Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Man of Refinement

Post below recycled from TARANTO. See the original for links

Nineteen days ago, we speculated about Barack Obama that he would soon abandon his promise to bring about an American defeat in Iraq:
Could it be that Obama is planning to pivot? That is, what if he goes to Iraq and declares upon his return that he has been persuaded that the surge has made a difference, that things are going much better, and that he is now convinced victory is both possible and crucial?

Last Thursday, just as we had put our last pre-July Fourth column to bed, Obama himself said more or less exactly this. As the New York Times reports on its blog The Caucus:
"I've always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed," he said. "And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

Later the same day, he called a second news conference, where he insisted that his position on Iraq had not changed:
"We're going to try this again," Mr. Obama said, standing behind a lectern that was hastily set up on the lawn of a park here. "Apparently I wasn't clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq." . . . "Let me be as clear as I can be, I intend to end this war," Mr. Obama said. "My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in and I will give them a new mission and that is to end this war--responsibly, deliberately, but decisively."

There is a word for ending a war responsibly. It's called "winning," and it is what George W. Bush and John McCain--though they have at times disagreed about tactics--have agreed on all along. It's good to see Obama adopting, or at least seeming to adopt, the Bush-McCain position.

Maybe Obama has always been for victory in Iraq, as he now claims; or maybe he was and remains pro-defeat and his latest pronouncements are merely a verbal smokescreen intended to obscure his actual views so as to appeal to people on both sides of the debate. But if his "refinement" is real, it is an example of change we can believe in.

Obama's Nixon Reprise

Richard Nixon came to office with a rumored secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Maybe Barack Obama's plan to end the war in Iraq is going to wind up being a secret, too. The presumptive Democratic nominee set off media firecrackers last week by hinting at further refinements to his strategy for withdrawal. Previous strategies include his January 2007 call for a complete withdrawal by March 2008, followed by his March 2008 call for a complete withdrawal by July 2010, or 16 months after he takes office.

Now Mr. Obama tells us that the 16-month timeline is contingent on (1) "[making] sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable" (my emphasis), and (2) the opinion of "the commanders on the ground." Also in question is the size of the "residual force" that the Illinois senator envisions for Iraq after the bulk of U.S. forces is withdrawn. Will it be an embassy guard, plus some military advisers and special-ops forces? Or, as suggested in a March paper by Colin H. Kahl, who runs Mr. Obama's working group on Iraq, an "overwatch force" of between 60,000 and 80,000 soldiers?

Mr. Kahl's paper, which was written for the moderately leftish Center for a New American Security, is not an Obama campaign document. Nor has it been publicly released, though it was reported on by the New York Sun's Eli Lake. But it offers a useful window into what serious Democratic policy wonks think is a workable U.S. strategy for Iraq in the next administration.

Titled "Stay on Success: A Policy of Conditional Engagement," Mr. Kahl presents a middle way between the extremes of "unconditional engagement" - basically, the Bush administration's approach - and "unconditional redeployment," which is, or perhaps was, Mr. Obama's recipe.

On the latter point, Mr. Kahl warns that unconditional redeployment "is insufficient to encourage political accommodation because it offers no 'carrot' to groups that would prefer not to accommodate or assurances to those who fear abandonment. It also risks . . . driving the Sunnis back to the insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq, reigniting sectarian violence and regional tensions." Note well: That's the view of an Obama adviser on the original Obama plan.

Mr. Kahl's own preferences track closely with those of Gen. David Petraeus, who introduced the phrase "overwatch" in congressional testimony last September. It would involve the rapid withdrawal of three combat brigades, an emphasis on "mentoring and monitoring" Iraq's Security Forces, continued U.S. pressure on Iraq's sectarian leaders to come politically to terms, and a round of regional diplomacy. Still, as many as 80,000 troops would remain in Iraq by the end of 2010 in Mr. Kahl's plan, or halfway into the next administration. How much longer till those troops are withdrawn? Two years? Twenty?

This really does begin to look like a reprise of a Vietnamization strategy - and that's not a bad thing. Nixon inherited 540,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam on his first day in office. More than 16,000 of those troops were killed in 1968 alone, the year of the Tet Offensive. Yet in 1972, with troop levels at just under 70,000, the U.S. and South Vietnam were able to rout the North's massive Easter Offensive and force a peace settlement. U.S. combat fatalities that year amounted to 641.

Can a similar policy work in Iraq? The obvious counterargument is that South Vietnam collapsed in 1975. But that collapse had much to do with the inability of a politically crippled Nixon administration to enforce the terms of the Paris Peace Agreement, and with the refusal of Congress to allow the Ford Administration to resupply the South.

An Obama administration might similarly decide to discard Mr. Kahl's "overwatch" recommendations in favor of complete withdrawal, and find other ways to cut off the government in Baghdad. Or it might set such restrictive rules of engagement that whatever U.S. forces remain in Iraq fail to serve any useful purpose.

But if Mr. Obama is serious about ensuring a "stable Iraq," it's hard to see how he can ignore the logic of Mr. Kahl's proposal. Politically, too, the case becomes an easier sale thanks to the crippling of al Qaeda, the defanging of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, the growing confidence and capabilities of Iraq's central government, and the end to sectarian killing. (The number of "ethno-sectarian" deaths in Iraq, which peaked at over 2,000 in December 2006, were at zero in May 2008.) There is no civil war here to police. There is a peace to keep, and predatory neighbors to be kept at bay.

The delightful irony, of course, is that Mr. Obama's prospective task in Iraq has been made infinitely easier by the success of President Bush's surge, the very policy he derided only a year ago. How seriously this calls his judgment into question - "judgment" being the key quality on which he sold his candidacy to the Democratic Party - will be for voters to decide in November. But it does suggest he's lucky, an attribute any president would wish for. Poor Richard Nixon, most of all.


The Democrats' foreign-policy game

What you vote for isn't always what you get

The Democratic Party and its presumed presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, have made "restoring America's image" and "renewing American leadership" cornerstones of their foreign-policy promises for 2008.Nearly every Democratic foreign-policy speech, press release, or Web link says as much.

This is a powerful message that certainly resonates with American voters and our friends around the world. However, if we look just below the surface of the rhetoric and analyze specific policies proposed by Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail, we find plans that would only further damage America's international standing.

On two critical issues in particular - trade and the war in Iraq - Democrats have been trying to have their cake and eat it too: They claim they will restore America's image and leadership and simultaneously promise unilateralist and irresponsible policies certain to have the opposite effect.

This foreign-policy "house of mirrors" (where what you're told is not necessarily what you get) may have been useful to get through the primaries. But it risks tying the Democrats up in a Gordian knot in the general election, and, if they win the White House, well beyond.

Regarding trade, Democrats have become unabashedly protectionist to the point where they are willing to thumb their noses at American friends and allies like South Korea, Colombia, Canada, and Mexico. In May, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shelved a painstakingly negotiated trade pact with Colombia that would have primarily benefited American exports. If the US is wary of trading with tiny Colombia - a democratizing neighbor confronting terrorism and drug trafficking - what does that say about America's capacity for global economic leadership?

Ms. Pelosi also recently killed "fast-track" procedures intended to ease congressional votes on trade agreements, meaning new pacts with South Korea and Panama are also likely to remain in limbo. And just last month, Democrats in the House and Senate proposed a bill (containing many of Senator Obama's campaign promises) that would require the president to submit plans to renegotiate all current trade agreements - including the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico - before Congress would consider any new agreements.

The message Democrats are sending to the world is clear: You cannot trust America to honor its trade agreements, even with developing nations struggling to enter the global middle class. This is a far cry from Obama's Lincolnesque promise in his Democratic nomination victory speech June 3rd to restore "our image as the last, best hope on earth."

On Iraq, Democrats have put themselves in an equally tenuous position. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Obama and congressional Democrats remain committed to calling the "surge" a failure. And they are wedded to promises for immediate troop withdrawals.

Every reputable analysis of Iraq - including from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group - warns that a rapid reduction of US troops would reignite sectarian violence and threaten the government in Baghdad.

Nonetheless, more than 40 Democratic congressional candidates recently pledged that, if elected, they would legislate an immediate withdrawal of all troops except those guarding the US Embassy. And Obama maintains his vow to immediately begin removing "one to two combat brigades each month" - a pace that would represent the most frantic retreat since Vietnam.

To ignore recent hard-won stability in Iraq and withdraw in the face of a certain humanitarian catastrophe would be viewed across the world as the height of irresponsibility; and it would make a mockery of Obama's hopes that America will "once again have the courage and conviction to lead the free world."

Perhaps we should not take the Democrats too literally - perhaps this is simply a crafty election year strategy aimed at placating an antiwar and increasingly protectionist electorate. After all, two of Obama's senior advisers - in unguarded moments - described his campaign promises on trade and Iraq as mere necessities to win the election; afterward prudence would prevail.

But Democrats may be playing it a bit too clever, possibly hindering their chances in November. Despite lofty promises, the policies they are most aligning themselves with leave them vulnerable to Republican charges of "defeatism" - that America cannot compete in a world of open markets and cannot successfully finish the job in Iraq.

Unless Democrats begin matching their policies with their inspirational rhetoric, they risk losing more than just the election. They risk losing their chance to help America truly reclaim its mantle of global leadership.


Afghan strategy

Barack Obama and John McCain are proposing sharply different strategies to seize the initiative from a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, positions that underscore the two leading presidential candidates' competing visions of how to wage the war on terrorism.

In recent weeks, the violence in Afghanistan has eclipsed the war in Iraq, with record numbers of US casualties and a daring prison break that freed hundreds of captured insurgents. At the same time, a series of new assessments from top US military leaders have concluded that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are as strong as they have been since the United States invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

That has returned Afghanistan to the center of the presidential campaign. Obama, the presump tive Democratic nominee, and McCain, his Republican counterpart, both recently outlined their visions for solving the crisis.

If elected, Obama says, he would immediately withdraw thousands of ground troops from Iraq and send them to Afghanistan to help undermanned US forces defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda. "It's time to refocus our attention on the war we have to win in Afghanistan," Obama said in a speech last week. "It is time to go after the Al Qaeda leadership where it actually exists."

The Illinois senator, whose opposition to the Iraq war is a campaign centerpiece, has concluded that the US presence there has fanned Islamic terrorism and diverted scarce military resources from taking on new terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al Qaeda operatives trained for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Obama believes that the United States has relied too heavily on forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Europe-based military alliance which has little experience in guerrilla warfare. "Afghanistan should have been our fight," said retired Air Force General Merrill "Tony" McPeak, national cochairman of Obama's campaign. McPeak blamed the Iraq war, where the United States has about 140,000 troops, for diverting the Pentagon's focus on Afghanistan, where only 32,000 American troops are stationed.

However, McCain, a former fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, says Iraq, not Afghanistan, is the "central front" in the war on terrorism. He believes that NATO and Pakistan must do more in Afghanistan until the United States can draw down its commitment in Iraq - a position which tracks Bush administration strategy.

The Arizona senator and his foreign policy team warn that pulling US forces from Iraq would embolden Islamic extremists around the world and strengthen Al Qaeda as a national security threat. "To somehow think that it's an either/or situation - either Afghanistan or Iraq - is a fundamental misreading of the situation in the Middle East," McCain said on June 30. "What happens in Iraq matters in Afghanistan. It matters in Iran. It matters in all the countries in the region." "If we had pursued the policies vociferously advocated by Senator Obama, we would have risked a wider war."

Randy Scheunemann, a McCain senior foreign policy adviser, said Obama wants to "surrender to Al Qaeda in Iraq to fight them in Afghanistan," a position that "belies a lack of a strategic understanding of the enemy we face."

The gulf between Obama and McCain over Afghanistan and national security, "reflects two different theories about the war on terrorism," said Edward Luttwak, a former Pentagon strategist and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Theory number one, which is the Obama theory, is that terrorism is caused by grievances and that the solution is to deal with those grievances," such as ending the American occupation of Iraq, Luttwak said. "The second theory - McCain's - is that Islamic violence is about a fight over resources, morale and leadership," he added. "It holds that if you lose in Iraq it will be a tremendous boost for the extremists and you will bring the neighboring countries under the sway of Islamists."

But there is little question that the next president will have to deal with a growing crisis in Afghanistan. Operating from a virtual haven in Pakistan's lawless western frontier - and fueled by a burgeoning heroin trade - the Taliban has launched suicide bombings and quick-strike raids against US and NATO forces, while its leaders seize authority over rural populations across several provinces in southern and eastern Afghanistan. That has further weakened the Afghan government's control over the country and imperiled reconstruction efforts.

According to the US military, there has been a 40 percent increase in Taliban and Al Qaeda attacks so far this year in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan adjoining the Pakistan frontier, while in June the 46 combined US and NATO combat deaths in Afghanistan - 28 American and 18 NATO - was the highest since the Taliban government was toppled after the Sept. 11 attacks. Since May the death toll in Afghanistan has outpaced military casualties in Iraq.

Fueling the presidential debate, the nation's top military officer acknowledged last week that US commanders need more troops in Afghanistan but there are none to spare. "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq," Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon last week. Mullen said the Afghanistan campaign has been running short of troops since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign," he said, "which by definition means we need more forces there."

Mullen's remarks were the most pointed yet from a military leader on the impact the Iraq war has had on Afghanistan, and Obama's advisers said Mullin essentially confirmed Obama's position. "Iraq has distracted us from Al Qaeda," Susan Rice, former assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton and a top Obama adviser, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. "Because of Iraq we have fewer troops in Afghanistan, we have fewer intelligence assets, we have less of a diplomatic focus."

But McCain's advisers say that if he becomes president he would build on President Bush's decision to rely on NATO forces - which now have about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan - and would prod Pakistan to take on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters camped inside its borders. "There is no easy answer, but clearly Pakistan needs to do more to crack down there," said Scheunemann.

At the same time, McCain believes the Afghan government and its military commanders must expand its forces, and better coordinate the combat and civil reconstruction efforts now underway. Scheunemann said McCain also believes that the United States to should help train a larger Afghan National Army. "We need to coordinate civil sides of the effort, which is critical in any counter insurgency effort," Scheunemann said.

Nevertheless, Obama's position, not McCain's, could gain traction if the violence in Afghanistan increases, said David Gergen, a former White House aide to four presidents who now teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan helps Obama," Gergen said in an interview. "It provides him with useful arguments."


Flip-flop is not the point

EJ Dionne has an interesting piece on the Obama Iraq flip-flop. Dionne says: "voters know that John McCain is far more likely than Barack Obama to continue the war in Iraq indefinitely. Obama would be foolish to blur that distinction." But in making his argument, he raises the interesting question of what it is that Senator Obama actually believes at this moment in time, and what concrete actions he would take as President. First, an excerpt:
When a candidate calls a second news conference to say the same thing he thought he said in the first one, you know he knows he has a problem. Thus Barack Obama's twin news conferences last week in Fargo, N.D. At his first, Obama promised he would make a "thorough assessment" of his Iraq policy in his coming visit there and "continue to gather information" to "make sure that our troops are safe, and that Iraq is stable."

You might ask: What's wrong with that? A commander in chief willing to adjust his view to facts and realities should be a refreshing idea. But when news reports suggested Obama was backing away from his commitment to withdrawing troops from Iraq in 16 months, Obama's lieutenants no doubt heard echoes of those cries of "flip-flop" that rocked the 2004 Republican National Convention and proved devastating to John Kerry.

So out Obama came again to reiterate his timeline. "Apparently, I wasn't clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq," he said. "I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war - responsibly, deliberately, but decisively."

The unsteady moment suggested that Obama has not figured out how to slip the trap John McCain's campaign is trying to set for him.The flip-flop charge may be of limited use to the GOP this year because McCain has changed his own positions rather promiscuously.

Dionne assumes that Senator Obama is genuinely anti-war, and that appears true, as well as having the additional merit of having been politically very useful in his Chicago environs, "one of the most liberal districts in Illinois encompassing Chicago's lake front, Hyde Park, the University of Chicago and African American neighborhoods in the southern half of the district."

What then should one make of Obama's new commitment to make sure that "Iraq is stable"? Some conservative commentators suggest that there is no way that a Democratic President would saddle his administration with a strategic defeat in Iraq, and maybe that is so. But the commitment contained in "I intend to end this war" does not suggest that victory is desirable or even an option. Perhaps Senator Obama really does know, deep down, what he would do on January 21, 2009. But he sure has not made it clear, and his goals are internally contradictory. That's quite a bit worse than a flip-flop.


Obama's lack of understanding exposed again

Dean Barnett noticed a stunning level of ignorance by Barack Obama about the command structure he seeks to head as commander-in-chief and blogged about it at The Weekly Standard. When Obama held his second press conference late last week to address his ever more slippery position on withdrawing troops from Iraq, he stated:
"I am absolutely committed to ending the war," the longtime community organizer declared. "I will call my Joint Chiefs of Staff in and give them a new assignment and that is to end the war."

Barnett explains well the role of Joint Chefs as a staff unit, which provides advice to the commander-in-chief. In order to avoid conflicts within their respective services and provide clear advice, the joint chiefs are by law excluded from the command structure. The command structure (what is called the "line" part of the organization in corporate organizations) consists of people like General Petraeus, who actually run the military organization through its structure of commands. Barnett comments sarcastically:
Surely Obama knows this. Obviously he wouldn't be seeking the role of Commander-in-Chief without knowing how the job is done.

Obama has such a naive view of running organizations that he doesn't appreciate way they actually work. Just call in the guys with braids on their uniforms and give orders.

The problem goes well beyond the specifics of the basics of the military command structure. Obama has no leadership experience in large organizations whatsoever. He doesn't even know what questions an incoming executive should ask, in order to formulate effective policies.

There are serious and important benefits (as well as pitfalls) to a line/staff division of labor in business and a command/staff division in the military. People who have actually run serious organizations and accomplished something know all about working both sides of the organizational apparatus, avoiding the downsides while maximizing the effectiveness of the various tools at the leader's disposal.

Actual experience leading, changing, and accomplishing goals in large organizations ought to be an informal prerequisite for presidential candidates. John McCain hasn't run a large organization, but at least he has been a military leader, responsible for the Navy's largest squadron at the time.

Obama's understanding of the intricacies of management reflects the shallowness of a man who has gathered resume items without ever accomplishing much as a community organizer, lawyer, state senator, and US Senator. Such people tend to get into real trouble when they arrive in a job where responsibility cannot so easily be sloughed off on others after moving on to a higher position.

Obama is again and again demonstrating that he doesn't know very much at all of about the serious matter of state. Just looking and sounding good enough to garner votes seems to be the limit of his aims. Preparation for actually being president is an afterthought.



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