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Posts For: June 27, 2007

Lugar on the Surge

Senator Richard Lugar is winning encomia from all the predictable quarters—e.g., Joe Conason in the New York Observer—for his supposed wisdom and independence in declaring the surge a failure before it has barely begun.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared in a widely covered speech that he doesn’t think “that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the President” and that we should therefore “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq.” Interestingly, Lugar does “not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been some progress in security” as a result of the surge. He just doesn’t think that the surge will succeed in the long run because “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.”

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Senator Richard Lugar is winning encomia from all the predictable quarters—e.g., Joe Conason in the New York Observer—for his supposed wisdom and independence in declaring the surge a failure before it has barely begun.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared in a widely covered speech that he doesn’t think “that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the President” and that we should therefore “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq.” Interestingly, Lugar does “not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been some progress in security” as a result of the surge. He just doesn’t think that the surge will succeed in the long run because “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.”

But of those three factors it is the last that is clearly the biggest impediment to success. Yes, Iraqi politicians are at loggerheads over difficult issues; so are Senator Lugar and his colleagues. The whole surge strategy rests on the notion that improving the security climate will improve the political climate in Iraq. Since the attempts to improve the security situation have only just started—the final surge forces only recently arrived in Iraq—it is too soon to write off the chances of political progress. And, yes, there is “growing stress on our military,” but reenlistment rates remain strong, and, based on current projections, the army and Marine Corps can continue the surge until at least next April. (Longer if more National Guard and Reserve forces are mobilized.) Lugar seems to be asking for the surge to be called off not for these reasons, but because he doubts that any progress on the ground can be made fast enough to keep up with “the timetable imposed by our own domestic political process.”

Fair point, but that’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Democrats are certainly eager to cut off funding for the war effort. But they are unlikely to succeed in the face of united GOP opposition, given that Republicans not only control the White House, but also maintain substantial minorities in both houses of Congress. If Republicans keep their nerve, there is a good chance that, as happened recently, they can win a showdown with Democrats over war-funding.

But if leading Republicans like Richard Lugar write off the surge prematurely, they are likely to set off a bidding war over troop withdrawals—a bidding war that Republicans cannot win and one for which they are likely to get scant credit from the electorate, given that troop withdrawals will almost certainly make the situation in Iraq even worse than it is today. The few undeniable signs of progress—e.g., the great improvements made recently in Anbar province—are likely to disappear if American forces start heading for the exits. That, in turn, will make it harder politically to keep even a minimal force in Iraq to continue missions—such as chasing al Qaeda and training the Iraqi Security Forces—which most Republican and Democratic leaders agree are still necessary.

It may well be that the surge won’t, in fact, work. But General David Petraeus and the 160,000 troops who are putting their lives on the line under his command deserve at least a decent chance to succeed without having the carpet pulled out from under them on Capitol Hill. Especially by Republicans.

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Do Not Bluff

Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

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Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

In addition to the CIA’s Family Jewels, which are stealing all the headlines, astonishing cold-war documents—the CEASAR, POLO, and ESAU papers—have been declassified by the spy agency in the last few days. The flood of information summons to mind a peculiarity of the Aldrich Ames espionage case. Ames was promoted repeatedly within the CIA’s counterintelligence division while actually working as a Soviet and then a Russian spy until his arrest in 1994.

Ames and the American agents he betrayed were used to convey disinformation to the United States. The KGB employed this devious channel to create the impression that the USSR’s military prowess was stronger than it actually was. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan characterized the gist of the disinformation campaign, it was designed to create “the effect that the Soviet colossus was growing in economic strength and military might and spoiling for a confrontation with the decadent and divided West.”

Moynihan, writing in 1996, was vastly overstating what the USSR was up to, but he was pointing in the right direction. The CIA’s own review, prepared by a Damage Assessment Team [DAT], put the matter in more measured terms. Ames’s activities, it stated:

facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in “perception management operations” by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge. Although the extent and success of this effort cannot now be determined with certainty, we know that some of this information did reach senior decision-makers of the United States. . . .

it is very likely that the KGB, and later the SVR [the KGB successor organization], sought to influence U.S. decision-makers by providing controlled information designed to affect R&D [research and development] and procurement decisions of the Department of Defense. The DAT believes one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust.

So the fact remains that, at least to some degree, the Kremlin was bluffing. But as both the Soviet leaders and Saddam were to find out, this was not a smart strategy.

In the Soviet case, perceptions of Moscow’s military might helped to sustain a U.S. counter-buildup, which the USSR could not compete against without straining itself to the breaking point. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, it broke.

Saddam Hussein, for his part, got himself into a shooting war that he rapidly lost, and he soon found himself hiding for his life in the basement of a hut.

A cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: some authoritarian regimes have a desperate desire to appear strong, even if it means exaggerating their capabilities and risking a tougher or more vigorous response from their enemies.

A second cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: not every authoritarian regime is always bluffing. There is not a shred of evidence that Iran, for example, is bluffing about its growing nuclear program.

A third cautionary conclusion is for foreign dictators: when dealing with the United States, it is generally not smart to bluff.

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A Weekend in Kennebunkport

President Bush and his Russian counterpart have not yet met in Kennebunkport, but Lou Dobbs has already figured out what will happen this coming Sunday and Monday in Maine. A few weeks ago, the CNN anchor had this to say about the upcoming summit between the American leader and Vladimir Putin: “A meeting in which I’m sure both men will look deeply into one another’s eyes and come up with the architecture of a brilliant geopolitical relationship between the two countries.”

Who can blame Dobbs for sounding so cynical and sarcastic? He has, after all, identified the one thing that will not happen during the upcoming talks. Bush and Putin will undoubtedly trade many fine words during their session in the sun, but they will not do much to improve ties between America and Russia.

Moscow, unfortunately, now has an agenda that clashes with ours. The Kremlin no longer feels itself tethered to America—or even to Europe. “Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center last year. “Now it has left that orbit entirely.”

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President Bush and his Russian counterpart have not yet met in Kennebunkport, but Lou Dobbs has already figured out what will happen this coming Sunday and Monday in Maine. A few weeks ago, the CNN anchor had this to say about the upcoming summit between the American leader and Vladimir Putin: “A meeting in which I’m sure both men will look deeply into one another’s eyes and come up with the architecture of a brilliant geopolitical relationship between the two countries.”

Who can blame Dobbs for sounding so cynical and sarcastic? He has, after all, identified the one thing that will not happen during the upcoming talks. Bush and Putin will undoubtedly trade many fine words during their session in the sun, but they will not do much to improve ties between America and Russia.

Moscow, unfortunately, now has an agenda that clashes with ours. The Kremlin no longer feels itself tethered to America—or even to Europe. “Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center last year. “Now it has left that orbit entirely.”

As Russia leaves the West’s orbit, it is making common cause with China and regimes that are challenging America. As a result, the authoritarian states are now acting in like-minded fashion. And as they do so, they are changing the international system.

Why is the world in such disarray? Because America has been so powerful, analysts believe the answer must lie in some recent defect in Washington’s stewardship of global affairs. The common assessment is that the Bush administration is unnecessarily belligerent, inexcusably clumsy, and otherwise ill-advised. But criticisms of this sort fail to take into account the context in which American policy-makers must operate today. As Henry Kissinger said in July of last year, “There’s never been a period in history in which so many changes were taking place simultaneously.” In particular, we are passing from the post-cold war hegemonic era. What we see today is the emergence of a balance-of-power arrangement in which weaker nations can easily frustrate the United States. The world can be stable in any sort of system, but it is almost never safe when it transitions from one system to another.

So the stakes will be high this weekend when George Bush sits down with Vladimir Putin. But as Dobbs suggests, no amount of eye contact between the two men will settle the differences between America and Russia. They seem to be meeting more—they last got together earlier this month at the G8 conclave in Germany—and accomplishing ever less.

Of course, there is no harm in the occasional chat in a shoreline setting, but it is time for our President to begin thinking more about how the world is changing—and how the U.S. can continue to lead in a new and much more difficult environment.

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Kilcullen’s War

Readers of contentions interested in learning more about current military operations in Iraq than what they get from the headlines (which invariably focus on casualties, not on why or how they were incurred) would be well advised to read two Internet postings. The first is a report by Kimberly Kagan, an independent military historian and analyst, on the website of her think tank, the Institute for the Study of War. The second is a blog post written by David Kilcullen, a former officer in the Australian army with a Ph.D. in anthropology who has been serving as General David Petraeus’s chief counterinsurgency adviser. Kilcullen’s item is especially interesting because for the past few months he has had an insider’s perspective on the operations conducted and planned by U.S. forces in Iraq; in fact, he has been helping to shape the very operations that he explains here.

I have little to add except to note the cognitive dissonance I feel reading Kilcullen’s report alongside the news media accounts. The former conveys a sense of purpose and planning behind current operations, while the latter present the news from Iraq as a senseless parade of mayhem. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between—there is only so much that even the most astute military commanders can control in the heat of battle, and much of what happens is outside their design. But it is important to realize that what we’re seeing in Iraq is not just random, meaningless violence. Both sides—coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as the Sunni and Shiite extremists—put a lot of thought into what they do. This is a war, even if a very decentralized one, and needs to be understood as such. Kilcullen’s post furthers that crucial understanding.

Readers of contentions interested in learning more about current military operations in Iraq than what they get from the headlines (which invariably focus on casualties, not on why or how they were incurred) would be well advised to read two Internet postings. The first is a report by Kimberly Kagan, an independent military historian and analyst, on the website of her think tank, the Institute for the Study of War. The second is a blog post written by David Kilcullen, a former officer in the Australian army with a Ph.D. in anthropology who has been serving as General David Petraeus’s chief counterinsurgency adviser. Kilcullen’s item is especially interesting because for the past few months he has had an insider’s perspective on the operations conducted and planned by U.S. forces in Iraq; in fact, he has been helping to shape the very operations that he explains here.

I have little to add except to note the cognitive dissonance I feel reading Kilcullen’s report alongside the news media accounts. The former conveys a sense of purpose and planning behind current operations, while the latter present the news from Iraq as a senseless parade of mayhem. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between—there is only so much that even the most astute military commanders can control in the heat of battle, and much of what happens is outside their design. But it is important to realize that what we’re seeing in Iraq is not just random, meaningless violence. Both sides—coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as the Sunni and Shiite extremists—put a lot of thought into what they do. This is a war, even if a very decentralized one, and needs to be understood as such. Kilcullen’s post furthers that crucial understanding.

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Bookshelf

• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

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• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

Curious as to whether the novel was as good as the play, I procured a copy of Tobacco Road (University of Georgia Press, $16.95 paper), which was reissued in 1995 and remains in print to this day. (The stage version, alas, is unavailable, though used copies can be found online.) Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Kirkland’s play tracks the events of Tobacco Road very closely indeed, and that most of the dialogue comes more or less directly from Caldwell’s novel. To be sure, the play is tighter and more conventionally “effective,” but in either form Tobacco Road, if by no means a masterpiece, is still quite remarkably compelling.

What is most striking about Tobacco Road is the unsparing frankness with which Caldwell writes about what we now call the underclass. Despite his sympathy for the backwoods sharecroppers who are his characters, he never makes the mistake of supposing that they bear no responsibility for their desperate plight, and his candor on this score is far more likely to shock modern readers than the comparative sexual explicitness that got him in trouble with the censors seven decades ago. Jeeter Lester, the coarse, illiterate anti-hero of Tobacco Road, may have a certain primitive dignity arising from his unswerving (if ineffectual) commitment to “the struggle to break the land each spring and plant cotton,” but his inability to support his family is unambiguously presented by Caldwell as a failure of character, and we are made to see that the tragedy of his life is in large part one of his own making:

There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter’s mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow. When that day arrived, he invariably postponed action until a more convenient time. Things had been going along in that easy way for almost a lifetime now.

Such implicit censoriousness long ago went out of literary fashion, and I suspect that it is one of the reasons why Tobacco Road is no longer looked upon with favor by the literati, though there are other passages more likely to please them:

“I reckon Jeeter done right,” Lov contended. “He was a man who liked to grow things in the ground. The mills ain’t no place for a human who’s got that in his bones. The mills is sort of like automobiles—they’re all right to fool around in and have a good time in, but they don’t offer no love like the ground does. The ground sort of looks out after the people who keeps their feet on it. When people stand on planks in buildings all the time, and walk around on hard streets, the ground sort of loses interest in the human.”

Fortunately, that kind of Popular Front pseudo-poetry is rarely to be found in Tobacco Road (and is almost completely missing from the leaner stage version). For the most part Caldwell laid it on the line, leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Jeeter and his family were what the rural folk of my own Midwestern youth called “white trash.” That doesn’t make their terrible fate less tragic, but it definitely makes it more interesting.

*Editorial error originally reversed the name of the play and the name of the character.

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