In the hot new issue of Foreign Policy, Vali Nasr, now dean at Johns Hopkins SAIS, but formerly at the State Department, offers a scathing portrayal of President Obama's national security team. The villain of the piece appears as "the White House," which is referred to 63 times, most of them negative. Readers of this blog will not be surprised by Nasr's conclusion that "the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics."
Every administration has turf fights, but this article makes me thinks Obama's have been memorably bad. Other examples:
Win McNamee/Getty Images
A bunch of senior State Department officials got booted over security failures at Benghazi. A friend comments, "This is functionally equivalent to the sacking of GOs."
The contrast to the lack of accountability for the Abu Ghraib mess is striking. And I am confident that the prisoner abuse scandal, by outraging Iraqis and fanning the flames of the insurgency, resulted in the deaths of more Americans than did the lapses in Libya.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on September 20, 2011.
By Tom Lynch
Best Defense department of dysfunctional diplomacy
Recent comments by Senator Kirk from Illinois exemplify a familiar pattern by senior U.S. political, military and diplomatic officials struggling to understand the devilish intricacies and deep challenges of South Asian politics through the constrained access portal of experience in or focus on Afghanistan. This struggle all too frequently takes the pattern of a seven-step process of "discovery learning" regarding the complexities of South Asia security by Americans first introduced to Afghanistan without background in the wider region. That process goes something like this ....
STEP 1 - MEET Afghans, find them engaging, look for the quick way to help them with a "hand up," ignore the vexing, decades-long regional security dilemmas underpinning their plight.
STEP 2 - DISCOVER Afghans suffer from multiple internal and external challenges -- take the (northern) Afghan viewpoint that theirs is all a problem of Pakistan's making.
STEP 3 - BLAME Pakistan for all Afghanistan's ills and despair of American engagement with Pakistan or Afghanistan, throw out the "I" word suggesting that more India in Afghanistan would "teach" Pakistan a lesson (and presumably save some cash).
STEP 4 - DISCOVER Pakistan already believes there is an Indian under every rock in Afghanistan - and that threatening a quicker Coalition departure and greater Indian involvement won't faze Pakistan.... Rawalpindi will move more quickly to bolster its Afghan Taliban allies for a proxy war.
STEP 5 - DETERMINE that India isn't really interested in bailing out the Coalition (or American politicians and diplomats) on western terms, has its own regional objectives and timetables, and isn't much responsive to boisterous American rhetoric accelerating the timelines on a Pakistan-India proxy war in Afghanistan. That proxy war may come, but India will work to prolong its onset as long as possible.
STEP 6 - RECOGNIZE that a rapidly-accelerating proxy war between two nuclear-armed nations encouraged by a precipitous withdrawal of US/Coalition forces before some political mechanism in place to limit the possibilities for that war is irresponsible, an approach that is all too similar to America's walk away from Afghanistan and Pakistan back the early 1990s that led to a proxy war in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan before both were fully tested nuclear-armed states.
STEP 7 - RESOLVE either to remain engaged with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India for a lengthy and challenging diplomatic-military process (including some level of non-trivial economic and military aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan for some time); or, SUCCUMB to the personal frustrations of it all and quit the field, making room for the next nouveau American to start the process at STEP 1.
Tom Lynch is a research fellow for South Asia & Near East at NDU. A retired Army Colonel, he was a special assistant focused on South Asian security for the CENTCOM Commander and later the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during 2004-2010. The opinions here are his own.
This is from awhile ago -- Face the Nation on Aug. 28 -- but I've wanted just to put it on the record here.
They are cheap shots. I mean, several of the ones he tosses at me -- you know, he takes great credit for my resignation in 2004. Well, President Bush and I had always agreed that I would leave at the end of 2004. After the election, I stayed on for three more months because I wanted to and because there were some conferences that I wanted to attend and because Dr. Rice hadn't been confirmed. So there's no news there.
He says that I went out of my way not to present by positions to the president but to take them outside of the administration. That's nonsense. The president knows that I told him what I thought about every issue of the day. Mr. Cheney may forget that I'm the one who said to President Bush, if you break it, you own it; and you have got to understand that, if we have to go to war in Iraq, that we have to be prepared for the whole war, not just the first phase. And Mr. Cheney and many of his colleagues did not prepare for what happened after the fall of Baghdad. And I persuaded the president to take the case to the United Nations to see if it could be solved without war. And if it couldn't be solved without war, we would have people aligned with us.
Mr. Cheney went out immediately after the president made that decision and uncut it by giving two speeches to two veterans' groups that essentially said he didn't believe it would work. That's not the way you support a president.
Then he also says that, you know, I was not supportive of the president's positions. Well, who went to the United Nations and, regrettably, with a lot of false information? It was me. That wasn't Mr. Cheney. I supported the president. I support the president's decisions. I gave the president my best advice.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
By Stephen Donnelly
Best Defense guest respondent
I was surprised to see Foreign Policy providing so high a soapbox for Peter Van Buren, a State Department Foreign Service Officer who, by his own admission, "meant well" during his brief and unproductive jaunt as an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (EPRT) leader in Iraq in 2009, but, according to him, caused more damage there than most any other individual I have ever heard of or witnessed.
Two articles and a blog spotlight in just a few days.
Obviously, Van Buren never got the drift of PRTs, a decisive and controversial 2007 effort by the State Department's Office of Provincial Affairs' Director Ambassador Henry Clarke to break through the failed bureaucracy of top-down US colonial administration programs by forcing decision-making out to committed civilian reconstruction staff on the ground. Clarke always knew that the Achilles Heel of PRTs was poor assignments of unqualified individuals, and that the only defense against the Peter van Burens was to have many PRTs so that the failures did not pull down the whole mission.
The real Iraq PRT story is not pretty, fraught with bureaucratic snafus, and involved much waste, fraud, abuse, and war wreckage: the best laid plans of mice and men seldom survive a powerful IED, regardless of bravery or the best of intentions! But it is not the story that Peter van Buren tells which inaccurately paints a very bad light on the entire Foreign Service, with which he seems very dissatisfied.
The military, as Clarke often explained, had a "do it now" attitude that compelled each new brigade to launch one "quick hit" program after another to have Iraqis pick up the trash. The PRTs had to break that mold by focusing on the real problem: the Iraqis had no system, post-2003, to pick up their own trash. PRTs had to work across the rotational boundary with Iraqi counterparties, down to the local and provincial levels, to create permanent solutions for Iraqis' technical, resource, and administrative problems or we would be locked in Iraq forever. The real conflict was the damaging one between U.S. bureaucracy (the Embassy and agencies) and the field, where localized Iraqi solutions had to be found and nourished.Read the rest of the post here.
U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/Flickr
By Peter Van Buren
Best Defense guest unraveller
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation (the formal mission handover is Oct. 1), it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, "But the bottom line is, whether it's diplomatic or whether it's military, we've got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We've invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a ... relatively stable democracy that's trying to work together to lead that country."
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song.
On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything.
The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return. Blood for oil? Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta's patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state. As this is written, it is even unclear if the United States will snag any permanent bases in Iraq, and whether any troops will be allowed to stay on past the end of this December.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell "Kurdistan" from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO -- imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time-they ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban "Al Hassan and Al Hussein" on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. "This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife," said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran...
By Richard Fontaine
Best Defense directorate of long-term grand strategy
Secretary of State Clinton's swing through India points again to the tremendous potential of an Indo-American strategic partnership over the long term. But it also demonstrates how tough some of the challenges will remain over the next couple of years.
Secretary Clinton is in India at the helm of a large, high-level government delegation for the second annual Strategic Dialogue. The first round, held in Washington last year, started to pull the bilateral relationship out of its previous doldrums and set the stage for President Obama's successful visit to India last fall. This round is aimed at sustaining last year's progress and implementing the many commitments both sides took on.
That's tough to do. Many of the big policy changes on the American side have already been made -- the United States has supported Indian access to civilian nuclear technology, a change that required amending domestic law and international agreements; it modified its export controls so that India has greater access to American technology; it now supports India's membership in the four international nonproliferation regimes; and the president endorsed Indian permanent membership on the UN Security Council. There is always more to do, to be sure, but these are serious moves.
On the Indian side, most of the expected policy changes are stuck, largely due to domestic politics. The civil nuclear deal is not operational because of a flawed liability law. Key defense agreements remain incomplete. India has granted little in the way of market access, despite repeated American hectoring. And the United States bemoaned the fact that the two American companies bidding on a major fighter jet program were knocked out of the competition.
A friend passes along this interesting State Department email, filed over the weekend from Djerba, in southern Tunisia. It is fine, except I wish the writer had said "pro-Qaddafi" forces stedda "pro-Libya" :
Spent a few minutes chatting with the Egyptians in the camp outside the airport and also on board the aircraft in order to answer any questions the refugees may have and to put an American face on the mission as there were no Arabic speaking crew on board. A few points the Egyptians brought up:
All Egyptians felt very well taken care of. They said they had all the food, all the water and all the medicine they needed. They were very thankful to the Tunisian people and the Tunisian government and said they felt very welcome and had been handled with kindness. Egyptians can be seen walking around the airport with Tunisian Flags pinned to their suitcases or clothing. On Friday night, we witnessed a dueling cheerleading match where one group of approximately 200 Egyptians in a cordoned off block in the terminal started shouting cheers to Tunis and waving a single Tunisian flag. A second cordon of Egyptians one-upped the first by singing, waving dozens of Tunisian flags in a spinning dancing circle while they hoisted a Tunisian man in the center of the mass on their shoulders. That's probably my first Egyptian Tunisian Pep Rally.
"The fundamental task of diplomacy is to strip policy of its ambiguity," Alexander Haig Jr. writes (70) in his memoir Inner Circles, which I am now reading. I just about fell out of my chair when I saw that. I wonder what Haig's old boss, Henry Kissinger, the grandmaster of strategic ambiguity, would say about that. Amazon's "look inside this book" function says that in his book Diplomacy, Kissinger uses the word some 29 times.
Haig gets extra dumbass points for the brassy certitude of his assertion -- and for, a score of pages later, this assessment of the Shah of Iran: "I thought in 1961, and I still think, that he was as close to being a natural and sincere democrat as anyone I ever met in his part of the world." (90)
More interestingly, Haig says he thinks that Fidel Castro was behind John F. Kennedy's assassination, and says Lyndon B. Johnson thought so too. "I think that President Johnson's suspicions in regard to Castro's role were amply justified," he writes. (115-116) Haig, who had acted as a kind of Army liaison to veterans of the Central Intelligence Agency-led Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba, says he was given a report that supported the accusation against Castro, but that he was ordered to forget it and that the report was destroyed.
The book cost me one cent plus shipping and handling, so I am not complaining.
Here's a guest post by Jennifer Bernal of CNAS, who went to see the Hillary& Bob Show on Monday:
This afternoon, George Washington University hosted a discussion with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The talk was part of a series of high-profile events organized by the University to get students to engage with members of the government. To complete the celebrity roster, Christiane Amanpour and Frank Sesno moderated the discussion. The event drew hundreds of students to line up for tickets, several of them camping out on the street overnight to make sure they got dibs. Once the office actually opened, said tickets ran out in less than a half hour. (I'd only witnessed such zealous and long-lasting queuing on two past occasions: for sign-ups to the wine-tasting class offered by my college, and for a summer production of Hamlet featuring Jude Law.)(Read on)
In the closing talk of the COIN conference, Gen. David Petraeus said that 70 percent of the violence in Afghanistan is in just 10 percent of the country's districts. (Meaning that a troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign might not need as many troops as you might think.)
I guess he missed the opening talk by former State Department counselor Eliot Cohen, author of the terrific study Supreme Command, about civilian leadership in war. One metric that drives him batty, he said, is when officials say, "Well, 75% of the violence occurs in 10 percent of the country," an approach Cohen said he finds, "profoundly misleading." First, he said, if we aren't there, we don't know how much violence is occurring. Second, he said, the place might be "completely quiet" because the Taliban have already won in that area.
Irony alert: Cohen was one of the people -- and I think the first one -- who, at a meeting in the White House in December 2006, advised President Bush to dump Gen. Casey and pick Gen. Petraeus to replace him as the top commander in Iraq.
Cohen, fwiw, remains a Petraeus fan. Speaking of him and Gen. McChrystal, he said, "I think they are both truly exceptional commanders, and exceptional human beings."
Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press
If you want to understand what is going on, read this -- by far the best thing I've read on the Obama administration's decision to change course on missile defenses facing Russia and Iran.
Kaplan's bottom line:
What will the Russians do now? They've cited the missile-defense plan as the main source of suspicion, the main obstacle to improved relations. Now that Obama has wiped it off the board, will Putin and Medvedev come around -- or will they bring up some other reason, some other excuse, for remaining distant and occasionally hostile? It's in the Kremlin's court.
The only thing I'd add is the lineup that made the decision. President Obama remains a novice in foreign affairs, but he is backed by people who know this subject intimately from a variety of angles -- James Jones (national security advisor, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe), Gen. Cartwright (vice chairman of Joint Chiefs, former head of U.S. Strategic Command) and Robert Gates (defense secretary, and lifetime Russia expert).
I have no idea where Hilary Clinton is on all this. Am I wrong or is she floundering in her job?
Tambako the Jaguar/flickr
Would you like to see the State Department become more effective? Then read this:
The Department needs additional foreign service officers. They need them so they can send their people back to school in mid-career on a scale comparable to the advanced educational training provided by the Pentagon for its career people...In short, they need help and an opportunity to prepare for the roles that they must be able to fill."
That was written in 1978 by retired Lt. Gen. James Gavin, best known as the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in the latter half of World War II. It is in the concluding paragraphs of his terrific memoir On to Berlin, which I just recently finished reading. It struck me as a particularly candid book, especially in its discussion of Operation Market Garden.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.