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March 28, 2008

Can't Tell the Players WITH a Scorecard
Posted by David Shorr

Courtesy of Ilan, we have Tony Cordesman's reminder that the fighting in Iraq is not what it seems. The central-government-versus-renegade-militias narrative doesn't fit neatly. Excellent point. Cluing into the power struggle dynamics is indeed critical to understanding what's going on.

But here's another reminder. Isn't the fact that the Center v. Militias story line doesn't fit itself highly significant? I don't usually go in for simple binary good guy / bad guy breakdowns, but isn't this a situation where it should actually be appropriate? If a governing authority is legitimate, then the government should have a legal monopoly on force. And if Iraq's rulers are one more set of contestants for power rather than truly being at the helm of the state, can I ask what the hell we're doing there?

The Cheney Theory
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Eric Martin takes me to task over my assertion, based on the Washington Post coverage, that the U.S. government didn't know this was coming.  He has a point.  For full disclosure I should have pointed out that last week Cheney met with ISCI's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.  There has been a great deal of speculation that in exchange for letting the provincial elections law pass through the Presidency Council, Cheney agreed to give ISCI the go ahead to go to town on JAM in Basra.  It has also been widely reported that a number of Iraqi Generals were talking about this operation a week ago.  Both good points that throw into question whether the Bush Administration saw this coming.

Still, the reason I don't buy this theory is that the timing makes no sense whatsoever from a domestic political perspective.  If there was a quid pro quo, the Bush Administration would have asked for a waiting period until after the Petraeus Crocker testimony.  Why go with such a high risk operation a week before the progress report to Congress?  Makes no sense.  This Administration is pretty incompetent about a lot of things, but for the most part they  seem to understand political timing. 

At the end, Eric argues that given the Administration's not so stellar record with the truth, we shouldn't take them at their word.  Fair enough.  But I'd also argue that given the Administration's long history of incompetence on Iraq, it's quite possible and in fact likely, that they just completely missed this.

Admiral Mullen on Afghanistan and Iraq
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen gave an interview to NPR this morning

If the current round of fighting subsides and the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq go ahead as planned, Mullen says, he's exploring the idea of shifting troops to Afghanistan — an effort that he says is vastly under resourced.

"So, should we be in a position where more troops are removed from Iraq, the possibility of sending additional troops there — where we need them, clearly — certainly it's a possibility. But it's really going to be based on the availability of troops. We don't have troops — particularly in Brigade Combat Team size — sitting on the shelf, ready to go."

Iraq in 30 Seconds
Posted by Moira Whelan

News has been coming fast out of Iraq, and folks are collecting information and trying to decipher what is going on. At this time, most analysts are saying the situation is unclear. One contact of mine working in Iraq gave this quick assessment which is interesting:

Best case scenario: the Iraqi central government seizes this opportunity to demonstrate strength and unity. They hold strong and isolate the problems in Basra. They gain confidence going forward, but ultimately 1/3 of Iraq becomes ungovernable.

Worst case scenario: the Iraqi central government and the military do not step up, and all hell breaks lose. 

I’m not saying this is absolute, but bottom line, I think “bleak” is a good description at this point.

Heads Up
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

You'd think installing the guy and having 150,000 troops there to underwrite his government would at least buy American forces a heads up. You'd be wrong

Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials.

Well, then at the very least, you'd think that with 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq, the Administration would have some idea of what is going on.  You'd be wrong.

With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.

Well, then you'd assume that if Maliki  decided to do this without giving any real indication to the U.S. government, we aren't actually going to get our troops involved in the fray.  Wrong again.

U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

Well, I guess things really are taking a bad turn in Iraq.  Actually, you're wrong about that to.

The words from Dayton were "remarkable" and "victory" and "rebirth."  "Normalcy," President Bush said, "is returning back to Iraq."

"Culture of dependency" isn't just a talking point invented by opponents of the war.  It's a way of life for the Iraqi government.  They do stupid things that put our troops at risk for their own political benefit because they know that American troops will step into the breech and cover their asses. 

March 27, 2008

Where is the Outrage?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today the Washington Post has a pretty interesting story about the Bush Administration's increased military activity in Pakistan:

The United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan's new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations in that country, according to U.S. officials.

Over the past two months, U.S.-controlled Predator aircraft are known to have struck at least three sites used by al-Qaeda operatives. The moves followed a tacit understanding with Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani that allows U.S. strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban, the officials said.

About 45 Arab, Afghan and other foreign fighters have been killed in the attacks, all near the Afghan border, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. The goal was partly to jar loose information on senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, by forcing them to move in ways that U.S. intelligence analysts can detect. Local sources are providing better information to guide the strikes, the officials said.

Here's my question, where is John McCain's outrage? As some of you may remember, back in February he lambasted Barack Obama for "confused leadership" and "inexperience" because he "once suggested bombing our ally Pakistan." Obviously, if McCain got that upset about simply "suggesting" we bomb in Pakistan I can only imagine how angry he might get when he finds out that it's actually happening!

Oddly, I have yet to hear any criticism of the Bush White House emanating from the McCain campaign . . .

Beavis and Butthead as Armsdealers
Posted by Michael Cohen

In another pretty good example, of why military contractor oversight is sort of important, the New York Times has an astonishing and depressing story of contractor abuse in Afghanistan.

Since 2006, when the insurgency in Afghanistan sharply intensified, the Afghan government has been dependent on American logistics and military support in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But to arm the Afghan forces that it hopes will lead this fight, the American military has relied since early last year on a fledgling company led by a 22-year-old man whose vice president was a licensed masseur.

With the award last January of a federal contract worth as much as nearly $300 million, the company, AEY Inc., which operates out of an unmarked office in Miami Beach, became the main supplier of munitions to Afghanistan’s army and police forces.

The company has provided ammunition that is more than 40 years old and in decomposing packaging, according to an examination of the munitions by The New York Times and interviews with American and Afghan officials. Much of the ammunition comes from the aging stockpiles of the old Communist bloc, including stockpiles that the State Department and NATO have determined to be unreliable and obsolete, and have spent millions of dollars to have destroyed.

In purchasing munitions, the contractor has also worked with middlemen and a
shell company on a federal list of entities suspected of illegal arms trafficking.

You might wonder how such a vital US foreign policy objective could be turned over to a company with virtually no military or procurement experience.

An examination of AEY’s background, through interviews in several countries, reviews of confidential government documents and the examination of some of the ammunition, suggests that Army contracting officials, under pressure to arm Afghan troops, allowed an immature company to enter the murky world of international arms dealing on the Pentagon’s behalf — and did so with minimal vetting and through a vaguely written contract with few restrictions.

And then here we have the understatement of the day:

Several officials said the problems would have been avoided if the Army had written contracts and examined bidders more carefully.

As I've said before here, government contracting, writ large, is not necessarily a bad thing. But without proper oversight or regulatory enforcement these types of problems are going to occur. After seven years of chronic inattention to contractor oversight; it's little wonder these stories keep cropping up. What's really surprising is that they don't happen more often.

What Does Petraeus Think?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

The fact that folks in the Pentagon and the White House are calling this violence in the South "progress," is absurd.  In terms of what is actually going on?  Nobody knows for sure.  But this seems more like a massive fight between two of the largest Shi'a groups then the Iraqi Security Forces and government finally getting their act together and bringing security to the country. 

I have yet to see Petraeus make any comment on the situations and I'm wondering what he thinks, especially since he has spent the last few months cultivating Sadr.  I feel like he'd be out there more publicly if he actually thought this was a good idea.

Anyway, Tony Cordesman had a pretty good summary of what we know and what we don't know.

    Much of the current coverage of the fighting in the south assumes that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr militia are the "spoilers," or bad guys, and that the government forces are the legitimate side and bringing order. This can be a dangerous oversimplification. There is no question that many elements of the JAM have been guilty of sectarian cleansing, and that the Sadr movement in general is hostile to the US and is seeking to enhance Muqtada al-Sadr's political power. There is also no doubt that the extreme rogue elements in the JAM have continued acts of violence in spite of the ceasefire, and that some have ties to Iran. No one should romanticize the Sadr movement, understate the risks it presents, or ignore the actions of the extreme elements of the JAM.

    But no one should romanticize Maliki, Al Dawa, or the Hakim faction/ISCI. The current fighting is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shi'ite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule.

    The nature of this power struggle was all too clear during a recent visit to Iraq. ISCI had de facto control over the Shi'ite governorates in the south, and was steadily expanding its influence and sometimes control over the Iraqi police. It was clearly positioning itself for power struggle with Sadr and for any elections to come. It also was positioning itself to support Hakim's call for a nine governorate Shi'ite federation -- a call that it had clear Iranian support.

    The US teams we talked to also made it clear that these appointments by the central government had no real popular base. If local and provincial elections were held with open lists, it was likely that ISCI and Dawa would lose most elections because they are seen as having failed to bring development and government services.

    There was no real debate over how bad the overall governance of the south was at the provincial level, how poor the flow of capital was from the central government in Baghdad, and how poor government-related services were even in Shi'ite areas. As recent ABC polls show, incompetence and corruption are not sectarian. The south may be more secure, but Shi'ites only receive marginally better treatment from the central government than Sunnis.

    Members of the US team differed over how much the Sadrists had a populist base and broad support among the poor Shi'ite Iraqis in the south, and how well the Sadrists could do in any provincial and local elections, although most felt Sadr still had a broad base of support in Baghdad. One of the key uncertainties that emerged during visits to the south was over how elections would shape up when there were no real political parties operating with local leaders, and in a framework of past national elections that only allowed Iraqis to vote for entire lists (most with many totally unfamiliar names) for the main parties and that made no allowance for the direct election of members of the COR that represented a given area or district. Optimists hope for a populist upswell; realists foresee an uncertain mess.

    There were also differences over how much Sadr was waiting out the effort to defeat Al Qa'ida before allowing the JAM to become active again, and how much he was repositioning himself to strengthen his political and religious position for a more normal political life. In practice, he may be doing both, may be as confused by the uncertain nature of Iraqi politics and security as everyone else, and may be dealing with a movement so fractured and diverse that effective control of even its mainstream is difficult to impossible.

    It was also clear that Basra was a special case. The British position had essentially eroded to the point of hiding in the airport. There was a fair amount of bluster about joint planning, training, and patrols, but little evidence of substance. Moreover, the power struggle in Basra differed sharply from the struggle in the other Shi'ite provinces. Basra was essentially divided up among Shi'ite party mafias, each of which had its own form of extortion and corruption. They sometimes fought and feuded, but had a crude modus vivendi at the expense of the rest of the nation. Basra also had far more Iranian penetration in both the civil and security sectors than the other Shi'ite governorates. However, it was clear that Iran and the Al Quds force continued to be equal opportunity supporters of all the Shi'ite militias, and that Iran effectively was ensuring that it would support the winner, regardless of who the winner was.

    This does not mean that the central government should not reassert control of Basra. It is not peaceful, it is a significant prize as a port and the key to Iraq's oil exports, and gang rule is no substitute for legitimate government. But it is far from clear that what is happening is now directed at serving the nation's interest versus that of ISCI and Al Dawa in the power struggle to come. It is equally far from clear that the transfer of security responsibility to Iraqi forces in the south is not being used by Maliki, Al Dawa, and ISCI to cement control over the Shi'ite regions at Sadr's expense and at the expense of any potential local political leaders and movements. Certainly, the fact that these efforts come after ISCI's removal of its objections to the Provincial Powers Act may not be entirely coincidental.

    Is the end result going to be good or bad? It is very difficult to tell. If the JAM and Sadr turn on the US, or if the current ISCI/Dawa power grab fails, then Shi'ite on Shi'ite violence could become far more severe. It is also far from clear that if the two religious-exile parties win, this is going to serve the cause of political accommodation or legitimate local and provincial government. It seems far more likely that even the best case outcome is going be one that favors Iraqracy over democracy.

In Defense of Grand Strategy
Posted by Shawn Brimley

Grand strategy is important. Poor strategy is a recipe for either strategic drift or stumbling into ill-conceived wars. A good grand strategy can help articulate a vision or purpose, generate consensus, and help a nation retain its balance in a complex world.

I've been doing some thinking on grand strategy lately – principally as part of my day job, but also because there's been some great work on the topic of late. I often read or hear comments like "grand strategy is useless," or "great, another grand strategy idea." It's an understandable reaction. Everyone wants to riff on George Kennan, and create a blueprint that explains the positive use of American power in the world. Kennan himself warned against the attempt.

But whatever you want to call it, in times of great uncertainty and change in the international system, America has managed to articulate a broad vision of what its purpose and place is in the world. I would argue that "containment" was an excellent grand strategic idea that was relevant to its time and endured over the entire history of the Cold War. Containment meant different things to different Presidents, and its broad vision allowed for different approaches emphasizing different tools. In the 1990s, the closest the Clinton administration came was "engagement and enlargement," which I would argue was also highly relevant to the post-Cold War era and helped reflect where America wanted to go in the world. I do think that the Clinton administration just didn't try hard enough to generate both internal consensus and then sell a framework to the American people and the world. My colleague and friend Derek Chollet (and former Democracy Arsenal blogger) would probably disagree with me – and I recommend you all buy his new book when it comes out in a few months.

Some would argue that the post-9/11 era and all the complexities of Afghanistan, Iraq, globalization, proliferation, and climate change mitigate against or make impossible the articulation of a vision of American leadership that actually translates into action. Even if it were possible, many would argue that it would amount to nothing more than rhetoric. "Deeds matter more than words," they might say. And they would be right.

But grand strategy is not simply words – it is not an activity in rhetoric. Real grand strategy should drive investment patterns, frame diplomacy, place the use of military force within a framework, and help a nation manage its actions in a dangerous world. A real grand strategy is not a glossy public relations document like the "National Security Strategies" that recent administrations have produced.

I've even heard people compare American strategy to jazz – here, improvisation and the ability to react smoothly and anticipate changes in the international system should be the focus of policymakers. There is real truth here – jazz is better than architecture when thinking about the practice of statecraft. But grand strategy cannot and should not be improvised – grand strategy is about building a foundation, not day-to-day foreign policy. Again, containment worked because it allowed for various administrations to do different things (some presidents during the Cold War were architects, some were jazz musicians) – the Truman doctrine, Eisenhower's MAD, Kennedy's flexible response, Nixon's détente etc. Containment provided a solid foundation upon which different administration's pursued their own particular foreign policy priorities. Historian John Lewis Gaddis made this point in his book Strategies of Containment.

I am convinced that one of the many reasons America is stumbling and its image and legitimacy is erroding is the lack of a grand strategic foundation.

And I believe that five years after the start of an ill-conceived war, nearly seven years after 9/11, and nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to say we don't need a grand strategy is to willfully ignore the important role it can play in helping this country orient itself for the very challenging years ahead.

March 26, 2008

Miracle Mildew over Meltdown in Iraq
Posted by Adam Blickstein

The situation in Iraq continues to spiral out of control. The latest development is a showdown between Sadr himself and Nouri al-Maliki with Sadr asking for Maliki to leave Basra and send a parliamentary delegation to resolve the crisis. Of course, this is unlikely as Maliki has already issued a 72-hour ultimatum, and with his credibility is the line, he needs to maintain a hard line, or at least a resolute appearance, against the Mahdi Army. In Baghdad, missiles for the second time this week hit the Green Zone and there is increasing fear that the battles in Basra will spread to Sadr City and Baghdad as a whole. With all these critical developments that could reshape the political and military landscape across Iraq, you'd think the cable networks would be providing comprehensive coverage. Instead, MSNBC just ran a story on....MIRACLE MILDEW...and have barely covered the violence erupting in Basra and Baghdad. Yes, it appears that the media is more concerned with mildew that looks like Jesus than the fact that Iraq could descending deeper into chaos...

Real Meaning of 4,000 Dead
Posted by Shawn Brimley

I found this short piece in TIME by a young LT in Iraq to be amongst the most powerful things I have read on the war. It is worth reading and reflecting on:

"For the vast majority of American's who don't have a loved one overseas, the only number they have to attempt to grasp the Iraq War is 4,000. I would ask that when you see that number, try to remember that it is made up of over 1 million smaller numbers; that every one of the 1 million service members who have fought in Iraq has his or her own personal numbers. Over 1 million 8's and 3's. When you are evaluating the price of the war, weighing potential rewards versus cost in blood and treasure, I would ask you to consider what is worth the lives of three of your loved ones? Or eight? Or more? It would be a tragedy for my 8 and 3 to have died without us being able to complete our mission, but it maybe even more tragic for 8 and 3 to become anything higher."

Lieut. Sean Walsh patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

Permanent Presence
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Spencer Ackerman has a great breakdown of the negotiations currently ongoing regarding a long-term security agreement between the United States and Iraq.

McCain's Speech
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So, we did a fact check on McCain's speech.  The basic gist.  If the speech gives you warm fuzzies and makes you feel like McCain's foreign policy is somehow better then George Bush's, check that idea quickly.

  • McCain spoke eloquently about the horrors of war, yet has a long history of being too reliant on military action.
  • McCain's own rhetoric since 9-11 helped promote the Bush Administration's failed war and mocked and alienated many of the important allies McCain now says we must re-engage.
  • McCain's Iraq war-first view of the world that is the greatest obstacle to the kinds of changes McCain says he wants to make.
  • McCain cannot repair our relationships with the world as long as there are more than 100,000 American troops still in Iraq.
  • McCain ignores the alarms sent up by our nation's intelligence agencies who believe that the central threat to the U.S. homeland is in Pakistan - not Iraq.
  • McCain rejects reality on the ground in Iraq, which today includes a flare-up of the civil war between various Shi'a factions that threatens the most basic foundations of our effort there.

If you still don't believe me.  Just read George Bush's second inaugural.  All these great things they talk about are not even going to start to happen until we start drawing our forces out of Iraq.

Voodoo Economics
Posted by Michael Cohen

I think it seems pretty clear that John McCain's understanding of economics is, how shall we say, thin. But according to the New York Times today, his advises aren't much better. Check out this quote from Kevin Hassett, a key McCain adviser and the director for economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

What really happens is that the economy grows more vigorously when you lower tax rates. . It is beyond the reach of economic science to explain precisely why that happens, but it does.

Beyond the reach of economic science? Isn't the notion that lower taxes or higher government spending will grow the economy the very basis of Keynesian economics? Isn't this sort of fundamental to the understanding of macroeconomics?

Maybe this is Kevin Hassett's way of saying we need more tax cuts - we don't know why they taste to good, but boy are they delicious, so let's have some more and not get all worried about the "why!" Or maybe it's his way of dismissing those reams of economic data, which disprove supply side economic by showing that tax cuts don't increase tax revenues - you see economic science can't really tell us anything definitively so why don't we just cut more taxes and hope everything works out for the best.

Either way, my confidence in John McCain's economic acumen just took another pretty big hit. But then, after what he said here in January, it didn't have to much further to fall.

Your Liberal Think Tanks..
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

This event seems fair and balanced.

March 25, 2008

You Don't Know Dick . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen

It really is amazing that any White House press officer continues to allow Dick Cheney to speak to the media. Check out a few of these quotes from our esteemed Vice President.
in his recent interview with ABC News's Martha Radatz:

Mr. Vice President, I want to start with the milestone today of 4,000 dead in Iraq, Americans, and just what effect you think that has on the country.  Your thoughts on that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Well, it obviously brings home, I think for a lot of people, the cost that's involved in the global war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It places a special burden, obviously, on the families.  We recognize, I think -- it's a reminder of the extent to which we're blessed with families who have sacrificed as they have.  The President carries the biggest burden, obviously; he's the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans.  But we are fortunate to have the group of men and women, the all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm's way for the rest of us. You wish nobody ever lost their life, but unfortunately it's one of those things that go with living in the world we live in.  Sometimes you have to commit military force, and when you do, there are casualties.

Just so we're clear here - the GREATEST burden is OBVIOUSLY borne by President Bush and not the families of the 4,000 soldiers who have died in Iraq. And after all our soldiers volunteered, so really it isn't like they didn't know what they were getting into. If they didn't want to die, clearly they shouldn't signed up in the first place. If you think about it, really it's their own fault and frankly a little selfish. I mean look at the significant burden they are putting on the President.

Here we have the Vice President comparing the decision to invade Iraq . . . to the pardon of Richard Nixon:

I had the experience, for example, of working for Jerry Ford, and I've never forgotten the travails he went through after he had been president for 30 days when he issued the pardon of former president Nixon. And there was consternation coast to coast.

But he demonstrated, I think, great courage and great foresight, and the country was better off for what Jerry Ford did that day. And 30 years later, everybody recognized it.

And I have the same strong conviction the issues we're dealing with today -- the global war on terror, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq -- that all of the tough calls the president has had to make, that 30 years from now it will be clear that he made the right decisions, and that the effort we mounted was the right one, and that if we had listened to the polls, we would have gotten it wrong.

Maybe it's just me, but comparing the pardon of one man to horribly flawed decisions that have caused the death of 4,000 soldiers seems not only a bit flippant, but even a tad insensitive. I keep hearing this argument from the Bush Administration that history will prove them correct. Now even if you think the war was a good idea, how can one argue that right decisions have been made about the war? Even Doug Feith says bad decisions were made (but of course they weren't the President's fault) - and that guy is about introspective as, well Dick Cheney.

If one listens to the Vice President it's as if the the little disastrous decisions like say, disbanding the Iraqi Army, not sending enough troops and having no post-war occupation plan can be waved away because in the long run everything will turn out ok. Even if Iraq does turn into a Jeffersonian democracy it doesn't change the fact that this war has caused enormous damage to US interests - not to mention the deaths of 4,000 Americans and countless Iraqis. Can anyone reasonable argue that the benefits of a free Iraqi state have been worth the costs that America has already paid? Apparently, in Dick's world, only the benefits and none of the costs seem to matter.

Long as we're on the subject of poll numbers, here's Cheney's stunningly obtuse comments about public opinion and the war:

Raddatz: "Two-thirds of Americans say it's not worth fighting, and they're looking at the value gain versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives."

Cheney: "So?"

Raddatz: "So -- you don't care what the American people think?"

Cheney: "No, I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls. Think about what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had paid attention to polls, if they had had polls during the Civil War. He never would have succeeded if he hadn't had a clear objective, a vision for where he wanted to go, and he was willing to withstand the slings and arrows of the political wars in order to get there."

I'd like to take this opportunity to remind Dick Cheney that America is a democracy and yes, public opinion matters - you know, that whole "consent of the people" thing. This is really nothing less than a monarchical view of the American Presidency. But really the more absurd statement here is the notion that public opinion has fluctuated. In fact, if you look at the polling results here, the numbers have remained remarkably consistent over the past year - Americans oppose the war in Iraq, they think the President is doing a terrible job and they want the troops to come home. No fluctuation here.

Oh and by the way, in case you missed it, Dick Cheney compared George Bush to Abraham Lincoln.

Continue reading "You Don't Know Dick . . ." »

Hagel as SecDef?
Posted by Shawn Brimley

Ilan had a great piece on the New Republic's site last week that is worthy of mention. He explores the idea of Senator Chuck Hagel as a potential Secretary of Defense in a Democratic administration. Key quote:

"Appointing a Republican as Secretary of Defense could send a message that Democrats are still too uncomfortable with the military to take on the responsibility of defending our country by themselves. Moreover, there's no reason not to appoint a Democrat. The party has a deep defense bench that includes military and defense advisors for the Obama and Clinton campaigns--many of whom have served in the Pentagon in previous administrations. Some of Chuck Hagel's congressional colleagues such as Senators Jim Webb or Jack Reed are just as qualified to be Secretary of Defense, and have the added benefit of being Democrats."

Totally agree. I think it would send a very positive message for a Democratic President to reach-out and appoint a Republican to the Cabinet, but not to the Pentagon. The Democratic Party is not the party of the 1970s, there are plenty of strong-defense Democrats who would be excellent leaders. During perhaps the most critical national security inheritance in decades, a possible Democratic administration needs to take ownership over the very difficult military issues that will be at play in 2009.

A Potentially Bad "Prediction"
Posted by Michael Cohen

A hat tip to Ilan for noting the dangers of the Sadr Militia breaking their cease fire. The possibility of increased violence in Iraq now seems like a real threat. How ever will the White House respond?

Let's see, today in the New York Times we have confirmation of something practically all of us already knew - the troops aren't coming home from Iraq any time soon. As to why, here's part of the White House's rationale:

By many accounts, the addition of five combat brigades last year, which raised the American troop level to a peak of nearly 170,000 from 132,000, was a factor in helping reduce violence in Iraq. But Mr. Bush and his aides are described as wary of risking the gains.

So what then would happen if violence increased as Ilan warns - would the White House see this as a failure of its surge policy? Would they see the increase in violence as a sign that the lack of political progress in Iraq has undermined the recent security gains?

Allow me to make a prediction - not a chance in hell. If violence increases, the White House will simply argue that we need to stay longer in order to stop Iraq from falling into further disarray. If Intrade had a contract on this, I'd be all in. Violence down: we stay. Violence up: we stay. 

Somewhere George Orwell is preparing a copyright infringement suit.

McCain Hearts Petraeus
Posted by Michael Cohen

Maybe it's just me, but I'm beginning to think that John McCain has a bit of a man crush on David Petraeus.

Check out this AP article today and some of the quotes from McCain about the clear object of his affection:

I'm not painting to you the most rosy scenario but I am telling you, compared to a year ago, before we started this surge, and with this great general, one of the great generals in American history, General David Petraeus, that we are succeeding in Iraq.

Washington, Grant, Pershing, Eisenhower, MacArthur . . .  Petraeus?

When I was in New Hampshire earlier this year, I heard McCain take great umbrage at the fact that Petraeus has not been chosen as Time's Man of the Year. And then there is this:

For the first time, I have seen Osama bin Laden and General (David) Petraeus in agreement, and, that is, a central battleground in the battle against al-Qaida is in Iraq today. And that's what bin Laden was saying and that's what General Petraeus is saying and that's what I'm saying, my friends," McCain said.

I don't think I would change the strategy now unless General Petraeus recommended it. I think he's trusted by the American people, the president and by me. And General Petraeus again showed me facts on the ground where the surge is succeeding.

To the first point, who cares what Osama Bin Laden says about the war in Iraq? Are we now making foreign policy and strategic military decisions based on what Osama Bin Laden has to say about them? If Bin Laden said that the Congo is the new central front on terror would we send a Marine battalion there? What is he declared that David Archuleta winning American Idol would mean the terrorists win - would Bush order every American to speed dial the show? Apparently John McCain's foreign policy can be summed up by the following acronym -- WWOBLD.

To the second point, now I know that John McCain is a foreign policy expert and that he understands the military better than any "cut and running" Democrat possibly could, but maybe someone should tell the Arizona Senator that Presidents make decisions about strategy and generals implement them.

While obviously it's important to listen to your military folks on the ground, Presidents have a responsibility to take a slightly larger political and strategic view.  To base one's decision making in Iraq solely on what you hear from General Petraeus and not say, on what you hear from Ambassador Crocker is pretty short-sighted. The very notion that McCain doesn't think he would change course in Iraq unless Petraeus recommended it reverses the entire concept of civilian control over the military. While obviously I am exaggerating in part, McCain's pretty revealing words are fairly indicative of a foreign policy mind-set that puts military objectives above larger political questions. Gee, where does that sound familiar.

Or maybe I have it all wrong: maybe John McCain just can't get enough of a man in uniform.

Potentially Very Bad
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

So, the news from Iraq today isn't good

Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militiamen Tuesday in the southern oil port of Basra and gunmen patrolled several Baghdad neighborhoods as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a nationwide civil disobedience campaign to demand an end to the crackdown on their movement.

Explosions rang out across central Baghdad as rockets or mortars fired from Shiite areas targeted the U.S.-protected Green Zone for the second time this week.

The violence was part of an escalation in the confrontation between the Shiite-run government and al-Sadr's followers — a move that threatens the security gains achieved by U.S. and Iraqi forces. At least 22 people were killed in the Basra fighting.

Now the million dollar question is:  what is "a nationwide civil disobedience campaign?"  If it is strikes and protests that's one thing.  But if it is the beginning of the end of the ceasefire that is something very different.  We have to wait and see.

But the issue is very serious.  In fact it's huge.  The drop in violence in Iraq has generally been attributed to four elements 1)  More American forces and the change in tactics to counterinsurgency; 2) The Awakening movement; 3)  The Sadr ceasfire; and 4) The ethnic cleansing and physical separation of the various sides.

It's hard to say for sure, which of these factors was the most important.  The Bush Administration will tell you it's all about the troop levels.  I've tended to believe it's more of a mix and was most inclined towards the Anbar Awakening and the sectarian cleansing as the important factors.  But when you look at the data it really seems to indicate that the Sadr ceasefire may have been the key. 

If you look at the graph that MNF-I has been using on civilian casualties it looks to tell a pretty clear story.  The first major drop in violence came in early 2007 before the troop surge.  It looks like it was mostly based on the fact that the worst of the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad had been completed (I outlined this argument more throughly a few months back). 

The second drop in violence came in September.  By that time the full surge had already been in effect for 2-3 months and the Awakening had been going on for a year.  The Sadr ceasefire occured on August 28 and suddenly boom a big drop in violence.  That could be a coincidence and it could be that all four factors came together.  But the data seems to point to the fact that the Sadr Ceasefire more then anything else is what caused the drop in violence in the early fall.

If that is in fact the case, we really have to hope that this is only a temporary spat and that the ceasefire holds.  If not, the situation could deteriorate very quickly.   

On second thought… scratch that.
Posted by Shawn Brimley

So what is it with the McCain team and strange foreign policy gaffes?

First we have McCain's "senior moment" last week when he repeatedly asserted that Iran is training Al Qaeda in Iraq, only to be publicly corrected by Senator Lieberman.

Then we have Senator Graham asserting on CBS' Face the Nation that we'll be able to get down to 100,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2008, only to then retract the statement today by saying: "I think we will be at pre-surge levels, about 130,000 troops, at year's end."

So public errors on perhaps 2 of the top 5 foreign policy issues (Iran, Iraq) facing the country. You'd better believe if Clinton or Obama made similar mistakes they would be vigorously attacked from the Right.

March 24, 2008

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Read Shawn's article in Small Wars Journal.  It's really good.  I'm in complete agreement with the overall thrust. 

The purpose of American grand strategy in the early 21st century should be to maintain our position of leadership in the world by rebuilding our legitimacy, renewing our key alliances, and ensuring our access to the global commons, in order to help sustain an international order based on a vibrant world economy.

I think that's right.  The status quo is no great shakes.  There are still many problem in the world, but massive systemic change tends to lead to horrific and violent wars, which in the long term is what will happen if we continue to alienate the entire world.  So, the best strategy is one that basically tries to maintain stability by having others buy into the current system and allows the system to evolve gradually.  This of course requires a much more deft and gentle leadership role.  But it does require a leadership role. 

One area where I would go further is in the description of maintaining "Global Commons."  The environment is a global common.  World health is a global common.  Global warming or a massive pandemic would present threats to the overall system and need to be viewed as important elements in any national security strategy. 

The Obama Doctrine
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Spencer Ackerman has a great piece in the American Prospect about Barack Obama’s foreign policy team.  As an Obama supporter I find the article compelling and it expresses a lot of the feelings that I have about his foreign policy.  But I thought this segment was particularly relevant far beyond just the Obama campaign. 

"There is a popular notion that Democrats have to try to appear like Republicans to pass some test on national security. The fact that that's still the case after Iraq is absurd," says one of Obama's closest advisers. "So you break from that orthodoxy and say 'I don't care if the Republicans attack me because I'm willing to meet with the leadership in Iran. We haven't for 25 years, and it's not gotten us anywhere.'"

This is an attitude that all Democratic politicians need to take.  Whether running for the House or Senate, debating in Congress, running for President, or simply advocating  for a new direction for American foreign policy. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been so impressed with the plan (PDF) that has been put together by Darcy Burner and other Congressional candidates.  The time to cower on these issues is over.

4,000 and 25
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

It's a huge number.  It's not a number you can even begin to wrap your head around, and what it means for those 4,000 families not to mention the 30,000 wounded and their families.  And it's only a fraction of the number of Iraqis who have been killed.   

While the number is historically significant, as Brandon Friedman over at VoteVets points out, in terms of the future and the physical situation on the ground perhaps the more relevant statistic is the 25 Americans killed in the last two weeks.  That would be the deadliest two weeks for the U.S. military since early September.

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