Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Petraeus

Heed Petraeus’s Critique of Obama

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

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For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

“The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.”

“The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.”

“As for the U.S. role, could all of this have been averted if we had kept 10,000 troops here? I honestly don’t know. I certainly wish we could have tested the proposition and kept a substantial force on the ground. For that matter, should we have pushed harder for an alternative to PM Maliki during government formation in 2010? “

“Whether fair or not, those in the region will also offer that our withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 contributed to a perception that the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. This perception has complicated our ability to shape developments in the region and thus to further our interests. These perceptions have also shaken many of our allies and, for a period at least, made it harder to persuade them to support our approaches. “

“Any acceptable outcome (in Syria) requires the build-up of capable, anti-Daesh opposition forces whom we support on the battlefield. Although it is encouraging to see the administration’s support for this initiative, I think there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the sufficiency of the present scale, scope, speed, and resourcing of this effort.”

The word “Obama” is never once mentioned by the ever-diplomatic General Petraeus, but reading between the lines this is a devastating criticism of the president’s policy from the man who was once his CIA director, Central Command commander, and Afghanistan commander.

When Petraeus feels compelled to point out that Iran “is not our ally,” he is speaking directly to a White House that imagines otherwise. When he says that the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 “complicated our ability to shape developments in the region,” he is indirectly criticizing Obama, in part, for failing to win a Status of Forces Agreement. And when he criticizes the “scale, scope, speed, and resourcing” of US efforts to support the moderate Syrian opposition, he is indicting the president for not backing the Free Syrian Army, as CIA Director Petraeus and much of the Obama security cabinet had proposed to do in 2012.

Obama wasn’t listening to Petraeus then. Let’s hope he—and the whole world–is listening now. Petraeus’s comments are entirely on the mark.

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A Pardon for Petraeus?

David Petraeus’s acceptance of a plea bargain–he pled guilty to the unauthorized sharing of classified information in return for paying a fine of $40,000 and serving two year of probation–has been met both with unseemly Schadenfreude by some who delight in seeing an America hero revealed to have flaws as well as criticism from others who believe that he got off too lightly.

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David Petraeus’s acceptance of a plea bargain–he pled guilty to the unauthorized sharing of classified information in return for paying a fine of $40,000 and serving two year of probation–has been met both with unseemly Schadenfreude by some who delight in seeing an America hero revealed to have flaws as well as criticism from others who believe that he got off too lightly.

It’s certainly true that others have faced stiffer sentences for revealing classified information. As Eli Lake notes: “John Kiriakou, a former CIA employee who pleaded guilty to disclosing the identity of an undercover officer, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison — even though the employee’s identity was never made public. Stephen Kim, a federal contractor, went to prison for a year after leaking secrets about North Korea to a Fox News reporter. Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer, is facing a longer prison term for leaking secrets to a New York Times reporter.”

But it’s also the case that other leaks have not been punished at all. Leaks of classified information to journalists or authors are a routine occurrence in Washington. As Lake notes, “last summer a federal judge ordered the Barack Obama administration to release a classified memo on the legal justification for its drone attacks because officials had spoken publicly about its contents so often it was no longer a secret.”

This is hardly the only secret that the Obama administration didn’t keep–most of the highly classified details of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden were immediately leaked, much to the consternation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The administration even opened its doors to a film-maker researching a film that ultimately became Zero Dark Thirty.

Few senior officials are ever prosecuted for mishandling classified information, even though such breaches are commonplace–given the level of over-classification in Washington, simply mentioning where the CIA training facility known as The Farm is located (near Williamsburg, Virginia) is technically a crime even though that information is freely available to anyone who has access to Google. There is little logic to the way that secrecy laws are enforced. Almost anyone in a position of authority can be prosecuted if prosecutors are so inclined.

It is ironic that the Petraeus plea bargain was concluded at virtually the same time that news emerged that Hillary Clinton had used a private, unsecure email address for all of her emailing as secretary of state. So, it turns out, had Colin Powell. They of course claim they never revealed anything secret in their emails, but what, I wonder, would the FBI find if it devoted considerable man hours to reading all of their emails? It is hard to believe that not a single email over the course of years contained any “sensitive” or “secret” information (which is usually information which is also available in the New York Times) even if by some miracle they managed to avoid alluding to “top secret” or “secure compartmented” information.

A breach of security far more egregious than Petraesus’s was committed by one of his predecessors as CIA director, John Deutch, who routinely kept classified material on unclassified computers. A CIA investigation subsequently revealed, that all of these computers “were connected to or contained modems that allowed external connectivity to computer networks such as the Internet. Such computers are vulnerable to attacks by unauthorized persons. CIA personnel retrieved [classified] information from Deutch’s unclassified computers and magnetic media related to covert action, Top Secret communications intelligence and the National Reconnaissance Program budget.” And yet what penalty did Deutch suffer? The Justice Department under Janet Reno declined to prosecute him, and President Clinton issued him a pardon to make sure not that no future prosecutor could ever come after him.

By comparison with what Clinton or Deutch did, Petraeus’s offense is pretty minor. As his plea bargain reveals, he shared with his biographer (and mistress) Paula Broadwell, who had a security clearance of her own, some of the “black books” that he used to keep notes as the top commander in Afghanistan. The black books, according to the plea bargain, “contained national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI and code word information,” yet none of the classified information ever wound up in Broadwell’s book, or anywhere else. Petraeus was also accused of lying to FBI agents who asked him whether he had provided classified information to his biographer, although it’s quite possible he simply forgot about this very mundane matter: It’s not as if he was trying to leak any secrets to Broadwell; he merely provided her with his records so she could check dates and other details.

It is not at all unusual, by the way, for senior military officers to keep such “black books” upon retirement. A friend in the military writes, “They have pursued him for a charge of which virtually every senior officer in the US military has been guilty. EVERY senior officer has such notebooks (we are a notetaking military, as you know) and EVERY senior officer carries those notebooks around with them. And ALMOST EVERY senior officer I have encountered keeps them after retirement.” Indeed, such records form the basis on which senior officers can subsequently write their memoirs.

In short, the incident over which Petraeus has pleaded guilty is a minor one, discovered in the course of a fishing expedition by the FBI, whose agents searched his house. There is no evidence of any harm to national security. This is not remotely comparable to the case of malicious leakers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. It is not even, as I have argued, comparable to the breaches committed by John Deutch. If Deutch could get a presidential pardon, why not Petraeus, who has dedicated most of his life to serving and defending our country?

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Prosecute Petraeus?

The possibility of prosecution continues to hang over Gen. David Petraeus, whom federal prosecutors appear prepared to indict on charges that he leaked classified information to his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

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The possibility of prosecution continues to hang over Gen. David Petraeus, whom federal prosecutors appear prepared to indict on charges that he leaked classified information to his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

There is a strong stench of politics surrounding the whole Petraeus scandal. Sen. John McCain has suggested that the Obama administration has used the threat of prosecution to silence Petraeus. Others on the opposite side of the aisle argue that the charges should be dropped and that it is time to move on. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for example, a Democrat who has clashed often with Petraeus both when he served this country in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as when she served on the Senate Intelligence Committee and he led the Central Intelligence Agency, has said that Petraeus has “suffered enough” and that he should not be prosecuted.

Papers have come down on both sides of the issue. Here is a defense by Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, and here is a Boston Globe editorial calling for no special treatment for the retired general.

While McCain may be right that irregularities in the investigation of Petraeus should be addressed, and while suspicion of politicization is warranted after the manner in which the Obama administration apparently used the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to go after critics, it is also true that military rank does not put its holder above the law. Quite the contrary; those with higher rank should be fully accountable for their actions, be they security violations, sexual violations, alcohol violations, or other infractions or crimes.

The charges against Petraeus—unlike the charges levied by political activists who demand prosecution of former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, or my AEI colleague John Yoo—do not rest on the criminalization of the policy debate, but rather on specific alleged crimes. Many have been charged over the years with illicit possession of classified material and lost security clearance, jobs, or both, and some have even been sentenced to prison, though many ended up not serving time. When rank is factored in, perhaps the best corollary case would be that of former Clinton-era National Security Advisor Sandy Berger who stole documents from the National Archives presumably to protect his own image or the reputation of President Bill Clinton and walked away with a large fine.

Not all crimes are the same. There’s a difference between speeding and first degree murder. No one is accusing Petraeus of being Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. Nor does Petraeus’s alleged betrayal of his commitment to protect classified material rise even to the level of Sandy Berger, but that’s an issue to debate during the penalty phase of any prosecution, not reason to drop prosecution in the first place. If Petraeus is found guilty, then perhaps the judge can assess his record, the egregiousness of any leak of classified material, and fine him one dollar.

Make no mistake. While I have had my policy disputes with Gen. David Petraeus—and have received faxed missives in response by one of his underlings and angry objections from another—Petraeus is a hero, who has served his country well. Nothing will detract from that and political and policy disputes matter not an iota. That said, while it’s long past time to have honest debates about over-classification as well as the criminalization of policy debate, neither of these nor prior service are reasons to sacrifice the notion that all Americans should be equal under the law.

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Why Can’t the Iraqi Army Fight?

I hadn’t seen this article when it came out, but the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis’s always excellent national-security twitter feed pointed me to it. Basically, the Los Angeles Times’s David Zucchino explores through a series of interviews with American officials and Iraqi military veterans just what went wrong after the United States spent some $25 billion training the new Iraqi army. Here’s a sample of his piece:

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I hadn’t seen this article when it came out, but the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis’s always excellent national-security twitter feed pointed me to it. Basically, the Los Angeles Times’s David Zucchino explores through a series of interviews with American officials and Iraqi military veterans just what went wrong after the United States spent some $25 billion training the new Iraqi army. Here’s a sample of his piece:

“We felt like cowards, but our commanders were afraid of Daesh. They were too afraid to lead us,” said Shehab, 43, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. Shehab and others in his battalion describe Iraq’s security forces as poorly led and sparsely equipped, with soldiers suspicious of commanders and uncertain they would get enough food, water and ammunition in the heat of battle…. This army is not prepared to fight. Nobody trusts anyone, not even from their own sect,” said a 32-year-old federal police officer who asked to be identified only by his first name, Amar, for fear of retribution from his superiors…. Security force members acknowledge that many Sunnis and other minorities see the Shiite-led army as a brutal occupying force. Under former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, Sunnis were driven out of the security forces and replaced by Shiites.

It’s an issue which I touched upon this past August, and Zucchino’s whole article is worth reading. Zucchino isn’t wrong, but there are a number of points which are not explored but still should be.

  • If the problem was simply sectarianism in the Iraqi Army, then what explains the disastrous performance of the Kurdish peshmerga against the Islamic State in the initial fighting in and around Mount Sinjar? The peshmerga weren’t affected by sectarian discord. This is especially important now as in the last few days, the Islamic State has again pushed into Gwer, an area just 15 minutes from the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil.
  • Some of the biggest names among America’s general officers were in charge of training Iraqi forces, for example, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is currently chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These men cultivated close relationships with journalists and often claimed great success. Here, for example, is Petraeus talking about his success in the training mission, and here is Dempsey singing his own praises. Perhaps Petraeus and Dempsey were accurately reflecting their own success at the time, but few generals who want promotions admit failure. It’s worth examining whether the commanders of the Multi-National Security Transition Command were realistic in their assessments at the time, or perhaps exaggerated.
  • No doubt that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fiddled with the Iraqi army after U.S. forces left, putting not simply his own handpicked men into top positions, but those approved by the Iranian government as well. If the Iraqi military leadership that confronted the Islamic State represented the best and brightest that Iranian trainers could offer, perhaps this suggests that Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani isn’t the military genius many of his supporters claim, and perhaps the Iranians are far weaker than they let on?

What happened to the Iraqi army was a disaster and it certainly exposed either a failure of U.S. training, the wrongheadedness of a withdrawal based on an arbitrary political deadline, or both. The focus on post-withdrawal sectarianism, however, shouldn’t be reason to question other aspects of the program, some of which may (or may not) have been just as deleterious to the end result.

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Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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Army Turning Its Back on COIN?

The U.S. Army has been trying to resist the budget axe by citing to policymakers the lessons of history. Army leaders argue, rightly, that it doesn’t make sense to cut their active-duty end-strength from 570,000 to 420,000 as a result of sequestration: the U.S. has tried many times in the past to cut the army to the bone and every time we have paid a severe price in unreadiness to wage the next war. But sadly the U.S. Army itself is ignoring the lessons of history. That, at any rate, is the only conclusion one can draw from its decision to close the Army Irregular Warfare Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 1.

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The U.S. Army has been trying to resist the budget axe by citing to policymakers the lessons of history. Army leaders argue, rightly, that it doesn’t make sense to cut their active-duty end-strength from 570,000 to 420,000 as a result of sequestration: the U.S. has tried many times in the past to cut the army to the bone and every time we have paid a severe price in unreadiness to wage the next war. But sadly the U.S. Army itself is ignoring the lessons of history. That, at any rate, is the only conclusion one can draw from its decision to close the Army Irregular Warfare Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 1.

The center was created in 2006, under the leadership of my friend Colonel Pete Mansoor (now a professor of military history at Ohio State), to instill in the army the lessons of counterinsurgency which were badly needed at a time when the entire U.S. military was facing a terrible defeat at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. One of the center’s first tasks was to oversee the production of Field Manual 3-24, the first such army/marine manual on counterinsurgency to come out in decades. It was General David Petraeus, then head of the Combined Arms Center at Leavenworth, who was responsible for creating the Irregular Warfare Center (then called the Counterinsurgency Center) and for implementing the recommendations of FM 3-24 in Iraq. It was, in fact, these very principles which made possible one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in the history of counterinsurgency (a victory that was subsequently squandered by the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq but that’s another story).

The Irregular Warfare Center was only a small office in a big army but it represented something big–a reawakening interest in the principles of counterinsurgency by a force that traditionally had focused only on conventional maneuver warfare. Likewise now the closing of the Irregular Warfare Center represents something big–the army turning its back on what is the most prevalent and most important form of warfare not only in today’s world but throughout history. The army will of course deny that is what is happening and point to continuing offices such as the Army Peacekeeping and Stability Institute as evidence that it remains as committed as ever to COIN (counterinsurgency).

Count me as skeptical. Ever since the U.S. pullout from Iraq and now with another major drawdown imminent in Afghanistan, the army has been eager to get back to conventional soldiering against mirror-image adversaries even though the odds of fighting such a conflict are a lot lower than the odds of fighting myriad insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Taliban. I fear the army is now repeating the mistake it made after Vietnam when it also turned its back on COIN–and paid a steep price for its neglect in Afghanistan and Iraq. The army would have a lot more credibility making the case for itself based on the lessons of history if it paid greater respect even to uncomfortable lessons that it would rather ignore.

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What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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Don’t Appease Terror in Iraq

In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

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In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

Third, to respond to Sunni Islamist or Baathist terror by demanding the central government grant more concessions to Sunni Islamists or Baathists simply legitimizes terror. When terrorists struck the United States, only fools counseled changing American behavior to appease those terrorists. Likewise, when extremist Iranian-sponsored Shi‘ite militias targeted American soldiers in Iraq, the response should not have been offering incentives to Iran. When Sunnis are disillusioned, they should vote and, indeed, they did. If they are so disappointed with Maliki, they can rally other Iraqi political communities against a third term for Maliki, something that was already occurring before the ISIS attack began.

And, fourth, we’ve been down this road before. Remember the Fallujah Brigade? During the initial uprising in Fallujah a decade ago, the Bush administration and U.S. military responded by blessing the creation of the so-called Fallujah Brigade. Big mistake. Empowering the insurgents and justifying their uprising only worsened violence: Car bombings increased six-fold.

Before the surge, Gen. David Petraeus engaged in a similar strategy of appeasing and co-opting local Islamists and Baathists in Mosul, appointing them to key positions in the police and border security. In November 2004, after Petraeus went home and the money with which the 101st Airborne subsidized them dried up, the Islamists and Baathists with whom Petraeus had partnered handed the keys to the city to the insurgents. Too many journalists, cultivated by Petraeus, blamed the 25th Infantry which succeeded the 101stThat was both unfair and inaccurate.

America’s memory is notoriously short-term, but simply empowering those who consistently fail at the ballot box and refuse to accept both the legitimacy of the elected government and the fact that they cannot once again dominate 70 percent of the country who happen to be Shi’ite would be to make the same mistake three times.

A new government will benefit Iraq, but sometimes the key to making peace possible is to defeat terror and its supporters, not to reward it or to blame the victim.

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A Tale of Two Surges

In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

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In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

Kerry told Petraeus the day was “historic”–because “not since the country heard from General Westmoreland, almost 40 years ago, has an active-duty general played such an important role in the national debate.” Kerry said he wanted to remind everyone that:

[A]lmost half the names that found their way etched into the Vietnam Wall after Westmoreland’s testimony found their way there when our leaders had acknowledged, in retrospect, that they knew the policy was not working, and would not work. And all you need do to underline this chilling fact is read Defense Secretary McNamara’s books …

The following year, Barack Obama was elected president, and faced in his first year the need for a “surge” in Afghanistan. He approved it only after an excruciatingly long series of White House meetings and gave the military less than they had requested. In an excerpt from his memoir yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted the November 2009 Oval Office meeting with Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen in which Obama discussed the basis on which he had decided to go forward, with Obama and Biden giving what they described as an “order” for the military to follow Obama’s decision:

That Sunday meeting was unlike any I ever attended in the Oval Office … I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the U.S. military, it is completely unnecessary … Obama’s “order,” at Biden’s urging, demonstrated the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture … In the end, this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience. The president’s political operatives wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Pentagon wouldn’t get its way.

The next day, Obama announced his decision in his televised West Point speech, in which he said the additional troops would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 … taking into account conditions on the ground.” Obama had simultaneously announced a surge and a withdrawal–a counter-productive combination. The Gates excerpt does not deal with what followed, but Jonathan Alter summarized it succinctly in his 2010 book on Obama’s first year as president:

It didn’t take long for Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus to begin endorsing nation-building and exploiting their “conditions on the ground” loophole. Testifying the day after Obama’s speech, Gates told a House committee, “I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq and I opposed them in Afghanistan.” At the Pentagon the message coursing through the building was the summer of 2011 didn’t really mean the summer of 2011. The president was unperturbed. Obama’s attitude was “I’m president. I don’t give a shit what they say. I’m drawing down those troops” said one senior official who saw him nearly every day.

By early 2011, Gates concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” It had been the “good war” for purposes of the 2008 campaign, a way for Obama to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war. But once in office, it became for Obama, as Rich Lowry writes, “the insincere war,” fought half-heartedly, with a goal not of winning but getting out.

More than three-fourths of the names on some future Afghanistan memorial wall will be those of American soldiers who died under a commander-in-chief contemptuous of the military, whose foreign policy was (to use Bret Stephens’s expression in this incisive video on the Gates book) “the conduct of politics by other means”–a chilling fact now underlined by a former secretary of defense’s book.

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What Gates Gets Wrong

Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

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Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

While Gates is certainly right that the decision to utilize military force should not be taken lightly, he fails to consider what happens should resistance to military force allow problems to spread. Take the case of Syria: Two and a half years ago, the United States had the way but not the will to catalyze the conflict’s end and President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster before Syria became a magnet for international jihadism. The opposition had radicalized today not only to the extent that it dooms Syria but also will threaten many other countries throughout the region as their citizens fighting with radicals in Syria return home. Moroccan security experts believe, for example, that perhaps 600 Moroccans have joined jihadi groups inside Syria. Tunisia, Jordan, and Turkey will face similar blowback, all of which more decisive action in a limited window might have prevented. Likewise, while the Obama administration celebrated its “leading from behind” approach toward Libya, the American desire to take a hands-off approach to the situation on the ground meant that no one secured ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s weapons caches. Not only will we eventually pay the price for the surface-to-air missiles which went missing, but the collapse of Mali into civil war was a direct result of the resulting flow of Libyan weapons to terrorist movements across the Sahel.

Gates also seems not to understand the danger of signaling emptiness to American red lines. Not only during the Obama administration, but also during the Republican and Democratic administrations which preceded him, a tremendous gap has developed between the rhetoric of policy and its reality. That encourages international rogues to test the line. When they become too overconfident or improperly assess American resolve, the result can be devastating.

Gates’ frustration when testifying in Congress also gained press attention. “I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit,” he wrote, adding, “It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.” Again here his umbrage is dangerous. Anyone who has testified before Congress knows that they are mere props for representatives and senators who are speaking more for the television or their constituents than to the item at hand. Still, the job of Congress is oversight and the notion either that such oversight should be mitigated for the ego of a secretary, or that the thin skins of senior executives within the United States government mean that words must be crafted to a kindergarten code is nonsense. Had the Pentagon’s own congressional liaisons done a better job, perhaps such exchanges would not have been so testy, but the Pentagon’s congressional liaisons are not the most effective bunch, as the culture of the Pentagon does not encourage the type of glad-handing, back-slapping, alcohol-imbibing culture that permeates Congress and its staff.

It would be nice if everyone was nice and demonstrated class, but if senior officials cannot put up with the likes of Carl Levin, John McCain, or Rand Paul, then they should not be trusted to deal with Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. That said, had the cynicism of Obama, Biden, and Clinton really frustrated Gates to the extent he suggests, then he should have quit for, by doing so, he literally could have put his money where his mouth was and changed the debate when it still mattered.

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Kirkuk and Mosul: A Tale of Two Cities

For the past few days, I have been calling Kirkuk, Iraq, home. Kirkuk, of course, is the city that, prior to Iraq’s liberation, policymakers and journalists worried about most. The reason is simple: In a country that does not reward diversity, Kirkuk has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; and Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians. Above ground, various groups jockeyed over land and property. Below ground, they fought over vast reserves of oil. Not surprisingly, both the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil continue dispute the final status of the city.

While I have been a frequent visitor to Kirkuk over the past decade, I have not been to the city in three years. What has transpired over that time—and specifically during the tenure of current governor Najmaldin Karim—is amazing. What’s changed since my last visit? No longer is electricity available only six hours a day: At present, Kirkukis enjoy 20-22 hours, and that during the summer season of peak demand. The ring roads are paved, as are many secondary streets. Fancy street lights add a touch of class to the city. Dusty, trash-strewn road islands are now planted with a variety of trees. Curbs are painted, as are many buildings. New stores have opened, and residents enjoy parks and amusement parks. Hospitals are getting better, and many schools have gotten a facelift. Importantly, all local residents appear to benefit equally; there has been no ethnic or sectarian chauvinism on the part of the current government. That is not merely the finding of diplomats, but is also the firm conclusion of the city’s diverse taxi drivers—perhaps the most honest purveyors of local opinion. Kirkuk shows what can be done when government works for the people rather than for itself.

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For the past few days, I have been calling Kirkuk, Iraq, home. Kirkuk, of course, is the city that, prior to Iraq’s liberation, policymakers and journalists worried about most. The reason is simple: In a country that does not reward diversity, Kirkuk has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; and Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians. Above ground, various groups jockeyed over land and property. Below ground, they fought over vast reserves of oil. Not surprisingly, both the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil continue dispute the final status of the city.

While I have been a frequent visitor to Kirkuk over the past decade, I have not been to the city in three years. What has transpired over that time—and specifically during the tenure of current governor Najmaldin Karim—is amazing. What’s changed since my last visit? No longer is electricity available only six hours a day: At present, Kirkukis enjoy 20-22 hours, and that during the summer season of peak demand. The ring roads are paved, as are many secondary streets. Fancy street lights add a touch of class to the city. Dusty, trash-strewn road islands are now planted with a variety of trees. Curbs are painted, as are many buildings. New stores have opened, and residents enjoy parks and amusement parks. Hospitals are getting better, and many schools have gotten a facelift. Importantly, all local residents appear to benefit equally; there has been no ethnic or sectarian chauvinism on the part of the current government. That is not merely the finding of diplomats, but is also the firm conclusion of the city’s diverse taxi drivers—perhaps the most honest purveyors of local opinion. Kirkuk shows what can be done when government works for the people rather than for itself.

Just one hundred miles away from Kirkuk lies Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. I was in Mosul a few years ago, but I was strongly advised not to visit this trip: The city has become too dangerous. It remains a hotbed both of Baathist insurgency and al-Qaeda. Recent visitors—both Kurdish and Arab—say that it is in a deplorable state. The problem is not lack of resources, but rather poor management. While Kirkuk spent 96 percent of the money allocated to it by the central government, Mosul spent only four percent because its government simply cannot get the job done (the government funds provinces with sequential payments; when funds at hand are spent, governors can apply for their province’s next installment). While roads are paved in Kirkuk, Mosul still deals with open sewage and crumbling infrastructure. As the temperature regularly climbs above 100 degrees across Iraq, Kirkukis enjoy ice cream and air conditioning. The Moslawis swelter.

How to explain the difference? Certainly, Najmaldin is more competent than his predecessors and remains squeaky clean, a rarity in a nation where corruption has since the 1980s been the norm. There is another explanation which Iraqis offer, however, that will not be popular among Americans: David Petraeus.

Iraqis assess Petraeus’s legacy far differently than do many Americans. While commander of the 101st Airborne, Petraeus was effectively king of Mosul. He pursued three main policies during his tenure:

  • First, he sought to increase trade with Syria on the theory that such trade would benefit Mosul’s economy. While commander, he famously bragged to a visiting American delegation about how much he had augmented cross-border trade, even as that trade facilitated an influx of Syrians and others who did not consider Iraqi security an objective to promote.
  • Second, he sought to counter de-Baathification by appointing senior Baathists to both government and security positions.
  • Lastly, he sought to appease some of the more radical Islamists, often through creative use of some of the funds at his disposal.

For a time, Petraeus’s strategy appeared to work: So long as the money flowed, there was quiet. But as soon as such funds dried up, all hell broke loose. It was a myth held too highly among some in the army that only Baathists had the capacity to manage; the fact of the matter is that many Baathists retained their municipal positions not because of competence but because of politics. Scores of perfectly competent Iraqis, meanwhile, did not compromise themselves morally in order to work under Saddam’s regime. Some of these men took jobs in Kirkuk. Alas, many of the men to whom Petraeus reached out remain entrenched in Mosul, enjoying the perks of titles but not having the capacity to manage. Several are actively engaged in terrorism. The misery to which they condemn Mosul keeps grievance alive. Blaming Baghdad is not an option: In both Mosul and Kirkuk, Baghdad’s influence is more theoretical than real. Both cities have de facto autonomy by distance to implement the programs they desire. In neither city is the ruling Da’wa Party strong, and yet one succeeds where the other fails.

While Petraeus rehabilitated Baathists and Islamists, Kirkuk—the city which was by all accounts supposed to be Iraq’s flashpoint—purged Baathists and refused to pay off extremists. Today, the difference between short-term appeasement and more principled governance is on full display in the juxtaposition between the two cities. Petraeus may be a patriot and a well-regarded military tactician, but when it came to civilian affairs and, indeed, those living with his signature counterinsurgency policies, his reputation may be less well-deserved.

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Inside Obama’s Syria Paralysis

The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”

Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”

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The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”

Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”

The president has been so desperate to stay on the sidelines, in spite of ample evidence that a standoffish American attitude is making the crisis worse, that he has fallen time and again to the lure of wishful thinking—imaging that Assad might be forced out by the rebels last summer or that a diplomatic initiative by Kofi Annan could possibly succeed. The interagency committee working on Syria policy was directed, according to the Journal, to focus on planning for post-Assad Syria—while largely ignoring the substantial issue of how to get rid of Assad in the first place.

In the absence of resolution from the top, the bureaucracy generated various reasons for doing nothing—as is usually the case. The most egregious objections came from “lawyers at the White House and departments of Defense, State and Justice,” who “debated whether the U.S. had a ‘clear and credible’ legal justification under U.S. or international law for intervening militarily. The clearest legal case could be made if the U.S. won a U.N. or NATO mandate for using force. Neither route seemed viable: Russia would veto any Security Council resolution, and NATO wasn’t interested in a new military mission.”

Suffice it to say, if the president were remotely interested in a more active American role, legal opinions could easily be ginned up to provide ample justification for such a policy. And if the U.S. were serious about doing something, then NATO could very well be brought along. These are not serious obstacles to action—but rather excuses for inaction.

The consequences of that inaction are persuasively laid out today by Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post [http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jackson-diehl-what-the-iraq-war-taught-me-about-syria/2013/03/31/5ef2e6d0-97b2-11e2-814b-063623d80a60_story.html]. He notes that U.S. influence in the Middle East survived the early setbacks in Iraq. But “now it is plummeting: Not just Britain and France but every neighbor of Syria has been shocked and awed by the failure of U.S. leadership. If it continues, Syria — not Iraq — will prove to be the turning point when America ceases to be regarded as what Bill Clinton called the ‘indispensable nation.’”

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Panetta’s Revelation

Leon Panetta made a fascinating disclosure in his congressional testimony on Thursday: He revealed that he had backed the proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last year to arm the Syrian rebels. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”

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Leon Panetta made a fascinating disclosure in his congressional testimony on Thursday: He revealed that he had backed the proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last year to arm the Syrian rebels. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”

No one disputes that the president is commander-in-chief and as such has the right to overrule his advisers: the buck, after all, does stop in the Oval Office. But it behooves the president to more fully explain his reasoning, lest the assumption become prevalent that this was a decision made for political rather than strategic reasons.

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Extremists’ Role in Syria Was Not Inevitable

The Obama administration is only beginning its second term, but it is already clear that its mishandling of Syria is turning out to be one of its biggest foreign policy failures. The evidence accumulates every day–whether in the form of more dead bodies piling up in Syria, or more refugees crowding neighboring countries, or more foreign jihadists rushing into Syria. Just yesterday the New York Times ran this interview with Hajji Marea, one of the most potent rebel commanders to emerge out of the fighting, who is quoted as follows:

“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”

Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.”

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The Obama administration is only beginning its second term, but it is already clear that its mishandling of Syria is turning out to be one of its biggest foreign policy failures. The evidence accumulates every day–whether in the form of more dead bodies piling up in Syria, or more refugees crowding neighboring countries, or more foreign jihadists rushing into Syria. Just yesterday the New York Times ran this interview with Hajji Marea, one of the most potent rebel commanders to emerge out of the fighting, who is quoted as follows:

“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”

Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.”

As some of us have been saying since the start of the revolt, there was nothing inevitable about the growing prominence of al-Qaeda; the extremists might have been sidelined by a more active American policy of support for the more moderate rebel factions.

The Times reveals this morning that this was precisely the policy option advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last summer. “But,” the story continues, “with the White House worried about the risks, and with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, they were rebuffed.”

In other words, President Obama was so committed to his “tide of war is receding” mantra that he was willing to ignore a growing war in Syria so as not to run political risks during his reelection. The proposal to arm the rebels might have been given a serious look after the election were it not for the scandal which brought down Petraeus and the concussion which sidelined Clinton.

So now the White House appears committed indefinitely to a “lead from behind” strategy in Syria even as the evidence of that policy’s failure becomes starker every day.

One suspects that Clinton and Petraeus–along with Leon Panetta and, before him, Bob Gates–will be sorely missed in the second term. They were important advocates of a more moderate, centrist, activist American foreign policy. With their departure, there seems to be little standing in the way of a policy of retreat and retrenchment for which the U.S. and our allies are certain to pay a heavy price in the years ahead.

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The End of the Allen-Kelley “Scandal”

After Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of labor, was cleared of corruption charges, he famously and plaintively asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” That is a question that General John Allen might be asking himself today.

Yesterday afternoon the press office at the Pentagon issued this terse statement: “Secretary Panetta has been informed that the Department’s Office of Inspector General has concluded an investigation into a matter involving General John Allen, U.S. Marine Corps.  The Secretary was pleased to learn that allegations of professional misconduct were not substantiated by the investigation.  The Secretary has complete confidence in the continued leadership of General Allen, who is serving with distinction in Afghanistan.”

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After Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of labor, was cleared of corruption charges, he famously and plaintively asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” That is a question that General John Allen might be asking himself today.

Yesterday afternoon the press office at the Pentagon issued this terse statement: “Secretary Panetta has been informed that the Department’s Office of Inspector General has concluded an investigation into a matter involving General John Allen, U.S. Marine Corps.  The Secretary was pleased to learn that allegations of professional misconduct were not substantiated by the investigation.  The Secretary has complete confidence in the continued leadership of General Allen, who is serving with distinction in Afghanistan.”

Thus ended the “scandal” that has been the subject of so much feverish press speculation since early November involving Allen’s emails with a Tampa socialite named Jill Kelley—a relationship that was brought to light as a result of the controversy which brought down David Petraeus. There were numerous leaks insinuating there was something inappropriate going on between Allen and Kelley which, even if true, would be none of the public’s business. It is ridiculous that this whole matter was referred for official investigation in the first place and that the investigation has lasted some two months, leaving a dark cloud hanging over Allen’s future just as he had to deliver politically sensitive recommendations for future force levels in Afghanistan.

Presumably Allen will now proceed to confirmation for his next job, as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Let us hope that in that position he will have to fight only our nation’s enemies—not political snipers in Washington who engage in character assassination by innuendo.

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Secrecy, National Security, and the Case of John Kiriakou

Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.

At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.

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Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.

At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.

Kiriakou is accused of revealing the name of that agent to Shane and one other agent to a different reporter. There are obvious questions here about the nature of the reporter-source relationship. Neither man in this case thought he was doing something unlawful or unethical. Nothing came of the disclosure. As Max wrote with regard to the scandal surrounding David Petraeus, some information remains officially classified or secret long after it has been revealed in the media. Thus, such information becomes common knowledge, yet discussing it is not decriminalized. The decision to investigate and prosecute such conversations, then, can smack of political motivation–all the more so for someone like Kiriakou, who became an uncommonly public figure for a CIA agent by leaving the agency and going public with his opinions about the CIA’s methods.

However, Shane remains an interested party here, with a clear preference for Kiriakou’s exoneration, both legally and personally, since Shane wants continued access to such sources and a clear conscience to do so. Thus, Shane’s readers will be subject to justifications and false choices that conveniently absolve him of guilt. In that vein, Shane writes on the Obama administration’s increased push for combating leaks it sees as unhelpful to the White House:

The resulting chill on officials’ willingness to talk is deplored by journalists and advocates of open government; without leaks, they note, Americans might never have learned about the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods or the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping. But for supporters of greater secrecy, the chill is precisely the goal.

This is, clearly, an overly simplistic view of the issue. First of all, not all leaks are created equal: some are legal and others break federal law. Second, some leaks are clearly damaging to national security, and thus put Americans in unnecessary danger. Some don’t. The press coverage of Washington is built around the use of leaks and unnamed sources, much of which is perfectly legal. The Times takes this practice to such an obsessive degree that reading the Times, one often expects to hear the week’s weather forecast followed by “according to an unnamed satellite who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has not been authorized by the sun to discuss these matters.”

A good example of a damaging leak is the New York Times’s decision to publish in 2006 the details of a highly successful secret program used by the government to track the finances of terrorist activity. The program was legal and constitutional, but the Times saw an opportunity to damage the Bush administration’s national security efforts, and took it—safety of Americans be damned. Democrats and Republicans, experts and officials, pleaded with then-Times Executive Editor Bill Keller not to publish the story. Keller ignored them.

The point here is that neither the government nor the crusading journalist is always right. Rather, they both err in judgment or in law—and sometimes both. Shane asked a source for information that would land the source in a federal prison and nearly bankrupt his family, costing his wife her job as well. So the neat categories into which Shane seeks to divide the voices in this scandal are understandable, but that doesn’t make them any less mistaken or self-serving.

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Why Is Gen. Allen Still Under Investigation?

General John Allen is now back in Kabul, directing a major military campaign involving 68,000 U.S. troops and 37,000 allied troops. But he would have to be superhuman to keep his focus entirely on the war effort, for he is still under fire from the home front. According to the New York Times, “some 15 investigators” are “working seven days a week in the Pentagon inspector general’s office,” poring over emails exchanged between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who struck up friendships with many senior military officers.

The question is: Why? Is there some credible evidence that Allen somehow compromised our national security by his interactions with Kelley? Is Kelley suspected of being an al-Qaeda mole? Is Allen suspected of being another Benedict Arnold? Not that I’m aware of. To judge by the numerous leaks that have accompanied this puzzling investigation, an outgrowth of the same investigation that already forced David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director, the worst that could have occurred is that Allen and Kelley might have exchanged a few emails judged to be flirtatious or even salacious. Is this really a matter that should be occupying the full-time attention of 15 investigators—and diverting the attention of a general in command of a war zone?

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General John Allen is now back in Kabul, directing a major military campaign involving 68,000 U.S. troops and 37,000 allied troops. But he would have to be superhuman to keep his focus entirely on the war effort, for he is still under fire from the home front. According to the New York Times, “some 15 investigators” are “working seven days a week in the Pentagon inspector general’s office,” poring over emails exchanged between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who struck up friendships with many senior military officers.

The question is: Why? Is there some credible evidence that Allen somehow compromised our national security by his interactions with Kelley? Is Kelley suspected of being an al-Qaeda mole? Is Allen suspected of being another Benedict Arnold? Not that I’m aware of. To judge by the numerous leaks that have accompanied this puzzling investigation, an outgrowth of the same investigation that already forced David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director, the worst that could have occurred is that Allen and Kelley might have exchanged a few emails judged to be flirtatious or even salacious. Is this really a matter that should be occupying the full-time attention of 15 investigators—and diverting the attention of a general in command of a war zone?

Unless there is some bombshell here waiting to explode, the answer is a definitive no. So why did Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller permit the FBI to waste time on this investigation—and why is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wasting time on it now? I can’t answer those questions, but Congress should ask for itself and demand answers.

The biggest scandal in the whole Petraeus-Allen affair is that we are wasting taxpayer resources hounding two great generals who have dedicated their lives to defending our country over purely personal matters of no concern to their public duties.

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CBS: DNI Changed Talking Points

CBS reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence removed references to terrorism from the CIA talking points before distribution:

CBS News has learned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack – with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes. …

However, an intelligence source tells CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan the links to al Qaeda were deemed too “tenuous” to make public, because there was not strong confidence in the person providing the intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus, however, told Congress he agreed to release the information — the reference to al Qaeda — in an early draft of the talking points, which were also distributed to select lawmakers. …

The head of the DNI is James Clapper, an Obama appointee. He ultimately did review the points, before they were given to Ambassador Rice and members of the House intelligence committee on Sept. 14. They were compiled the day before.

Brennan says her source wouldn’t confirm who in the agency suggested the final edits which were signed off on by all intelligence agencies.

First, the CIA answers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, so the whole notion that the CIA “agreed” to the changes is moot. They “agreed” to the changes because they were told to by the ODNI. Second, Clapper is clearly sprinting from this — the responsibility for the changes is pinned vaguely on the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” without much mention of him. The article actually leaves open the possibility that somebody else within the ODNI changed the talking points without running the changes by Clapper first, as if that’s believable.

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CBS reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence removed references to terrorism from the CIA talking points before distribution:

CBS News has learned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack – with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes. …

However, an intelligence source tells CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan the links to al Qaeda were deemed too “tenuous” to make public, because there was not strong confidence in the person providing the intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus, however, told Congress he agreed to release the information — the reference to al Qaeda — in an early draft of the talking points, which were also distributed to select lawmakers. …

The head of the DNI is James Clapper, an Obama appointee. He ultimately did review the points, before they were given to Ambassador Rice and members of the House intelligence committee on Sept. 14. They were compiled the day before.

Brennan says her source wouldn’t confirm who in the agency suggested the final edits which were signed off on by all intelligence agencies.

First, the CIA answers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, so the whole notion that the CIA “agreed” to the changes is moot. They “agreed” to the changes because they were told to by the ODNI. Second, Clapper is clearly sprinting from this — the responsibility for the changes is pinned vaguely on the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” without much mention of him. The article actually leaves open the possibility that somebody else within the ODNI changed the talking points without running the changes by Clapper first, as if that’s believable.

It’s not the first time Clapper has tried to distance himself from his own office, either; back in September, DNI spokesperson Shawn Turner issued a statement in September about the “changing assessment” on Benghazi, and it was noted at the time that this statement did not come from Clapper himself.

This quote in the CBS article, from Turner, also raises more questions:

“The intelligence community assessed from the very beginning that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” DNI spokesman Shawn Turner tells CBS News. That information was shared at a classified level — which Rice, as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, would have been privy to.

So President Obama, Rice, Clapper and others were aware this was a terrorist attack “from the very beginning.” Why wouldn’t they acknowledge this publicly for nearly two weeks? What’s more, Turner’s comment contradicts that same DNI statement he issued on Sept. 28:

In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available. …

As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qa’ida.

CBS reports the White House wasn’t aware of the talking point changes, but is that believable? There were signs in the past that the DNI position was being politicized and micro-managed by the Obama White House, an atmosphere that eventually led to Dennis Blair’s resignation. Shortly after the failed Christmas Day bombing, Blair seemed to hint at the political pressure publicly during a House Intelligence Committee hearing. “I just can’t control all of the politics,” he told the committee. “The political dimension of what can be [and what] ought to be a national security issue has been quite high…I don’t think it’s been very particularly good, I will tell you, from the inside in terms of us trying to get the right job done to protect the United States.”

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Did White House Edit CIA Talking Points?

David Petraeus reportedly told Congress on Friday that the original CIA talking points linked the Benghazi attack to terrorism, but that part was edited out by unknown officials before distribution. The question is, who edited the talking points, and was it politically motivated?

According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, every agency that could have made these changes also pleaded ignorance at Friday’s closed-door hearing. The one entity that wasn’t at the hearing and could have changed the talking points? The White House

Leaders from the State Department, FBI, CIA, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, testified on Thursday and Friday. Regarding the allegations that the original CIA talking points had been changed so that terrorist involvement was not included, Sen. Chambliss said, “Everybody there was asked do you know who made these changes; and nobody knew. The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House.”

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David Petraeus reportedly told Congress on Friday that the original CIA talking points linked the Benghazi attack to terrorism, but that part was edited out by unknown officials before distribution. The question is, who edited the talking points, and was it politically motivated?

According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, every agency that could have made these changes also pleaded ignorance at Friday’s closed-door hearing. The one entity that wasn’t at the hearing and could have changed the talking points? The White House

Leaders from the State Department, FBI, CIA, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, testified on Thursday and Friday. Regarding the allegations that the original CIA talking points had been changed so that terrorist involvement was not included, Sen. Chambliss said, “Everybody there was asked do you know who made these changes; and nobody knew. The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House.”

That’s not exactly proof the White House made the edits. It could turn out the FBI, State Department or CIA weren’t being totally up-front at the hearing, and one of them was responsible for the changes. Both the State Department and CIA would have had at least some motive to play up the “spontaneous demonstration” narrative. State, because of all the security red flags it ignored prior to the attack, and the CIA because it didn’t want its Benghazi assets exposed.

Spokesman Ben Rhodes also denied the White House was involved in a briefing Saturday (h/t Erika Johnson):

Now, in terms of — I think the focus of this has often been on the public statements that were made by Susan Rice and other administration officials in that first week after the attack.  Those were informed by unclassified talking points that we — that were provided to the Congress and to the interagency — the rest of the administration by the intelligence community. …

What we also said yesterday, though — because this question came up as to whether the White House had edited Susan Rice’s points and the points that were provided to Congress and the administration — the only edit that was made to those points by the White House, and was also made by the State Department, was to change the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility” since the facility in Benghazi had not — was not formally a consulate.  Other than that, we worked off of the points that were provided by the intelligence community.  So I can’t speak to any other edits that may have been made within the intelligence community.

This should be fairly easy to clear up, especially if the only entities that reviewed the talking points were the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and the White House, as Chambliss indicates. If the White House knows that the State Department changed “consulate” to “diplomatic facility” — a relatively minor technical edit — then surely somebody at one of these agencies knows who removed the references to terrorism.

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Petraeus’s Phony Critics

The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.

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The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.

Then he attacks Petraeus for supposedly not leading “his own Army to win anything even approximating a victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan,” which rather ignores that Petraeus actually did deliver something close to victory in Iraq under extremely difficult circumstances in 2008–only to have his achievements squandered by the Obama administration. As for Afghanistan, he set the campaign on a course toward success even if he was not given the time–or resources–to see it through to as successful a conclusion as the campaign in Iraq.

Truscott continues: “It’s not just General Petraeus. The fact is that none of our generals have led us to a victory since men like Patton and my grandfather, Lucian King Truscott Jr., stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds.” It seems that Patton and old man Truscott “were nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations”; they “chewed nails for breakfast, spit tacks at lunch and picked their teeth with their pistol barrels,” while “General Petraeus probably flosses.”

There is more of this same risible name-calling, including the truly astonishing claim that Petraeus is too concerned with his personal appearance (“never has so much beribboned finery decorated a general’s uniform”)–as if Petraeus were remotely in the same league as Patton who was known for his riding breeches, highly polished helmet, and ivory-handled pistols.

I search in vain for a serious point here. There is none. Rather this is sheer animus against Petraeus animated by runaway nostalgia for the Greatest Generation, which ignores the fact that most wars before and since World War II could not be ended by marching on the enemy’s capital to demand unconditional surrender. Where, after all, is the capital of the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Iraq? Petraeus and the troops under his command did extremely well in dealing with in dealing with a more diffuse enemy that could not simply be pounded into submission with massive firepower because he did not wear a uniform or control a well-defined territory.

“Guerrilla war is more intellectual than a bayonet charge,” T.E. Lawrence said. Petraeus was smart enough, dedicated enough, and capable enough to rise to the challenge of understanding and fighting that type of war. In the annals of counterinsurgency he is one of the all-time greats. Now, as payback for a lifetime of service, he gets insulted by sideline spitballers like Lucian Truscott IV.

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