As I wrote earlier today, most Israelis are unimpressed with the Obama administration’s Jewish charm offensive which is aimed at convincing Jews that the president’s first three years of fights with the Jewish state was a figment of our collective imagination. But the fact that three quarters of Israelis don’t seem him as friend isn’t stopping the Democratic campaign from doubling down on this push. Predictably, Vice President Joe Biden, a man for whom hyperbole is as natural as breathing, is taking this effort to extremes. While, as Alana noted, most of Biden’s foreign policy address at New York University yesterday was devoted to trashing Mitt Romney, one passage in which he waxed lyrical about the president’s devotion to Israel deserves our notice. In it, he not only exaggerated Obama’s record in terms of helping Israel, he went way out on a rhetorical limb and declared, “no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama.” Read More
Michael Rubin and Max Boot rightly take the Obama administration to task for Vice President Biden’s assertion that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Max, charitably, believes the comment illustrates the administration’s ability to confuse friend and foe, while Michael draws the broader conclusion that American diplomats — unlike the U.S. military – have demonstrated a persistent inability to learn from, or even to know about, the history of their failures, in this case the history of failed U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.
My own take is different. Biden is basically correct in saying that “there is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.”
The corner that the Obama administration has boxed itself into on Egypt is growing increasingly cramped and awkward by the hour. As Leon Wieseltier noted at the New Republic website yesterday, the U.S.’s position is “strategically complicated: since Mubarak may fall, it cannot afford to alienate the protestors, but since the protestors may fail, it cannot afford to alienate Mubarak.”
The end result is like watching a tight-rope walker swaying dangerously from one side to the other. It’s stomach-churning. First, it looked like the administration would throw its full support behind Mubarak, with Vice President Biden asserting that the Egyptian leader was no dictator. Then the U.S. position appeared to lurch sharply to the other side during Robert Gibbs’s Friday press conference, where he announced that President Obama hadn’t even tried to contact Mubarak. And then, just when it looked like the administration was about to tip to the side of the Egyptian people, Obama’s public address made it clear that he wasn’t ready to throw “President Mubarak” under the bus just yet.
The equivocation is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Mainly because it’s so plainly obvious — to both the people saying it and listening to it — that it’s equivocation.
But now that the administration has set out on this strategic high-wire, it’s following it to the end. On Fox News Sunday this morning, Hillary Clinton noted that the Egyptian people “have legitimate grievances and are seeking greater political freedom, a real path to democracy, and economic opportunity.”
She then added that this democratic change could come about under the current regime. “[W]e see a dialogue opening … that has the concrete steps for democratic and economic reform that President Mubarak himself said that he was going to pursue,” she said.
From a logical standpoint, this is an impossible position. You can’t support both the will of the people and Mubarak. Yes, the people want democracy, political freedom, and economic reform. But, more plainly, they don’t want Mubarak — and they could not have made that more obvious over the past few days.
As Max wrote earlier, the Obama administration needs to make a decision. The current balancing act isn’t fooling anybody.
Over at the Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru writes this:
I count five rightward moves by the president since the midterm elections. First he agreed to delay any tax increases on high earners. He made William Daley chief of staff over progressive objections. He implicitly rebuked the Left’s attempt to exploit the Tucson shootings for political advantage. The administration, its hand forced by Vice President Biden’s comments about leaving Afghanistan in 2014 “come hell or high water,” made it clearer than ever that it does not regard 2014 as a hard deadline. And now President Obama has announced a review of burdensome regulations.
One might even add Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s newly tough line on human rights in China–which isn’t exactly a move to the right but will nonetheless please most conservatives.
My conclusions: 1) The next two years will be long ones for liberals. 2) Obama is going to be harder to beat in 2012 than many Republicans believe. 3) If Obama does win, though, the Obama of 2013 will be closer to the Obama of 2009 than the Obama of 2011. The move to the center is tactical and temporary.
Ramesh’s analysis sounds (as usual) right to me. The only amendment I’d make is that conservatives I hear from, at least for the most part, don’t assume President Obama will be easy to beat. Quite the opposite, in fact. They recognize that the incumbent president, especially if he doesn’t face a primary challenge, usually has the advantage. In addition, their concern is that the current group of potential presidential candidates — those sure to run and those thinking about running — aren’t up to the task. We’ll see.
In any event, Obama’s tack to the center underscores the fact that this is not a liberal country and it does not like to be governed by liberal lawmakers.
That was one large lesson from the 2010 election — and it’s one the president seems to have internalized.
Each Sunday, This Week hits a new low. For sheer inanity, nothing to date has topped Meghan McCain on the show’s roundtable. What exactly does she bring to this? Well, self-parody for starters. Asked about Christine O’Donnell, McCain pronounces:
Well, I speak as a 26-year-old woman. And my problem is that, no matter what, Christine O’Donnell is making a mockery of running for public office. She has no real history, no real success in any kind of business. And what that sends to my generation is, one day, you can just wake up and run for Senate, no matter how much lack of experience you have. And it scares me for a lot of reasons, and I just know (inaudible) it just turns people off, because she’s seen as a nutjob.
I suppose the comments would have more weight if not coming from a celebrity-by-nepotism with “no real history, no real success in any kind of business.” Other than her father and her propensity to bash conservatives, what exactly are her qualifications to discuss much of anything? Ah, but that’s more than enough for Amanpour. Read More
The announcement today that 238 housing units will be built in Jerusalem will have no impact on whether there will ever be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The houses will go up in Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev, Jewish neighborhoods that were created in the 1970s after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War struck down the barriers that rendered those parts of the city that had been occupied by Jordan between 1948 and 1967 Jew-free. Approximately a quarter of a million Jews already live in East Jerusalem, and the notion that they will all be chucked out of their homes in order to allow the city to become the presumably Jew-free capital of a Palestinian Arab state is a fantasy. If the PA doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel, and it is more than obvious that by calling for building freezes they are looking for an excuse to bug out of the talks to which they have been dragged by President Obama, then whether or not Jews build homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in their own capital won’t make a difference.
But this issue is precisely the one that caused a blowup between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government last spring, when Washington seized on another such innocuous announcement and declared it a mortal insult to the United States because Vice President Biden happened to be passing through the town at the time. The United States has never recognized Israel’s rights in all of Jerusalem, but the decision to specifically oppose building in existing neighborhoods and to, in effect, treat them as being as illegitimate as the most remote West Bank settlements was unprecedented. But contrary to Obama’s expectations, and those left-wing supporters who had been egging him on to fight with Israel (J Street), Netanyahu didn’t fold and was warmly supported by not only the majority of Israelis but by most American Jews, too. The result was that the administration soon backed off and began a charm offensive designed to ingratiate the president with American Jews who were offended by his decision to pick a fight over Jerusalem.
However, with the midterm elections only a few weeks away, the immediate political incentive to downplay the president’s distaste for Israel’s government and his willingness to butt heads with it over Jewish rights in Jerusalem will be removed. Though much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment has not missed the fact that it was the Palestinians and not the Israelis who blew up Obama’s peace initiative, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s Jewish charm offensive will remain in place after November 2.
Though the expected rout of his party in the elections will give President Obama far bigger problems to deal with than Jewish homes in Jerusalem, a decision to push harder against Israel to force “progress” toward a peace the Palestinians don’t want will be an indication that Obama hasn’t the flexibility or the understanding of the region that will enable him to learn from his errors. While the Middle East peace process is not the only or even the most important foreign policy challenge that Obama will have to confront this winter (not with Iran flexing its muscles in the region), one of the more interesting indicators of how a post–November 2010 Obama will govern will be whether he can resist the temptation to return to his fight with Netanyahu.
Quoting Vice President Biden is like a grown-up playing basketball at a hoop meant for a four-year old — you will score a slam dunk every time, and it gets old fast. But today the problematic thing he said was actually instructive. He was in Wisconsin, where he and the president have been relentlessly beating the bushes for money and enthusiasm among the Democratic faithful. According to the Hill, here’s what happened:
“We want to reward people who manufacture things in the United States, in Wisconsin, not to take them overseas to China and to other countries!” he said to a silent room at the event for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Barrett, according to a White House pool report.
He continued, saying, “You’re the dullest audience I’ve ever spoken to,” at which point he got applause and laughs. “Do you realize how many jobs Wisconsin lost? It’s staggering!”
Biden didn’t get the response he wanted to his demagogic rabble-rousing nonsense about jobs going overseas–something his administration, like its predecessors, has absolutely no control over nor any coherent policy ideas about reversing. His audience knows that; indeed, his audience was almost certainly made up of businesspeople who know better than he about it and why it happens — and why government “rewards” aren’t going to solve the problem. Frustrated, he browbeats them for refusing to respond. And, as will happen, they respond to the browbeating.
The sense one gets, reading these accounts of Biden’s and Obama’s travels, is that they have yet to come to grips with the deep skepticism they generate when they talk about the economy, even among their own supporters. When they do sense the skepticism, it confuses them because they seem to assume it should only be coming from bad Republicans and conservatives who are supposedly obsessed with seeing them fail for no other reason than that these bad people want Obama to suffer.
And so the guy on stage heckles his audience when his bit bombs. Whew. Who knows what more will come out of their mouths for the next three and a half weeks until the polls open and bring a blessed end to the slow-motion car wreck that is Biden-Obama midterm electioneering.
President Obama, in attempting to gain traction just ahead of the midterm election, has homed in his message on taxes – and most especially, on “tax cut for the wealth.” Here is how Obama is framing his argument:
Ninety-seven percent of Americans make less than $250,000 a year — $250,000 a year or less. And I’m saying we can give those families — 97 percent permanent tax relief. And by the way, for those who make more than $250,000, they’d still get tax relief on the first $250,000; they just wouldn’t get it for income above that. Now, that seems like a common-sense thing to do. And what I’ve got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they’re insisting we’ve got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire, which would cost over the course of 10 years, $700 billion, and that economists say is probably the worst way to stimulate the economy. That doesn’t make sense, and that’s an example of what this election is all about.
Let’s examine what the president said, starting with this observation: Obama’s sudden interest in the pernicious effects of large deficits is curious. There is no apparent limit to what Obama is willing to spend – yet when it comes to taxes, and almost only taxes, the president professes to be alarmed about the deficit. With that in mind, here’s a useful reference point: the $700 billion over 10 years that Obama is so eager to save is considerably less than Obama’s first (failed) stimulus package, which alone is estimated to have cost more than $860 billion. It would help Mr. Obama’s credibility if, in opposing taxes on fiscal grounds, he was not the most profligate president in American history. Read More
First, a visual observation: he looked scrawny and ill-at-ease at the large, empty desk. There were no funny hand gestures this time, as there was for the Oil Spill address. This speech did have some good moments, which I will start with.
First, he clearly debunked the notion that we are bugging out of Iraq:
Going forward, a transitional force of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq’s Security Forces; supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our civilians. Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year. As our military draws down, our dedicated civilians — diplomats, aid workers, and advisors — are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world. And that is a message that Vice President Biden is delivering to the Iraqi people through his visit there today.
This new approach reflects our long-term partnership with Iraq — one based upon mutual interests, and mutual respect. Of course, violence will not end with our combat mission. Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife. But ultimately, these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction. They understand that, in the end, only Iraqis can resolve their differences and police their streets. Only Iraqis can build a democracy within their borders. What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner.
And he put forth a positive statement on the Afghanistan war:
As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense. In fact, over the last 19 months, nearly a dozen al Qaeda leaders –and hundreds of Al Qaeda’s extremist allies–have been killed or captured around the world.
Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who — under the command of General David Petraeus — are fighting to break the Taliban’s momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future.
But those comments were, regrettably, far outweighed by a number of unhelpful, ungracious, and downright inaccurate moments.
First, in his recap and praise of George W. Bush’s administration, he never explained how it was that we succeeded in Iraq. It was of course that same surge that we are now using in Afghanistan. He said this about Bush:
This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush. It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future.
But Mr. President, Bush was not just a great guy — he was right. It was one more instance of the lack of introspection and grace that has characterized Obama’s entire presidency.
Next, he reiterated the Afghanistan deadline, trying to fuzz it up rather than revoke it:
[A]s was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.
You see, Obama’s not into open-ended commitment. This is the same counterproductive claptrap that has been roundly criticized and that reveals him to be fundamentally disinterested in foreign policy. It is also why both friends and enemies doubt our staying power.
But most of all, the bulk of the speech had nothing to do with either Iraq or Afghanistan — it was a pep talk for his domestic agenda. This cements the sense that he simply wants out of messy foreign commitments. He also repeated a number of domestic policy canards. This was among the worst, blaming our debt on wars rather than on domestic fiscal gluttony: “We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform.”
He is arguing for more spending.
Obama is still candidate Obama, never tiring of reminding us that he kept his campaign pledge and ever eager to push aside foreign policy challenges so he can get on with the business of remaking America. All in all, it was what we were promised it would not be — self-serving, disingenuous, ungracious, and unreassuring.
UPDATE: COMMENTARY contributor Jonah Goldberg’s smart take is here.
UPDATE II: Charles Krauthammer’s reaction is here.
One of the most useful prisms through which to view Yemen and Somalia is that of the “Biden strategy” for the War on Terror. The strategy’s outlines are provided in this article, one of many recounting Biden’s advocacy of over-the-horizon counterterrorism during the interminable seminar on Afghanistan last year:
Biden urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission, heavy on Special Forces and Predator drone strikes, which would require far less manpower than the military was seeking. … [He] continues to argue that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan at a reasonable cost.
Administration policy in Yemen and Somalia has been an even purer example of applying the Biden strategy. Team Obama has disavowed any intention of enlarging U.S. goals or the military footprint in either nation (see here and here, for example). The U.S. is there only to hunt terrorists, suppress piracy, and supply humanitarian aid, with a little military aid thrown in on the side.
Obama has so rigorously eschewed having any greater designs on the region that his administration seems to have missed some very basic geopolitical facts; e.g., that the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden lie between Yemen and Somalia and are the main path by which terrorists — and refugees — travel between their unruly shores. Yemen and Somalia function, in many ways, as a “system”; they share problems and displaced populations; and their neighbors — like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan — claim equities in their turmoil. Proposing to interact with this region solely by executing drone attacks and distributing aid, as if that will immunize the U.S. against unpleasant levels of involvement, is as much a fool’s errand as it is in Central Asia.
The U.S. is already deeply embedded in the region, with our naval task force combating piracy, our joint military headquarters in Djibouti, and our Special Forces and military training activities in Yemen. Now Obama wants to increase our counterterrorism activities in Yemen, deeming it a greater source of terrorism than Pakistan. In Somalia, meanwhile, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is trying to retake the south from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terror group, the commander of U.S. Africa Command has stated — for the first time — a U.S. willingness to train Somali TFG troops directly.
The intensifying war on terrorists in Yemen is reminiscent of the U.S. posture in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. There are, unfortunately, parallels in multiple realms. Human-rights groups are decrying the collateral damage done by U.S. strikes (like this one in December 2009). Yemen itself is rent by factional insurgencies; one of them, the Southern Movement, has ambiguous relations with al-Qaeda. The moral hazard of U.S. cooperation being exploited by the Yemeni government to go after its internal opposition cannot be discounted. Such allegations are already being made by Amnesty International and others. But the strongest parallel with Southeast Asia 50 years ago is the administration’s passion for Special Forces, military advisers, and standoff air strikes.
What happens in Yemen will not stay in Yemen: it will spill over and affect the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight terror there, but it does mean we will be unprepared for the consequences of doing so if we rely only on the Biden strategy. Perhaps the American people have let Team Obama maintain the fiction that we are executing a distant, hands-off strategy there, but regional circumstances won’t allow it much longer. Obama is inviting things to come to a head by ramping up Special Forces operations and drone attacks in Yemen, which will stretch the Biden method to the breaking point.
We are already involved in Yemen’s fate: we’ve been shooting there for years. Somalia may be next. We are backing into a problem we should be meeting head-on. Our strategy should, at the very least, recognize the limits of our ability to ignore local and regional politics when we are hunting our enemies and enforcing our policies on someone else’s territory.
The economic news today, in which we learned that the second-quarter growth figure was reduced down to 1.6 percent, is extremely discouraging. This rate is well below what is needed even to sustain the current unemployment rate of 9.5 percent. On top of that, as a friend of mine reminds me, the current deficit, which the CBO estimates will be more than $1.3 trillion in 2010 and is already seen as “unsustainable” by even the Obama administration, will get worse rather than better. Anemic economic growth translates into lower revenues and higher deficits.
Among the array of political problems facing Democrats is that since the fourth quarter of 2009, when the economy grew 5.0 percent, we are rapidly decelerating. In the first quarter of this year, the economy grew at 3.7 percent, and last quarter, it grew at 1.6 percent. Next quarter is likely to be about as dismal, meaning unemployment will rise.
What this all means is that the public is far more inclined to hold Obama responsible for the state of the economy, especially because the administration lauded the “economic recovery” at the end of last year. If it took credit for things at the end of last year, it’s doubly difficult to blame things on Bush this year.
A double-dip recession, then, is about the worst thing that could happen to Democrats.
Compounding their problem was the announcement that this was going to be the “Recovery Summer.” It has, in fact, turned out to be a summer characterized by more economic misery. This mistake was comparable to the White House predicting that unemployment would not exceed 8 percent and Vice President Biden assuring us that we’d see 500,000 new jobs a month this summer. All of these qualify as unforced errors, and the White House is paying dearly for them.
Acknowledging that the mission is at a stage in which “what you have to do is to start turning inputs into outputs,” Petraeus said that the new U.S. war strategy is “fundamentally sound.” He sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces, and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting. According to the Post:
Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify … but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.
He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.
Petraeus points out that what we face is not a monolithic Taliban enemy; he describes it more like a crime syndicate. In the southern part of the country we face the Afghan Taliban; in the eastern part, the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban but not subservient to it. There are small elements of al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Pakistani Taliban as well.
Petraeus, who appears intent on taking a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government than we’ve seen in the past, says his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get President Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. He also argues against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011. When asked by NBC’s David Gregory how stifling the deadline is, Petraeus said this:
I don’t find it that stifling. I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces. … I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based. … I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.
Articulating traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s not about [the Afghan people’s] embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.” And when asked if the outcome is like Iraq, whether that constitutes achieving the mission, Petraeus said this:
Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.
“It’s a gradual effort,” Petraeus told the Post. “It’s a deliberate effort. There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamations of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”
It is indeed. But America is fortunate to have one of the greatest military commanders in its history now in the lead. If we give him the tools and the time, he and the American military can finish the job.
President Obama delivers a speech today marking the end of combat operations in Iraq as the number of U.S. troops falls to 50,000 by the end of the month. Politico describes this as “the first steps of a U.S. victory lap on the war.” Meanwhile, Iraq continues to suffer from chronic electricity shortages, terrorists have stepped up their attacks this summer, and, most worrying of all, Iraqi politicos agree there is no chance of a government being formed before the fall. These worrisome trends on the ground shouldn’t obscure the amazing progress that has been made since 2007, but they should warn us against the kind of complacency the administration has fallen prey to in the past.
Having 50,000 troops remain in Iraq for at least another year still gives us considerable leverage to influence events in a more positive direction — if we have smart representatives capable of doing that and if they have the support they need in Washington. General Ray Odierno, the senior military commander (who, unfortunately, is about to depart), has done a tremendous job, but he has been let down by his diplomatic partner, Ambassador Chris Hill, who had never served in the Arab world before being appointed last year and has taken a curiously hands-off attitude toward the Iraqi political process.
The good news is that Hill is on the way out and a more experienced ambassador, Jim Jeffrey, who has served in Iraq before, is due to arrive soon. He is smart enough to bring back a few key staff members from the “Dream Team” that helped General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker manage the surge:
Brett McGurk, an Iraq adviser to then-President George W. Bush who was among the key negotiators of a 2008 bilateral agreement, recently arrived in Baghdad. Sadi Othman, who was Gen. David H. Petraeus’s main interlocutor with Iraqi politicians during the surge, has been asked to return to work for the incoming U.S. commander, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. Ali Khedery, who was an adviser to then-U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, will work temporarily for the next ambassador, James F. Jeffrey.
General Austin, the new military commander, doesn’t have the same level of experience in Iraq as Odierno, but overall this is a big upgrade of the American presence. Still, it’s not enough to have better representatives on the ground; success in Iraq will also require high-level engagement of the sort that the White House has conducted only intermittently. President Obama needs to pay closer attention and not simply hand Iraq off to Vice President Biden. It is still possible for our hard-won achievements in Iraq to be dissipated if the president is more interested in taking victory laps than in pushing the country forward.
It is always dismaying to discover how gullible readers of the New York Times can be. I was interviewed on Sunday night by the BBC regarding a “change of strategy” in Afghanistan. What change is that? Why the change from counterinsurgency to targeted killings. I expressed some incredulity about this supposed shift. Having just returned from Afghanistan, I had heard of no such change of focus. What evidence is there that it’s happening? None that I can find beyond this page-one Times article by Helene Cooper and Mark Landler whose headline claims: “Targeted Killing Is New U.S. Focus in Afghanistan.”
The article claims that the “counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success” — hardly surprising since it has only recently begun to be implemented. “Instead,” the article goes on to assert, “what has turned out to work well is an approach American officials have talked much less about: counterterrorism, military-speak for the targeted killings of insurgents from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Faced with that reality, and the pressure of a self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, the Obama administration is starting to count more heavily on the strategy of hunting down insurgents. The shift could change the nature of the war and potentially, in the view of some officials, hasten a political settlement with the Taliban. ”
I have no idea what Cooper and Landler mean when they write that “the Obama administration is starting to count more heavily on the strategy of hunting down insurgents.” In fact, Vice President Biden had urged a narrow counterterrorism focus for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan — and he lost the internal administration debate. You don’t need 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan simply to hunt down terrorist leaders. They are there to carry out a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy that General David Petraeus is now implementing.
As part of that strategy, there has been a shift of more Special Operations forces to Afghanistan and, as a result, more targeted hits on top Taliban leaders. But Petraeus realizes (as did his predecessor Stan McChrystal, a veteran Special Operations commander) what the Times concedes: “Based on the American military experience in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, it is not clear that killing enemy fighters is sufficient by itself to cripple an insurgency.” In fact, it is clear that targeted killings by themselves will not cripple a determined insurgency. That is precisely why it is extremely unlikely that Petraeus will do what the Times reporters claim — shift to a focused counterterrorism strategy.
Informed consumers of the news — especially those in other news organizations who too often take their cues from the Times — should take such supposed “scoops” with a big grain of salt.
Earlier today, I quoted William Galston telling the Financial Times: “Just as BP’s failure to cap the well has been so damaging, Obama’s failure to cap unemployment will be his undoing. There is nothing he can do to affect the jobless rate before November.”
In the New Republic, Galston, after analyzing the data, writes this:
As if things weren’t bad enough for Democrats, something I didn’t believe possible six months ago has happened: The Senate is now in play. … It’s entirely possible that when the dust settles this November, Republicans will have hit the trifecta — President Obama’s former seat, Vice President Biden’s former seat, plus the Senate majority leader’s seat.
Professor Galston has been sounding the midterm alarm bell for months now while many of his fellow Democrats engaged in self-delusion. That self-delusion is now giving way to panic and recriminations. It’s getting ugly — and it will get uglier still.
I don’t agree with everything in George Packer’s short New Yorker article on Afghanistan, but after reviewing the problems with the current policy, he makes a very important point that other critics miss:
No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.
I think Packer is exactly right — which is why it’s so important that we prevail in Afghanistan. I believe our current strategy, under the leadership of General Petraeus and backed by what seems to be a freshly committed president, gives us a good chance to do that, notwithstanding the myriad difficulties we face. I will learn more, however, in Afghanistan itself, which is where I am currently headed.
Obama chastised what he dubbed a current “obsession” over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. “My focus right now is how do we make sure what we’re doing there is successful,” he said. “By next year we will begin a transition.”
Perhaps the “obsession” is based on the fact that (a) Obama included a deadline for beginning troop withdrawals in his December 2009 West Point speech; (b) Vice President Biden has said that in “July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it. Bet. On. It”; and (c) as recently as a week ago yesterday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that July 2011 is a “firm date. … The July 2011 date, as stated by the president, that’s not moving. That’s not changing.”
It’s clear that the government and people in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban (among others), are “obsessed” about Obama’s timeline and take it seriously. Silly them.
If the president recognizes the errors of his ways and deems the deadline inoperative, terrific. And if he has to pretend that his shift is not really a shift, okay. But we could all do with a little less lecturing and self-righteousness from Captain Kick-A**.
As is usually the case with Obama, the weaker his arguments are, the more peevish and mocking of his critics he becomes. When he can’t refute criticisms with facts, he resorts to ridicule. It’s an old game — and when it comes to our president, an increasingly wearying one. It’s worth noting, I suppose, that as Obama’s failures mount, his ill-temper and irritation increase. Which means that Obama, and the country, have an increasingly dyspeptic few years ahead of us.
Bill Kristol called it. General Petraeus is heading out to rescue yet another counterinsurgency effort in trouble. Give credit to President Obama for acting decisively by relieving General McChrystal and immediately picking the best possible replacement, not letting a dangerous vacuum develop.
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.
Obama also needs to rethink the entire team in Kabul — not just the military component. In Iraq, Petraeus succeeded in part because he found such a capable and cooperative “wing man” — Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Perhaps Eikenberry will work better with Petraeus than he did with McChrystal; certainly Petraues is more diplomatic and better at tending to those kinds of relationships. But I hope that the president would give serious consideration to the other part of Bill Kristol’s suggestion to appoint Ryan Crocker as ambassador in Kabul. And if Crocker wouldn’t do it, because of his health and other reasons, no doubt there is another capable diplomat who could do the job. Whoever the top diplomatic representative is, he needs to cultivate a good relationship with Hamid Karzai — something that Eikenberry has notoriously lacked and that McChrystal, to his credit, did not.
The president has made a good start by putting our very best general into Kabul. But Petraeus will have a tough task ahead of him — and he will need complete support from the president to succeed. In particular, Obama needs to make sure that other members of his administration don’t undercut Petraeus as they once undercut McChrystal. More than that, Obama needs to show the same kind of will to win that President Bush displayed in Iraq when he ordered the surge. Instead, we have mostly had cool ambivalence from the Oval Office, and that has led to the tensions that boiled over in the Rolling Stone article with McChrystal’s aides expressing derogatory views of Biden and other administration higher-ups. It would be nice if Obama were to give speeches on Afghanistan more than once every six months. He can’t just hand off the war to David Petraeus and check that box; a successful war effort needs consistent presidential leadership in public as well as behind closed doors.
If there is one knock on Stanley McChrystal, generally considered one of the top generals in the entire armed forces, it is that, coming from the secretive world of “black” special operations, he is not experienced in dealing with the media. The consequences of that inexperience have now exploded in his face in the form of a hostile Rolling Stone article entitled “Runaway General.”
What on earth was McChrystal thinking, one wonders, when he decided to grant so much access to an anti-war reporter from an anti-war magazine? Michael Hastings’s animus against the war effort shines through every inch of his article. His conclusion is that “winning” in Afghanistan “is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.” Along the way he brands the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal is implementing “a controversial strategy” that is advocated only by “COINdiniastas” notorious for their “their cultish zeal.” When he quotes outside experts in the article, all of them express disparaging views about the prospects of success. For instance:
“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”
There is no indication in the article that Macgregor is a notorious maverick widely known for his eccentric views, which included calling for the lightest of footprints in the invasion of Iraq (he thought that 50,000 troops would be sufficient) and later opposing the surge in Iraq.
Yet while Macgregor may think McChrystal is implementing an unworkable theory, McChrystal’s plan has had the solid support of General David Petraeus, head of Central Command; Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, after an agonizing three-month review in the fall that considered every conceivable alternative, President Obama, himself.
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.