Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mullen

RE: What Is Israel to Do?

As Jennifer points out, Admiral Mullen’s remarks about Iran are disconcerting.

I am no military expert and, like most of us in the blogosphere and the policy community, lack the actionable intelligence to make the kind of judgment that Admiral Mullen makes on whether a military strike against Iran would yield the kind of benefits desired without the kind of consequences one may reasonably fear.

Maybe Admiral Mullen is in a position to know better and his public assessment is correct. But why announce it? To make the Mullahs sleep better?

What is remarkable, and remarkably shocking, about this procession of military and intelligence personnel coming to say what politicians have now said for a while, is that they do not seem to appreciate how these comments have damaging consequences.

Perhaps a military strike is not in the cards anymore — who knows? Perhaps the risks involved are considerable. Maybe the hour is late. Understandably, there is little appetite for war. And, frankly, one should underestimate neither the operational difficulties nor the political fallout.

But there is a world of difference between entertaining skepticism about the military option in private and ruling it out in public. Whether it is politicians or uniformed personnel, their public dismissal of the military option — perhaps the only thing Iran’s regime truly fears — undermines the effectiveness of all non-military alternatives.

Besides, it is not the job of military personnel to dismiss or even fret publicly about the consequences of a military operation. Their job is to find the best way to accomplish a mission they are tasked with by their civilian leadership — and, if that mission entails negative consequences, they can certainly let it be known and factor them into their plans. It should not be their business to comment on these matters on the record. McChrystal, anyone?

Incidentally, government officials in Europe have been adopting this characteristically thoughtless approach for a while now, failing to understand that a threat is more powerful than its actual manifestation when it carries credibility. Now America has joined the bandwagon. To see U.S. leaders publicly depriving themselves of a fundamental policy tool and tell Iran that, no matter what they do, nobody will attack them, is a truly myopic act — and it will achieve precisely the opposite of what its perpetrators wish it to accomplish. By reassuring Iran that no attack will come their way, the West has removed the last pressure tool from its arsenal. The reiteration of such a message will embolden the Iranians to become more defiant and more aggressive and convince the Israelis that they stand alone and have little time left.

So, paradoxically, the more Admiral Mullen and his military peers say that an attack against Iran would be a bad thing, the more likely it is there is going to be an attack on Iran.

As Jennifer points out, Admiral Mullen’s remarks about Iran are disconcerting.

I am no military expert and, like most of us in the blogosphere and the policy community, lack the actionable intelligence to make the kind of judgment that Admiral Mullen makes on whether a military strike against Iran would yield the kind of benefits desired without the kind of consequences one may reasonably fear.

Maybe Admiral Mullen is in a position to know better and his public assessment is correct. But why announce it? To make the Mullahs sleep better?

What is remarkable, and remarkably shocking, about this procession of military and intelligence personnel coming to say what politicians have now said for a while, is that they do not seem to appreciate how these comments have damaging consequences.

Perhaps a military strike is not in the cards anymore — who knows? Perhaps the risks involved are considerable. Maybe the hour is late. Understandably, there is little appetite for war. And, frankly, one should underestimate neither the operational difficulties nor the political fallout.

But there is a world of difference between entertaining skepticism about the military option in private and ruling it out in public. Whether it is politicians or uniformed personnel, their public dismissal of the military option — perhaps the only thing Iran’s regime truly fears — undermines the effectiveness of all non-military alternatives.

Besides, it is not the job of military personnel to dismiss or even fret publicly about the consequences of a military operation. Their job is to find the best way to accomplish a mission they are tasked with by their civilian leadership — and, if that mission entails negative consequences, they can certainly let it be known and factor them into their plans. It should not be their business to comment on these matters on the record. McChrystal, anyone?

Incidentally, government officials in Europe have been adopting this characteristically thoughtless approach for a while now, failing to understand that a threat is more powerful than its actual manifestation when it carries credibility. Now America has joined the bandwagon. To see U.S. leaders publicly depriving themselves of a fundamental policy tool and tell Iran that, no matter what they do, nobody will attack them, is a truly myopic act — and it will achieve precisely the opposite of what its perpetrators wish it to accomplish. By reassuring Iran that no attack will come their way, the West has removed the last pressure tool from its arsenal. The reiteration of such a message will embolden the Iranians to become more defiant and more aggressive and convince the Israelis that they stand alone and have little time left.

So, paradoxically, the more Admiral Mullen and his military peers say that an attack against Iran would be a bad thing, the more likely it is there is going to be an attack on Iran.

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Merrill McPeak on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Retired General Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff and a prominent Obama backer in the 2008 campaign, has weighed in with a New York Times op-ed against ending the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I can’t say I find his arguments terribly persuasive.

For one thing, he implicitly threatens that the current military leadership would simply ignore or undermine a presidential order to allow gays to serve openly — “allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it,” he writes, adding, “I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993.” It’s harder to imagine a more blatant threat to subvert the civil-military relationship and, specifically, the oath that all service members swear to “obey the orders of the President of the United States.”

McPeak also makes the argument that unit cohesion will be undermined by allowing openly gay personnel to serve. His evidence? “We have already seen the fault lines form in the current debate: the individual service chiefs have expressed reservations about Admiral Mullen’s views. This lack of cohesion will likely make the Joint Chiefs less effective in the latest round of this debate.” Uh, right. So perhaps if the chiefs are called upon to undertake hand-to-hand combat against, say, Chinese generals, they may not fight very effectively. Is the implication here that the president should not pursue any policy that the Joint Chiefs do not unanimously support? Again, that’s contrary to all of our civil-military traditions and gives the chiefs authority they are not granted under law — and should not be granted, given the lack of strategic acumen often displayed by service chiefs.

I found two conspicuous absences in McPeak’s article. First, he doesn’t address the studies showing that openly gay personnel have not undermined unit cohesion in allied militaries, including those of Australia, Britain, and Israel. Perhaps the U.S. military is different, but he doesn’t say how.

Second, he makes no mention of the integration of women into the armed services in the 1970s, which occasioned arguments by the likes of Jim Webb (now a U.S. Senator) that were remarkably similar to those advanced by McPeak today. He writes: “We know, or ought to, that warriors are inspired by male bonding, by comradeship, by the knowledge that they survive only through relying on each other. To undermine cohesion is to endanger everyone.” One would think that the presence of women would do even more than the presence of gays to undermine “male bonding.” Yet women have been granted admittance into almost all military occupations, in roles including flying fighter jets as McPeak once did. They are present on all major and most minor bases even in war zones. They frequently and regularly circulate on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. What evidence is there that their presence has undermined combat effectiveness? And if it hasn’t, why would the presence of un-closeted gays be more corrosive than that of women?

Retired General Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff and a prominent Obama backer in the 2008 campaign, has weighed in with a New York Times op-ed against ending the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I can’t say I find his arguments terribly persuasive.

For one thing, he implicitly threatens that the current military leadership would simply ignore or undermine a presidential order to allow gays to serve openly — “allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it,” he writes, adding, “I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993.” It’s harder to imagine a more blatant threat to subvert the civil-military relationship and, specifically, the oath that all service members swear to “obey the orders of the President of the United States.”

McPeak also makes the argument that unit cohesion will be undermined by allowing openly gay personnel to serve. His evidence? “We have already seen the fault lines form in the current debate: the individual service chiefs have expressed reservations about Admiral Mullen’s views. This lack of cohesion will likely make the Joint Chiefs less effective in the latest round of this debate.” Uh, right. So perhaps if the chiefs are called upon to undertake hand-to-hand combat against, say, Chinese generals, they may not fight very effectively. Is the implication here that the president should not pursue any policy that the Joint Chiefs do not unanimously support? Again, that’s contrary to all of our civil-military traditions and gives the chiefs authority they are not granted under law — and should not be granted, given the lack of strategic acumen often displayed by service chiefs.

I found two conspicuous absences in McPeak’s article. First, he doesn’t address the studies showing that openly gay personnel have not undermined unit cohesion in allied militaries, including those of Australia, Britain, and Israel. Perhaps the U.S. military is different, but he doesn’t say how.

Second, he makes no mention of the integration of women into the armed services in the 1970s, which occasioned arguments by the likes of Jim Webb (now a U.S. Senator) that were remarkably similar to those advanced by McPeak today. He writes: “We know, or ought to, that warriors are inspired by male bonding, by comradeship, by the knowledge that they survive only through relying on each other. To undermine cohesion is to endanger everyone.” One would think that the presence of women would do even more than the presence of gays to undermine “male bonding.” Yet women have been granted admittance into almost all military occupations, in roles including flying fighter jets as McPeak once did. They are present on all major and most minor bases even in war zones. They frequently and regularly circulate on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. What evidence is there that their presence has undermined combat effectiveness? And if it hasn’t, why would the presence of un-closeted gays be more corrosive than that of women?

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? A Reasonable Compromise

I am hard-pressed to see why President Obama feels compelled to revisit the issue of gays in the military now. At the same time I am open to revising the policy — as are, I believe, many in service personnel, including some who supported the ban on gays when President Clinton first tried to lift it almost two decades ago. There are no good measurements of what service personnel are thinking but public opinion has shifted dramatically on the issue. In 1993 only 43% favored lifting the ban on gays; now, according to Gallup, it’s 69% (including 58% of Republicans).

Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates are taking a reasonable step by announcing “that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties.” How much further the gay-rights policy should go is unclear. The key issue is not simply a matter of gay rights but also of military efficiency. To what extent would the good order of our armed services be upset by allowing gays to serve more openly than they currently do? In most situations I don’t believe doing so would be disruptive. It is certainly silly to be discharging Arabic linguists sitting in some Washington office just because they happen to be gay.

The vast majority of service personnel are stationed at giant bases, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or in Texas and North Carolina, where it is not hard to get privacy and where their jobs resemble those of civilian workers in many ways. Going to the bathroom involves, literally, a visit to the bathroom — not to a slit trench. Sexual issues are already raised on those bases by the presence of women. In fact the problem is more serious because women in heterosexual relationships have the potential to get pregnant — as some servicewomen do, thereby having to go home and creating a vacancy that has to be filled by someone else. There are also issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that need to be tightly policed — whether involving homosexuals or heterosexuals.

One of the adaptations the military has made is to allow women into most billets but not into tight-knit combat formations — nuclear submarine crews or infantry squads. They live in close quarters and often-unpleasant conditions where privacy is nonexistent and trust and esprit de corps are all-important. I remember discussing the issue last year with a Special Forces team deployed in the field and was struck by the unanimity of opinion against lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The special operators were horrified at the thought of gays in their ranks. This may be rank prejudice, and perhaps the result of ignorance, since there are already probably some gays in their midst. But the attitude still exists and higher authority can tamper with the policy only at the risk of causing a drop in morale.

Special Forces is one of the areas in which women are still not allowed to serve even though most jobs in the military have been opened to them. Why not simply extend to gays the same policy applied to women? That is, let gays serve openly in most billets but not in a few combat designations. It seems like a reasonable compromise.

I am hard-pressed to see why President Obama feels compelled to revisit the issue of gays in the military now. At the same time I am open to revising the policy — as are, I believe, many in service personnel, including some who supported the ban on gays when President Clinton first tried to lift it almost two decades ago. There are no good measurements of what service personnel are thinking but public opinion has shifted dramatically on the issue. In 1993 only 43% favored lifting the ban on gays; now, according to Gallup, it’s 69% (including 58% of Republicans).

Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates are taking a reasonable step by announcing “that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties.” How much further the gay-rights policy should go is unclear. The key issue is not simply a matter of gay rights but also of military efficiency. To what extent would the good order of our armed services be upset by allowing gays to serve more openly than they currently do? In most situations I don’t believe doing so would be disruptive. It is certainly silly to be discharging Arabic linguists sitting in some Washington office just because they happen to be gay.

The vast majority of service personnel are stationed at giant bases, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or in Texas and North Carolina, where it is not hard to get privacy and where their jobs resemble those of civilian workers in many ways. Going to the bathroom involves, literally, a visit to the bathroom — not to a slit trench. Sexual issues are already raised on those bases by the presence of women. In fact the problem is more serious because women in heterosexual relationships have the potential to get pregnant — as some servicewomen do, thereby having to go home and creating a vacancy that has to be filled by someone else. There are also issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that need to be tightly policed — whether involving homosexuals or heterosexuals.

One of the adaptations the military has made is to allow women into most billets but not into tight-knit combat formations — nuclear submarine crews or infantry squads. They live in close quarters and often-unpleasant conditions where privacy is nonexistent and trust and esprit de corps are all-important. I remember discussing the issue last year with a Special Forces team deployed in the field and was struck by the unanimity of opinion against lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The special operators were horrified at the thought of gays in their ranks. This may be rank prejudice, and perhaps the result of ignorance, since there are already probably some gays in their midst. But the attitude still exists and higher authority can tamper with the policy only at the risk of causing a drop in morale.

Special Forces is one of the areas in which women are still not allowed to serve even though most jobs in the military have been opened to them. Why not simply extend to gays the same policy applied to women? That is, let gays serve openly in most billets but not in a few combat designations. It seems like a reasonable compromise.

Read Less

They Have to Win Anyway

Writing before Tuesday’s speech Rich Lowry observed:

In Obama’s long review, the fanciful suppositions of the war’s skeptics were systematically knocked down: No, the war couldn’t be waged from afar with drones and Special Forces; no, the Taliban couldn’t be considered a relatively harmless force; no, Afghanistan couldn’t slide into chaos without further destabilizing Pakistan.

The professionals, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and Admiral Mullen, all lined up in favor of some form of the surge. Obama was left without any plausible reason to heed his deepest instincts.

Consequently, he finds himself in rough alignment with all the same hated people who conceived, executed, and supported the Iraq surge, and against the people who opposed it — and elected him.

And so we are embarked on a surge with a reluctant and obviously conflicted commander in chief. The essential policy, with a bit of unnecessary chiseling on the number of troops, is not far off the mark. But part of war strategy is stagecraft and convincing the enemies that they are on the losing side of history. Would the sheiks in Anbar have risked plenty for a “surge… but…” strategy in Iraq? Would al Qaeda’s recruits have dried up there had George W. Bush announced a commencement date for withdrawal in January 2007? We don’t know, and Bush declined to make his own job more difficult by fuzzing up his message. Obama couldn’t resist the urge to do just that.

We may prevail despite the president’s inner turmoil and half-hearted rhetoric. We may win despite the doubts he sowed about our willingness to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to prevail. All Americans should pray that we will, for the president got one thing right:

The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society, and our leadership in the world. And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.

In other words, it is not a fight amenable to off ramps and limited patience. It’s not going to be won trying to mollify the netroots because in doing so we would project equivocation and irresoluteness. Our military is the finest in the world, and given the resources and direction to accomplish a mission, there is a very good chance we will prevail. But our troops should have a commander in chief who makes their task easier and helps them in the task of undermining and intimidating the enemy. They don’t but will have to win anyway.

Writing before Tuesday’s speech Rich Lowry observed:

In Obama’s long review, the fanciful suppositions of the war’s skeptics were systematically knocked down: No, the war couldn’t be waged from afar with drones and Special Forces; no, the Taliban couldn’t be considered a relatively harmless force; no, Afghanistan couldn’t slide into chaos without further destabilizing Pakistan.

The professionals, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and Admiral Mullen, all lined up in favor of some form of the surge. Obama was left without any plausible reason to heed his deepest instincts.

Consequently, he finds himself in rough alignment with all the same hated people who conceived, executed, and supported the Iraq surge, and against the people who opposed it — and elected him.

And so we are embarked on a surge with a reluctant and obviously conflicted commander in chief. The essential policy, with a bit of unnecessary chiseling on the number of troops, is not far off the mark. But part of war strategy is stagecraft and convincing the enemies that they are on the losing side of history. Would the sheiks in Anbar have risked plenty for a “surge… but…” strategy in Iraq? Would al Qaeda’s recruits have dried up there had George W. Bush announced a commencement date for withdrawal in January 2007? We don’t know, and Bush declined to make his own job more difficult by fuzzing up his message. Obama couldn’t resist the urge to do just that.

We may prevail despite the president’s inner turmoil and half-hearted rhetoric. We may win despite the doubts he sowed about our willingness to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to prevail. All Americans should pray that we will, for the president got one thing right:

The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society, and our leadership in the world. And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.

In other words, it is not a fight amenable to off ramps and limited patience. It’s not going to be won trying to mollify the netroots because in doing so we would project equivocation and irresoluteness. Our military is the finest in the world, and given the resources and direction to accomplish a mission, there is a very good chance we will prevail. But our troops should have a commander in chief who makes their task easier and helps them in the task of undermining and intimidating the enemy. They don’t but will have to win anyway.

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Obama Finally Resolute on Afghanistan?

As President Obama prepares to deliver his West Point address tonight, most indications are positive — surprisingly so, given the public hand-wringing from the White House that has characterized this debate over the past three months. Barring a last-minute change of heart, the president will announce the dispatch of at least 30,000 troops to Afghanistan along with the expectation that our allies will provide at least 5,000 more. According to this New York Times article, Obama “has decided to expedite the deployment … over the next six months, in an effort to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains and create urgency for the government in Kabul to match the American surge with one using its own forces.” It may not be logistically possible to dispatch 30,000 extra troops by the summer of 2010, but it’s a good sign that Obama is setting this as a goal. It means he is taking to heart the warnings from General McChrystal that “success will require a discrete ‘jump’ to gain the initiative, demonstrate progress in the short term, and secure long-term support.”

The key question now is, how much resolve will Obama signal in the address itself? If he spends too much time talking about “off-ramps” (i.e., situations under which reinforcements might be canceled), “benchmarks” that the Karzai government must meet “or else,” or “exit strategies,” he will undo some of the positive impact of his courageous decision to substantially increase the number of American troops on the ground.

Thus, it is worrisome to read in another Times leak that Obama will announce “that he will begin to transition American forces out of Afghanistan beginning in July 2011″ — a curious message to send while announcing a major increase in our war effort. That gives the troops who will be arriving only a year to get the job done, which may or may not be enough time. A far better time line would be “performance-based,” as it was in the case of the Iraq surge: Obama should announce that the troops will stay as long as necessary to get the job done. Even if he has already settled on a time line for withdrawal, he should keep it quiet, lest he encourage the Taliban to simply wait us out.

Nevertheless, despite that disturbing detail, it sounds as if it will be a policy that all those who see the need to prevail in this important war effort can and should support. I will, of course, stay tuned for the speech itself and report back with an initial reaction once I’ve had a chance to hear the president’s words. But I imagine that the nuances won’t become apparent until a few days after the administration has performed its background briefings and Secretary of Defense Gates, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mullen, and other key leaders have testified on Capitol Hill.

As President Obama prepares to deliver his West Point address tonight, most indications are positive — surprisingly so, given the public hand-wringing from the White House that has characterized this debate over the past three months. Barring a last-minute change of heart, the president will announce the dispatch of at least 30,000 troops to Afghanistan along with the expectation that our allies will provide at least 5,000 more. According to this New York Times article, Obama “has decided to expedite the deployment … over the next six months, in an effort to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains and create urgency for the government in Kabul to match the American surge with one using its own forces.” It may not be logistically possible to dispatch 30,000 extra troops by the summer of 2010, but it’s a good sign that Obama is setting this as a goal. It means he is taking to heart the warnings from General McChrystal that “success will require a discrete ‘jump’ to gain the initiative, demonstrate progress in the short term, and secure long-term support.”

The key question now is, how much resolve will Obama signal in the address itself? If he spends too much time talking about “off-ramps” (i.e., situations under which reinforcements might be canceled), “benchmarks” that the Karzai government must meet “or else,” or “exit strategies,” he will undo some of the positive impact of his courageous decision to substantially increase the number of American troops on the ground.

Thus, it is worrisome to read in another Times leak that Obama will announce “that he will begin to transition American forces out of Afghanistan beginning in July 2011″ — a curious message to send while announcing a major increase in our war effort. That gives the troops who will be arriving only a year to get the job done, which may or may not be enough time. A far better time line would be “performance-based,” as it was in the case of the Iraq surge: Obama should announce that the troops will stay as long as necessary to get the job done. Even if he has already settled on a time line for withdrawal, he should keep it quiet, lest he encourage the Taliban to simply wait us out.

Nevertheless, despite that disturbing detail, it sounds as if it will be a policy that all those who see the need to prevail in this important war effort can and should support. I will, of course, stay tuned for the speech itself and report back with an initial reaction once I’ve had a chance to hear the president’s words. But I imagine that the nuances won’t become apparent until a few days after the administration has performed its background briefings and Secretary of Defense Gates, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mullen, and other key leaders have testified on Capitol Hill.

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McCain Gets Some Help

John McCain has begun vigorously engaging Barack Obama on the subject of Obama’s proposed immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. As reported by abcnews.com, he got a major assist yesterday from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who stated that:

[a] rapid of withdrawal from Iraq would lead to a “chaotic situation” and would “turnaround the gains we have achieved, and struggled to achieve, and turn them around overnight. Admiral Mullen’s comments came in a response to a question about what the Joint Chiefs are doing to prepare for a new president, given that two of the candidates have called for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. “We need to be prepared across the board for what a new president will bring,” Mullen said. “I do worry about a rapid withdrawal. . . [that would] turn around the gains we have achieved and struggled to achieve and turn them around overnight.” Asked to define a “rapid withdrawal,” Mullen said, “a withdrawal that would be so fast that it would leave us in a chaotic situation and the gains we have achieved would be lost.” That said, Mullen added: “When a new president comes in, I will get my orders and I will carry them out.”

Obama would certainly like to talk in the general election about the initial decision to go to war, which has been a winning issue in his primary fight with Hillary Clinton. In light of polling which shows a lopsided majority of Americans believe that the war was a mistake or not worth the cost, this seems a smart tactic. McCain intends to cast this, in essence, as crying over spilt milk. As he put it “That’s history, that’s the past. . . . What we should be talking about is what we are going to do now.”

Indeed the “what do we do now” issue was much discussed in the last presidential election year. Back then, when Colin Powell subscribed to the “pottery barn” analogy (you break it, you pay for it), he was widely praised. Democrats had no problem when John Kerry said this in the 2004 presidential debate:

Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we’re there. We have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden. It was. Now, we can succeed.

For Obama and much of the Democratic base, that was then and this is now. Meanwhile, McCain hopes that the adage that “elections are about the future and not the past” holds true here.

John McCain has begun vigorously engaging Barack Obama on the subject of Obama’s proposed immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. As reported by abcnews.com, he got a major assist yesterday from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who stated that:

[a] rapid of withdrawal from Iraq would lead to a “chaotic situation” and would “turnaround the gains we have achieved, and struggled to achieve, and turn them around overnight. Admiral Mullen’s comments came in a response to a question about what the Joint Chiefs are doing to prepare for a new president, given that two of the candidates have called for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. “We need to be prepared across the board for what a new president will bring,” Mullen said. “I do worry about a rapid withdrawal. . . [that would] turn around the gains we have achieved and struggled to achieve and turn them around overnight.” Asked to define a “rapid withdrawal,” Mullen said, “a withdrawal that would be so fast that it would leave us in a chaotic situation and the gains we have achieved would be lost.” That said, Mullen added: “When a new president comes in, I will get my orders and I will carry them out.”

Obama would certainly like to talk in the general election about the initial decision to go to war, which has been a winning issue in his primary fight with Hillary Clinton. In light of polling which shows a lopsided majority of Americans believe that the war was a mistake or not worth the cost, this seems a smart tactic. McCain intends to cast this, in essence, as crying over spilt milk. As he put it “That’s history, that’s the past. . . . What we should be talking about is what we are going to do now.”

Indeed the “what do we do now” issue was much discussed in the last presidential election year. Back then, when Colin Powell subscribed to the “pottery barn” analogy (you break it, you pay for it), he was widely praised. Democrats had no problem when John Kerry said this in the 2004 presidential debate:

Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we’re there. We have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden. It was. Now, we can succeed.

For Obama and much of the Democratic base, that was then and this is now. Meanwhile, McCain hopes that the adage that “elections are about the future and not the past” holds true here.

Read Less




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