Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bob Gates

Governing Solo? Two Can Play That Game

President Obama is making no secret of his intentions to go it alone in the last two years of his presidency. After insisting his policies were on the ballot in the midterms, he and his presidency received a monumental drubbing. Obama asked the people to vote based on his agenda, and the people complied, unambiguously rejecting it. But neither the voters nor the system of checks and balances–to say nothing of constitutional precedent–have played much of a role in his actions, and they won’t start now. There is a difference, however, in how Congress can push back.

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President Obama is making no secret of his intentions to go it alone in the last two years of his presidency. After insisting his policies were on the ballot in the midterms, he and his presidency received a monumental drubbing. Obama asked the people to vote based on his agenda, and the people complied, unambiguously rejecting it. But neither the voters nor the system of checks and balances–to say nothing of constitutional precedent–have played much of a role in his actions, and they won’t start now. There is a difference, however, in how Congress can push back.

In Bob Gates’s first (and, frankly, more enlightening) memoir of his service at the CIA and National Security Council during the Cold War, he writes of the battles between the Nixon administration and Congress after the Watergate scandal broke. Gates describes it as a last straw for Congress’s patience with the increasing power of the presidency, but in the process makes a key observation about the separation of powers:

Our system of “checks and balances” by which each of the three branches of government keeps the other two from becoming too powerful works wonderfully, but it is neither a gentle nor a subtle process. Nor does it function normally as a routine, frequent series of minor adjustments. It is more comparable to the swings of a pendulum than a balancing scale—and one branch (or the mood of the country as a whole) reacts usually only when another branch has acted so stupidly or so egregiously to expand its power as to compel a response. Vietnam and the way Lyndon Johnson escalated and fought the war provoked the congressional attack on the powers of the Presidency. Dislike of Nixon, the way in which he and Kissinger negotiated secretly and deviously, and finally Watergate and Nixon’s cover-up greatly magnified the intensity of the attack.

In this period of presidential weakness, Congress sought to capture for itself and from the President a coequal (and, at times, dominant) role in foreign affairs that it had not had since before World War II and America’s emergence as a superpower.

Gates’s description of the “pendulum” is accurate. Presidents accumulate power incrementally, sometimes setting new precedents and sometimes merely expanding on previous encroachments. Especially in wartime, Congress tends to give the president a fair amount of latitude. Additionally, there isn’t all that much Congress can do, since most of Congress rarely wants to be seen as undercutting the war effort or not supporting the troops. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that too many lines have been crossed.

And his assertion that Congress was seeking not merely to punish Nixon but also to reclaim its own proper place in the American system of government is highly relevant to the looming battle between a Republican-controlled Congress and President Obama, especially with a restive conservative flank that believes the troubling expansion of presidential power predates Obama and thus has a long list of objections.

When the Republicans were a minority in the Senate and only controlled the House, their attempts to rein in the president were legalistic. They could sue the president, as Speaker John Boehner announced they would over delays in ObamaCare implementation. They can challenge the president in the courts, where judges have found various Obama power grabs to be unconstitutional. And they can hold oversight hearings, as they have with the IRS corruption scandal, Benghazi, and others.

All this enables the minority party to make its voice heard. The hearings play on the fact that the president’s bully pulpit makes it easier for him to get through to the American people than it is for Republicans in Congress, who have the additional obstacle of a media seeking to protect the president. And judicial challenges can be effective too in undoing policy.

But there hasn’t been much room for Congress to reassert its authority because Democrats held the majority in the Senate. This meant that Harry Reid, who was happy to cede Congress’s authority to the president, relied on gridlock and parliamentary schemes to enable Obama. Republicans couldn’t get bills to the floor for a vote, and they weren’t allowed amendments on bills that Reid would bring to the floor.

But now they’re in the majority. And as the Wall Street Journal hints in a story about Obama’s solo act, that changes the calculus:

Mr. Obama’s actions have signaled a lack of concern about damaging congressional relations, [Ari Fleischer] said. And the next Congress could respond by taking actions the White House opposes, such as approving sanctions on Iran over the objections of the president.

“If the president disregards Congress, then Congress can disregard the president,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Indeed it can. That’s not to say it can simply legislate whatever it wants. It’ll need Democratic votes in some cases, especially if the GOP puts the filibuster back in its place after Reid removed it. And Obama can always veto such bills.

But the reason Reid wouldn’t allow a vote on so many of the Republicans’ ideas is that they are popular enough to pass and to put pressure on the president to sign. Either way, by actually passing legislation, the Republicans will be doing what Reid and the Democrats refused to: protect the system of checks and balances and reclaim some of Congress’s territory that has been annexed by Obama.

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Micromanaging the Managers

In that hallowed Washington ritual known as the trial balloon, the White House today leaked word that Ashton Carter would probably be nominated as the next secretary of defense–assuming no one disapproves too much. And no one has, at least not yet.

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In that hallowed Washington ritual known as the trial balloon, the White House today leaked word that Ashton Carter would probably be nominated as the next secretary of defense–assuming no one disapproves too much. And no one has, at least not yet.

Ash Carter, whom I know slightly, is eminently qualified for the post, having served previously in the Obama administration as deputy secretary of defense and before that as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. He earned high marks in both posts as a highly competent technocrat.

A physics Ph.D., Rhodes Scholar, and longtime Harvard professor, Carter is a rare commodity in a couple of important respects. First, despite his storied academic pedigree, he is said to be a tough manager who has a blunt-spoken way of expressing things, cutting through the usual bureaucratic obfuscation. Second, in a party that has increasingly leaned to the left, he is also a hawkish Democrat who once advocated a preemptive attack on North Korean missile sites–a suggestion too hawkish even for the George W. Bush administration.

Carter is a fine choice for secretary of defense; in fact he or Michele Flournoy should have gotten the job in the first place when Leon Panetta stepped down, instead of Chuck Hagel. But his selection will hardly fix what ails this administration’s abysmal foreign policy. In fact he may not be able to make much of an impact on the big policy questions at all, which appear to be entirely determined by the president in cooperation with a small coterie of White House aides who lack Carter’s defense-policy qualifications: officials such as Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes. All three of Obama’s secretaries of defense complained about “micromanagement” from the White House and Carter, assuming he is nominated and confirmed, is probably going to be no different.

This administration will not come up with a course calibration on Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Israel, or a host of other topics where policy has gotten seriously off-kilter unless the president has a change of heart about his dovish ways. That is possible–Jimmy Carter had such a change of heart after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan–but so far Obama’s ideology has remained remarkably resistant to reality-based course corrections, and there is little reason to think that Ash Carter will have any more luck talking sense to the president than Hagel, Panetta, or Bob Gates did. Especially not if the White House coterie, backed by Vice President Biden, continues to give the president spectacularly bad advice.

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Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

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Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

Hagel was brought on because the media was still falling for the “team of rivals” narrative on the Obama administration. To recap: Obama brought into his administration Cabinet officials who had a high enough profile that they could have made trouble for his agenda outside the administration. He wanted to coopt their credibility and silence their dissent. Hillary Clinton, a senator who could have impacted Obama’s ability to get legislation through Congress, and Samantha Power, a loose cannon who likes to publicly accuse others of being terrible people, were prime examples of this.

Obama wanted Republicans too, so he kept Bob Gates on at Defense and eventually brought in Hagel there as well. The media bizarrely saw in this transparent ploy what they wanted to see: Obama the postpartisan hero, the modern Lincoln. It was not the press’s finest moment.

Hagel was a particularly interesting gamble for Obama. On the one hand, he is a decorated war veteran and Republican who had the credibility to carry out Obama’s sullen retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other, his ineptitude and intellectual limitations matched those of the White House he was joining, so it was clear from day one that nothing about the administration’s crumbling foreign policy would improve.

Obama wanted a yes-man in Hagel, and thought he was getting one. He and his increasingly insular inner circle, which at some point soon will be just the president and Valerie Jarrett, make policy, as Max noted earlier. He didn’t want different opinions, and he didn’t want a range of options. He wanted a droid. And unfortunately for him, as the New York Times points out, this was not the droid he was looking for:

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

That last sentence is key. Not only was Hagel–yes, Chuck Hagel–too hawkish for Obama on ISIS, but it was the administration still “struggling to define” the threat. You can say Hagel was a slow learner all you want; he was a faster learner than the president he served.

And some of the picture will be filled in when Hagel’s successor is determined. Here’s the Times on the rumors of Hagel’s replacement:

Even before the announcement of Mr. Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense; Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Reed is reportedly out. But Flournoy’s inclusion on this list is notable. When the president was last seeking a defense secretary, Flournoy’s name was floated repeatedly. She would be a “historic” choice, satisfying the administration’s obsession with identity politics. And she was highly respected all around. Plus, she was already working in the administration. So why wasn’t she chosen?

That question seemed to have been answered with the publication of the memoirs of Leon Panetta, Hagel’s predecessor at Defense. Panetta’s memoirs made a splash when part of the book was adapted for an early October TIME magazine piece criticizing Obama’s handling of the transition in Iraq. Some, including Panetta, told the president he should leave a residual force behind. Panetta writes:

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

If Flournoy was willing to be named publicly as someone who not only disagreed with Obama’s handling of Iraq but also essentially accused the president of acting against American interests, it’s easier to understand why she was not given the nod at Defense. If she’s named secretary of defense now, it casts some doubt on the Times’s speculation that Hagel’s disagreement with Obama on ISIS played as much a role in his ouster as is being reported.

The “team of rivals” narrative was debunked long ago. Hagel was there so his credibility on a particular policy could be coopted. After that, he was always expendable. The question now is whose credibility does the president need to coopt next?

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Why Panetta’s Lament Is Newsworthy

At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

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At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

Now we have a second voice from the administration to add to the chorus of ex-officials unhappy with the disastrous foreign-policy decisions made by Obama. That chorus includes Hillary Clinton as well as advisors loyal to her like Vali Nasr. And now it includes, significantly, Gates’s successor at Defense Leon Panetta. Although Gates served both Democratic and Republican administrations and has always been considered a loyal soldier and a man of sober judgment, the fact that he’s a Republican seemed to color some reactions to his criticism of Obama. The same, obviously, cannot be said for Panetta. Opposition to Obama’s rash, hasty, and overly ideological decisions is bipartisan.

In Panetta’s forthcoming memoir, excerpted and adapted in Time magazine, he writes that, as the deadline for combat operations approached, it was clear “withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.” There needed to be some residual force maintained until Iraq was ready to shoulder the full burden of its own security and–crucially–stability. According to Panetta:

We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

The White House, he writes, wouldn’t lead the effort because the president was committed to getting out of Iraq, not winning the peace. Panetta does not let Maliki off the hook for the chaos that followed: “Al-Maliki was responsible, as he exacerbated the deep sectarian issues polarizing his country.” But it’s clear the president was, as always, more interested in hewing to bumper-sticker slogans than getting the policy right. The hyper-partisan, intensely ideological Obama would not be swayed.

Panetta’s comments have thus far been met with a more muted response than Gates’s, for a few simple reasons. First, as mentioned, Gates was a Republican holdover from the Bush era and Democrats maintain an ever-present suspicion of the motives of anyone to their right on the ideological spectrum. (Witness yesterday’s New York Times report on how the paper was thoroughly confused by the suggestion that Republicans want Obama to stay alive. What’s in it for them, the left wanted to know.)

Second, Gates’s career was far more defense- and security-centric than Panetta’s, having served in the CIA during the Cold War for several administrations (ultimately rising to director), serving on the National Security Council, and eventually serving as defense secretary for two consecutive presidents. As such, Gates’s views carry a certain amount of authority and gravitas that few possess; he’s been on the inside of national-security policy for nearly half a century.

Third, Gates’s memoir was published before Panetta’s. Whatever the criticism, it’s not going to be particularly revelatory for anyone to “me-too” his predecessor. And fourth, thanks to the rise of ISIS it is now undeniable that Iraq is in freefall and the security arrangements left in place when American troops left were insufficient. The fact that Obama has initiated a new war against ISIS (though he calls it an old war) in a new country is an implicit acknowledgement of that. In other words, it’s hard to argue with Panetta’s conclusion.

But that, paradoxically, ought to be a reason for this to be especially newsworthy. Panetta’s lament serves as an “I told you so,” not a “you’ll be sorry” moment. Even the president’s close advisors understand Obama was wrong, and everybody knows it. It’s safe now to disavow Obama’s Iraq strategy because it’s crystal clear it was a mammoth, deadly failure. The idea that Obama was completely, irresponsibly wrong is not controversial, even among dedicated Democrats. Panetta’s criticism isn’t really news, which is why it should be.

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Yesterday’s Real News Out of Iraq and Syria

There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

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There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

Story No. 1: The U.S. Navy and Air Force, in cooperation with five Arab allies (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) launched a series of air strikes and cruise missile strikes on ISIS targets in and around Raqaa, Syria. Separately, the U.S. launched air strikes against the Khorasan group, another jihadist terrorist organization in Syria, closely linked with the Nusra Front, which was said to be plotting attacks against Western targets.

Story No. 2: ISIS continued to attack the Kurdish area of north-central Syria, killing large numbers of people and pushing more than 130,000 refugees over the Turkish border.

Story No. 3: ISIS attackers in Anbar Province, Iraq, reportedly killed more than 300 Iraqi soldiers after a weeklong siege of Camp Saqlawiya where some 800 soldiers had been trapped. Few if any Sunni tribal fighters did anything to prevent yet another large Iraqi army formation from suffering annihilation. The Iraqi army showed itself unable to supply its soldiers or to fight effectively.

Judging from the news coverage, story No. 1 is the most important. But in reality I’d argue that No. 2 and especially No. 3 are more significant. No one doubts that the U.S. can launch air strikes on ISIS. The question is whether those attacks will be effective in degrading and eventually destroying this terrorist group. The answer is: not until there is an effective ground force able to take advantage of the disruption created by American bombs. Until that happens, ISIS will stay on the offensive.

We know, of course, that after three years of American neglect the Free Syrian Army is in no position to attack the heart of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. It is also disheartening to learn that after a similar three years of American neglect, the Iraqi army is in no position to effectively challenge ISIS either. Same goes for the Sunni tribes, which at the moment lack both the will and the means to fight ISIS effectively. The Kurdish peshmerga–the other proxy force we are counting on–are in only marginally better shape. They also need more equipment and training.

What this means is that, however welcome, the U.S. air strikes in Syria are of more symbolic importance than anything else. Their military significance is likely to be scant until the U.S. can do more to train and arm forces capable of mounting ground attacks on ISIS militants. Already six weeks of U.S. air strikes in Iraq have failed to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds; there is no reason to believe that six months of air strikes in isolation will work any better. As former Defense Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta have said, it will take “boots on the ground” from the United States to galvanize and train the potential anti-ISIS forces. But because President Obama is so far prohibiting U.S. troops from working alongside anti-ISIS fighters in the field, “there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell” of the current strategy succeeding–to quote the succinct summary of retired Gen. Jim Conway, former commandant of the Marine Corps.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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Bob Gates vs. the White House

After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

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After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

But, remember this is Hillary Clinton we are talking about.  And, the criticism that has always haunted her is that everything she does is infused with politics — that there is no core set of beliefs within her but rather just political calculation massed upon political calculation. Remember that she began slipping in the 2008 Democratic primary when her opponents seized on an overly political answer on giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants during a debate in  late 2o07.

Gates’s version of why Clinton opposed the surge fits perfectly into this existing good-politics-makes-good-policy narrative about the former secretary of state. And that’s what makes it dangerous for her —  and why you can be sure she (or her people) will (and must) dispute Gates’s recollection quickly and definitively.

Whether it hurts Clinton might depend largely on who runs against her in the Democratic primary. But he’s right that the reputation of both Clintons has always been not to say a single word that hasn’t been focus-grouped into the ground. If Clinton was hoping her time as secretary of state would temper that reputation, the Gates memoir is yet another example of how difficult it can be for a politician to shake an entrenched narrative, especially one, like this, that is accurate.

The Post story isn’t kind to Biden either. (It’s brutal toward the Obama White House in general, but Obama has no more presidential elections ahead of him.) Gates accuses Biden of “poisoning the well” against the military, and when Biden and Donilon tried to order Gates around, he apparently responded: “The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain of command.” The Obama administration was notoriously insular and incurious about the world outside them. But quotes like this, coming from a former defense secretary, still sting:

It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”

Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”

The Times, however, goes easier on Clinton and tougher on Biden with its quotes, including this uppercut:

Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden “a man of integrity,” but he questions the vice president’s judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Mr. Gates writes.

I suppose it can be argued that the Post’s lack of interest in examining how these revelations might derail a Biden presidential candidacy is it’s own sort of pro-Clinton tilt. The implication is that only one of those candidates has prospects worth protecting (or derailing), and it isn’t Biden.

Unless the reporters who read advance copies of the book missed something juicier, nothing in Gates’s memoir seems likely to spoil anyone’s presidential aspirations, and I doubt Gates has any interest in doing so anyway. Picking out excerpts and anecdotes can easily skew the perception of the book, especially before the public has had a chance to read it. But the splash being made by these (mostly unsurprising) insider claims is a testament to the credibility Gates has earned over his distinguished career, and suggests the considerable authority his account of these last few years will carry.

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The Future of Nation Building

There are two essential lessons one can draw from the Iraq War: either that we should never get mired in counterinsurgency or “nation-building” operations in the future or that, if we do get involved, we should do a better job of achieving our objectives. The prevailing wisdom in Washington adheres to the former position, but I believe the latter lesson offers more useful guidance for the future.

No less an eminence than Bob Gates, on his way out the door as secretary of defense, proclaimed, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Although he subsequently walked back that statement, it is fair to say that Gates’ view is now the conventional wisdom.

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There are two essential lessons one can draw from the Iraq War: either that we should never get mired in counterinsurgency or “nation-building” operations in the future or that, if we do get involved, we should do a better job of achieving our objectives. The prevailing wisdom in Washington adheres to the former position, but I believe the latter lesson offers more useful guidance for the future.

No less an eminence than Bob Gates, on his way out the door as secretary of defense, proclaimed, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Although he subsequently walked back that statement, it is fair to say that Gates’ view is now the conventional wisdom.

But is it—to borrow the favored term of Gates and others—“realistic” to argue that we will never get involved in another major ground war? No one could have imagined on September 10, 2001, that we would shortly be fighting in Afghanistan, nor can anyone imagine what the future will bring. Suffice it to say, when one looks at the wide arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, it is hard to rule out in advance that U.S. ground troops will ever be dispatched into harm’s way.

And even if we don’t fight another major ground war anytime in the near future—something that we should of course avoid if at all possible—the likelihood is that U.S. forces will be involved in helping foreign governments in such nations as Mali, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen to fight terrorist groups that threaten not only their interests but ours. That will require maintaining a significant capacity for nation building and counterinsurgency, even if the bulk of the work on the ground will be done by indigenous forces, not Americans. 

I know that “nation-building” is anathema in Washington, but there is simply no way to prevent terrorist groups from setting up training camps and hatching plots unless the local government can assert control over its territory. To achieve even that modest goal will require building up substantial governance capacity in chaotic nations.

All of this suggests to me that we need to maintain the hard-won counterinsurgency skills gained by the armed forces over the past decade—and we need to enhance our capacity for state building. That difficult task has fallen willy-nilly on the military because the civilian agencies of government have been MIA. It is high time to create, as I have been arguing since 2003, a dedicated state-building agency, perhaps by retooling the U.S. Agency for International Development to focus on this task. 

Such proposals are opposed by many in Washington because politicians figure that if we develop capacity for state building we will have to do more of it. But if history teaches anything it is that we will be forced into state building in a wide variety of scenarios no matter what. Just since the end of the Cold War, we have undertaken this task in nations such as Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and, more indirectly, from the Philippines to Colombia. 

The question is not whether we will do nation building and counterinsurgency or not. The question is if we will do it well or badly. So far we have done it badly and paid a heavy price—witness the early setbacks in Iraq. This is a national-security weakness we need to fix because the demand for these skill sets is not going away.

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Saber-Rattling: The New Normal

Americans will have to get used to something in the coming years: we are not necessarily the main audience for foreign saber-rattling. When China unveiled its new “stealth” fighter last week, American defense experts were quick to point out that because its design is clunky and primitive, the U.S. need not be overly concerned about this minor triumph. But we would be wrong to imagine the Chinese don’t know that. From their perspective, demonstrating that they have already built a stealth aircraft is more important than impressing American analysts with its characteristics.

The reason for that is simple: an arms-and-power race has been emerging in the Eastern hemisphere — and it’s centered on Asia. The U.S. has had stealth aircraft for years. But Russia announced the prototype test of its first stealth fighter in January 2010, and Japan is pursuing an indigenously designed stealth fighter as well. The Japanese effort has accelerated with the U.S. rejection of Tokyo’s offer to buy the F-22 Raptor. (Secretary Gates reiterated his stance on that in Japan on Wednesday.) India, meanwhile, took delivery this week of its first homegrown fighter jet, billed as the world’s lightest supersonic jet.

There are too many such developments to mention in a brief post for general readers; the fielding of new fighter jets is merely one category. Beyond arms buildups, another category is defense agreements with political, balance-of-power implications, such as the pact now in prospect between South Korea and Japan, or Russia’s cooperation agreements with Vietnam. In a separate category are the territorial disputes heating up between Russia, China, and Japan. Additional factors include the predatory competition between Russia and China for fossil-fuel resources, as well as their competition for clients in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

The timing of the Chinese fighter’s first test flight, which coincided with Bob Gates’s visit, was obviously intentional. China wants to reach a U.S. audience with these signals — but not solely a U.S. audience. The theme that Chinese negotiation is backed by thoroughly modern force is intended as much for Asian consumption as for American. And regardless of the intended audience, there is no better “straight man” for that theme than the U.S. secretary of defense.

Falling behind the neighbors has historically had dreadful consequences for Asian nations; since 1945, even our enemies in the region have relied on America’s power and network of alliances to preserve stability. But the principles we have traditionally acted on in defense of that stability are increasingly in question. The Asian nations are already shifting from a posture of maneuvering around the U.S. to one of maneuvering around each other. Not everything is “about” us; American thinking needs to adjust to that emerging reality. But everything will affect us. If we are unwilling to maintain the order we have built over the past 70-odd years, we will have to learn again the ways of a world that operates without effective American leadership.

Americans will have to get used to something in the coming years: we are not necessarily the main audience for foreign saber-rattling. When China unveiled its new “stealth” fighter last week, American defense experts were quick to point out that because its design is clunky and primitive, the U.S. need not be overly concerned about this minor triumph. But we would be wrong to imagine the Chinese don’t know that. From their perspective, demonstrating that they have already built a stealth aircraft is more important than impressing American analysts with its characteristics.

The reason for that is simple: an arms-and-power race has been emerging in the Eastern hemisphere — and it’s centered on Asia. The U.S. has had stealth aircraft for years. But Russia announced the prototype test of its first stealth fighter in January 2010, and Japan is pursuing an indigenously designed stealth fighter as well. The Japanese effort has accelerated with the U.S. rejection of Tokyo’s offer to buy the F-22 Raptor. (Secretary Gates reiterated his stance on that in Japan on Wednesday.) India, meanwhile, took delivery this week of its first homegrown fighter jet, billed as the world’s lightest supersonic jet.

There are too many such developments to mention in a brief post for general readers; the fielding of new fighter jets is merely one category. Beyond arms buildups, another category is defense agreements with political, balance-of-power implications, such as the pact now in prospect between South Korea and Japan, or Russia’s cooperation agreements with Vietnam. In a separate category are the territorial disputes heating up between Russia, China, and Japan. Additional factors include the predatory competition between Russia and China for fossil-fuel resources, as well as their competition for clients in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

The timing of the Chinese fighter’s first test flight, which coincided with Bob Gates’s visit, was obviously intentional. China wants to reach a U.S. audience with these signals — but not solely a U.S. audience. The theme that Chinese negotiation is backed by thoroughly modern force is intended as much for Asian consumption as for American. And regardless of the intended audience, there is no better “straight man” for that theme than the U.S. secretary of defense.

Falling behind the neighbors has historically had dreadful consequences for Asian nations; since 1945, even our enemies in the region have relied on America’s power and network of alliances to preserve stability. But the principles we have traditionally acted on in defense of that stability are increasingly in question. The Asian nations are already shifting from a posture of maneuvering around the U.S. to one of maneuvering around each other. Not everything is “about” us; American thinking needs to adjust to that emerging reality. But everything will affect us. If we are unwilling to maintain the order we have built over the past 70-odd years, we will have to learn again the ways of a world that operates without effective American leadership.

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Deterring Chinese Adventurism

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has been visiting China at a time when it is beginning to flex its military muscles in ways that should alarm its neighbors and their protector — us. While Gates was meeting with President Hu Jintao, the People’s Liberation Army was testing its J-20 Stealth fighter, a clear challenge to American power in the western Pacific. To make matters worse, American officials got the distinct impression that President Hu had not been aware of the test beforehand.

That raises questions about how firmly civilians are actually in control of the armed forces — not normally a problem in a Communist state, which is designed to have parallel lines of authority (party and state, military and secret police) precisely to ensure that the oligarchs at the top are in control of everything that happens. It is no secret that the Chinese armed forces are full of ultra-jingoistic officers who make hair-curling threats about going to war against the United States. If they are not firmly under the sway of the central party bosses, that is a worrisome development. Even if they are under control, however, we can hardly relax, for the senior party leadership has indicated that it is bent on pursuing a nationalistic agenda, with Chinese triumphalism replacing Marxism-Leninism as their ruling theology.

That is all the more reason why we need to ensure that our own military is strong enough to deter Chinese adventurism — something that further defense cuts in Washington will endanger.

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has been visiting China at a time when it is beginning to flex its military muscles in ways that should alarm its neighbors and their protector — us. While Gates was meeting with President Hu Jintao, the People’s Liberation Army was testing its J-20 Stealth fighter, a clear challenge to American power in the western Pacific. To make matters worse, American officials got the distinct impression that President Hu had not been aware of the test beforehand.

That raises questions about how firmly civilians are actually in control of the armed forces — not normally a problem in a Communist state, which is designed to have parallel lines of authority (party and state, military and secret police) precisely to ensure that the oligarchs at the top are in control of everything that happens. It is no secret that the Chinese armed forces are full of ultra-jingoistic officers who make hair-curling threats about going to war against the United States. If they are not firmly under the sway of the central party bosses, that is a worrisome development. Even if they are under control, however, we can hardly relax, for the senior party leadership has indicated that it is bent on pursuing a nationalistic agenda, with Chinese triumphalism replacing Marxism-Leninism as their ruling theology.

That is all the more reason why we need to ensure that our own military is strong enough to deter Chinese adventurism — something that further defense cuts in Washington will endanger.

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Don’t Balance the Budget on the Back of Defense

I am struck by the juxtaposition of two news items. First, it is being reported that Bob Gates is proposing $100 billion in defense cuts over the next five years, including the cancellation of the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Second it is being reported that China’s military modernization program is moving ahead faster than expected. In recent days, China has unveiled a new stealth fighter, the J-20, and a new ballistic missile that has been dubbed a “carrier killer” because it is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also reportedly building its own aircraft carriers and taking other actions to beef up its arsenal.

Granted, China has a long way to go before it approaches parity with the U.S. — but then again, it doesn’t need parity. Much of our military spending goes to enable operations thousands of miles from home. China, by contrast, seems to lack global ambitions, at least for the moment. It is concerned with dominating its region. And that does not require that it match U.S. military capacity across the board. All it has to do is raise the cost to the U.S. of taking action to keep in check Chinese expansionism, whereas the U.S. must worry not only about the threat from China but also about North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, Somalia, Yemen, and myriad other concerns.

The cuts proposed by Secretary Gates do not seriously threaten America’s military position in the world. Heck, I’ve expressed my own skepticism about the utility of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. I am also not that alarmed about the cancellation of the F-22 or the pushing back of the Marine Corps’s vertical-takeoff version of the F-35; I think the Marine version of the F-35 could be canceled altogether, because the vertical takeoff and landing capability of the Harrier jump jet has so seldom been utilized in combat.

But I am concerned about talk of delaying or downsizing the overall F-35 program at a time when China and Russia are both fielding their own stealth fighters. More than that, I am worried that Gates’s cuts may be only the beginning of a drawdown that is happening even as we are still fighting a major war in Afghanistan. Already proposals are circulating — see, for instance, this Foreign Affairs article — for massive cutbacks, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of service personnel, that would eviscerate American power-projection capabilities. Alas, many in Congress, even some Republicans, appear to be open to deeper defense cuts.

I am all for addressing our runaway federal spending — but we won’t balance the budget on the back of the Defense Department. Not when defense spending is less than 20 percent of the budget and less than 5 percent of GDP. Getting our fiscal house in order requires cutting entitlement spending. Downsizing the military, by contrast, will contribute to future insecurity and turn out to be the most costly option in the long run. That is a lesson we should have learned in the past, many times over (as I argued in this op-ed).

I am struck by the juxtaposition of two news items. First, it is being reported that Bob Gates is proposing $100 billion in defense cuts over the next five years, including the cancellation of the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Second it is being reported that China’s military modernization program is moving ahead faster than expected. In recent days, China has unveiled a new stealth fighter, the J-20, and a new ballistic missile that has been dubbed a “carrier killer” because it is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also reportedly building its own aircraft carriers and taking other actions to beef up its arsenal.

Granted, China has a long way to go before it approaches parity with the U.S. — but then again, it doesn’t need parity. Much of our military spending goes to enable operations thousands of miles from home. China, by contrast, seems to lack global ambitions, at least for the moment. It is concerned with dominating its region. And that does not require that it match U.S. military capacity across the board. All it has to do is raise the cost to the U.S. of taking action to keep in check Chinese expansionism, whereas the U.S. must worry not only about the threat from China but also about North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, Somalia, Yemen, and myriad other concerns.

The cuts proposed by Secretary Gates do not seriously threaten America’s military position in the world. Heck, I’ve expressed my own skepticism about the utility of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. I am also not that alarmed about the cancellation of the F-22 or the pushing back of the Marine Corps’s vertical-takeoff version of the F-35; I think the Marine version of the F-35 could be canceled altogether, because the vertical takeoff and landing capability of the Harrier jump jet has so seldom been utilized in combat.

But I am concerned about talk of delaying or downsizing the overall F-35 program at a time when China and Russia are both fielding their own stealth fighters. More than that, I am worried that Gates’s cuts may be only the beginning of a drawdown that is happening even as we are still fighting a major war in Afghanistan. Already proposals are circulating — see, for instance, this Foreign Affairs article — for massive cutbacks, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of service personnel, that would eviscerate American power-projection capabilities. Alas, many in Congress, even some Republicans, appear to be open to deeper defense cuts.

I am all for addressing our runaway federal spending — but we won’t balance the budget on the back of the Defense Department. Not when defense spending is less than 20 percent of the budget and less than 5 percent of GDP. Getting our fiscal house in order requires cutting entitlement spending. Downsizing the military, by contrast, will contribute to future insecurity and turn out to be the most costly option in the long run. That is a lesson we should have learned in the past, many times over (as I argued in this op-ed).

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RE: WikiLeaks and Consequences

I would strongly concur with J.E. Dyer’s observation concerning the leaked cables:

Its true value lies in confirming what hawks and conservatives have been saying about global security issues. China’s role in missile transfers from North Korea to Iran; Syria’s determined arming of Hezbollah; Iran’s use of Red Crescent vehicles to deliver weapons to terrorists; Obama’s strong-arming of foreign governments to accept prisoners from Guantanamo — these are things many news organizations are reporting prominently only because they have been made known through a WikiLeaks dump. In the end, WikiLeaks’s most enduring consequences may be the unintended ones.

You can add to the list of the hawks’ confirmed truths: the enthusiastic support of the Arab states for a more vigorous U.S. response to Iran, the mullahs’ possession of more advanced technology than previously acknowledged, and the recognition by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates that “reset” has been a disaster for democracy in Russia.

You don’t have to cheer the leaks of confidential information (as the left did with every revelation helpful to their cause, from the Pentagon Papers to the drips from the infamously porous CIA during the Bush administration) to understand that, aside from the salacious parts, they do inform the debate by providing details that reveal that the Obama policies in many respects are a failure — and recognized as such by some high-ranking officials within the administration.

Should we prosecute the WikiLeaks gang? Of course. But let’s not deny reality: this is a huge embarrassment for the Obama administration.

I would strongly concur with J.E. Dyer’s observation concerning the leaked cables:

Its true value lies in confirming what hawks and conservatives have been saying about global security issues. China’s role in missile transfers from North Korea to Iran; Syria’s determined arming of Hezbollah; Iran’s use of Red Crescent vehicles to deliver weapons to terrorists; Obama’s strong-arming of foreign governments to accept prisoners from Guantanamo — these are things many news organizations are reporting prominently only because they have been made known through a WikiLeaks dump. In the end, WikiLeaks’s most enduring consequences may be the unintended ones.

You can add to the list of the hawks’ confirmed truths: the enthusiastic support of the Arab states for a more vigorous U.S. response to Iran, the mullahs’ possession of more advanced technology than previously acknowledged, and the recognition by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates that “reset” has been a disaster for democracy in Russia.

You don’t have to cheer the leaks of confidential information (as the left did with every revelation helpful to their cause, from the Pentagon Papers to the drips from the infamously porous CIA during the Bush administration) to understand that, aside from the salacious parts, they do inform the debate by providing details that reveal that the Obama policies in many respects are a failure — and recognized as such by some high-ranking officials within the administration.

Should we prosecute the WikiLeaks gang? Of course. But let’s not deny reality: this is a huge embarrassment for the Obama administration.

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Shifting Positions in the Far East?

While President Obama danced with Indian children and admired a moghul’s monument, our secretaries of state and defense were busy restructuring America’s security posture in Asia. It wasn’t clear before they went, as far as I can tell, that this is what they’d be doing. The Obama administration seems to keep finding major strategy shifts unexpectedly while rooting around in its pockets.

Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates have just concluded a successful visit to Australia during which they obtained agreements to significantly increase the use of Australian bases by the U.S. military. Now, I can attest that Townsville and Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, are superb liberty ports. Working with our Australian allies is always a top-notch experience; count me a fan of having Oz on your “closest allies” list. But enlarging the U.S. military footprint anywhere is the kind of thing America does sparingly, for serious strategic reasons — and in the context of deliberate and announced policy. No such context is apparent with this move.

Speculation is rampant, however. The Australian media think we’re preparing for the likelihood that our major bases in Okinawa will have to close. The fate of the Marine Corps air forces stationed there does remain uncertain, but that difficult issue could be negotiated without sending a series of counterproductive signals during the process. There is no emergency demanding an immediate increase of U.S. forces in East Asia; under current conditions, shifting our basing scheme there can only be seen as a preemptive shift away from Japan. Read More

While President Obama danced with Indian children and admired a moghul’s monument, our secretaries of state and defense were busy restructuring America’s security posture in Asia. It wasn’t clear before they went, as far as I can tell, that this is what they’d be doing. The Obama administration seems to keep finding major strategy shifts unexpectedly while rooting around in its pockets.

Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates have just concluded a successful visit to Australia during which they obtained agreements to significantly increase the use of Australian bases by the U.S. military. Now, I can attest that Townsville and Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, are superb liberty ports. Working with our Australian allies is always a top-notch experience; count me a fan of having Oz on your “closest allies” list. But enlarging the U.S. military footprint anywhere is the kind of thing America does sparingly, for serious strategic reasons — and in the context of deliberate and announced policy. No such context is apparent with this move.

Speculation is rampant, however. The Australian media think we’re preparing for the likelihood that our major bases in Okinawa will have to close. The fate of the Marine Corps air forces stationed there does remain uncertain, but that difficult issue could be negotiated without sending a series of counterproductive signals during the process. There is no emergency demanding an immediate increase of U.S. forces in East Asia; under current conditions, shifting our basing scheme there can only be seen as a preemptive shift away from Japan.

Rumors like this one, about a supposed drawdown of U.S. F-16s from Hokkaido, abound throughout Japan right now. Some Japanese suspect the U.S. is trying to wrest concessions from Tokyo with such drawdown threats. But I fervently hope we aren’t: if anything, at this moment, we should be strengthening and talking up our alliance with Japan. China and Russia have both made power moves against Japan in the past two months — moves involving history’s most common casus belli, disputed territory. By affirming a united front with Japan, we could induce them to step back. But sending random and confusing signals about our strategic intentions and true priorities is merely an accelerant to instability.

It’s not a policy-neutral act to shift our locus of military logistics away from Japan and toward Australia, Singapore, and Guam. Besides the politics, the distances involved are huge and significant to military operations. South Korea can be forgiven for doubting our commitment if we seem to be playing games with our bases in Japan. China, on the other hand, is justified in wondering what we have in mind, with this talk of a “military build-up” in Australia and Singapore. Neither venue is well suited to supporting a defense of Taiwan. There is an unpleasantly imperial ring to the proposition that we should ensure we can keep lots of forces in the theater regardless of any specific requirement for them.

That implication is especially discordant when the U.S. administration seems to be giving short shrift to the intrinsic importance of alliances. From the standpoint of American security, the single most significant factor in East Asia is our alliance with Japan. It is crude, mechanistic, and shortsighted to suppose that military force by itself can do the work of a key alliance. An alliance, however, can obviate much military force and many needless threats.

Bases in East Asia have been a benefit for us, but the alliance with Japan is the prize we need to tend. It does great harm to send the signal that we can’t wait for a political resolution with this longstanding ally before adjusting our military basing arrangements. If there is some emergency erupting in Southeast Asia that justifies ill-timed action in this regard, it would be nice if the Obama administration would clarify for the American people what it is.

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Can’t Anybody Here Play This White House Game?

The breaking news is that the national security adviser, General James Jones, has resigned and is being replaced by his deputy, Thomas Donilon. There had been speculation Jones could not possibly retain his job after saying uncomplimentary things about other Obama officials in Bob Woodward’s book. (Jones was evidently no great shakes in his current position, though according to Woodward, Defense Secretary Bob Gates considers Donilon a disaster.) Even so, this is astonishing. Just weeks before an election widely seen as a referendum on the past two years and the West Wing has lost its chief of staff and its national security adviser, without question the two most important jobs in the White House below the president’s. Turnover of this sort can only contribute to a general sense of disarray and disorder, which will only worsen the White House’s standing with those depressed voters it is so eager to buck up and get to the polls on November 2. This is what is known as an unforced error, a gift to the other team, exactly the sort of behavior that led Casey Stengel, managing the Mets in the first year of their existence to a 40-120 record, to cry out as if to the gods, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

The breaking news is that the national security adviser, General James Jones, has resigned and is being replaced by his deputy, Thomas Donilon. There had been speculation Jones could not possibly retain his job after saying uncomplimentary things about other Obama officials in Bob Woodward’s book. (Jones was evidently no great shakes in his current position, though according to Woodward, Defense Secretary Bob Gates considers Donilon a disaster.) Even so, this is astonishing. Just weeks before an election widely seen as a referendum on the past two years and the West Wing has lost its chief of staff and its national security adviser, without question the two most important jobs in the White House below the president’s. Turnover of this sort can only contribute to a general sense of disarray and disorder, which will only worsen the White House’s standing with those depressed voters it is so eager to buck up and get to the polls on November 2. This is what is known as an unforced error, a gift to the other team, exactly the sort of behavior that led Casey Stengel, managing the Mets in the first year of their existence to a 40-120 record, to cry out as if to the gods, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

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We Will Just Have to, You Know, Be Smarter

In the Q&A session that followed her 8th of September speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hillary Clinton was asked about carrying out foreign and defense policy in an era of unprecedented national debt and budget limitations. She gave a 794-word response, concluding that smart diplomacy would just have to get smarter:

So when you — you specifically say: Well, what about, you know, diplomacy, development and defense? You know, we will have to take our share of the burden of meeting the fiscal targets that can drag us out of this deep hole we’re in, but we’ve got to be smart about it.

And I think from both my perspective and Bob Gates’s perspective — and we’ve talked about this a lot — you know, Bob has made some very important recommendations that are not politically popular but which come with a very well thought-out policy. And what I’ve tried to do is to say: Well, we’re going to try to be smarter, more effective. …

And so, you know, we have to get a more sensible, comprehensive approach, and you know, Bob and I have talked about, you know, trying to figure out how to present a national-security budget. … So let’s start thinking from a budget perspective about how to be more integrated.

Students of foreign policy may be bemused and somewhat alarmed that the secretary of state needed six “you knows” to convey that we would have to “be smart about it,” “try to be smarter,” be “more effective,” get a “more sensible, comprehensive approach,” and try to “figure out” how to present a national-security budget.

Perhaps they will be comforted, however, that she rolled out the biggest word in the Department’s arsenal of adjectives to describe what she had concluded: we have to be more “robust” in meeting our responsibilities.

In the Q&A session that followed her 8th of September speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hillary Clinton was asked about carrying out foreign and defense policy in an era of unprecedented national debt and budget limitations. She gave a 794-word response, concluding that smart diplomacy would just have to get smarter:

So when you — you specifically say: Well, what about, you know, diplomacy, development and defense? You know, we will have to take our share of the burden of meeting the fiscal targets that can drag us out of this deep hole we’re in, but we’ve got to be smart about it.

And I think from both my perspective and Bob Gates’s perspective — and we’ve talked about this a lot — you know, Bob has made some very important recommendations that are not politically popular but which come with a very well thought-out policy. And what I’ve tried to do is to say: Well, we’re going to try to be smarter, more effective. …

And so, you know, we have to get a more sensible, comprehensive approach, and you know, Bob and I have talked about, you know, trying to figure out how to present a national-security budget. … So let’s start thinking from a budget perspective about how to be more integrated.

Students of foreign policy may be bemused and somewhat alarmed that the secretary of state needed six “you knows” to convey that we would have to “be smart about it,” “try to be smarter,” be “more effective,” get a “more sensible, comprehensive approach,” and try to “figure out” how to present a national-security budget.

Perhaps they will be comforted, however, that she rolled out the biggest word in the Department’s arsenal of adjectives to describe what she had concluded: we have to be more “robust” in meeting our responsibilities.

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Obama: ‘I Do Not Want to Screw This Up’

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Peter Baker’s massive front-page story in the Sunday New York Times about Obama as commander in chief. I share some of the disquiet expressed by Jennifer Rubin about the president’s lack of knowledge and interest in defense affairs, but that’s hardly unusual for a chief executive. With his focus on domestic policy and his view that foreign crises are an unwelcome “distraction,” Obama echoes most recent presidents, including both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush, of course, shed that outlook after 9/11, whereas Obama hasn’t — yet. I predict he will before long because he will realize what most presidents realize: that they have the greatest impact in foreign affairs and national-security policy, whereas on domestic issues, they have to beg for help from a recalcitrant Congress. So far, Obama has managed to push most of his agenda through the Hill, but that is likely to change after the November elections bring big gains for Republicans; after that he will probably find foreign affairs a relief rather than a burden.

In the meantime, however, I was not wholly depressed by Baker’s article. There were, I believe, some positives in it, including the revelation that it was Obama’s personal brainstorm to replace General McChrystal with David Petraeus in Afghanistan (Bob Gates evidently wanted to keep McChrystal on with a reprimand). That was surely a brilliant stroke and speaks well to his creativity and his ability to be decisive. More than that, I was cheered by this line:

When he held a videoconference on Iraq on his first full day in office, officials recalled, he said: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you and that is I do not want to screw this up.”

That sentiment — “I do not want to screw this up” — explains a lot. It explains why Obama has gone more slowly on the Iraq withdrawal than the left would have liked and why he has bucked his liberal base to build up U.S. forces in Afghanistan. For all his obsession with domestic issues, he evidently realizes that losing wars is bad for a president’s reputation. That’s good for those of us who believe that it’s vitally important for the country’s interests to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However reluctantly, Obama apparently has come to share that belief.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Peter Baker’s massive front-page story in the Sunday New York Times about Obama as commander in chief. I share some of the disquiet expressed by Jennifer Rubin about the president’s lack of knowledge and interest in defense affairs, but that’s hardly unusual for a chief executive. With his focus on domestic policy and his view that foreign crises are an unwelcome “distraction,” Obama echoes most recent presidents, including both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush, of course, shed that outlook after 9/11, whereas Obama hasn’t — yet. I predict he will before long because he will realize what most presidents realize: that they have the greatest impact in foreign affairs and national-security policy, whereas on domestic issues, they have to beg for help from a recalcitrant Congress. So far, Obama has managed to push most of his agenda through the Hill, but that is likely to change after the November elections bring big gains for Republicans; after that he will probably find foreign affairs a relief rather than a burden.

In the meantime, however, I was not wholly depressed by Baker’s article. There were, I believe, some positives in it, including the revelation that it was Obama’s personal brainstorm to replace General McChrystal with David Petraeus in Afghanistan (Bob Gates evidently wanted to keep McChrystal on with a reprimand). That was surely a brilliant stroke and speaks well to his creativity and his ability to be decisive. More than that, I was cheered by this line:

When he held a videoconference on Iraq on his first full day in office, officials recalled, he said: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you and that is I do not want to screw this up.”

That sentiment — “I do not want to screw this up” — explains a lot. It explains why Obama has gone more slowly on the Iraq withdrawal than the left would have liked and why he has bucked his liberal base to build up U.S. forces in Afghanistan. For all his obsession with domestic issues, he evidently realizes that losing wars is bad for a president’s reputation. That’s good for those of us who believe that it’s vitally important for the country’s interests to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However reluctantly, Obama apparently has come to share that belief.

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China’s Naval Posture: More Good News

Iran’s best friends have wasted no time trading on their naval anti-piracy presence in the Gulf of Aden to penetrate the Mediterranean Sea. China rotated its anti-piracy task forces in July and sent the homebound flotilla to the Mediterranean for naval exercises and port visits. Although the Chinese navy has sent training ships on foreign cruises before, the Mediterranean circuit being followed by the off-station flotilla is the first deployment of its kind by operational warships.

The Chinese destroyer and frigate arrived in Egypt in late July for a five-day visit. They then conducted drills with the Italian navy last week and visited the NATO port of Taranto. The task force arrived in Piraeus, Greece, on Monday.

China’s not the only Asian nation dispatching its navy to the ports of America’s allies in the Mediterranean. Russia expanded its traditional ties there with an agreement earlier this year to conduct joint naval exercises with Greece. India’s navy conducted an unprecedented deployment to the Mediterranean and Atlantic in 2009, during which it operated with the navies of Russia, NATO, and Algeria.

The Chinese made ripples in naval circles this summer when they sent their largest warship, the amphibious assault vessel Kunlunshan, to the Gulf of Aden as the flagship of their current anti-piracy flotilla. It’s understating the case to point out that an amphibious assault ship is not the platform best suited to interdicting pirates; China’s choice in this case is a political test of what other nations will find acceptable. This isn’t the only attempt being mounted to upend the status quo, however. Japan is establishing a forward operating base in Djibouti, and a Chinese official has floated the idea of China doing the same. Iran started this trend in late 2008 with new base facilities in Eritrea on the Red Sea, ostensibly for its anti-piracy force off Somalia.

Nations don’t change their naval postures because they are content with the status quo. Nor are the world’s other navies focused on building smaller, less-capable warships for low-lethality tasks like combating piracy. The U.S. Navy’s retreat from the high seas since the end of the Cold War is having its inevitable consequences. Shedding our own most capable warships to save money, as Defense Secretary Bob Gates proposes, is the worst thing we could do.

Iran’s best friends have wasted no time trading on their naval anti-piracy presence in the Gulf of Aden to penetrate the Mediterranean Sea. China rotated its anti-piracy task forces in July and sent the homebound flotilla to the Mediterranean for naval exercises and port visits. Although the Chinese navy has sent training ships on foreign cruises before, the Mediterranean circuit being followed by the off-station flotilla is the first deployment of its kind by operational warships.

The Chinese destroyer and frigate arrived in Egypt in late July for a five-day visit. They then conducted drills with the Italian navy last week and visited the NATO port of Taranto. The task force arrived in Piraeus, Greece, on Monday.

China’s not the only Asian nation dispatching its navy to the ports of America’s allies in the Mediterranean. Russia expanded its traditional ties there with an agreement earlier this year to conduct joint naval exercises with Greece. India’s navy conducted an unprecedented deployment to the Mediterranean and Atlantic in 2009, during which it operated with the navies of Russia, NATO, and Algeria.

The Chinese made ripples in naval circles this summer when they sent their largest warship, the amphibious assault vessel Kunlunshan, to the Gulf of Aden as the flagship of their current anti-piracy flotilla. It’s understating the case to point out that an amphibious assault ship is not the platform best suited to interdicting pirates; China’s choice in this case is a political test of what other nations will find acceptable. This isn’t the only attempt being mounted to upend the status quo, however. Japan is establishing a forward operating base in Djibouti, and a Chinese official has floated the idea of China doing the same. Iran started this trend in late 2008 with new base facilities in Eritrea on the Red Sea, ostensibly for its anti-piracy force off Somalia.

Nations don’t change their naval postures because they are content with the status quo. Nor are the world’s other navies focused on building smaller, less-capable warships for low-lethality tasks like combating piracy. The U.S. Navy’s retreat from the high seas since the end of the Cold War is having its inevitable consequences. Shedding our own most capable warships to save money, as Defense Secretary Bob Gates proposes, is the worst thing we could do.

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JFCOM to Be Shut Down?

Defense Secretary Bob Gates has just announced a new round of budget cuts, the major move being the proposed elimination of U.S. Joint Forces Command. JFCOM is one of the newer “combatant commands”; it was created in 1999 to work on “joint” training, doctrine, capabilities, and force generation — all missions that in the past had gone exclusively to the individual military services. The thinking at the time in Congress and at the Pentagon was that a more unified approach was needed to avoid some of the traditional duplication and lack of synchronization.

Apparently, Gates thinks the mission could be done just as well without the existence of a four-star command. Is he right? He may well be. And I say that even though I have been peripherally involved in JFCOM’s operations as a member (unpaid) of its Transformation Advisory Group. Certainly, JFCOM, like all military bureaucracies (indeed all bureaucracies, period), has its share of fat. But it also performed some important functions that will have to be done by someone, whether the command exists or not.

The budget savings from this move will hardly do much to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, much less to close the government’s growing budget deficit. As the Associated Press notes, JFCOM has “nearly 4,900 employees and annual salaries of more than $200 million” — a pittance in federal-budget terms. Indeed, you could cut the entire Pentagon budget ($535 billion) and still not eliminate this year’s budget deficit — $1.47 trillion. To say nothing of our federal debt, which is over $13 billion and counting.

I am all in favor of cutting government spending. But we should be careful about cutting defense spending in wartime. Moreover, we should be careful about dumping the burden of “deficit cutting” onto the Department of Defense while ignoring the budget items actually responsible for most federal spending. OK, cut JFCOM. But then cut, too, the entitlement programs, which, with the encouragement and connivance of both the president and Congress, are growing out of control.

A final question concerns the fate of General Ray Odierno, who is about to leave Iraq to assume the command of… JFCOM, a post just vacated by Gen. Jim Mattis, the new Central Command chief. Where will Odierno go now? His services are far too valuable to be lost, but there wouldn’t be an abundance of open four-star jobs if JFCOM were, in fact, eliminated — which would take an act of Congress. My bet would be on him succeeding General George Casey as army chief of staff.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates has just announced a new round of budget cuts, the major move being the proposed elimination of U.S. Joint Forces Command. JFCOM is one of the newer “combatant commands”; it was created in 1999 to work on “joint” training, doctrine, capabilities, and force generation — all missions that in the past had gone exclusively to the individual military services. The thinking at the time in Congress and at the Pentagon was that a more unified approach was needed to avoid some of the traditional duplication and lack of synchronization.

Apparently, Gates thinks the mission could be done just as well without the existence of a four-star command. Is he right? He may well be. And I say that even though I have been peripherally involved in JFCOM’s operations as a member (unpaid) of its Transformation Advisory Group. Certainly, JFCOM, like all military bureaucracies (indeed all bureaucracies, period), has its share of fat. But it also performed some important functions that will have to be done by someone, whether the command exists or not.

The budget savings from this move will hardly do much to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, much less to close the government’s growing budget deficit. As the Associated Press notes, JFCOM has “nearly 4,900 employees and annual salaries of more than $200 million” — a pittance in federal-budget terms. Indeed, you could cut the entire Pentagon budget ($535 billion) and still not eliminate this year’s budget deficit — $1.47 trillion. To say nothing of our federal debt, which is over $13 billion and counting.

I am all in favor of cutting government spending. But we should be careful about cutting defense spending in wartime. Moreover, we should be careful about dumping the burden of “deficit cutting” onto the Department of Defense while ignoring the budget items actually responsible for most federal spending. OK, cut JFCOM. But then cut, too, the entitlement programs, which, with the encouragement and connivance of both the president and Congress, are growing out of control.

A final question concerns the fate of General Ray Odierno, who is about to leave Iraq to assume the command of… JFCOM, a post just vacated by Gen. Jim Mattis, the new Central Command chief. Where will Odierno go now? His services are far too valuable to be lost, but there wouldn’t be an abundance of open four-star jobs if JFCOM were, in fact, eliminated — which would take an act of Congress. My bet would be on him succeeding General George Casey as army chief of staff.

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Tribute to a Consummate Warrior

A month ago, I wrote that although General Stanley McChrystal may have screwed up big-time in his talk with Rolling Stone, he had earned respect for the dignified way in which he handled his firing. He did not plead for his job, claim he was misquoted, or do any of the other things we have come to expect from (civilian) officeholders in trouble. Instead, as I noted, he “manned up” and assumed full responsibility for a monumental mistake.

He handled his retirement ceremony Friday with similar class and dignity, delivering a speech that ace reporter Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post described as “disarmingly funny, personal and often wistful.” He even managed to poke fun at himself:

He began with a warning to the audience not to contradict his romanticized memories. “I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter,” he said, drawing guffaws from the audience of about 300.

That’s the Stan McChrystal I remember — a general notably free of the pomposity and self-importance that characterizes too many others who wear all those stars on their shoulders. He may have ended his career in a regrettable manner, suggesting he was not quite up to the task of theater-level command, but that should not lead anyone to forget his many distinguished decades of service, including all the years he spent in Iraq supervising the Joint Special Operations Command, which killed and captured many notorious terrorists. As Bob Gates said at the retirement ceremony,”No single American has inflicted more fear or more loss of life on our country’s most vicious and violent enemies.” It’s hard to imagine a better tribute to a consummate warrior.

A month ago, I wrote that although General Stanley McChrystal may have screwed up big-time in his talk with Rolling Stone, he had earned respect for the dignified way in which he handled his firing. He did not plead for his job, claim he was misquoted, or do any of the other things we have come to expect from (civilian) officeholders in trouble. Instead, as I noted, he “manned up” and assumed full responsibility for a monumental mistake.

He handled his retirement ceremony Friday with similar class and dignity, delivering a speech that ace reporter Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post described as “disarmingly funny, personal and often wistful.” He even managed to poke fun at himself:

He began with a warning to the audience not to contradict his romanticized memories. “I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter,” he said, drawing guffaws from the audience of about 300.

That’s the Stan McChrystal I remember — a general notably free of the pomposity and self-importance that characterizes too many others who wear all those stars on their shoulders. He may have ended his career in a regrettable manner, suggesting he was not quite up to the task of theater-level command, but that should not lead anyone to forget his many distinguished decades of service, including all the years he spent in Iraq supervising the Joint Special Operations Command, which killed and captured many notorious terrorists. As Bob Gates said at the retirement ceremony,”No single American has inflicted more fear or more loss of life on our country’s most vicious and violent enemies.” It’s hard to imagine a better tribute to a consummate warrior.

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Afghanistan: July 2011 Psychosis

Joe Biden has long been seen as the administration’s leading advocate of a “small footprint” approach to Afghanistan. But on ABC’s This Week program on Sunday, he was at pains to downplay the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. There will be a “transition,” he said, but not necessarily a massive withdrawal of forces — “It could be as few as a couple thousand troops.”

That puts Biden effectively on the same page as Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, and other senior administration and military figures who have been stressing that we aren’t headed for the exists come next summer. That’s an important and welcome clarification of the ambiguous policy laid out by President Obama at West Point last fall. But I doubt that the message has reached the region where the perception of American fickleness continues to encourage our foes and discourage our friends.

In Kabul recently, I had dinner with several Afghan politicians and bureaucrats. They were, to a man, horrified by the July 2011 deadline, which feeds into recurring Afghan fears of abandonment by the West — something that happened as recently as the 1990s. They were not mollified when I and other visiting scholars tried to explain that the appointment of General Petraeus suggested that Obama was in the war to win. They actually claimed that Petraeus had been sent to offer a “face-saving way” for the U.S. to withdraw — as he supposedly had done in Iraq. I and the other visitors spent hours trying to mollify these worried Afghans, but without success. As one of them acknowledged, “We’ve developed July 2011 psychosis.”

I am not sure anything can shake their concerns about a premature American departure but at the very least it would be helpful for Obama himself to clarify where he stands. There is a widespread perception in Washington that he has done a sotto voce walk-back from the exit deadline but he needs to be more explicit to convey the message across 7,000 miles of geography and an even wider gap of understanding and perception.

Paradoxically, the more that Obama makes it clear that we will stay in Afghanistan long enough to win, the more he hastens our departure by increasing the pressure on the Taliban. And the more he equivocates, the harder he makes it for NATO forces to make the kind of progress needed to begin a responsible, conditions-based drawdown.

Joe Biden has long been seen as the administration’s leading advocate of a “small footprint” approach to Afghanistan. But on ABC’s This Week program on Sunday, he was at pains to downplay the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. There will be a “transition,” he said, but not necessarily a massive withdrawal of forces — “It could be as few as a couple thousand troops.”

That puts Biden effectively on the same page as Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, and other senior administration and military figures who have been stressing that we aren’t headed for the exists come next summer. That’s an important and welcome clarification of the ambiguous policy laid out by President Obama at West Point last fall. But I doubt that the message has reached the region where the perception of American fickleness continues to encourage our foes and discourage our friends.

In Kabul recently, I had dinner with several Afghan politicians and bureaucrats. They were, to a man, horrified by the July 2011 deadline, which feeds into recurring Afghan fears of abandonment by the West — something that happened as recently as the 1990s. They were not mollified when I and other visiting scholars tried to explain that the appointment of General Petraeus suggested that Obama was in the war to win. They actually claimed that Petraeus had been sent to offer a “face-saving way” for the U.S. to withdraw — as he supposedly had done in Iraq. I and the other visitors spent hours trying to mollify these worried Afghans, but without success. As one of them acknowledged, “We’ve developed July 2011 psychosis.”

I am not sure anything can shake their concerns about a premature American departure but at the very least it would be helpful for Obama himself to clarify where he stands. There is a widespread perception in Washington that he has done a sotto voce walk-back from the exit deadline but he needs to be more explicit to convey the message across 7,000 miles of geography and an even wider gap of understanding and perception.

Paradoxically, the more that Obama makes it clear that we will stay in Afghanistan long enough to win, the more he hastens our departure by increasing the pressure on the Taliban. And the more he equivocates, the harder he makes it for NATO forces to make the kind of progress needed to begin a responsible, conditions-based drawdown.

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