Administration–to construct an amenable Iraq will most likely end no better than previous western attempts have. Certainly, even if something resembling democracy prevails, the U.S. invasion and occupation–the carnage and tragedy it wrought–will not be remembered fondly by Iraqis anytime soon. We will own the destruction in perpetuity; if the Iraqis manage to cobble themselves a decent society, they will see it, correctly, as an achievement of their own.

Lexington at The Economist:

What has America achieved by its intervention, if anything? Such is the continuing rancour about the decision to invade Iraq in the first place that it is almost impossible to debate this question dispassionately. The Economist was a strong supporter of the invasion (see here, for example), not because we thought Saddam Hussein had anything at all to do with 9/11 but because we were afraid that he was going to break out of the box that was built to contain him after the Gulf war of 1991, with hugely dangerous consequences for the region. But we were wrong about his WMD programmes. And we were terribly wrong about the human cost of the war. Had we foreseen that the country would collapse into such bloody mayhem after the invasion we would not have supported it.

All that said, where does Iraq stand now? Still a chaotic mess in most ways. The New York Times has an excellent, depressing story on how America and its allies have failed to provide something as simple and (especially in the scorching heat of Mesopotamia) vital as a decent supply of electricity for Baghdad since they took over the country the better part of a decade ago.

In politics, however, the picture is more mixed. Iraq has not yet replaced Saddam with another dictator, as many feared. And for the time being the country’s politics is not riven violently along sectarian lines. A largely peaceful election took place last spring with a high turnout but failed to produce a clear majority, and since then drift and stalemate have been the order of the day. The election showed that, contrary to what many experts say from afar, Arabs have no difficulty in understanding what democracy is all about and would like it for themselves. The subsequent stalemate shows why they do not get it: incumbent rulers cling leech-like to power no matter what wishes the people express at the ballot box.

The interesting question about this particular moment is: can America use its remaining military, political and economic heft in Iraq to jolt its politicians into heeding the wishes of Iraq’s voters? Should it even try? The prize is potentially huge: a peaceful election that actually succeeded in changing a government peacefully would be a signal achievement not just for Iraq but for the Arab world as a whole. The problem is that as America draws down its forces its ability to influence events diminishes, too. Besides, Iraq is supposedly sovereign now. So by what right can America meddle in its internal politics?

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy:

The political impasse is worrying Iraqis. “Everything is stopped,” one told the Washington Post. “There’s no work, no jobs. People are waiting. People are just buying food and saving money because they are afraid the situation will get worse in the future — worse than in 2006 and 2007.” People also are bummed by the lack of electricity, especially in the brutal height of Iraq’s punishing summer. And someone keeps blowing up the houses of police officers in the Fallujah area.

President Obama is gonna talk today in a speech to vets in Atlanta about how all this is no longer gonna be our problem.

I wonder if we had done a census in Iraq in say 2005 if that would have settled some of the political issues that have led to Iraq’s impasse.

Greg Sargent:

* Anybody remember that promise to end the Iraq War? In a measure of how much things have changed since Obama took office, the president plans to deliver a big speech today underscoring that he’s making good on his pledge to pull out of Iraq — and it’s anybody’s guess whether it will have any meaningful political impact.

The White House is hoping that Obama’s delivery on such a major promise will, you know, matter a bit to people. Public anxiety over Iraq was powerful enough to help decide a presidential election less than two years ago. But now, amazingly, it’s unclear how powerful a motivator this will be even for Democratic base voters.

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Like A Rolling Stone, Part II

Bruce Drake at Politics Daily:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA DELIVERS REMARKS ON GENERAL STANLEY A. MCCHRYSTAL

JUNE 23, 2010

[*] OBAMA: Good afternoon.

Today I accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I did so with considerable regret, but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country.

I’m also pleased to nominate General David Petraeus to take command in Afghanistan, which will allow us to maintain the momentum and leadership that we need to succeed.

I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult. Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully. I’ve got great admiration for him and for his long record of service in uniform.

Over the last nine years, with America fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has earned a reputation as one of our nation’s finest soldiers. That reputation is founded upon his extraordinary dedication, his deep intelligence and his love of country.

I’ve relied on his service, particularly in helping to design and lead our new strategy in Afghanistan.

So all Americans should be grateful for General McChrystal’s remarkable career in uniform.

But war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president. And as difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security.

Andrew Sullivan rounds-up reactions.

Ed Morrissey:

Obama appears to have split the baby rather adeptly here, softening the blow of losing McChrystal by arguably trading up for the legendary Petraeus.  That should dampen criticism over cashiering McChrystal, especially among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Rich Lowry at The Corner:

I’m not sure how Obama could have handled this any better. He was genuinely graceful about McChrystal and his explanation of why he had to go made perfect sense. He called for unity within his adminstration in pursuing the war and sounded quite stalwart about both the war and about the strategy. More importantly, his choice of Petraeus as a replacement for McChrystal is a brilliant move: He gets a heavy-weight, an unassailable expert in this kind of warfare, and someone who presumably can step in pretty seamlessly. He also picked someone who has expressed (very diplomatic) misgivings about the July 2011 deadline and who will have the clout and credibility to tell the president that he can’t afford to go down in troops when July comes, should circumstances warrant. (It should also be noted that this is a step down for Petraeus and he can’t relish directly managing another war — that he will do so speaks to his selfless patriotism.) In short, Obama has made the most of a rotten situation.

Max Boot at Commentary:

If there is one general who can step quickly  into the top job in Afghanistan, it is Petraeus, who has been closely involved in formulating the campaign plan along with McChrystal. And if there is one general who knows how to handle the media and the political process (skills that McChrystal obviously lacked), it is Petraeus. That doesn’t mean that he is a “political general” — that dreaded epithet applied by combat soldiers to those who get ahead by playing office politics rather than by proving their worth on the battlefield. Petraeus has proven himself at every level of command, on the battlefield and off. His courage cannot be doubted. Neither can his skill. Already in Iraq, he has pulled off the greatest turnaround in American military history since Matthew Ridgway took over the 8th Army in 1950 during the dark days of the Korean War. Now he has to do it again in Afghanistan. Don’t bet against him.

As for General McChrystal, it is a tragedy that his sterling career has come to such an inglorious end. McChrystal is widely admired, especially in the Special Operations community, and for good reason. He turned the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq into a well-honed killing machine. He also did much to improve the situation in Afghanistan, injecting fresh energy into the war effort and designing a campaign plan that can succeed. He deserves enormous credit, too, for declaring in his first major report to the president last summer that the war effort would fail without a fresh injection of troops. That prompted Obama to send more troops, which now gives the NATO command a shot at success. Unfortunately the Rolling Stone incident showed that he was not quite ready to operate at the highest strategic level, where discretion and judgment are prized, and where Special-Forces swagger can be a liability.

But President Obama should not fool himself into thinking that, by replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, he has magically solved all of the problems with the war effort. There is still that little matter of the looming deadline — July 2011 — for troop withdrawals. Vice President Biden is pulling for a rapid pullout, and Defense Secretary Gates is taking a go-slow approach. McChrystal has been firmly aligned with Gates, while the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has publicly backed the “light footprint” approach advocated by Biden. That tension will not disappear because of the change of command; Petraeus is a firm believer in the need for a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, just as McChrystal was. So far, President Obama has been mum on what the deadline means and how many troops will actually come out. He should back his new commander with a firm pledge to make any withdrawal strictly contingent on conditions being met, and he should leave open the possibility of sending more troops if necessary.

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy:

So, for the second time in three years, Gen. David Petraeus is bailing out a president.

Afghanistan 2010 may be an even tougher nut than Iraq 2007. Sure, Iraq looked like a mess back then, but the Americans hadn’t tried a lot of good ideas. In Afghanistan they have been trying them out and not finding them working very well. Counterinsurgency was a novel idea in Baghdad back then. It is not anything new in Kabul right now. Our biggest problem in Afghanistan is the government we are supporting there, and it isn’t clear to me what Petraeus can do about that.

Putting Petraeus in command in Afghanistan is only the first step. Now, what to do about Ambassador Eikenberry and special envoy Holbrooke?

My second big concern is what happens to Iraq now. As readers of this blog know, I am very worried about trends there. If Iraq begins to fall apart, and Petraeus is busy in Kabul, who is going to step on? At the very least, they should consider extending General Odierno’s time there.

I thought Obama’s talk was rhetorically perfect, hitting all the right notes in explaining why McChrystal had to go, while paying tribute to McChrystal’s service. The only big question he left hanging in just what happens to Central Command. Will Petraeus try to have both commands? Will someone else take over? With Pakistan, Iran and other Middle Eastern issues bubbling out there, this is a question that needs to be addressed ASAP.

Matthew Yglesias:

A bit oddly the only person I heard calling for this “fire McChrystal, replace him with Petraeus” move yesterday was Bill Kristol. I assumed he was just throwing something out there so outside the box that he could criticize Obama no matter what happens. Instead he got his way. I’ll be eager to see the reaction.

Adam Serwer at Tapped:

Conservatives recognized that McChrystal needed to be disciplined but wanted him to stay, largely because they were concerned his departure would mean a shift in strategy. Despite the tendency of the political press to describe military commanders in near-mythological terms, McChrystal is not irreplaceable, not even for those who want to see the current counterinsurgency strategy continue. With Gen. David Petraeus stepping in as his replacement, those on the right concerned with strategic continuity can breathe easy. Obama stressed that “we have a clear goal, we are going to break the Taliban’s momentum, we are going to build Afghan capacity, we are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same,” essentially reaffirming his commitment to the strategy decided on last fall. Petraeus’ Senate confirmation is likely to go through without incident.

Liberals were hoping that McChrystal’s departure would offer an opportunity for the administration to rethink a strategy that some suspect was adopted largely due to political pressure to continue the mission.They point to the recent difficulties in Marjah as evidence the strategy isn’t working to dislodge or weaken the Taliban, and maintain that the structure and corruption of the Afghan government is an intractable problem. At the very least, they would have liked a serious re-evaluation of the viability of the current counterinsurgency strategy.

The appointment of Gen. Petraeus is likely to squelch any such discussion before it gets started. The near superhero status Petraeus enjoys isn’t simply due to his intelligence or capability as a leader — it’s also the result of media mythmaking about the Iraq War. Despite the ease with which the country has come to adopt the narrative that the 2007 troop escalation and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy singlehandedly turned the Iraq War around, it remains untrue. As Michael Cohen helpfully continues to remind us, there were a number of factors involved, including ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, the Sunni tribes turning on al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and the Sadr ceasefire.

These things are complicated though, and it’s easier both for the press and for the general audience to shoehorn the complicated story of the turnaround in Iraq into a single epic narrative starring an indomitable warrior-hero, and the media won’t be able to resist the temptation to call this a sequel. The problem with flattening these things into facile narratives is that it dissuades Americans from thinking critically about the implications — both moral and practical — of important policy decisions. Which — aside from his admirable record — is surely part of why Petraeus was chosen.

EARLIER: Like A Rolling Stone

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder

Ed Morrissey

Luke Johnson at The Washington Independent

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Like A Rolling Stone

Michael Hastings at Rolling Stone:

How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?” demands Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It’s a Thursday night in mid-April, and the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is sitting in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. He’s in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies – to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.

“The dinner comes with the position, sir,” says his chief of staff, Col. Charlie Flynn.

McChrystal turns sharply in his chair.

“Hey, Charlie,” he asks, “does this come with the position?”

McChrystal gives him the middle finger.

On the ground with the Runaway General: Photos of Stanley McChrystal at work.

The general stands and looks around the suite that his traveling staff of 10 has converted into a full-scale operations center. The tables are crowded with silver Panasonic Toughbooks, and blue cables crisscross the hotel’s thick carpet, hooked up to satellite dishes to provide encrypted phone and e-mail communications. Dressed in off-the-rack civilian casual – blue tie, button-down shirt, dress slacks – McChrystal is way out of his comfort zone. Paris, as one of his advisers says, is the “most anti-McChrystal city you can imagine.” The general hates fancy restaurants, rejecting any place with candles on the tables as too “Gucci.” He prefers Bud Light Lime (his favorite beer) to Bordeaux,

Talladega Nights

(his favorite movie) to Jean-Luc Godard. Besides, the public eye has never been a place where McChrystal felt comfortable: Before President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan, he spent five years running the Pentagon’s most secretive black ops.

The Spill, The Scandal and the President: How Obama let BP get away with murder.

“What’s the update on the Kandahar bombing?” McChrystal asks Flynn. The city has been rocked by two massive car bombs in the past day alone, calling into question the general’s assurances that he can wrest it from the Taliban.

“We have two KIAs, but that hasn’t been confirmed,” Flynn says.

McChrystal takes a final look around the suite. At 55, he is gaunt and lean, not unlike an older version of Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you’ve fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.

Looting Main Street: Matt Taibbi on how the nation’s biggest banks are ripping off American cities.

“I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” McChrystal says.

He pauses a beat.

“Unfortunately,” he adds, “no one in this room could do it.”

With that, he’s out the door.

“Who’s he going to dinner with?” I ask one of his aides.

“Some French minister,” the aide tells me. “It’s fucking gay.”

Get more Rolling Stone political coverage.

The next morning, McChrystal and his team gather to prepare for a speech he is giving at the École Militaire, a French military academy. The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict. Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: Shut the fuck up, and keep a lower profile

Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”

When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he immediately set out to deliver on his most important campaign promise on foreign policy: to refocus the war in Afghanistan on what led us to invade in the first place. “I want the American people to understand,” he announced in March 2009. “We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He ordered another 21,000 troops to Kabul, the largest increase since the war began in 2001. Taking the advice of both the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also fired Gen. David McKiernan – then the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan – and replaced him with a man he didn’t know and had met only briefly: Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It was the first time a top general had been relieved from duty during wartime in more than 50 years, since Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.

Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

Eric Zimmermann on The Hill:

On Tuesday morning, Rolling Stone Executive Editor Eric Bates suggested that the magazine gathered even more devastating information that could not be published.

“They said a lot of stuff to us off the record that’s not in the story, so we respected all those boundaries,” Bates told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Bates said the magazine has gotten zero pushback from McChrystal’s people.

“No. No, I haven’t heard that,” Bates said when asked whether McChrystal has claimed the magazine misquoted him. “Didn’t hear that during the course of the story. I didn’t hear that in his apology.”

Byron York at The Washington Examiner:

I just got off the phone with a retired military man, with more than 25 years experience, who has worked with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Pentagon.  His reaction to McChrystal’s performance in the new Rolling Stone profile?  No surprise at all.

“Those of us who knew him would unanimously tell you that this was just a matter of time,” the man says.  “He talks this way all the time.  I’m surprised it took this long for it to rear its ugly head.”

“He had great disdain for anyone, as he said, ‘in a suit,’” the former military man continues.  “I was shocked one day in a small group of people when he took [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld to task in front of all of us.”

“The other thing about him is that he is probably one of the more arrogant, cocksure military guys I have run across.  That in itself is not necessarily a character flaw, but when you couple it with his great disdain for civilians, it’s a very volatile combination.”

The former military man is under no illusions about the general nature of relations between the military and the civilian leadership.  “I don’t consider this an anomaly,” he says.  “You can find examples of this going back to the founding of the republic.  Nevertheless, it is very disturbing that he would have such disdain for the civilian leadership.”

Andrew Exum:

I have been struck by the degree to which a lot of smart friends are in disagreement about what should be done about l’Affair Rolling Stan. In some ways, the argument about whether or not you dismiss Gen. McChrystal for comments made by the commander and his staff in this Rolling Stone article breaks down into unhappily familiar lines. Critics of the current strategy in Afghanistan unsurprisingly think McChrystal should be fired. Supporters of the strategy think that while the comments made to Rolling Stone were out of line, McChrystal should be retained in the greater interest of the war effort. Neither side, that I have yet seen, has acknowledged that either course of action would carry risk. The purpose of this post is to outline the risks of dismissing Gen. McChrystal as the commander of ISAF in response to the affair. This is an uncomfortable post to write. I very much admire Stan McChrystal and have looked up to him since my time in the Rangers when I fought in Afghanistan under his command. I know the man personally and worked with him last summer in an effort to analyze the war in Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF operations there. And so there may be a limit to how objective I can really be, but I’m a defense policy analyst, so I’m going to try and soberly analyze these risks without letting my admiration for McChrystal get in the way.

James Fallows:

If the facts are as they appear — McChrystal and his associates freely mocking their commander in chief and his possible successor (ie, Biden) and the relevant State Department officials (Holbrooke and Eikenberry) — with no contention that the quotes were invented or misconstrued, then Obama owes it to past and future presidents to draw the line and say: this is not tolerable. You must go. McChrystal’s team was inexplicably reckless in talking before a reporter this way, but that’s a separate question. The fact is — or appears to be — that they did it

The second step is what this means for US strategy in Afghanistan, the future of COIN, etc. But the first is for the civilian Commander in Chief to act in accordance with Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution and demonstrate that there are consequences for showing open disrespect for the chain of command.

And, yes, I would say the same thing in opposite political circumstances — if, for instance, a commander of Iraq operations had been quoted openly mocking George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Resign in protest: yes, a course of honor. But protest and mock while in uniform, no.

Jon Soltz at VetVoice:

I know something about this. In 2006, I worked with two Generals, appearing in national television ads critical of President Bush and his strategy in Iraq. Or, should I say, retired Generals. Major Generals Paul D. Eaton and John Batiste each made the painful decision to leave the military they loved, so they could speak out. To that point, they had held their tongues.

Why?

Because the order and efficacy of our Armed Forces falls apart without respect for the chain of command. Whether it’s a grunt respecting his company commander, or a General respecting the Commander in Chief, every single thing is predicated on the integrity of the chain of command. As soon as someone – especially someone as high up as General McChrystal – violates that respect, every single person under him begins to not only question the orders they’ve been given from above, but is given the signal that it’s OK to openly disagree or mock his or her superior.

And, violate that respect General McChystal and his subordinates have. Among other things, the Rolling Stone story reports first-hand that:

* McChrystal was disappointed with his first meeting with the President, and that he feels the President is uncomfortable and intimidated with military brass.

* McChrystal’s aid calls National Security Advisor James Jones a “clown.”

* Another aide says of envoy Richard Holbrooke, “The Boss [McChrystal] says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

* Bolstering that, McChrystal himself, receiving an email from Holbrooke says, “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to read it.”

* On Vice President Biden, who disagreed with the General’s strategy in Afghanistan, McChrystal says while laughing, “Are you asking me about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?”

* An aide, mirroring his boss, adds, “Biden? Did you say Bite me?”

Anyone of lower rank would be immediately dismissed if he or she said of their superiors what General McChrystal said, or what he allowed members of his team to say.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that the General has been in trouble. Following a very public campaign for his preferred strategy in Afghanistan, which included a 60 Minutes interview that challenged the President, McChrystal landed in some hot water with the President, and was told to cool it. Frankly, McChrystal got off easy.

When General Eric Shinseki testified to Congress about his opinion on the force levels needed to invade Iraq, countering the strategy laid out by President Bush and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he was forced into retirement. Shinseki, unlike McChrystal, was asked his opinion, under oath, in front of Congress. There’s a difference between that professional conversation, and personal attacks on your superiors. Shinseki didn’t lead a public campaign to air his views, either. At any rate, McChrystal was given a second shot, where Shinseki was not.

Whether he continued his insubordination purposely, or stupidly and unintentionally, isn’t an issue. The issue, here, is that it happened. Again.

Thomas Donnelly and William Kristol in The Weekly Standard:

If Stan McChrystal has to go—and he probably does—it will be a sad end to a career of great distinction and a low moment in a lifetime devoted to duty, honor, and country. But the good of the mission and the prospects for victory in Afghanistan may well now demand a new commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

While there are obvious issues of civil-military relations exposed by the general’s cringe-inducing quotes in the “Runaway General” article in Rolling Stone—and while his staff appear to be off the leash entirely, a command climate for which McChrystal is responsible—the original source of the problem is above the general’s pay grade.

So McChrystal should not be the only one to go.  Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and “AfPak” czar Richard Holbrooke should likewise either submit their resignations or be fired by President Obama.  Vice President Biden and his surrogates should be told to sit down and be quiet, to stop fighting policy battles in the press.  The administration’s “team of rivals” approach is producing only rivalry.

Max Boot at Commentary:

McChrystal was undoubtedly stupid to grant so much access to a hostile reporter, and his aides were equally clueless in making some disparaging remarks in front of this reporter about Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, among others. But that in no way invalidates McChrystal’s plan, which should be carried out, with some inevitable adjustments, by whomever is the NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Should that person be McChrystal? Despite the calls for his firing emanating from the usual quarters on the left, the general is certainly not guilty of violating the chain of command in the way that truly insubordinate generals like Douglas MacArthur have. Recall that MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’ strategy in the Korean War. Likewise, Admiral Fox Fallon was fired as Centcom commander in 2008 after publicly disagreeing in an Esquire article with Bush-administration strategy over Iran. McChrystal does nothing of the sort. At worst, one of his aides says that McChrystal was “disappointed” by his initial meetings with the president, who looked “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Most of the disparaging comments heard from McChrystal’s aides are directed not at the president but at presidential aides who oppose the strategy that the president himself announced back in the fall and that McChrystal is working 24/7 to implement. Is this type of banter enough for Obama to fire McChrystal?

It could be, but if he does it could represent a setback to the war effort — and to the president’s hopes to withdraw some troops next summer. The least disruption would occur if a general already in Afghanistan — Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day to day operations, is the obvious choice — takes over. If an outsider were chosen (e.g., Marine General Jim Mattis), there would likely be a delay of months while the new commander conducted his own assessment of the situation. That’s a delay we can ill afford right now. On the other hand, we can ill afford having McChrystal stay if he is so discredited with the commander in chief and so weakened in internal-administration deliberations that he cannot stand up to the attempts by Biden and other internal critics to downsize the mission prematurely.

McChrystal has undoubtedly created a major problem for himself, his command, and the larger mission in Afghanistan. But I still believe he is a terrific general who has come up with a good strategy and has energized a listless command that was drifting when he took over. Notwithstanding the current turmoil, the war remains eminently winnable, and the McChrystal strategy remains the best option for winning it.

Spencer Ackerman:

You can read Gen. McChrystal’s apology in full here at the Washington Independent. No “clarification” that I expected last night after seeing the AP writeup of McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview disrespecting the Obama administration. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal emailed reporters instead. “Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.” You think?

McChrystal gets called to the White House on Wednesday to direct the monthly Afghanistan/Pakistan briefing — oh, and to explain himself and see if he can keep his job. As I wrote for the Washington Independent, firing him carries its risks. There’s only a year to go before the July 2011 date to begin the transition to Afghan security responsibility and the Kandahar tide is starting to rise. It’ll be hard to fire McChrystal without ripping the entire Afghanistan strategy up, and I’ve gotten no indication from the White House that it’s interested in doing that. On the other hand, if senior administration officials are and I just haven’t picked up on it, McChrystal just gave them their biggest opportunity.

And what an opportunity. You can read the Rolling Stone profile through Politico. The amazing thing about it is there’s no complaints from McChrystal or his staff about the administration on any substantive ground. After all, McChrystal and his allies won the argument within the White House. All the criticisms — of Eikenberry, of Jones, of Holbrooke, of Biden — are actually just immature and arrogant snipes at how annoying Team America (what, apparently, McChrystal’s crew calls itself) finds them. This is not mission-first, to say the least.

In fact, you have to go deep in the piece to find soldiers and officers offering actual critiques — and what they offer is criticism of McChrystal for being insufficiently brutal. Everyone of them quoted here is a mini-Ralph Peters, upset because McChrystal won’t let them “get our fucking gun on,” as one puts it. I have a lot of respect for Michael Hastings, the author of the profile, but there are many greyer shades of on-the-ground military perspective than that, and I’ve seen them up close. But Hastings does a good and insightful job of showing that McChrystal is stepping into a diplomatic vacuum and acting as an advocate for Hamid Karzai despite Karzai’s performance in office.

We’ll have to wait for Wednesday to see if McChrystal keeps his command. My guess is he’ll stay, because now the White House knows that a chastened McChrystal isn’t going to say anything else outside of his lane to any reporter. McChrystal’s apology, emailed to me and other reporters well before the Rolling Stone story dropped, suggests that he wasn’t trying to walk away from his command in a blaze of arrogance. But it’s on him to repair his relationship with his colleagues and his bosses.

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy:

My bet is that Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be gone within a week or so. Defense Secretary Gates canned Admiral Fallon as Central Command chief in the spring of 2007 for less pointed remarks, so he will look like a hypocrite if he does less here in response to McChrystal dissing Obama, Biden, and the White House in a new  article in Rolling Stone.

At any rate, it may be time for a whole new team in Afghanistan. My nomination is for Petraeus to step down an echelon and take the Afghanistan command. You could leave him nominally the Centcom chief but let his deputy, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, oversee Iraq, the war planning for Iran, and dealing with Pakistan and the Horn of Africa. But more likely is that Petraeus will ask for another Marine general, James Mattis, who is just finishing up at Jiffycom, and who had planned to retire later this year and head home to Walla Walla, Washington. Petraeus and Mattis long have admired each other. The irony is that Mattis has a reputation — unfairly, I think — for speaking a little too bluntly in public about things like killing people. I think Mattis is a terrific, thoughtful leader.

I do wonder if this mess is the result of leaving McChrystal out there too long-he has been going non-stop for several years, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. At any rate, his comments reflect a startling lack of discipline. He would expect more of one of his captains. We should expect more of him. I know, I’ve said worse about Biden. But part of my job is to comment on these things, even flippantly sometimes. Part of his job is not to.

CNN:

[Updated at 4:41 p.m.] Gen. Stanley McChrystal has submitted his resignation, Time magazine’s Joe Klein told CNN, citing an unnamed source. CNN is working to confirm Klein’s information.

UPDATE: Andy McCarthy at The Corner

UPDATE #2: Allah Pundit

Jim Pinkerton at Ricochet

Spencer Ackerman

Doug Mataconis

UPDATE #3: David Brooks in NYT

Dylan Stableford at The Wrap

The Week Magazine

Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone

UPDATE #4: Conor Friedersdorf and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #5: Max Read at Gawker

Glenn Greenwald

3 Comments

Filed under Af/Pak, Military Issues, Political Figures

Break Out The Still, Hawkeye, It Looks Like You Have To Go Back

Streiff at Redstate:

At approximately 9:30pm local time on March 26 a ROK Navy Pohang class, the Cheonan, corvette was patrolling off Baengnyeong Island when it was torn in half by an underwater explosion. The explosion killed 46 ROK sailors and a diver died during subsequent recovery operations.

Suspicion immediately focused on the rogue regime now ruling North Korea, the DPRK. Today that suspicion was borne out.

South Korea will formally blame North Korea on Thursday for launching a torpedo at one of its warships in March, causing an explosion that killed 46 sailors and heightened tensions in one of the world’s most perilous regions, U.S. and East Asian officials said.

South Korea concluded that North Korea was responsible for the attack after investigators from Australia, Britain, Sweden and the United States pieced together portions of the ship at the port of Pyeongtaek, 40 miles southwest of Seoul. The Cheonan sank on March 26 after an explosion rocked the 1,200-ton vessel as it sailed on the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s west coast.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because South Korea has yet to disclose the findings of the investigation, said subsequent analysis determined that the torpedo was identical to a North Korean torpedo that South Korea had obtained.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-California) at Heritage:

Will North Korea’s Kim Jong-il get away with murder?  That’s a question Koreans, and many in the region, are asking a month and a half after a South Korean naval vessel was sunk, killing 46.

An investigation, assisted by U.S. naval intelligence, and other international partners, is still ongoing.  Yet it’s all but certain that the Cheonan was torpedoed, an act of war.  While North Korean motives (escalation for aid? Kim Jong-il consolidating his power base? rogue captain?) remain the subject of debate, the destruction is clear.

What to do?  To read the press, the conventional wisdom is that South Korea would not dare retaliate, for fear of sparking a wider war and that any effort to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions would meet China’s veto (Beijing just hosted Kim Jong-il on a state visit).  Some see the most likely scenario as the status quo – public condemnation, Beijing continuing to enable Pyongyang with aid and Washington happy not to rock the boat.  Watching the State Department spokesman dance around this issue, it’s pretty clear that Foggy Bottom wouldn’t be too bothered if the investigation was permanently “ongoing.”

Laura Rozen at Politico:

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to put North Korea back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

The request comes as South Korea briefed diplomats today on the findings of an investigation into the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died. Reports said the investigation implicated North Korea in launching the torpedo that sank the vessel in March.

“As the recent sinking of the Republic of Korea warship Cheonan has demonstrated, North Korea is, in fact, intent on pursuing the opposite policy of ours, namely, undermining peace and increasing tensions in northeast Asia,” Ackerman wrote Clinton in a letter.

“The apparently unprovoked sneak attack on the Cheonan, by North Korea, and the murder of 46 Republic of Korea sailors sailing in home waters, is a clear potential causus belli, and unquestionably the most belligerent and provocative incident since the 1953 armistice was established,” he continued.

Ackerman, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, also said Pyongyang’s sales of ballistic missiles, artillery rockets and conventional arms to Hamas and Hezbollah warrant returning it to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The Bush administration removed North Korea from the list in 2008.

Michael C. Moynihan in Reason:

Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts at reconciliation with the criminal regime in Pyongyang (the so-called Sunshine Policy), which provided North Korea with significant aid while getting almost nothing in return. The policy was abandoned in 2008 by President Lee Myung-bak, having done nothing to alleviate the squalid conditions suffered by the hostages of the Juche dictatorship. Now, how will President Lee respond to news that Cheonan naval ship was likely, though not definitively, sunk by a North Korean torpedo?

Joshua Stanton at The New Ledger:

The sinking of the Cheonan and North Korea’s recent attempt to assassinate a high-ranking defector inside South Korea suggest that we’ve entered a dangerous new phase of the dormant Korean War.  This unstable dormancy began with a 1953 cease fire, which North Korea unilaterally renounced last year.  North Korea appears to have chosen a strategy of provocation like the one it pursued in the late 196o’s, when it seized the U.S.S. Pueblo, killed several American soldiers and dozens of South Koreans in cross-DMZ raids, sent a team of commandos to Seoul kill the President of South Korea, and shot down an American surveillance aircraft, killing all 31 members of its crew.

This precedent suggests that Presidents Lee and Obama will soon face greater tests.  The question of how to respond to the sinking of the Cheonan may be only the first of these.  The last-minute cancellation of U.S. Forces Korea’s annual Noncombatant Evacuation Operation exercise, ostensibly to avoid the appearance of panic, suggest that both governments understand the gravity of the danger.  No one wants the people of Korea to hear “White Christmas” in May.

I’ve already explained why a direct military response would create an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic war and, most likely, would be precisely what Kim Jong Il needs to reconsolidate his rule and bequeath it to his unaccomplished son, Kim Jong Eun, at a time of rising discontent. Just about everyone agrees that a military response would be a bad idea. Here, the agreement ends.  The same foreign policy clique that has long advocated (as Christopher Badeaux has brilliantly put it) “managing” Kim Jong Il out of headlines, inevitably by paying him until he provokes us again, is now extending the argument that we lack good military options into the false contention that we have no options at all, except the one to which they are inextricably wedded:  appeasement.

Tom Ricks in Foreign Policy:

John Byron, our chief contrarian correspondent, recently wrote about stopping what he sees as the runaway military welfare train. The North Korean navy recently has provided an counter-example of what happens when a military is starved for support. North Korean patrol ships are getting pushy in contested waters, apparently because the crab season is about to begin, and (according to proven provider John McCreary) Pyongyang’s military mariners survive in part by crabbing and so in late spring start laying claim to crustacean-rich waters. I have this image in my head of the USS Harry S Truman cruising the Med with seine nets out.

UPDATE: Ed Morrissey

Joe Gandelman at Moderate Voice

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy

Peter Worthington at FrumForum

UPDATE #2: Charli Carpenter and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads

More Drezner

UPDATE #3: Dave Schuler

UPDATE #4: Daniel Larison

2 Comments

Filed under Foreign Affairs, Global Hot Spots

The Quote Of The Day Is: “PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid”

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy on April 12:

Marine Gen. James Mattis, one of the most thoughtful of our military leaders, also spoke at the Chapel Hill conference. He began by making a point about the limitations of conventional firepower: Our military, he said, “must avoid being dominant and irrelevant at the same time.” I hadn’t heard that formulation before.

Mattis also spoke without any computer graphics. “The reason I didn’t use PowerPoint is, I am convinced PowerPoint makes us stupid.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but its absence of verbs does seem to me to emphasize aspirations without saying what actions we intend to take to realize them.

Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who also spoke at the conference, also took a pop at PowerPoint, saying that when combined with certain ill-advised metrics, it “is really dangerous.”

Spencer Ackerman on April 12:

Whatever the merits of PowerPoint, the baseline reason why officers use it — and use it and use it and use it — is because the military as a whole uses some version of Windows as its operating system. After all, it’s not enough that you create a PowerPoint; you have to share it and the next command has to be able to load it; and people standardize their PPT skills and so this is perpetuated. This fundamental dependence is true at the highest levels of command down to the crummiest MWR tent at the most ad-hoc combat outpost in the middle of what (hmm, let’s translate this into PPT-ese) GEN Petraeus calls The CentCom AOR. Go to those computer labs and you see downtrodden faces loading Internet Explorer on their desktop PCs, using Yahoo messenger to chat with friends, loved ones and potential sex partners. When they could — and should — be using Macs, or even running vastly more efficient cloud computing.

Think about the implications of all this wasted time. Officers forced to use Microsoft Outlook for their email clients have to labor to search in their mail! If they can do it at all! I’ve written before about the benefits of GoogleDocs for battlefield awareness: you network in colleagues to see your files and they can edit your assessments & situational reports; get a real-time picture of ground truth as you find it; add questions or additional analysis or taskings; and a higher synthesis is possible, right then and there. Whatever its virtues, a PowerPoint presentation is a dead document. A GoogleDoc is an evolving, networked one. Which makes more sense for capturing a slice of a war?

Notice I am agnostic between Apple and Google products. I don’t have an iPad, but I use Google products on my Mac desktop and laptop, and my girlfriend has a Droid phone that makes me look at my iPhone and pity myself. Right now it appears that Apple and Google are the U.S. and Soviet Union circa 1946-7 — growing disillusioned with each other and taking steps that will lead each power into an epoch-defining competition. I will remain neutral for now. But there’s absolutely no reason at all why our half-trillion-dollar-plus-per-annum military shouldn’t make the basic investment to rid itself of the software equivalent of the British Empire circa 1946.

Update, 3:18 p.m.: Battered and bloody, I concede I was out of my lane when I wrote this. I hope there was some value in raising the subject, however ignorantly. But I concede defeat and limp off to fight another day.

Elizabeth Bumiller in NYT, April 27:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

John Cole:

I find this hysterical, because in my day, it was all about what we called “cheese charts.” The great big easels (military issue, of course), with pads of paper the size of Montana sitting on them, with bullet point after bullet point. All they’ve done now is gone high-tech. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent hanging camo netting INSIDE a G.P. Medium to decorate the cheese charts because someone important was showing up for an AAR…

Preston Galla at Computerworld:

Have you fallen in love with your bulletized slides, nifty transitions, and pretty charts in PowerPoint? If so, you’re likely getting more stupid, if the experience of commanders in the U.S. armed forces hold true. In fact, one of the force’s top commanders says bluntly, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”

[…]

Even more dangerous, the article implies, is that it leads to bad decision-making, with serious consequences:

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.In fact, the article even points to PowerPoint as possibly contributing to our flawed Iraqi strategy. The article describes an event in the book about the Iraq War “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks:

Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led the allied ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, grew frustrated when he could not get Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander at the time of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, to issue orders that stated explicitly how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on to General McKiernan the vague PowerPoint slides that he had already shown to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time.The article also says that tremendous amounts of time are spent in the military on putting together presentations, and that this takes away from true productivity.

Does all this sound familiar in your line of business? It should. Business relies on PowerPoint as much or more than the military, with similar consequences.

Tristero:

So what are we to make of what Bumiller wrote? First of all it’s “he said/she said” with absolutely no focus or interest in trying to grapple with what the actual problems with PowerPoint presentations in the military might be, or what should be done to fix them. (A few apparently bewildering slides does not a case make.)* In short, it is stenography: Bumiller simply wrote down what she was told, looked up a couple things and thereby got herself a prominently placed clipping.

But if it is stenography – and it surely is – it’s stenography with a particular message. Somebody powerful – Gates? Petraeus Both? Others? – is really fed up with sitting through all the stupid fucking PowerPoint presentations and wants it reined in. Rather than exercise direct authority issuing memos (at least not yet, it’s too trivial, unless your initials are DR, and he’s history) he called in Elizabeth and – not directly, of course – told her what to write and who to contact. And so she did.

And that’s all she did. She didn’t do a single thing to verify beyond an article or two, which she didn’t do more than mention, that there really was a problem. She simply told us what the Big Guys think, and that’s all.

What’s the problem with that? Well, here’s one. Since Bumiller is not reporting, but merely doing the bidding of the powerful leaders in the military (if not the Defense Secretary) we are not provided enough facts to be fully informed as to whether there really are serious problems with PowerPoint. All we are told is that powerful people think there are. We’re not even given any access to sources that would enable us to make up our own minds.

As it happens, there are very good reasons to cut back on the incredible amount of time wasted preparing slides, and to be alarmed at the misleading, insipid presentations. But what would happen if the Powers That Be were wrong, or deliberately trying to mislead or promote misinformation? You’d never know that was going on from Bumiller’s style of reporting. She clearly doesn’t think that is her job. (I wonder: why did the name “Judith Miller” just pop into my head? Weird…)

I’m sure that, ever since the first newspapers, powerful people have been using them in order to send messages of this sort to others. But there was a time when newspapers, including the Times and the Post, would not only pass on those messages but sometimes provide context, sometimes dissent. Not always, surely, but enough so that, for instance, a criminal president – Nixon – was forced to resign.

I suppose to some extent it still happens, a little. But whenever it does, suddenly there are more Millers and Bumillers running around, taking dictation, writing articles where the Royals talk to other Royals in code, and the rest of us are left looking at entrails for signs about what is really going on.

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

Troops think the computer program is terrible for all the regular reasons—it’s boring, it’s slow, it takes a lot of time to put together a presentation—but also because oftentimes, it’s obfuscating instead of elucidating. “’It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,’ [Brig.] General [H.R.] McMaster said in a telephone interview […]. ‘Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable,’” according to the Times. McMaster actually went so far as to actually ban PowerPoint during one mission in Iraq in 2005. If we can destroy it abroad, there could be hope for the war at home.

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Mayer v. Thiessen: The Left Sphere Sings “Sweet Jane”

Jane Mayer at New Yorker:

On September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of Al Qaeda’s attacks on America, another devastating terrorist plot was meant to unfold. Radical Islamists had set in motion a conspiracy to hijack seven passenger planes departing from Heathrow Airport, in London, and blow them up in midair. “Courting Disaster” (Regnery; $29.95), by Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter in the Bush Administration, begins by imagining the horror that would have resulted had the plot succeeded. He conjures fifteen hundred dead airline passengers, televised “images of debris floating in the ocean,” and gleeful jihadis issuing fresh threats: “We will rain upon you such terror and destruction that you will never know peace.”

The plot, of course, was thwarted—an outcome that has been credited to smart detective work. But Thiessen writes that there is a more important reason that his dreadful scenario never came to pass: the Central Intelligence Agency provided the United Kingdom with pivotal intelligence, using “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Bush Administration. According to Thiessen, British authorities were given crucial assistance by a detainee at Guantánamo Bay who spoke of “plans for the use of liquid explosive,” which can easily be made with products bought at beauty shops. Thiessen also claims that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the primary architect of the 9/11 attacks, divulged key intelligence after being waterboarded by the C.I.A. a hundred and eighty-three times. Mohammed spoke about a 1995 plot, based in the Philippines, to blow up planes with liquid explosives. Thiessen writes that, in early 2006, “an observant C.I.A. officer” informed “skeptical” British authorities that radicals under surveillance in England appeared to be pursuing a similar scheme.

Thiessen’s book, whose subtitle is “How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack,” offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit. In addition, Thiessen attacks the Obama Administration for having banned techniques such as waterboarding. “Americans could die as a result,” he writes.

Yet Thiessen is better at conveying fear than at relaying the facts. His account of the foiled Heathrow plot, for example, is “completely and utterly wrong,” according to Peter Clarke, who was the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism branch in 2006. “The deduction that what was being planned was an attack against airliners was entirely based upon intelligence gathered in the U.K.,” Clarke said, adding that Thiessen’s “version of events is simply not recognized by those who were intimately involved in the airlines investigation in 2006.” Nor did Scotland Yard need to be told about the perils of terrorists using liquid explosives. The bombers who attacked London’s public-transportation system in 2005, Clarke pointed out, “used exactly the same materials.”

Thiessen’s claim about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed looks equally shaky. The Bush interrogation program hardly discovered the Philippine airlines plot: in 1995, police in Manila stopped it from proceeding and, later, confiscated a computer filled with incriminating details. By 2003, when Mohammed was detained, hundreds of news reports about the plot had been published. If Mohammed provided the C.I.A. with critical new clues—details unknown to the Philippine police, or anyone else—Thiessen doesn’t supply the evidence.

Scott Horton at Harper’s:

Thiessen makes no bones about the fact that his aim is to show the central role played by the CIA and its use of torture techniques in keeping the country safe during the Bush stewardship. He says he was introduced to the subject when he got the task of drafting a speech that Bush ultimately delivered in September 2006, closing down the black site system and acknowledging use of what the Bush team called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but offering a robust swan-song defense of what had been done. Thiessen says he relied heavily on information furnished by Michael McConnell—Bush’s national intelligence tsar. But Mayer quickly zeroes in on the information gap that this sets up:

Courting Disaster has a scholarly feel, and hundreds of footnotes, but it is based on a series of slipshod premises. Thiessen, citing McConnell, claims that before the C.I.A. began interrogating detainees the U.S. knew “virtually nothing” about Al Qaeda. But McConnell was not in the government in the years immediately before 9/11. He retired as the director of the National Security Agency in 1996, and did not rejoin the government until 2007. Evidently, he missed a few developments during his time in the private sector, such as the C.I.A.’s founding, in 1996, of its bin Laden unit—the only unit devoted to a single figure. There was also bin Laden’s declaration of war on America, in 1996, and his 1998 indictment in New York, after Al Qaeda’s bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. The subsequent federal trial of the bombing suspects, in New York, produced thousands of pages of documents exposing the internal workings of Al Qaeda. A state’s witness at the trial, a former Al Qaeda member named Jamal al-Fadl, supplied the F.B.I. with invaluable information about the group, including its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons.

Thiessen insists that techniques that have been viewed as torture since the time of the Inquisition—such as waterboarding, the strapado, and hypothermia—are miraculously transformed into something milder and less offensive in the hands of the CIA. And he struggles to present the CIA’s use of torture techniques as an unqualified success. For instance, he insists that the CIA’s practices had nothing to do with the disaster at Abu Ghraib, but Mayer catches him up in another falsehood:

Courting Disaster downplays the C.I.A.’s brutality under the Bush Administration to the point of falsification. Thiessen argues that “the C.I.A. interrogation program did not inflict torture by any reasonable standard,” and that there was “only one single case” in which “inhumane” techniques were used. That case, he writes, involved the detainee Abd al-Rahim Nashiri, whom a C.I.A. interrogator threatened with a handgun to the head, and with an electric drill. He claims that no detainee “deaths in custody took place in the C.I.A. interrogation program,” failing to mention the case of a detainee who was left to freeze to death at a C.I.A.-run prison in Afghanistan. Referring to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Thiessen writes that “what happened in those photos had nothing to do with C.I.A. interrogations, military interrogations, or interrogations of any sort.” The statement is hard to square with the infamous photograph of Manadel al-Jamadi; his body was placed on ice after he died of asphyxiation during a C.I.A. interrogation at the prison. The homicide became so notorious that the C.I.A.’s inspector general, John Helgerson, forwarded the case to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution. Thiessen simply ignores the incident.

Andrew Sullivan:

Thiessen makes the usual – totally untrue – statements: that the methods seen at Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with the actions authorized by Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld (the Senate Committee begs to differ; that only one victim was subject to “inhumane” treatment – a fact denied by both the Red Cross, by countless witnesses, by photographs that were somehow not destroyed by the government, and by Bush’s own prosecutor at Gitmo. The 2004 CIA report on the torture program described it as a failure, not a success; that’s why it was largely ended in the last years of Bush. So was Bush endangering the nation as well?

Read the whole thing. Thiessen’s book sounds like rationalization of the irrational, like the work of a criminal unable to confess or even recognize his crime, of a political hack who cannot endure a self-image as someone who really did betray the core values of his own country and the entire West – out of fear, panic, and ignorance. Well, he may need his own alternate reality to sleep at night.

But this subject is too serious not to see in the light of reality.

Pareene at Gawker:

The C.I.A. killed Manadel al-Jamadi at Abu Ghraib. There was torture at Guantanamo. The Heathrow plot was foiled by the Brits and the Pakistanis, and not through C.I.A. torture. Al-Qaeda has carried out numerous attacks against “American interests abroad” since the C.I.A. began torturing people. Those are all very well-documented things that Marc Thiessen gets wrong (or lies about) in his book about how much he loves torturing people.

Marc Theissen, who put all those lies in that book and who probably drinks from a coffee mug that says “World’s Best Defender of Doing Things That We Prosecuted Nazis For Doing,” was recently hired to be an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. He has a column today, in fact! It’s about how earmarks are bad and how Republicans who hate earmarks are good and fiscally responsible but they used to not be fiscally responsible and independent voters who are concerned about government spending will reward Republicans for banning earmarks.

It is inane and boring. It reads like a robot was told to split the difference between David Brooks and Bill Kristol.

So not only does he hold a morally reprehensible position on torture (one that has been completely normalized because of people like the editors of the Washington Post), and not only is he either ignorant of the facts or simply lying to support his morally reprehensible position, but he is also a boring and predictable writer with boring and predictable thoughts on boring and predictable subjects.

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy:

Nothing beats an on-the record response from those involved. The line I am getting from Theissen’s defenders is that, Well, he criticized her, too, in his book. Let’s see: One person is a reporter who worked alongside me the Wall Street Journal. The other was a flack for Jesse Helms and Rumsfeld. Who am I more likely to trust? It puzzles me that my old newspaper, The Washington Post, would hire Theissen to write for its op-ed page. How many former Bush speechwriters does one newspaper need?

UPDATE: Theissen responds to Mayer, at National Review

Conor Friedersdorf

UPDATE #2: More Theissen

More Friedersdorf

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Filed under Books, GWOT, Torture