Commentary Magazine


Topic: Richard Holbrooke

The White House’s Self-Destructive Cynics

The Obama administration’s promise to make the country’s work force suffer as much as possible for their representatives’ inability to stop the sequester—which was Obama’s idea—seems to mean more work for at least one sector of the American economy: fact-checkers. They are overworked trying to keep up with the task of debunking the White House’s embarrassing parade of false talking points and misrepresentations about the effects of the budget cuts included in the sequester.

Because this legion of fact-checkers are really just opinion bloggers, the White House doesn’t have too much to lose from subjective statements that are open to interpretation—which the fact-checkers inexplicably often “fact check” despite the absurdity of it. But the administration has stumbled in offering verifiably false statistics, which removes the protective layer of interpretation revealing an obvious attempt to mislead the public. Today Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post seems almost agitated at the Obama administration’s antics:

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The Obama administration’s promise to make the country’s work force suffer as much as possible for their representatives’ inability to stop the sequester—which was Obama’s idea—seems to mean more work for at least one sector of the American economy: fact-checkers. They are overworked trying to keep up with the task of debunking the White House’s embarrassing parade of false talking points and misrepresentations about the effects of the budget cuts included in the sequester.

Because this legion of fact-checkers are really just opinion bloggers, the White House doesn’t have too much to lose from subjective statements that are open to interpretation—which the fact-checkers inexplicably often “fact check” despite the absurdity of it. But the administration has stumbled in offering verifiably false statistics, which removes the protective layer of interpretation revealing an obvious attempt to mislead the public. Today Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post seems almost agitated at the Obama administration’s antics:

At a news conference last Friday, President Obama claimed that, “starting tomorrow,” the “folks cleaning the floors at the Capitol” had “just got a pay cut” because of the automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

The president very quickly earned Four Pinocchios for that statement, especially after senior officials at the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the federal agency that employ janitors on the House side, and the office of the Sergeant at Arms (SAA), which employs janitors on the Senate side, issued statements saying the president’s comments were not true.

Still, the White House has kept up its spin offensive, claiming that a cut in “overtime” was a de facto pay cut and thus the president was right — or at least not wrong.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this new claim also received four pinnochios. Why is the White House making stuff up? Democrats are starting to complain to the media that it’s because the petty yes-men the president famously surrounds himself with are essentially political pranksters who are a bit removed from reality. As Politico reports:

The stakes in the sequester debate aren’t quite as high as they were during the debt ceiling battle of 2011, but Democratic veterans of the Obama-Republican wars of 2009 and 2010 are getting a creepy sense of déjà vu from a White House messaging shop they believe fumbled the rollouts of the stimulus and health care initiatives….

One top Democratic Congressional aide offered this bit of advice to Obama: “Don’t accentuate a fight you don’t intend to wage [and] can’t win. … They spent two weeks building up sequester as a horror show and then got fact-checked a dozen times and were forced to back off their own claims of it being a disaster once they were forced to acquiesce to the cuts happening.”

Though Democrats in 2008 valiantly attempted to establish Obama as a thoughtful intellectual, what quickly became clear was that the president was inexperienced and inflexible and obsessively focused on the daily political skirmishes in the press instead of long-term policy wisdom. It is the Twitter presidency for the Twitter age.

This comes through forcefully in Vali Nasr’s much-talked about piece for Foreign Policy in which he recounts his time as an advisor to the administration as having a front-row seat to disaster. It should be noted that Nasr was brought on by the late Richard Holbrooke who was frozen out by Obama, and thus Nasr’s perspective is sympathetic to Holbrooke (and to Hillary Clinton).

But Nasr is also sympathetic to Obama’s stated policy goals, and joined the administration hopeful. He soon became disillusioned by the discovery that long-term policy objectives were utterly meaningless to Obama and his staff, who spent much of their time settling scores. Nasr acknowledges that such behavior is a fact of life in Washington, and he is credulous of Holbrooke’s general perspective. But he knocks Obama for advertising himself as a different kind of candidate who would be a different kind of president:

Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.

The Politico story shows that while Nasr may have had his own loyalties in the Obama administration turf wars, his view of how policy is shaped in the Obama White House is widely shared. One of the reasons the president makes such a terrible negotiator is that he doesn’t seem to seriously think through the issues on which he is negotiating. It is more important to him that that he not give his opponents any semblance of a policy victory than it is to solve the problem. This is the way the president and his supporters accuse Republicans of approaching every negotiation, and no wonder—they assume their own bitterness and cynicism is widely shared. We should be thankful they’re wrong about that.

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America’s Missed Chance for Afghan Deal

The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.

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The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.

Can Chandrasekaran point to any actual signs the Taliban were ever likely to sign a peace deal? As he mentions in passing in his book, in 2010 Pakistan actually locked up the No. 2 Taliban official, Mullah Abdual Ghani Baradar, precisely because Islamabad feared he would be open to a negotiated settlement that could cause the Taliban to drift out of Pakistan’s control. More recently, the White House expressed willingness to release five senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay as a “confidence-building” measure for peace talks. Nothing came of that deal.

The calculation of military commanders in Afghanistan was that as they ramped up pressure on the Taliban, there would be more defections from their ranks, which has indeed occurred, but that there would be no chance of reaching a meaningful peace deal with the Taliban–one that did not grant them so many concessions that the old Northern Alliance would recreate itself and launch a new civil war–until the insurgents had suffered significant battlefield defeats.

The insurgency has indeed suffered real defeats in southern Afghanistan, as even Chandrasekaran concedes, but the potential for meaningful negotiations has been to a large extent lost because of President Obama’s ill-advised move to set deadlines on America’s military involvement–first for the removal of surge troops and now for the removal of the bulk of other troops. Those deadlines have undermined the ability of our troops to have strategic effects and have undoubtedly made the Taliban less likely to negotiate in seriousness because they figure they can simply wait us out. That, rather than any snubs Holbrooke may have suffered, helps to account for the failure of peace talks.

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Morning Commentary

Can Michael Steele actually win re-election as RNC chair? Chris Cilliza crunches the numbers and finds that the unpopular GOP official just doesn’t have the support: “In the most optimistic assessments of his current strength among the 168 members of the RNC, Steele has 40 hard supporters. That’s a little less than half of the 85 people he would need to win a second term. A look back at the voting in the 2009 chairman’s race suggests that Steele’s initial base of support simply isn’t big enough.”

Kissinger defends his controversial comments about Soviet Jewry — and his explanation is less than convincing: “The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time,” wrote Kissinger in an e-mail to the JTA. “We disagreed with the Jackson Amendment, which made Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue. We feared that the amendment would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed. The conversation between Nixon and me must be seen in the context of that dispute and of our distinction between a foreign policy and a humanitarian approach.”

Byron York points out seven signs that the “No Labels” campaign leans left. Reason #7: “The sandwiches. At No Labels, there were stacks of box lunches on tables outside the auditorium. Politico’s Ben Smith noted that, ‘The vegetarian and chicken sandwiches were rapidly devoured at lunch time, leaving only a giant pile of roast beef.’ That’s a sure sign: If there had been more Republicans there, there would have been fewer leftover roast beef sandwiches.”

Richard Holbrooke’s last words — “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan” — may actually have been a joke as opposed to a policy prescription. According to the Washington Post: “The aide said he could not be sure of Holbrooke’s exact words. He emphasized Tuesday that the comment was made in painful banter, rather than as a serious exhortation about policy. Holbrooke also spoke extensively about his family and friends as he awaited surgery by Farzad Najam, a thoracic surgeon of Pakistani descent.”

CounterPunch writer Israel Shamir, a Holocaust denier who claimed that Julian Assange’s rape accuser had ties to the CIA, has been revealed as an employee of WikiLeaks.

Douglas Murray discusses the growing trend of Christmas-season terrorists coming out of Britain and what it needs to do to combat the crisis of radicalization in its universities.

Can Michael Steele actually win re-election as RNC chair? Chris Cilliza crunches the numbers and finds that the unpopular GOP official just doesn’t have the support: “In the most optimistic assessments of his current strength among the 168 members of the RNC, Steele has 40 hard supporters. That’s a little less than half of the 85 people he would need to win a second term. A look back at the voting in the 2009 chairman’s race suggests that Steele’s initial base of support simply isn’t big enough.”

Kissinger defends his controversial comments about Soviet Jewry — and his explanation is less than convincing: “The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time,” wrote Kissinger in an e-mail to the JTA. “We disagreed with the Jackson Amendment, which made Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue. We feared that the amendment would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed. The conversation between Nixon and me must be seen in the context of that dispute and of our distinction between a foreign policy and a humanitarian approach.”

Byron York points out seven signs that the “No Labels” campaign leans left. Reason #7: “The sandwiches. At No Labels, there were stacks of box lunches on tables outside the auditorium. Politico’s Ben Smith noted that, ‘The vegetarian and chicken sandwiches were rapidly devoured at lunch time, leaving only a giant pile of roast beef.’ That’s a sure sign: If there had been more Republicans there, there would have been fewer leftover roast beef sandwiches.”

Richard Holbrooke’s last words — “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan” — may actually have been a joke as opposed to a policy prescription. According to the Washington Post: “The aide said he could not be sure of Holbrooke’s exact words. He emphasized Tuesday that the comment was made in painful banter, rather than as a serious exhortation about policy. Holbrooke also spoke extensively about his family and friends as he awaited surgery by Farzad Najam, a thoracic surgeon of Pakistani descent.”

CounterPunch writer Israel Shamir, a Holocaust denier who claimed that Julian Assange’s rape accuser had ties to the CIA, has been revealed as an employee of WikiLeaks.

Douglas Murray discusses the growing trend of Christmas-season terrorists coming out of Britain and what it needs to do to combat the crisis of radicalization in its universities.

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Richard Holbrooke’s Legacy

One of Richard Holbrooke’s most significant intellectual contributions to American diplomacy was an address he gave on June 4, 2007, entitled “The Principles of Peacemaking,” at a conference on “Israel’s Right to Secure Borders” held by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

There is no clearer statement of the principles underlying what Holbrooke called “the most important and celebrated Security Council resolution in the history of the UN.” He noted that “every word of [Resolution 242] is significant” and that:

Likewise, an analysis of the original meaning of the resolution, as opposed to its inadvertent or intentional misconstructions by certain people, is essential. This is especially necessary in light of the fact that numerous publications and media outlets have reiterated the misconception that the resolution calls for full withdrawal from all territories.

After analyzing Resolution 242, Holbrooke contrasted it with the Saudi/Arab “peace initiative,” which had a fundamental flaw:

[T]he Saudi peace proposal … often referred to as a conciliatory proposal by the Saudis, mentions Resolution 242, mistakenly claiming that it calls for withdrawal from all occupied territories — it uses the phrase “full withdrawal from all Arab territories.” More importantly, it sets up a sequence that is in direct contradiction to Resolution 242, demanding Israeli compliance with all demands before offering Israel anything, including normal relations. … More significant, what this proposal really does is to lay out as a precondition for the negotiation the very thing being negotiated: this is a fundamental flaw.

Holbrooke noted that many regarded the Saudi proposal as a very important breakthrough, but that “this is clearly a mistake” — not only because of its fundamental flaw but also because the Saudis were themselves unwilling to participate in the necessary negotiations.

Holbrooke recalled Secretary of State Shultz’s 1988 statement that “Israel will never negotiate from, or return to, the lines of partition or to the 1967 borders,” Secretary of State Christopher’s 1997 letter endorsing Israel’s right to “defensible borders,” the April 2004 Bush letter that repeated that commitment, and the unanimous congressional endorsement of the Bush letter. He concluded that the basis for a lasting peace was a correct interpretation of Resolution 242.

Last night, Hillary Clinton released an eloquent tribute to Richard Holbrooke. But in her December 10 speech at the Saban Center, there was no reference to Resolution 242 — or “defensible borders,” or the Christopher or Bush letters, or even the Roadmap (which sets forth Resolution 242 as the basis for Phase III final-status negotiations). Instead, Clinton praised the “vision” of the Arab Peace Initiative, which she called a “landmark proposal” containing a “basic bargain”: peace between Israel and her neighbors “will bring recognition and normalization from all the Arab states.” She urged Israel to “seize the opportunity … while it is still available.”

It is a little hard to seize an opportunity when negotiations are conditioned on acceptance of indefensible borders as the basis of negotiations, contrary to the underlying principle of the basic document governing the peace process. A more lasting tribute to Richard Holbrooke, and to peace, would be an endorsement by the Obama administration of the position the late ambassador took in his 2007 address.

One of Richard Holbrooke’s most significant intellectual contributions to American diplomacy was an address he gave on June 4, 2007, entitled “The Principles of Peacemaking,” at a conference on “Israel’s Right to Secure Borders” held by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

There is no clearer statement of the principles underlying what Holbrooke called “the most important and celebrated Security Council resolution in the history of the UN.” He noted that “every word of [Resolution 242] is significant” and that:

Likewise, an analysis of the original meaning of the resolution, as opposed to its inadvertent or intentional misconstructions by certain people, is essential. This is especially necessary in light of the fact that numerous publications and media outlets have reiterated the misconception that the resolution calls for full withdrawal from all territories.

After analyzing Resolution 242, Holbrooke contrasted it with the Saudi/Arab “peace initiative,” which had a fundamental flaw:

[T]he Saudi peace proposal … often referred to as a conciliatory proposal by the Saudis, mentions Resolution 242, mistakenly claiming that it calls for withdrawal from all occupied territories — it uses the phrase “full withdrawal from all Arab territories.” More importantly, it sets up a sequence that is in direct contradiction to Resolution 242, demanding Israeli compliance with all demands before offering Israel anything, including normal relations. … More significant, what this proposal really does is to lay out as a precondition for the negotiation the very thing being negotiated: this is a fundamental flaw.

Holbrooke noted that many regarded the Saudi proposal as a very important breakthrough, but that “this is clearly a mistake” — not only because of its fundamental flaw but also because the Saudis were themselves unwilling to participate in the necessary negotiations.

Holbrooke recalled Secretary of State Shultz’s 1988 statement that “Israel will never negotiate from, or return to, the lines of partition or to the 1967 borders,” Secretary of State Christopher’s 1997 letter endorsing Israel’s right to “defensible borders,” the April 2004 Bush letter that repeated that commitment, and the unanimous congressional endorsement of the Bush letter. He concluded that the basis for a lasting peace was a correct interpretation of Resolution 242.

Last night, Hillary Clinton released an eloquent tribute to Richard Holbrooke. But in her December 10 speech at the Saban Center, there was no reference to Resolution 242 — or “defensible borders,” or the Christopher or Bush letters, or even the Roadmap (which sets forth Resolution 242 as the basis for Phase III final-status negotiations). Instead, Clinton praised the “vision” of the Arab Peace Initiative, which she called a “landmark proposal” containing a “basic bargain”: peace between Israel and her neighbors “will bring recognition and normalization from all the Arab states.” She urged Israel to “seize the opportunity … while it is still available.”

It is a little hard to seize an opportunity when negotiations are conditioned on acceptance of indefensible borders as the basis of negotiations, contrary to the underlying principle of the basic document governing the peace process. A more lasting tribute to Richard Holbrooke, and to peace, would be an endorsement by the Obama administration of the position the late ambassador took in his 2007 address.

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RE: The Bracing Realism of Richard Holbrooke

Max Boot’s appreciation of Richard Holbrooke called to mind a sense among the military officers working the Balkans problems in 1995 that Holbrooke was “old school.” Most of us had come of age professionally in the Reagan and the Bush 41 years. We were accustomed to dealing with diplomatic envoys of awe-inspiring preparedness and a certain very American style: hard to describe in few words, but entailing a reliable and irreducible simplicity when it came to our common objectives. That quality could be combined with crustiness and high-handedness, but it was not unwelcome: you could do business with it.

Clinton appointees were a different story. With their penchant for triangulation and interpolation, they tended to produce shifting objectives and temporary principles. Guidance changed regularly. There were times when the U.S. forces working the Balkans problem — I was stationed at a headquarters in Italy from 1992 to 1995 — had the unnerving sense that our political leaders in Washington didn’t have our backs.

Holbrooke, however, seemed to embody the style of an older generation of U.S. diplomats and negotiators. “Scoop Jackson Democrat” was a popular shorthand for describing him. He knew, understood, and appreciated the military way of perceiving a geopolitical problem — unlike many Clinton officials who were actively offended by the “military mindset.”

A good friend of mine went with him as a briefer on a helicopter tour of Bosnia and Croatia, early in Holbrooke’s lengthy orientation from the U.S. and NATO chains of command in the Balkans theater. When I asked afterward how the briefing went, my friend laughed and said, “Well, basically, he briefed me.” Expanding on that, he recounted that Holbrooke had broken into his spiel in the first few minutes, preferring to explain what he considered important and then engaging my friend in a level of discourse that picked his brain on complex topics.

“Guy knows what he’s doing,” concluded my friend. Not every civilian diplomat leaves that impression with the military. I haven’t agreed with all of Holbrooke’s ideas on “AfPak” since he took on that portfolio, but I am very sorry to see the Obama administration lose him. His entry onto the stage in the Balkans conflict brought a sense of order and purpose that was very welcome to the U.S. military in Europe, weary from several years of experimental and ineffective multilateralism. Richard Holbrooke was old school, in the best sense, and he will be missed.

Max Boot’s appreciation of Richard Holbrooke called to mind a sense among the military officers working the Balkans problems in 1995 that Holbrooke was “old school.” Most of us had come of age professionally in the Reagan and the Bush 41 years. We were accustomed to dealing with diplomatic envoys of awe-inspiring preparedness and a certain very American style: hard to describe in few words, but entailing a reliable and irreducible simplicity when it came to our common objectives. That quality could be combined with crustiness and high-handedness, but it was not unwelcome: you could do business with it.

Clinton appointees were a different story. With their penchant for triangulation and interpolation, they tended to produce shifting objectives and temporary principles. Guidance changed regularly. There were times when the U.S. forces working the Balkans problem — I was stationed at a headquarters in Italy from 1992 to 1995 — had the unnerving sense that our political leaders in Washington didn’t have our backs.

Holbrooke, however, seemed to embody the style of an older generation of U.S. diplomats and negotiators. “Scoop Jackson Democrat” was a popular shorthand for describing him. He knew, understood, and appreciated the military way of perceiving a geopolitical problem — unlike many Clinton officials who were actively offended by the “military mindset.”

A good friend of mine went with him as a briefer on a helicopter tour of Bosnia and Croatia, early in Holbrooke’s lengthy orientation from the U.S. and NATO chains of command in the Balkans theater. When I asked afterward how the briefing went, my friend laughed and said, “Well, basically, he briefed me.” Expanding on that, he recounted that Holbrooke had broken into his spiel in the first few minutes, preferring to explain what he considered important and then engaging my friend in a level of discourse that picked his brain on complex topics.

“Guy knows what he’s doing,” concluded my friend. Not every civilian diplomat leaves that impression with the military. I haven’t agreed with all of Holbrooke’s ideas on “AfPak” since he took on that portfolio, but I am very sorry to see the Obama administration lose him. His entry onto the stage in the Balkans conflict brought a sense of order and purpose that was very welcome to the U.S. military in Europe, weary from several years of experimental and ineffective multilateralism. Richard Holbrooke was old school, in the best sense, and he will be missed.

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Morning Commentary

Why Ron Paul’s new role as the head of the subcommittee that oversees the Federal Reserve is disconcerting (even to libertarians): “[W]hen you look at his speeches, he doesn’t understand anything about monetary policy. He might actually understand it less than the average member of Congress. My personal opinion is that he wastes all of his time on the House Financial Services Committee ranting crazily.”

Surprise: Michael Steele to run for a second term as Republican National Committee chair. “I come to my bosses with a record that only you can judge, based upon directions you made clear to me from the very beginning. Yes, I have stumbled along the way, but have always accounted to you for such shortcomings. No excuses. No lies. No hidden agenda. Going forward, I ask for your support and your vote for a second term,” Steele announced in an e-mail last night.

Richard Holbrooke: April 24, 1941–December 13, 2010. The New Republic has an excellent tribute to the legendary diplomat as well as a compilation of articles written about (and by) him.

European papers are reporting that the Stockholm bomber was radicalized in Britain, raising concerns about whether British universities have done enough to combat home-grown terrorism: “His parents were even a little worried that he was having too much fun. But then he went to England to study in 2001 and everything changed,” a friend of Stockholm terrorist Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly told the Telegraph. “When he came back he had grown a beard and he was very serious. He talked about Afghanistan and religion and did not want to hang out with his friends.”

Is WikiLeaks a force for good? Reason magazine spoke to four experts who gave their uncensored views on the controversial website.

Why Ron Paul’s new role as the head of the subcommittee that oversees the Federal Reserve is disconcerting (even to libertarians): “[W]hen you look at his speeches, he doesn’t understand anything about monetary policy. He might actually understand it less than the average member of Congress. My personal opinion is that he wastes all of his time on the House Financial Services Committee ranting crazily.”

Surprise: Michael Steele to run for a second term as Republican National Committee chair. “I come to my bosses with a record that only you can judge, based upon directions you made clear to me from the very beginning. Yes, I have stumbled along the way, but have always accounted to you for such shortcomings. No excuses. No lies. No hidden agenda. Going forward, I ask for your support and your vote for a second term,” Steele announced in an e-mail last night.

Richard Holbrooke: April 24, 1941–December 13, 2010. The New Republic has an excellent tribute to the legendary diplomat as well as a compilation of articles written about (and by) him.

European papers are reporting that the Stockholm bomber was radicalized in Britain, raising concerns about whether British universities have done enough to combat home-grown terrorism: “His parents were even a little worried that he was having too much fun. But then he went to England to study in 2001 and everything changed,” a friend of Stockholm terrorist Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly told the Telegraph. “When he came back he had grown a beard and he was very serious. He talked about Afghanistan and religion and did not want to hang out with his friends.”

Is WikiLeaks a force for good? Reason magazine spoke to four experts who gave their uncensored views on the controversial website.

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Defending Our Afghanistan Policy

From the left and the right, this morning’s newspapers bring fundamental challenges to our Afghanistan policy.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the U.S. war effort is simply too costly. He suggests withdrawing troops and instead building schools. “That,” he argues, “would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.”

Over in the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Jack Devine, a former CIA officer who was involved in efforts to help the mujahideen in the 1980s, also argues for withdrawing U.S. soldiers. His preferred alternative is relying on his former employer, the CIA, to mobilize Afghan proxies on our behalf. He admits that after a troop withdrawal, which he envisions happening in 2012, “Afghanistan will likely enter a period of heightened instability,” including the possible collapse of the government, so he advises “we should figure out now which tribal leaders — and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions — we could establish productive relationships with.”

I’ve written a longer article based on my recent visit to Afghanistan for an upcoming issue of Commentary that explains why the policy we’re currently following offers our best chance of success and why there is no realistic Plan B on the horizon. But let me just point out a few of the more obvious problems with Kristof’s and Devine’s prescriptions.

Take Kristof first: he places an awful lot of faith in the power of education despite the fact that some types of education — like that provided in many madrassas — actually fuels extremism. Presumably, he has in mind secular schools that educate boys and girls. He might ask himself how long such schools would last under a Taliban regime — which would be the inevitable result of an American pullout.

Kristof takes comfort from the fact that some foreign-funded schools are able to operate today in dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the connivance of local tribes, but the Taliban today don’t exercise absolute control over most parts of Afghanistan. Even in areas of strength, they often must make compromises with local factions and avoid antagonizing the people because they know that if they do, the government of Afghanistan and its foreign allies may take advantage of a popular backlash to push them out. If the U.S. actually left and the Taliban were able to consolidate their rule, it is safe to say they would exercise no such restraint. They certainly didn’t in the 1990s when few schools were operating, and practically none admitted girls.

More broadly, a Taliban takeover would be a nightmare for the people of Afghanistan. How would women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, and other cherished liberal values fare under those conditions? Perhaps Kristof should ponder those questions a bit before suggesting the withdrawal of the most humane and liberal force in Afghanistan — the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

Devine’s argument appears, on the surface, to be more hardheaded, but actually, it is almost as unrealistic — and not incompatible with Kristof’s fantasy, as I bet Kristof imagines that his “schools for all” option could be supplemented by Special Operations and CIA actions to keep the Taliban in check. Such operations worked well in the past, as Devine notes, when the CIA was helping the mujahideen resist Soviet rule and then again in 2001, when it was helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. But there is a fundamental disparity between those situations and the one we face today. It’s much easier for a covert force to overthrow a government, especially an unpopular government like the Soviet-backed regime or the Taliban. Altogether more difficult is imposing the rule of law, extending the authority of a new government, and stamping out a tenacious insurgency. Those are the challenges that we face today in Afghanistan, and they can’t be accomplished by a handful of special operators. They require large troop numbers, and because the Afghan National Army still lacks adequate capacity to police the country, its efforts must be supplemented for the short-term by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Devine’s prescription – making common cause with local strongmen — would make the problem worse, not better. Much of the reason the Taliban were able to stage a resurgence beginning around 2005 was that after 2001, we had not sent large troop numbers into Afghanistan. Instead, we relied on unsavory local allies who, with our help, built up vast networks of patronage and corruption that alienated the people and made some of them turn to the Taliban for succor. (For a profile of one of these unsavory characters, turn to the Washington Post today).  As Richard Holbrooke notes, “Rampant corruption in Afghanistan provides the Taliban with their No. 1 recruiting tool.” Devine’s strategy of bolstering local strongmen would make the corruption problem even worse and would thereby make the Taliban even stronger.

POSTSCRIPT: An American working in Afghanistan points out another problem with Kristof’s argument that I should have noted: “How will Kristof’s schools get built if there’s no U.S. presence to make sure they’re done? How many billions have we already had stolen by the locals and local governments, right under our noses?” Good point. The deeper one delves, the more absurdities emerge with Kristof’s “schools rather than troops” daydream.

From the left and the right, this morning’s newspapers bring fundamental challenges to our Afghanistan policy.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the U.S. war effort is simply too costly. He suggests withdrawing troops and instead building schools. “That,” he argues, “would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.”

Over in the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Jack Devine, a former CIA officer who was involved in efforts to help the mujahideen in the 1980s, also argues for withdrawing U.S. soldiers. His preferred alternative is relying on his former employer, the CIA, to mobilize Afghan proxies on our behalf. He admits that after a troop withdrawal, which he envisions happening in 2012, “Afghanistan will likely enter a period of heightened instability,” including the possible collapse of the government, so he advises “we should figure out now which tribal leaders — and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions — we could establish productive relationships with.”

I’ve written a longer article based on my recent visit to Afghanistan for an upcoming issue of Commentary that explains why the policy we’re currently following offers our best chance of success and why there is no realistic Plan B on the horizon. But let me just point out a few of the more obvious problems with Kristof’s and Devine’s prescriptions.

Take Kristof first: he places an awful lot of faith in the power of education despite the fact that some types of education — like that provided in many madrassas — actually fuels extremism. Presumably, he has in mind secular schools that educate boys and girls. He might ask himself how long such schools would last under a Taliban regime — which would be the inevitable result of an American pullout.

Kristof takes comfort from the fact that some foreign-funded schools are able to operate today in dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the connivance of local tribes, but the Taliban today don’t exercise absolute control over most parts of Afghanistan. Even in areas of strength, they often must make compromises with local factions and avoid antagonizing the people because they know that if they do, the government of Afghanistan and its foreign allies may take advantage of a popular backlash to push them out. If the U.S. actually left and the Taliban were able to consolidate their rule, it is safe to say they would exercise no such restraint. They certainly didn’t in the 1990s when few schools were operating, and practically none admitted girls.

More broadly, a Taliban takeover would be a nightmare for the people of Afghanistan. How would women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, and other cherished liberal values fare under those conditions? Perhaps Kristof should ponder those questions a bit before suggesting the withdrawal of the most humane and liberal force in Afghanistan — the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

Devine’s argument appears, on the surface, to be more hardheaded, but actually, it is almost as unrealistic — and not incompatible with Kristof’s fantasy, as I bet Kristof imagines that his “schools for all” option could be supplemented by Special Operations and CIA actions to keep the Taliban in check. Such operations worked well in the past, as Devine notes, when the CIA was helping the mujahideen resist Soviet rule and then again in 2001, when it was helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. But there is a fundamental disparity between those situations and the one we face today. It’s much easier for a covert force to overthrow a government, especially an unpopular government like the Soviet-backed regime or the Taliban. Altogether more difficult is imposing the rule of law, extending the authority of a new government, and stamping out a tenacious insurgency. Those are the challenges that we face today in Afghanistan, and they can’t be accomplished by a handful of special operators. They require large troop numbers, and because the Afghan National Army still lacks adequate capacity to police the country, its efforts must be supplemented for the short-term by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Devine’s prescription – making common cause with local strongmen — would make the problem worse, not better. Much of the reason the Taliban were able to stage a resurgence beginning around 2005 was that after 2001, we had not sent large troop numbers into Afghanistan. Instead, we relied on unsavory local allies who, with our help, built up vast networks of patronage and corruption that alienated the people and made some of them turn to the Taliban for succor. (For a profile of one of these unsavory characters, turn to the Washington Post today).  As Richard Holbrooke notes, “Rampant corruption in Afghanistan provides the Taliban with their No. 1 recruiting tool.” Devine’s strategy of bolstering local strongmen would make the corruption problem even worse and would thereby make the Taliban even stronger.

POSTSCRIPT: An American working in Afghanistan points out another problem with Kristof’s argument that I should have noted: “How will Kristof’s schools get built if there’s no U.S. presence to make sure they’re done? How many billions have we already had stolen by the locals and local governments, right under our noses?” Good point. The deeper one delves, the more absurdities emerge with Kristof’s “schools rather than troops” daydream.

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Petraeus Backs Obama Timeline

Gen. David Petraeus probably had no choice. His predecessor was fired for failure to show proper respect for civilian control of the military. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Petraeus in his confirmation hearing not only agreed with but enthused over Obama’s timeline for withdrawal of troops (“Not only did I say that I supported it, I said that I agreed with it”), parroting the administration line that it lends “urgency” to the operation. This is, of course, precisely what overly optimistic observers who support the Afghanistan war effort were hoping would not occur. They imagined that Petraeus would prevail upon Obama to lift the deadline; instead, the general was obliged to re-enforce it.

We see once again that there is no substitute for a clear-headed commander in chief. Petraeus was successful in Iraq because he had the right strategy and a president who supported him fully. Had Petraeus not been given Ambassador Crocker to work with and had he not been given a wholehearted and, yes, open-ended commitment from the commander in chief, he might very well have failed.

Petraeus could have said to Obama that he wouldn’t take the job given the timeline — and he still could resign if it remains firmly in place. But at least for now he has chosen to operate with the ball and chain around his ankle. We should hope that this is not an indication of his ability or determination to insist that competent and effective civilian leaders replace Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry.

The president — only the president — can decide to do what is needed to win a war. Whoever accepts the assignment to run the Afghan operation puts his own career and reputation at stake by agreeing to work under conditions that are widely regarded as inimical to victory. If Petraeus can promptly persuade Obama to remove those conditions and the personnel who will impede success, he will do his country and his troops an immense service. If not, he has set himself and those he commands up for failure.

Gen. David Petraeus probably had no choice. His predecessor was fired for failure to show proper respect for civilian control of the military. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Petraeus in his confirmation hearing not only agreed with but enthused over Obama’s timeline for withdrawal of troops (“Not only did I say that I supported it, I said that I agreed with it”), parroting the administration line that it lends “urgency” to the operation. This is, of course, precisely what overly optimistic observers who support the Afghanistan war effort were hoping would not occur. They imagined that Petraeus would prevail upon Obama to lift the deadline; instead, the general was obliged to re-enforce it.

We see once again that there is no substitute for a clear-headed commander in chief. Petraeus was successful in Iraq because he had the right strategy and a president who supported him fully. Had Petraeus not been given Ambassador Crocker to work with and had he not been given a wholehearted and, yes, open-ended commitment from the commander in chief, he might very well have failed.

Petraeus could have said to Obama that he wouldn’t take the job given the timeline — and he still could resign if it remains firmly in place. But at least for now he has chosen to operate with the ball and chain around his ankle. We should hope that this is not an indication of his ability or determination to insist that competent and effective civilian leaders replace Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry.

The president — only the president — can decide to do what is needed to win a war. Whoever accepts the assignment to run the Afghan operation puts his own career and reputation at stake by agreeing to work under conditions that are widely regarded as inimical to victory. If Petraeus can promptly persuade Obama to remove those conditions and the personnel who will impede success, he will do his country and his troops an immense service. If not, he has set himself and those he commands up for failure.

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Success Without Victory

Developments with the war in Afghanistan are causing us to question our methods of warfare as we have not since Vietnam. Comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam are mushrooming, of course; Fouad Ajami has a useful one today, in which he considers the effect of withdrawal deadlines on the American people’s expectations as well as the enemy’s. But on Friday, Caroline Glick took a broader view of contemporary Western methods, comparing the U.S. operating profile in Afghanistan to that of the IDF in Lebanon in the 1990s.

As I have done here, she invoked the White House guidance report in December, according to which “we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever.” Such guidance, she says, “when executed … brings not victory nor even stability.” She is right; Fouad Ajami is right; and both are focusing where our attention should be right now, which is on the conduct of the war at the political level.

There’s a good reason why comparisons with Vietnam are gathering steam. It’s not the geography, the campaign plan, or the details of the historical context, alliances, or political purposes: it’s the behavior of the American leadership. As Senator McCain points out, President Obama has steadfastly refused to affirm that the July 2011 deadline is conditions-based. But I was particularly struck by the recent words of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy for the “AfPak” problem, because they evoke a whole political doctrine of “limited war,” which dates back to the Vietnam era.

Holbrooke has been keeping a low profile. But he’s a crucial actor in this drama, and in early June he made these observations:

Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. It’s not going to end on the deck of a battleship like World War Two, or Dayton, Ohio, like the Bosnian war. …

It’s going to have some different ending from that, some form of political settlements are necessary … you can’t have a settlement with al-Qaeda, you can’t talk to them, you can’t negotiate with them, it’s out of the question. But it is possible to talk to Taliban leaders. …

What do [critics] mean by win? We don’t use the word win, we use the word succeed.

As an aside, I would have thought the Dayton process did, in fact, have relevance for the “peace jirga” process now underway with the Afghan factions, and that we might expect an outcome with some similarities to the Dayton Accords. But my central concern here is the virtually exact overlap of Holbrooke’s conceptual language with that of the Johnson-era prosecution of the Vietnam War.

That we had to seek a “settlement” with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was received wisdom under Lyndon Johnson; in this memo from a key reevaluation of the war effort in 1965, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara leads off with it. His reference to “creating conditions for a favorable settlement” by demonstrating to the North Vietnamese that “the odds are against their winning” is a near-perfect statement of the limited-war proposition encapsulated by Henry Kissinger in his influential 1958 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (quotations are from the W. W. Norton & Co. edition of 1969). Said Kissinger:

The goal of war can no longer be military victory, strictly speaking, but the attainment of certain specific political conditions, which are fully understood by the opponent. … Our purpose is to affect the will of the enemy, not to destroy him. … War can be limited only by presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks. (p. 189)

Kissinger’s title reminds us that it was the emerging nuclear threat that galvanized limited-war thinking in the period leading up to Vietnam. But that was only one of the factors in our selection of limited objectives for that conflict. Another was an attribution to the enemy of aspirations that mirrored ours, with the persistent characterization of the North Vietnamese Communists – much like Richard Holbrooke’s of the Taliban – as potential partners in negotiation. A seminal example of that occurred in Johnson’s celebrated “Peace without Conquest” speech of April 7, 1965:

For what do the people of North Vietnam want? They want what their neighbors also desire: food for their hunger; health for their bodies; a chance to learn; progress for their country; and an end to the bondage of material misery. And they would find all these things far more readily in peaceful association with others than in the endless course of battle.

It was not, of course, what the people of North Vietnam wanted that mattered; this political factor was sadly miscast. The LBJ speech was beautifully crafted and full of poignant and powerful rhetoric. But the rhetoric could not ultimately hide the bald facts, which were that Johnson wanted a settlement in Vietnam, that he had no concept of victory to outline, and that his main desire was to get out.

The speech was recognized at the time as “defensive” in character. And we must not deceive ourselves that Holbrooke’s words from earlier this month are being interpreted abroad in any other way. I’ve seen no reference to his comments in a leading American publication, but media outlets across Asia, Europe, and Africa have quoted him. It’s interesting that in 2010, he feels no need to cloak his blunt observations – so consonant with Kissinger’s dryly precise limited-war formulation – in the elliptical, emotive language favored by the Johnson administration in its public utterances. In the 1960s, the limited-war concept of disclaiming all desire to “win” was still suspect. But, as much as we have criticized it in the decades since, we have internalized and mainstreamed it as well. Holbrooke apparently feels empowered to speak clearly in these terms, without euphemism or caveat.

There is no good record to invoke for pursuing the strategy of “peace without conquest.” It took almost exactly 10 years after the LBJ speech for the strategy to produce the total collapse of the U.S. effort in Vietnam; a wealthy superpower can keep “not-winning” for a long time. All but 400 of the 58,000 American lives given to Vietnam were lost in that 10-year period, along with the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives taken in the fighting and the Communist victory.

But there was a lot of success in that period too. U.S. troops won every tactical engagement, including the defeat of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Under Nixon, North Vietnam was isolated and driven to the bargaining table. Under General Creighton Abrams, the defense of the South had, with the exception of air support, been successfully “Vietnamized” when the U.S. pulled out our last ground forces in 1972. But these successes could not establish a sustainable status quo.

Vietnam is our example of what “success without victory” looks like. We should be alarmed that the current administration seeks that defensive objective in Afghanistan. Such a pursuit is, itself, one of the main conditions for producing failure – and failure that is compounded by being protracted and bloody. As for the reason why that should be, Dr. Kissinger, with his clinical precision, must have the last word:

In any conflict the side which is animated by faith in victory has a decided advantage over an opponent who wishes above all to preserve the status quo. It will be prepared to run greater risks because its purpose will be stronger. (p. 246)

Kissinger acknowledged when he wrote these words – having both Vietnam and the larger Soviet threat in mind – that this was a limiting factor the Western powers had not devised a means of overcoming. In Afghanistan today, meanwhile, by Team Obama’s affirmation, we are the side not animated by faith in victory.

Developments with the war in Afghanistan are causing us to question our methods of warfare as we have not since Vietnam. Comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam are mushrooming, of course; Fouad Ajami has a useful one today, in which he considers the effect of withdrawal deadlines on the American people’s expectations as well as the enemy’s. But on Friday, Caroline Glick took a broader view of contemporary Western methods, comparing the U.S. operating profile in Afghanistan to that of the IDF in Lebanon in the 1990s.

As I have done here, she invoked the White House guidance report in December, according to which “we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever.” Such guidance, she says, “when executed … brings not victory nor even stability.” She is right; Fouad Ajami is right; and both are focusing where our attention should be right now, which is on the conduct of the war at the political level.

There’s a good reason why comparisons with Vietnam are gathering steam. It’s not the geography, the campaign plan, or the details of the historical context, alliances, or political purposes: it’s the behavior of the American leadership. As Senator McCain points out, President Obama has steadfastly refused to affirm that the July 2011 deadline is conditions-based. But I was particularly struck by the recent words of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy for the “AfPak” problem, because they evoke a whole political doctrine of “limited war,” which dates back to the Vietnam era.

Holbrooke has been keeping a low profile. But he’s a crucial actor in this drama, and in early June he made these observations:

Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. It’s not going to end on the deck of a battleship like World War Two, or Dayton, Ohio, like the Bosnian war. …

It’s going to have some different ending from that, some form of political settlements are necessary … you can’t have a settlement with al-Qaeda, you can’t talk to them, you can’t negotiate with them, it’s out of the question. But it is possible to talk to Taliban leaders. …

What do [critics] mean by win? We don’t use the word win, we use the word succeed.

As an aside, I would have thought the Dayton process did, in fact, have relevance for the “peace jirga” process now underway with the Afghan factions, and that we might expect an outcome with some similarities to the Dayton Accords. But my central concern here is the virtually exact overlap of Holbrooke’s conceptual language with that of the Johnson-era prosecution of the Vietnam War.

That we had to seek a “settlement” with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was received wisdom under Lyndon Johnson; in this memo from a key reevaluation of the war effort in 1965, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara leads off with it. His reference to “creating conditions for a favorable settlement” by demonstrating to the North Vietnamese that “the odds are against their winning” is a near-perfect statement of the limited-war proposition encapsulated by Henry Kissinger in his influential 1958 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (quotations are from the W. W. Norton & Co. edition of 1969). Said Kissinger:

The goal of war can no longer be military victory, strictly speaking, but the attainment of certain specific political conditions, which are fully understood by the opponent. … Our purpose is to affect the will of the enemy, not to destroy him. … War can be limited only by presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks. (p. 189)

Kissinger’s title reminds us that it was the emerging nuclear threat that galvanized limited-war thinking in the period leading up to Vietnam. But that was only one of the factors in our selection of limited objectives for that conflict. Another was an attribution to the enemy of aspirations that mirrored ours, with the persistent characterization of the North Vietnamese Communists – much like Richard Holbrooke’s of the Taliban – as potential partners in negotiation. A seminal example of that occurred in Johnson’s celebrated “Peace without Conquest” speech of April 7, 1965:

For what do the people of North Vietnam want? They want what their neighbors also desire: food for their hunger; health for their bodies; a chance to learn; progress for their country; and an end to the bondage of material misery. And they would find all these things far more readily in peaceful association with others than in the endless course of battle.

It was not, of course, what the people of North Vietnam wanted that mattered; this political factor was sadly miscast. The LBJ speech was beautifully crafted and full of poignant and powerful rhetoric. But the rhetoric could not ultimately hide the bald facts, which were that Johnson wanted a settlement in Vietnam, that he had no concept of victory to outline, and that his main desire was to get out.

The speech was recognized at the time as “defensive” in character. And we must not deceive ourselves that Holbrooke’s words from earlier this month are being interpreted abroad in any other way. I’ve seen no reference to his comments in a leading American publication, but media outlets across Asia, Europe, and Africa have quoted him. It’s interesting that in 2010, he feels no need to cloak his blunt observations – so consonant with Kissinger’s dryly precise limited-war formulation – in the elliptical, emotive language favored by the Johnson administration in its public utterances. In the 1960s, the limited-war concept of disclaiming all desire to “win” was still suspect. But, as much as we have criticized it in the decades since, we have internalized and mainstreamed it as well. Holbrooke apparently feels empowered to speak clearly in these terms, without euphemism or caveat.

There is no good record to invoke for pursuing the strategy of “peace without conquest.” It took almost exactly 10 years after the LBJ speech for the strategy to produce the total collapse of the U.S. effort in Vietnam; a wealthy superpower can keep “not-winning” for a long time. All but 400 of the 58,000 American lives given to Vietnam were lost in that 10-year period, along with the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives taken in the fighting and the Communist victory.

But there was a lot of success in that period too. U.S. troops won every tactical engagement, including the defeat of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Under Nixon, North Vietnam was isolated and driven to the bargaining table. Under General Creighton Abrams, the defense of the South had, with the exception of air support, been successfully “Vietnamized” when the U.S. pulled out our last ground forces in 1972. But these successes could not establish a sustainable status quo.

Vietnam is our example of what “success without victory” looks like. We should be alarmed that the current administration seeks that defensive objective in Afghanistan. Such a pursuit is, itself, one of the main conditions for producing failure – and failure that is compounded by being protracted and bloody. As for the reason why that should be, Dr. Kissinger, with his clinical precision, must have the last word:

In any conflict the side which is animated by faith in victory has a decided advantage over an opponent who wishes above all to preserve the status quo. It will be prepared to run greater risks because its purpose will be stronger. (p. 246)

Kissinger acknowledged when he wrote these words – having both Vietnam and the larger Soviet threat in mind – that this was a limiting factor the Western powers had not devised a means of overcoming. In Afghanistan today, meanwhile, by Team Obama’s affirmation, we are the side not animated by faith in victory.

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A Good Move. Now…

Obama’s decision to accept Gen. Stanley McChyrstal’s resignation was not unexpected. By bringing back Gen. David Petraeus, he assuages the concerns from supporters of the Afghanistan mission as to whether we are committed to victory. There are two more essential changes required.

First, McChrystal threw the curtain open on the dysfunctional and counterproductive civilian team in Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry should be canned. If Petraeus had those two instead of Ambassador Crocker, it’s not clear we would have achieved as much as we have in Iraq. Congress needs to step up to the plate, assert itself, and begin hearings if the president is intent on leaving the malefactors in place.

Second, a wise reader likes to tell me, “Generals should only talk to their troops.” What a fine idea. No magazine spreads. No waxing philosophical on areas beyond their expertise. Yes, in this day and age they must testify before Congress and conduct some overseas diplomacy. But less is more, and a great deal that is said in public should be kept behind closed doors. Generals didn’t get where they are by being self-effacing or by taking direction from subordinates — so they imagine they can opine on any and all topics and win over the public, ingratiate themselves with their civilian bosses, and make an impression upon allies and foes. The chances of something going wrong are great, and the apology tour rarely undoes the damage.

So Gen. Petraeus should go win the war, Holbrooke and Eikenberry should go home, and Obama should fix the damage his own timeline has done by lifting it and making it clear that we are in this to win it. And please, generals, share your wisdom primarily with the troops or behind closed doors.

Obama’s decision to accept Gen. Stanley McChyrstal’s resignation was not unexpected. By bringing back Gen. David Petraeus, he assuages the concerns from supporters of the Afghanistan mission as to whether we are committed to victory. There are two more essential changes required.

First, McChrystal threw the curtain open on the dysfunctional and counterproductive civilian team in Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry should be canned. If Petraeus had those two instead of Ambassador Crocker, it’s not clear we would have achieved as much as we have in Iraq. Congress needs to step up to the plate, assert itself, and begin hearings if the president is intent on leaving the malefactors in place.

Second, a wise reader likes to tell me, “Generals should only talk to their troops.” What a fine idea. No magazine spreads. No waxing philosophical on areas beyond their expertise. Yes, in this day and age they must testify before Congress and conduct some overseas diplomacy. But less is more, and a great deal that is said in public should be kept behind closed doors. Generals didn’t get where they are by being self-effacing or by taking direction from subordinates — so they imagine they can opine on any and all topics and win over the public, ingratiate themselves with their civilian bosses, and make an impression upon allies and foes. The chances of something going wrong are great, and the apology tour rarely undoes the damage.

So Gen. Petraeus should go win the war, Holbrooke and Eikenberry should go home, and Obama should fix the damage his own timeline has done by lifting it and making it clear that we are in this to win it. And please, generals, share your wisdom primarily with the troops or behind closed doors.

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The Audacity of Nope

Today in New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman lifted President Obama’s six-month ban on deepwater drilling:

Government lawyers told Feldman that ban was based on findings in a U.S. report following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast in April.

“The court is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium,” Feldman said in his 22-page decision. “The blanket moratorium, with no parameters, seems to assume that because one rig failed and although no one yet fully knows why, all companies and rigs drilling new wells over 500 feet also universally present an imminent danger.”

The U.S. will appeal. In response to the ruling, drilling companies’ shares jumped; Obama’s slumped. This is shaping up to be an exceptionally bad day for the administration. First, the Rolling Stone article exposes the ugly disconnect that has emerged between top civilian and military leaders. Now, the president learns the limitations of executive decree.

It doesn’t end there, however. In Pakistan, where Fareed Zakaria had assured us of “Obama’s Foreign Policy Success,” the prime minister has announced plans to move forward on importing natural gas from Iran, in defiance of Washington’s wishes:

Pakistan’s prime minister promised Tuesday to go ahead with a plan to import natural gas from Iran even if the U.S. levies additional sanctions against the Mideast country.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s comments came two days after the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, cautioned Pakistan not to “overcommit” itself to the deal because it could run afoul of new sanctions against Iran being finalized by Congress.

As if Islamabad wasn’t causing us enough trouble by failing to crack down adequately on the Taliban both in Pakistan and on its border.

This is what it looks like after moral authority erodes and leaves material authority hanging by a thread. In Afghanistan, Obama’s focus has been on finishing up, not winning. In the Gulf of Mexico, it’s been about optics. And in Iran, it’s been about respecting the bad guys. None of that will prove effective among those who know their vital interests to be tied up in what the U.S. has been treating as peripheral concerns.

Up until now, nothing has managed to sway the president from his ideological course and stylistic approach. There is little reason to think the latest succession of mishaps will be any different. If Obama and company have access to a course-correction mechanism, they’re sure holding out for as long as they can. The administration that swore never to let a crisis go to waste has certainly been given plenty to work with.

Today in New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman lifted President Obama’s six-month ban on deepwater drilling:

Government lawyers told Feldman that ban was based on findings in a U.S. report following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast in April.

“The court is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium,” Feldman said in his 22-page decision. “The blanket moratorium, with no parameters, seems to assume that because one rig failed and although no one yet fully knows why, all companies and rigs drilling new wells over 500 feet also universally present an imminent danger.”

The U.S. will appeal. In response to the ruling, drilling companies’ shares jumped; Obama’s slumped. This is shaping up to be an exceptionally bad day for the administration. First, the Rolling Stone article exposes the ugly disconnect that has emerged between top civilian and military leaders. Now, the president learns the limitations of executive decree.

It doesn’t end there, however. In Pakistan, where Fareed Zakaria had assured us of “Obama’s Foreign Policy Success,” the prime minister has announced plans to move forward on importing natural gas from Iran, in defiance of Washington’s wishes:

Pakistan’s prime minister promised Tuesday to go ahead with a plan to import natural gas from Iran even if the U.S. levies additional sanctions against the Mideast country.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s comments came two days after the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, cautioned Pakistan not to “overcommit” itself to the deal because it could run afoul of new sanctions against Iran being finalized by Congress.

As if Islamabad wasn’t causing us enough trouble by failing to crack down adequately on the Taliban both in Pakistan and on its border.

This is what it looks like after moral authority erodes and leaves material authority hanging by a thread. In Afghanistan, Obama’s focus has been on finishing up, not winning. In the Gulf of Mexico, it’s been about optics. And in Iran, it’s been about respecting the bad guys. None of that will prove effective among those who know their vital interests to be tied up in what the U.S. has been treating as peripheral concerns.

Up until now, nothing has managed to sway the president from his ideological course and stylistic approach. There is little reason to think the latest succession of mishaps will be any different. If Obama and company have access to a course-correction mechanism, they’re sure holding out for as long as they can. The administration that swore never to let a crisis go to waste has certainly been given plenty to work with.

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The Missing Link: It’s Not McChrystal

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

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Should the General Be Called on the Carpet?

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

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The Military vs. Obama

The news of the day is certainly Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone magazine and the potential fallout. Fox News reports:

The article says that although McChrystal voted for Obama, the two failed to connect from the start. Obama called McChrystal on the carpet last fall for speaking too bluntly about his desire for more troops. “I found that time painful,” McChrystal said in the article, on newsstands Friday. “I was selling an unsellable position.” It quoted an adviser to McChrystal dismissing the early meeting with Obama as a “10-minute photo op.” “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. The boss was pretty disappointed,” the adviser told the magazine.

The article claims McChrystal has seized control of the war “by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”

Asked by the Rolling Stone reporter about what he now feels of the war strategy advocated by Biden last fall – fewer troops, more drone attacks – McChrystal and his aides reportedly attempted to come up with a good one-liner to dismiss the question. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal reportedly joked. “Who’s that?”

Biden initially opposed McChrystal’s proposal for additional forces last year. He favored a narrower focus on hunting terrorists.

“Biden?” one aide was quoted as saying. “Did you say: Bite me?”

Another aide reportedly called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired four star general, a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.”

Some of the strongest criticism, however, was reserved for Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” one of the general’s aides was quoted as saying. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

If [Karl] Eikenberry had doubts about the troop buildup, McChrystal said he never expressed them until a leaked internal document threw a wild card into the debate over whether to add more troops last November. In the document, Eikenberry said Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not a reliable partner for the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal was hired to execute.

McChrystal said he felt “betrayed” and accused the ambassador of giving himself cover.

“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books,” McChrystal told the magazine. “Now, if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.”‘

Yeah, wow. There are two issues here — McChrystal’s behavior and the president’s management of the war.

As to the first, Dana Perino wisely advises, “Unless you’re Al Gore or Robert F. Kennedy Jr., if Rolling Stone calls, it’s not because they want to do a positive profile about you.” It was, as McChrystal concedes, a lapse in judgment and a very bad idea to spill his guts to any reporter. He’s been called to Washington to “explain” himself to Obama. Should he be fired? If he is doing his job and is essential to the war effort, then no. But Obama could well decide otherwise. The president is a notoriously thin-skinned man and may also see this as a strategic opportunity to show how tough he is. (Yes, he has the annoying habit of demonstrating how tough he is to someone/some country other than an enemy — Israel, not Iran, for example.)

The substance of what McChrystal is saying is obscured somewhat by the personalized tone (no doubt encouraged by the Rolling Stone reporter to whom the general should not have spoken). But the gravamen of what he is saying is serious and deeply troubling. He is giving voice to what many have been fretting about and what critics outside the administration have been harping on for some time: the White House and the civilian leadership are hampering our war effort. This is not a question of “civilian control”; the president has already declared, albeit with caveats and reservations, that he considers it vital to prevail in Afghanistan. The issue is whether the White House is competent enough and its advisers grown-up enough to support and not hinder the military.

At the very least, this demonstrates Obama’s complete failure to manage the war and to gain the confidence of the military. When this occurs, you can blame the general (again, he’s not disobeying operational orders but merely speaking out of school), but the fault lies with the commander in chief. McChrystal may resign or be fired, but his successor will have the same problems unless the White House gets it act together.

The news of the day is certainly Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone magazine and the potential fallout. Fox News reports:

The article says that although McChrystal voted for Obama, the two failed to connect from the start. Obama called McChrystal on the carpet last fall for speaking too bluntly about his desire for more troops. “I found that time painful,” McChrystal said in the article, on newsstands Friday. “I was selling an unsellable position.” It quoted an adviser to McChrystal dismissing the early meeting with Obama as a “10-minute photo op.” “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. The boss was pretty disappointed,” the adviser told the magazine.

The article claims McChrystal has seized control of the war “by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”

Asked by the Rolling Stone reporter about what he now feels of the war strategy advocated by Biden last fall – fewer troops, more drone attacks – McChrystal and his aides reportedly attempted to come up with a good one-liner to dismiss the question. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal reportedly joked. “Who’s that?”

Biden initially opposed McChrystal’s proposal for additional forces last year. He favored a narrower focus on hunting terrorists.

“Biden?” one aide was quoted as saying. “Did you say: Bite me?”

Another aide reportedly called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired four star general, a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.”

Some of the strongest criticism, however, was reserved for Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” one of the general’s aides was quoted as saying. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

If [Karl] Eikenberry had doubts about the troop buildup, McChrystal said he never expressed them until a leaked internal document threw a wild card into the debate over whether to add more troops last November. In the document, Eikenberry said Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not a reliable partner for the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal was hired to execute.

McChrystal said he felt “betrayed” and accused the ambassador of giving himself cover.

“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books,” McChrystal told the magazine. “Now, if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.”‘

Yeah, wow. There are two issues here — McChrystal’s behavior and the president’s management of the war.

As to the first, Dana Perino wisely advises, “Unless you’re Al Gore or Robert F. Kennedy Jr., if Rolling Stone calls, it’s not because they want to do a positive profile about you.” It was, as McChrystal concedes, a lapse in judgment and a very bad idea to spill his guts to any reporter. He’s been called to Washington to “explain” himself to Obama. Should he be fired? If he is doing his job and is essential to the war effort, then no. But Obama could well decide otherwise. The president is a notoriously thin-skinned man and may also see this as a strategic opportunity to show how tough he is. (Yes, he has the annoying habit of demonstrating how tough he is to someone/some country other than an enemy — Israel, not Iran, for example.)

The substance of what McChrystal is saying is obscured somewhat by the personalized tone (no doubt encouraged by the Rolling Stone reporter to whom the general should not have spoken). But the gravamen of what he is saying is serious and deeply troubling. He is giving voice to what many have been fretting about and what critics outside the administration have been harping on for some time: the White House and the civilian leadership are hampering our war effort. This is not a question of “civilian control”; the president has already declared, albeit with caveats and reservations, that he considers it vital to prevail in Afghanistan. The issue is whether the White House is competent enough and its advisers grown-up enough to support and not hinder the military.

At the very least, this demonstrates Obama’s complete failure to manage the war and to gain the confidence of the military. When this occurs, you can blame the general (again, he’s not disobeying operational orders but merely speaking out of school), but the fault lies with the commander in chief. McChrystal may resign or be fired, but his successor will have the same problems unless the White House gets it act together.

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Why Are We Making It Harder for Our Military to Win in Afghanistan?

In a clip played on Fox News Sunday, General Stanley McChrystal explained that the effort to force the Taliban out of Kandahar is slow going: “I do think that it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated, and so I think it will take a number of months for this to play out.  And I think it’s more important we get it right than we get it fast.”

It turns out this has much to do with our civilian officials. Bill Kristol reveals the time line that Obama imposed on our troops and that conservative critics loudly panned is, indeed, part of the problem:

KRISTOL:  I was at a dinner this week with about a dozen experts on Afghanistan, most of whom have been there for quite some time and quite recently, bipartisan group, all of them supportive of the effort, but many very close to the Obama administration, and the non- governmental organizations and the like, and I was amazed by the consensus on two things. One, the time line.  We are paying a much bigger price for the time line over there than a lot of us thought we would when Obama announced…

WALLACE:  The time when we begin pulling troops out in July of 2011.

KRISTOL:  We understand that we could pull them out very slowly, and Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton sort of walked it back after President Obama announced it.  Over there it sounded like the U.S. is getting out, and everyone’s got to hedge and cut their deals.

I think the single best thing the president personally could do now is explicitly say, “Look, we hope to begin drawing down then, but we are here to stay.”

The next problem is that our State Department, specifically special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, is hindering the effort:

The second thing is diplomatically, politically, we’re not doing our job over there.  The military is doing a good job.  General McChrystal’s right to say let’s get it right rather than doing it quickly.  And I think on the whole that General McChrystal certainly knows what he’s doing.

The diplomatic effort — and this is coming from people who are sympathetic, who are on the soft power side of things, who are, you know, from liberal non-governmental organizations — is that our effort has been bad.  It’s not just that we lack a reliable partner there.

Richard Holbrooke, the senior diplomat who’s in charge of it — everyone agrees that it’s been a fiasco.  He’s not — he can’t set foot there because Karzai doesn’t get along with him.  Ambassador Eikenberry doesn’t get along with General McChrystal.  He doesn’t get along either — Eikenberry, that is — with Karzai.  All the burden has fallen on the military.

This is unconscionable. Why, if there is widespread consensus, do Holbrooke and Eikenberry remain? Is Obama’s relationship with the military so bad that he does not understand or appreciate that his own administration is undercutting the war effort?

When the time line was announced, I observed that we would have to win in Afghanistan despite our commander in chief. It is absurd that our military labors under such a handicap, made even more burdensome by incompetent and obnoxious emissaries of the president. It is time for the latter to go and for Obama to fix his errors. However, his political hacks insist on reiterating the president’s faulty and counterproductive strategy. On Meet the Press, David Axelrod had this to say:

Well, the president made it clear that we can’t make an open-ended commitment there, that the Afghan government and the Afghan people have to take responsibility themselves, and their army, their security.  And their civil institutions have to take responsibility.  We–he is committed to begin that process of withdrawal in July of, of next year, and that is–continues to be the plan, and we’re going to pursue that on that schedule.

The administration keeps this up, and Obama will bear the responsibility for losing a war he deemed critical.

In a clip played on Fox News Sunday, General Stanley McChrystal explained that the effort to force the Taliban out of Kandahar is slow going: “I do think that it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated, and so I think it will take a number of months for this to play out.  And I think it’s more important we get it right than we get it fast.”

It turns out this has much to do with our civilian officials. Bill Kristol reveals the time line that Obama imposed on our troops and that conservative critics loudly panned is, indeed, part of the problem:

KRISTOL:  I was at a dinner this week with about a dozen experts on Afghanistan, most of whom have been there for quite some time and quite recently, bipartisan group, all of them supportive of the effort, but many very close to the Obama administration, and the non- governmental organizations and the like, and I was amazed by the consensus on two things. One, the time line.  We are paying a much bigger price for the time line over there than a lot of us thought we would when Obama announced…

WALLACE:  The time when we begin pulling troops out in July of 2011.

KRISTOL:  We understand that we could pull them out very slowly, and Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton sort of walked it back after President Obama announced it.  Over there it sounded like the U.S. is getting out, and everyone’s got to hedge and cut their deals.

I think the single best thing the president personally could do now is explicitly say, “Look, we hope to begin drawing down then, but we are here to stay.”

The next problem is that our State Department, specifically special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, is hindering the effort:

The second thing is diplomatically, politically, we’re not doing our job over there.  The military is doing a good job.  General McChrystal’s right to say let’s get it right rather than doing it quickly.  And I think on the whole that General McChrystal certainly knows what he’s doing.

The diplomatic effort — and this is coming from people who are sympathetic, who are on the soft power side of things, who are, you know, from liberal non-governmental organizations — is that our effort has been bad.  It’s not just that we lack a reliable partner there.

Richard Holbrooke, the senior diplomat who’s in charge of it — everyone agrees that it’s been a fiasco.  He’s not — he can’t set foot there because Karzai doesn’t get along with him.  Ambassador Eikenberry doesn’t get along with General McChrystal.  He doesn’t get along either — Eikenberry, that is — with Karzai.  All the burden has fallen on the military.

This is unconscionable. Why, if there is widespread consensus, do Holbrooke and Eikenberry remain? Is Obama’s relationship with the military so bad that he does not understand or appreciate that his own administration is undercutting the war effort?

When the time line was announced, I observed that we would have to win in Afghanistan despite our commander in chief. It is absurd that our military labors under such a handicap, made even more burdensome by incompetent and obnoxious emissaries of the president. It is time for the latter to go and for Obama to fix his errors. However, his political hacks insist on reiterating the president’s faulty and counterproductive strategy. On Meet the Press, David Axelrod had this to say:

Well, the president made it clear that we can’t make an open-ended commitment there, that the Afghan government and the Afghan people have to take responsibility themselves, and their army, their security.  And their civil institutions have to take responsibility.  We–he is committed to begin that process of withdrawal in July of, of next year, and that is–continues to be the plan, and we’re going to pursue that on that schedule.

The administration keeps this up, and Obama will bear the responsibility for losing a war he deemed critical.

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How NIAC Lobbied Against Dennis Ross

As revealed in Eli Lake’s bombshell story, the National Iranian-American Council has often acted as an advocate for the interests of the Iranian regime, especially in the early days of the Obama administration and before the Iranian election in June. As Lake documents, the leader of this “Iranian-American” organization, Trita Parsi, is not an American citizen. And the council, which claims to speak on behalf of the 1-million-strong Iranian-American community, has only a few thousand members.

It is also a 501(c)(3), which means that its mission and operation must be nonpartisan — no lobbying allowed. But as information obtained in the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed by NIAC against a critic shows, the organization has been deeply involved in political advocacy. What follows is but one example.

When it became clear in early January that President-elect Obama intended to pick Dennis Ross to oversee Iran policy at the State Department, NIAC sprung into action to scuttle the nomination.

In a Google group called the “New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee,” where several political allies of NIAC, including lobbying groups, participated, Patrick Disney, NIAC’s acting policy director, wrote that “I should be clear — I think we can still influence the [Ross] selection by submitting our recommendation as soon as possible.” He continued: “NIAC is obviously still formulating a plan, but we’re exploring the idea of coming out publicly, and relatively strongly, against Ross. … I’d like for all of us to coordinate our message as much as possible. So let’s discuss things now and get prepared before things move ahead.”

This was followed by e-mail from Mike Amitay, who is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center, a George Soros–funded 501(c)(4) — a lobby. Amitay agreed on the need for action against Ross and added that “a most troubling aspects [sic] of [Ross’s] limited Iran-related resume is his role in crafting Bi-Partisan Policy Council report and prominence on Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran.”

So, involvement in United Against a Nuclear Iran was a disqualification for the New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee. UANI’s goal is to “promote efforts that focus on vigorous national and international, social, economic, political and diplomatic measures” in opposition to the Iranian nuclear program. Its leadership consists of a bipartisan cast of foreign-policy leaders — it is an utterly, even conspicuously, centrist organization. But for NIAC, even an organization that so much as expresses concern about the nuclear program is unacceptable.

This e-mail exchange shows not just the political radicalism of NIAC and its advocacy of Iranian-regime interests but also the way the organization skates blithely across some very thin ice. Here we have an employee of NIAC acting in his official capacity and using his NIAC e-mail address to help organize a campaign to undermine an Obama-administration nominee. NIAC claims, and its tax status requires, that it is not a lobby and spends zero percent of its time lobbying. Yet Disney is joined by Amitay, a lobbyist, in organizing what is clearly a lobbying campaign. Nowhere is there an attempt to distinguish between the activities of the two groups or to assume roles consistent with their legal statuses. In fact, just the opposite — it is Disney who seeks to spearhead the campaign.

And this comes in the context of a litany of other incriminating revelations — that Parsi set up meetings between U.S. congressmen and the Iranian ambassador to the UN, that members of NIAC attended meetings explicitly devoted to establishing lobbying agendas and tactics, and so on. And all this, it must be added, in order to help the Iranian regime get sanctions lifted and end American opposition to its nuclear ambitions.

Below the jump is a copy of the e-mail exchange in question.
Read More

As revealed in Eli Lake’s bombshell story, the National Iranian-American Council has often acted as an advocate for the interests of the Iranian regime, especially in the early days of the Obama administration and before the Iranian election in June. As Lake documents, the leader of this “Iranian-American” organization, Trita Parsi, is not an American citizen. And the council, which claims to speak on behalf of the 1-million-strong Iranian-American community, has only a few thousand members.

It is also a 501(c)(3), which means that its mission and operation must be nonpartisan — no lobbying allowed. But as information obtained in the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed by NIAC against a critic shows, the organization has been deeply involved in political advocacy. What follows is but one example.

When it became clear in early January that President-elect Obama intended to pick Dennis Ross to oversee Iran policy at the State Department, NIAC sprung into action to scuttle the nomination.

In a Google group called the “New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee,” where several political allies of NIAC, including lobbying groups, participated, Patrick Disney, NIAC’s acting policy director, wrote that “I should be clear — I think we can still influence the [Ross] selection by submitting our recommendation as soon as possible.” He continued: “NIAC is obviously still formulating a plan, but we’re exploring the idea of coming out publicly, and relatively strongly, against Ross. … I’d like for all of us to coordinate our message as much as possible. So let’s discuss things now and get prepared before things move ahead.”

This was followed by e-mail from Mike Amitay, who is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center, a George Soros–funded 501(c)(4) — a lobby. Amitay agreed on the need for action against Ross and added that “a most troubling aspects [sic] of [Ross’s] limited Iran-related resume is his role in crafting Bi-Partisan Policy Council report and prominence on Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran.”

So, involvement in United Against a Nuclear Iran was a disqualification for the New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee. UANI’s goal is to “promote efforts that focus on vigorous national and international, social, economic, political and diplomatic measures” in opposition to the Iranian nuclear program. Its leadership consists of a bipartisan cast of foreign-policy leaders — it is an utterly, even conspicuously, centrist organization. But for NIAC, even an organization that so much as expresses concern about the nuclear program is unacceptable.

This e-mail exchange shows not just the political radicalism of NIAC and its advocacy of Iranian-regime interests but also the way the organization skates blithely across some very thin ice. Here we have an employee of NIAC acting in his official capacity and using his NIAC e-mail address to help organize a campaign to undermine an Obama-administration nominee. NIAC claims, and its tax status requires, that it is not a lobby and spends zero percent of its time lobbying. Yet Disney is joined by Amitay, a lobbyist, in organizing what is clearly a lobbying campaign. Nowhere is there an attempt to distinguish between the activities of the two groups or to assume roles consistent with their legal statuses. In fact, just the opposite — it is Disney who seeks to spearhead the campaign.

And this comes in the context of a litany of other incriminating revelations — that Parsi set up meetings between U.S. congressmen and the Iranian ambassador to the UN, that members of NIAC attended meetings explicitly devoted to establishing lobbying agendas and tactics, and so on. And all this, it must be added, in order to help the Iranian regime get sanctions lifted and end American opposition to its nuclear ambitions.

Below the jump is a copy of the e-mail exchange in question.

—–Original Message—–
From: Mike Amitay [mailto:mamitay@osi-dc.org]
Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2009 2:35 PM
To: jparillo@psr.org; PDisney@niacouncil.org; new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com
Subject: RE: Response to Ross as Iran envoy

Ross has not worked extensively on Iran, though his most recent employer WINEP, is a “think-tank” created by AIPAC leadership in the 1980s. As Jill points out, a most troubling aspects of his limited Iran-related resume is his role in crafting Bi-Partisan Policy Council report and prominence on Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran. (Holbrooke also serves on this body). UANI is a right-wing “pro-Israel” PR effort established to push a more militant US policy towards Iran. If in fact Ross appointment confirmed, I find this deeply troubling. One question to consider, however, is whether publicly objecting to Ross would damage our ability to work with him and others in USG in the future.

###########################################

Mike Amitay – Senior Policy Analyst
Middle East, North Africa and Central Eurasia
Open Society Institute / Open Society Policy Center
1120 19th Street, NW – 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20036
202-721-5625 (direct) 202-530-0138 (fax)
www.soros.org / www.opensocietypolicycenter.org

—–Original Message—–
From: new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com [mailto:new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com] On Behalf Of Jill Parillo
Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2009 2:03 PM
To: PDisney@niacouncil.org; new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com; IranPWG@yahoogroups.com
Subject: RE: Response to Ross as Iran envoy

On Ross, I sent an email earlier, but I would like to add:
Engagement with Iran is aimed at reducing tension in US-Iranian relations, to avoid war and build confidence, so to get to a point where together we can develop common policies that will US and Iranian concerns.

If someone is sent to the talks (like when Burns was) who could increase tension, the policy of engagement as a solution to the Iran challenge will not be a success.
We should talk to those that know Ross well and his policies, and ability to negotiate in a peaceful fair manner.

In spending time as part of the Department of Disarmament Affairs and at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, I sat through several high level negotiations where country Ambassadors walked out of the room because of Bush Administration officials being very rude. The right person and the right policy are important.

We need to also pay attention to who the envoy will report to, in this case it is Clinton, not Obama.
I have never met Ross in person, so I will not judge if he is a good or bad pick. However, I can say I have concerns, since he signed onto the attached paper which says, “WE BELIEVE A MILITARY STRIKE IS A FEASIBLE OPTION…..the United States will need to augment its military presence in the region. This should commence the first day the new President enters office.” I am taking this out of context, so please look at this section for yourself, but in any case, it is concerning.

Best,

Jill

PS. I am off to speak in Italy until Jan 19-Pugwash Conference, so I may not be available for much of the next 10 days. Thanks

—–Original Message—–
From: new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com [mailto:new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com] On Behalf Of pdisney@niacouncil.org
Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2009 1:33 PM
To: new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com; IranPWG@yahoogroups.com
Subject: Response to Ross as Iran envoy

All,

As the rumors appear to be more substantiated by the hour, I think we should start a conversation about what our response will be if Dennis Ross is named Iran envoy.

I should be clear–I think we can still influence the selection by submitting our recommendation as soon as possible. However, if it does prove to be Ross, we have to make a choice as to how to respond.

NIAC is obviously still formulating a plan, but we’re exploring the idea of coming out publicly, and relatively strongly, against Ross. We would make it clear that we prefer to work with Obama, and that Ross does not align with Obama’s plan to change America’s approach. Obviously, there are pro’s and con’s to any strategy, but if it’s simply impossible for us to work with Ross, we should be in a position to say I told you so after he messes everything up. But I’d like to hear others’ thoughts.

Again, this is a brainstorm rather than a concrete plan. I’d like for all of us to coordinate our message as much as possible. So let’s discuss things now and get prepared before things move ahead.
Thanks very much.
-p

January 7, 2009, 10:21 AM
Obama
Picks Foreign Envoys

Posted by Michelle

Levi

Transition officials confirm to CBS News’ Marc Ambinder that President-elect Obama has asked Dennis Ross, Richard Haas, and Richard Holbrooke, to serve as his chief emissaries to world hot spots. Ross and Holbrooke both served in senior Clinton administration roles. Haas had senior posts in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2003 and in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

It’s expected that Ross will be assigned the Iran portfolio, that Holbrooke, the hard-headed architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, will take the difficult Southwest Asia portfolio, including India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that Haas will deal with the Middle East.

Each men’s turf is still in flux, so these early assignments are not firm.
Read More Posts In Transition

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Friedman’s Folly

Thomas Friedman is the second- or third-best columnist at the New York Times. Admittedly that’s damning with faint praise. But he does know a fair amount about the Middle East and some other topics, and even if he repeats himself far too often (especially on the need for ending oil dependency), and gets a lot of things wrong (such as his support for the Oslo Peace Process), and exaggerates in those areas where he’s basically right (his support of globalization), I find him often worth a read, which is more than I can say for some of his colleagues. But in yesterday’s newspaper, Friedman sounded more like a talk-radio blowhard than the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for the Newspaper of Record. (Read his column free here.)

In yesterday’s Times, Friedman went for cheap and easy populist point-scoring. He excoriated Iraqi parliamentarians for taking August off while our troops swelter in the Iraq heat wearing body armor. “Here’s what I think of that: I think it’s a travesty,” he exclaimed—words you can easily imagine coming out of the mouth of Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly or someone else not normally to be confused with Tom Friedman.

Read More

Thomas Friedman is the second- or third-best columnist at the New York Times. Admittedly that’s damning with faint praise. But he does know a fair amount about the Middle East and some other topics, and even if he repeats himself far too often (especially on the need for ending oil dependency), and gets a lot of things wrong (such as his support for the Oslo Peace Process), and exaggerates in those areas where he’s basically right (his support of globalization), I find him often worth a read, which is more than I can say for some of his colleagues. But in yesterday’s newspaper, Friedman sounded more like a talk-radio blowhard than the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for the Newspaper of Record. (Read his column free here.)

In yesterday’s Times, Friedman went for cheap and easy populist point-scoring. He excoriated Iraqi parliamentarians for taking August off while our troops swelter in the Iraq heat wearing body armor. “Here’s what I think of that: I think it’s a travesty,” he exclaimed—words you can easily imagine coming out of the mouth of Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly or someone else not normally to be confused with Tom Friedman.

The rest of Friedman’s column was equally simplistic. He proposes that we “draft the country’s best negotiators—Henry Kissinger, Jim Baker, George Shultz, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, or Richard Holbrooke” and send them to Baghdad to either force the Iraqi factions to reach a political deal to settle all their problems, or report back that no such deal is possible. Friedman gives no reason to think that any of these gentlemen would have any better luck than the negotiators we’ve had in Baghdad before—diplomats of formidable accomplishment such as John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad.

While it’s true that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political, we won’t achieve a political deal unless we can create a more secure environment in which to negotiate. Thus, as I argued on the Times op-ed page in an article designed to deflate the very argument that Friedman now makes, our focus at the moment has to be military, not political or diplomatic.

We need above all to defeat Shiite and Sunni extremists who are holding the more moderate elements of their communities hostage. In this endeavor, U.S. troops are hardly alone. Iraqi cops and soldiers are fighting alongside them and actually suffering higher casualties—two to three times more killed and wounded. So much for Friedman’s offensive inference that Americans are dying to save Iraq while Iraqis won’t lift a finger to help their own country.

His attempted analogy between U.S. troops (“fighting in the heat”) and Iraqi legislators (“on vacation in August so they can be cool”) is bogus in any case. The better parallel is between Iraqi and American legislators. The Iraqis could certainly do better, but they are also risking their lives and their relatives’ lives to serve, not something that could be said of American senators and congressmen.

For the past few weeks—before they take off on their own August recess—our legislators have hardly been a profile in courage or perspicacity. Democrats and some Republicans have been loudly screaming to “end the war” even while showing scant interest in what will happen after U.S. troops are gone.

This Los Angeles Times story features some hair-raising quotes from the advocates of withdrawal about the consequences of their preferred strategy:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s horrendous,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who has helped spearhead efforts against the war. “The only hope for the Iraqis is their own damned government, and there’s slim hope for that.”

“I believe, if we leave, the region will pull together,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), a founding member of the influential House Out of Iraq caucus. “It’s important to them that Iraq stabilize.”

“The Out of Iraq caucus really has not looked beyond ending military involvement,” acknowledged Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a caucus leader and Pelosi ally. “Now that the environment is changing pretty significantly . . . everybody may be starting to look at what happens after the United States leaves.”

In their combination of naiveté, ignorance, and irresponsibility, our lawmakers almost make the Iraqis look good.

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